50 Years Ago: The Split Between John Stott And Martyn Lloyd-Jones

An event 50 years ago between two respected church leaders that shook British evangelicalism—on the nature of the church and the basis of gospel unity and purity

Lloyd-Jones argued that evangelicals were guilty of “the sin of schism” for remaining visibly separated from each other, while being visibly united in their denominations to people who denied the gospel essentials …. Stott and his Anglican evangelical colleagues, like J. I. Packer, protested vigorously against heresy in the Church of England, especially against liberal and catholic errors that were gathering pace in the 1960s. They were determined to protect their congregations from false teachers and from unbelieving bishops, and to keep their distance. Nevertheless, they did not think they were compromised simply by belonging to a doctrinally mixed denomination.

 

On Tuesday, October 18, 1966, an event took place that shook British evangelicalism—on the nature of the church and the basis of gospel unity and purity—with reverberations still being felt today.

To help us understand what happened, I talked with the Rev. Dr. Andrew Atherstone, Latimer Research Fellow at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford University. His research, writing, and teaching focus on the history of the relationship between Anglicanism and evangelicalism. He is the co-editor, with David Ceri Jones, of Engaging with Martyn Lloyd-Jones: The Life and Legacy of ‘The Doctor’ (Inter-Varsity Press, 2011), and the author of an important chapter in the book on “Lloyd-Jones and the Anglican Secession Crisis.”

Tell us a little about Martyn Lloyd-Jones and John Stott at this stage of their ministries.

Martyn Lloyd-Jones and John Stott were the two most prominent evangelical ministers in London in the 1960s.

Both attracted large congregations through their expository preaching in prestigious pulpits—Lloyd-Jones at Westminster Chapel, near Buckingham Palace, and Stott at All Souls Church, near Oxford Street.

Both had fruitful ministries more widely as evangelical leaders and organizers, for example, among university students through the Inter-Varsity Fellowship.

In October 1966, Lloyd-Jones was 66 years old and nearing retirement; Stott was the younger man, aged 45, but was already a recognized spokesman for Anglican evangelicals.

There were a number of developments in British evangelicalism in the 1960s with regard to ecumenical discussions and concerns. Can you give us a picture of the context at the time?

The 1960s was the high water mark in ecumenical optimism, which had been gathering pace since the end of the Second World War. The older denominations invested considerable energy in the search for visible unity. For example, the British Council of Churches resolved in 1964 to seek one united territorial church in Britain by Easter Sunday 1980. In retrospect, 50 years later, such a naïve plan appears almost comic, but to many in the 1960s it seemed realistic.

Certainly the winds of change were blowing. The Church of England was on the verge of reuniting with the Methodists, separated since the Evangelical Revival, and was also making friendly overtures to the Church of Rome, separated since the Reformation. Meanwhile, Presbyterians and Congregationalists were building a United Reformed Church.

But these various unity schemes had little regard for evangelical doctrine.

Let’s go to the National Assembly of Evangelicals in October 1966. What was this group, and why was Lloyd-Jones asked to address them? Didn’t they know in advance what he might say?

The National Assembly of Evangelicals (NAE) was originally envisaged as an annual event, organized by the Evangelical Alliance, bringing together about 1,000 delegates from evangelical churches and societies across Britain, from the full range of Protestant denominations.

The first NAE was in September 1965 and tackled questions such as evangelism, religious education, and Christian unity. It was like an evangelical synod, with debates and voting on formal resolutions. Since ecumenism was such a hot topic, the 1965 NAE set up a special evangelical commission on church unity—co-chaired by an Anglican and a Baptist—which was asked to report the following year at the 1966 NAE.

To coincide with the launch of the report, Lloyd-Jones was invited to give an address outlining his vision of evangelical unity, at a public meeting in Westminster Central Hall, chaired by Stott.

The organizers should certainly have known what to expect, since Lloyd-Jones had given his views in person to the evangelical unity commission, but they were still taken by surprise by the electrifying effect of his address!

So what did Lloyd-Jones say exactly, and why was it so controversial?

At its heart, Lloyd-Jones’s address was a call for visible unity among evangelicals to match their spiritual unity. He lamented that they were divided among themselves and “scattered about in the various major denominations . . . weak and ineffective.” But he believed the ecumenical turmoil of the 1960s presented “a most remarkable opportunity” to rethink evangelical ecclesiology along New Testament lines.

In particular, he argued that evangelicals were guilty of “the sin of schism” for remaining visibly separated from each other, while being visibly united in their denominations to people who denied the gospel essentials. “I am a believer in ecumenicity,” he provocatively declared, “evangelical ecumenicity!” Evangelicals should not be satisfied with unity merely through parachurch networks and societies, Lloyd-Jones insisted, but should come together in “a fellowship, or an association, of evangelical churches.”

Read More

Read an opinion article on this topic.: “Why Would Protestants Make Arguments that Undermine the Reformation?”