“For a long periods after the Assembly the text of Lloyd-Jones’ address was unavailable . It was finally printed in full in Knowing the Times, published by the Banner of Truth in 1989. A couple of days ago I read the address again, and even on paper (especially if you imagine the voice of Lloyd-Jones) you can feel its power.”
Tuesday 18th October 2016 marks the 50th Anniversary of Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ address at the Second National Assembly of Evangelicals organised by the Evangelical Alliance and held at Westminster Central Hall. I was not at the Assembly, which is unsurprising because I had not even born when it took place! However what happened there has deeply shaped my experience of British evangelicalism over the last thirty years. Lloyd-Jones’ address, which was characterised by many as a call for evangelicals to leave mixed denominations and join a “united evangelical church”, led to a parting of the ways between Non-Conformist and Anglican evangelicals, and a division between the two great evangelical statesmen of the era, Lloyd-Jones and John Stott. The hostility and mutual suspicion generated fractured gospel unity for a generation.
Many have written about what happened, often to defend either Lloyd-Jones or John Stott, and have shared their recollections and their testimony to the impact that the evening had on their lives and ministries. Initial assessments tended to be highly critical of Lloyd-Jones, whereas more recent work has identified weaknesses with the approaches of both main protagonists.
It is all too easy to judge the past with the benefit of perfect hindsight, but these are my reflections on what took place, and some important lessons I think we can learn for today.
For a long periods after the Assembly the text of Lloyd-Jones’ address was unavailable . It was finally printed in full in Knowing the Times, published by the Banner of Truth in 1989. A couple of days ago I read the address again, and even on paper (especially if you imagine the voice of Lloyd-Jones) you can feel its power. At its core it is a wonderfully stirring and compelling call to gospel faithfulness in the face of gospel compromise, and for the need for evangelicals to express visible unity for the sake of gospel clarity in the nation. He ended the address by calling on evangelicals to join together in a new fellowship of evangelical churches. I can understand why it had such an electrifying effect on the Assembly, and why John Stott felt it necessary to express his disagreement with what Lloyd-Jones proposed.
It is vitally important that we appreciate the context into which Lloyd-Jones was speaking if we are to understand his urgency, passion and his message. The background to his address was the growing momentum of the ecumenical movement in the UK, which had as its object the unification of all the British churches into a single church. This project had been pursued under the auspices of the British Council of Churches, as part of a larger world-wide movement orchestrated by the World Council of Churches. They had the self-proclaimed aim of replacing denominations with a single united church by Easter 1980.
The challenge of the day was how evangelicals would respond to this apparently unstoppable juggernaut towards structural unity. Many of us today cannot grasp the threat that this ecumenical drive, which has since failed and diminished, presented to evangelicals, especially those who were in denominations. There were very real proposals for mergers between Congregationalist and Presbyterians, and between the Anglicans and Methodists. In the aftermath of Vatican II there was hope that even a structural union with the Roman Catholic Church might be possible.
It needs to be remembered that at this time evangelicals were a tiny, and often despised, minority in their denominations. History, the cultural mood and the tide of contemporary theology, seemed to be against them. The conservative evangelical revival of the late 1940s and 1950s had produced some growth, but evangelicals were still a very marginal minority within the mainstream denominations. Perhaps the largest and most dynamic group of evangelicals were still the Brethren, who had already left denominations to form a more pure biblical church.
The Evangelical Alliance had established a Commission to consider how evangelicals should respond to the ecumenical movement. The Second National Assembly was called to discuss the findings of this Commission. Unsurprisingly the Commission had discovered that evangelicals were disagreed, with some wanting to join new united churches and others opposed. Dr Lloyd-Jones had given evidence to the Commission, and had very clearly stated his views. The Evangelical Alliance, who were fully aware of his views, then invited him to open the Assembly as the main speaker. Lloyd-Jones was careful at the beginning of his address to stress that he had been invited by the EA to express his views. He began:
“My subject is church unity, and I am speaking at the request of the Commission to which reference has been made. I think that is important, lest anybody should think that I am taking advantage of the kindness and generosity of the authorities in inviting me to speak here tonight, to foist my own views upon you. I had the privilege of being called as a witness to appear before this Commission and I made a statement of my attitude with regard to these matters. It was the members of the Commission themselves who asked me to state in public tonight what I am now proposing to say to you. So it is really their responsibility. They have heard it, and they asked me to repeat it to you.”
He did nothing other than what he was asked to do, and cannot be accused of having abused the platform he was given. If anything the organisers seem to have been somewhat naive, or to have underestimated his rhetorical power. His views had also been previously published in a booklet The Basis of Christian Unity, in which he provided a more Scriptural basis for the views he stated somewhat polemically at the Assembly.
Two fundamental concerns were at the heart of Lloyd-Jones’ address, both of which are understandable in their immediate context, and which led him to conclude that faithfulness to the gospel was being imperilled.
In the first place he was convinced that, if evangelicals joined in the ecumenical project, they would be forced to disown their biblical convictions. This was especially a pressure for the Non-Conformist denominations, which had evangelical origins and retrained orthodox Reformed confessions of faith, such as the Westminster Confession or Savoy Declaration of Faith and Order. The success of the ecumenical project depended upon rejecting the doctrines enshrined in such historic confessions as the basis for future unity. Despite their formal confessional positions most of the denominations were dominated by liberals who cared nothing for the evangelical faith.
Evangelical Congregationalists, Baptists, Presbyterians and Methodists were thus being asked to put structural unity on a non-confessional basis ahead of doctrinal faithfulness. Lloyd-Jones was only too well aware of this pressure because his church, Westminster Chapel, was a member of the Congregational Union, which was in the process of merging with the English Presbyterians to form the United Reformed Church. He could see no option but to refuse to join such an ecumenical enterprise that would mean abandoning the gospel as the basis for unity.
His second concern, closely related but of more immediate import to conservative evangelical Anglicans, was the danger that seeking denominational acceptance would inevitably mean that evangelicals would have to approve and accept false teachers and false teaching within denominations, and to embrace those who were liberal or Anglo-Catholic as equally legitimate fellow believers. He had already raised such concerns in connection with the crusades of Billy Graham, which had ultimately sought the support of liberals and Roman Catholics. He was passionately opposed to evangelicals settling for being a mere “wing,” or a “party”, within a denomination rather than contending for the truth of the gospel and standing apart from those with the denomination who taught a false gospel. As conservative evangelicalism strengthened within the Church of England he detected a shift of attitude as leaders sought to attain an honoured and equal place for evangelicals within the Church, which would inevitably require them to grant an equally honored place for those who were not evangelical. Whilst they might still hold to their own evangelical convictions, they would not contend for the evangelical faith as the only true faith, but would have to find their place as one of several equally legitimate traditions.
It is hard to fault Lloyd-Jones’ analysis of the dangers that were facing British evangelicalism at the time, as they are dangers that face evangelicals in any generation. However he had clearly concluded that the point had been reached at which the main denominations, whether non-conformist or Anglican, could no longer be won for the gospel, and that more radical action was therefore needed. Subsequent events, it seems to me, proved that his fears were well founded, but that he had also overestimated the threat of the ecumenical movement and underestimated the resilience of truly Bible-based evangelicals within denominations to fight for the truth of the gospel.