But surely, 50 years on, with the horrific effects of secularism unfolding around us in a manner neither Stott nor Lloyd-Jones could have imagined in 1966, it is time to heed what Lloyd-Jones got so right, and with which Stott, in a real but different way, concurred: we should indeed ‘face our problems on the church level instead of on the level of movements’. But to do so will require not a gathering-of-the-elect nor a communion-with-false-teachers but a covenant-family view of the church.
This week marked 50 years since the two giants of mid-20th century English and Welsh evangelicalism, John Stott and Martyn Lloyd-Jones, famously clashed at the Second National Assembly of Evangelicals in London. There have been useful articles written to mark the occasion, including one from an independent church perspective here and one from an Anglican perspective here. I would like to provide another, Presbyterian angle on what happened and the effect on the church particularly in England since.
For those unfamiliar with the story, the event was a gathering of leaders of evangelical churches from all denominations. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, minister of Westminster Congregational Chapel, had been asked to speak on church unity. John Stott, rector of All Souls Church, Langham Place, was chairing the meeting. Lloyd-Jones delivered an address which called for evangelicals to leave their denominations which they shared with liberals and unbelievers and unite in a single ‘fellowship, or association, of evangelical churches’. Such was the power of his call that Stott felt obliged, despite the fact that as chairman, this was not his role, publicly to rise to his feet and refute Lloyd-Jones. The effect was a deep rift between Anglican and Independent evangelicals which lasted decades; some would say, even to this day.
The heart of Lloyd-Jones’ case is found in the following paragraph in his address:
‘… so often, we have neglected the doctrine of the church altogether. So the charge that is brought against us by members of the ecumenical movement and by the liberals has always been: You evangelicals are not interested in the church, you are only interested in personal evangelism. I am here to say that I am afraid that there is far too much truth in that charge. And it is because we have faced our problems in terms of movements and societies, instead of facing them at the church level.’
The words I have put in bold are Lloyd-Jones’ central point. Evangelicals are only ever interested in movements, not in the doctrine of the church. That is, while we believe passionately in the unity of Christian believers (how could we not, if we believe the gospel of Jesus Christ?), we have been terribly resistant to applying that to our understanding of the church. And this is because, he says, we are terrified of falling out over it (one might observe that, on that point at least, he was proved right within minutes of sitting down!). And so we only ever express our gospel unity in the vague and non-committal form of parachurch movements. But this, he argues, is surely wrong: what a travesty that liberals, who have no unity in Christ whatsoever, because they have no faith in the real Christ, are seeking a church unity while we, who are united in Christ are utterly averse to it.
On this front, Lloyd-Jones was surely right. His deconstruction of the two classic arguments of Evangelicals in the Anglican, Methodist and (then) English Presbyterian churches for staying in – that it is ‘a place in which a man can fish’ (‘Is that a church? Does the church consist of people who are unconverted and who need to be converted’), and that they are not tainted by the unbelief of their leaders (‘you cannot justify that honestly in terms of your “independence”… you cannot dissociate yourself from the church to which you belong’) – is masterful and unanswerable if we have the most basic grasp of scripture and, simply, language. And the lamentable situation in which Christian unity is incapable of transcending movements of no more structural solidity than a pressure group, fan club or mutual interest society is, surely, lamentable indeed. Christ clearly envisaged more; evangelicals, of all people, should be able to see that.
It needs to be said that on this matter Stott’s public refutation of Lloyd-Jones’ arguments entirely failed to engage with the point. The argument that there is no pure church in Scripture, and churches in the New Testament are a mixture of true and false believers, is irrelevant. This is neither a justification for sharing a communion with false teachers, nor does it address Lloyd-Jones’ powerful point of the absurdity of having a higher level of unity – an ecclesiastical one – with those with whom we have no fellowship, while restricting our unity with those with whom we have deep and eternal fellowship in Christ to the far lower level of informal parachurch organisations. The same might be said of his argument from history. Neither engaged with Lloyd-Jones’ central theological point at all.
And yet it appears to me that Lloyd-Jones invited exactly these responses by a serious inconsistency in his position. Here are his words elsewhere in the address:
‘These (i.e. atoning, substitutionary death; physical resurrection; the person of the Holy Spirit and his work) are the doctrines which are essential to salvation; there is the truth that is to be preached, the message which is the first of the true marks of the church. And a church, surely, is a gathering of people who are in covenant together because they believe these things. Not only do they believe them, but they are men and women who have experienced their power. They are men and women who are born again and born of the Spirit, and who give evidence of this in their daily life. Surely that is the evangelical view of the Christian church.’
Lloyd-Jones may have thought this was ‘surely the evangelical view’, and he expounded it at length on other occasions. But Presbyterians would respond that this is in fact partly biblical but partly seriously unbiblical. Absolutely, the content of the gospel is indeed a mark of the true church. But to move from that to saying that the church consists of those who believe them, who have experienced them, and who are ‘born again and born of the Spirit’ is a non sequitur, and more importantly, contradicts what we find in Scripture. The church, from Abraham onwards, has been a family. At the very least that means it contains children who are being instructed and taught in the faith, and whose experience or otherwise it would be hard to comment on. More theologically, we cannot see election; we are simply not able to identify those who are truly born again. God knows that, and we do not. If that were not the case, what would be the need of preaching to the church? Why the exhortations to endure, the warnings against falling away? Preach outside, by all means, but if those inside are all elect there is no more to do. But of course that would be absurd. The church is always a mixture of believers and unbelievers. Note, this is not the same thing as saying a mixture of true teachers and false teachers. The teaching of the church must be faithful and true. The purpose of church government is to hold ministers and elders accountable for their adherence to the faith once delivered to the saints. The elders of the church are obliged to make a credible profession of the one true faith a requirement for church membership. But the church cannot be construed as a gathering of the elect; this is not the case in either the Old Testament or New Testament. The existence of preaching, exhortation, warnings against apostacy, and church discipline in the church all show that it cannot be that.
In fact, this aspect of Lloyd-Jones’ view of the church – that it is a gathering of the truly converted – makes his own appeal to unity at a church level impossible. Because such a view of the church cannot see there even being a church where there is no gathering. So any unity at a supra-congregational level must by definition be one merely of voluntary association; of a movement, we might say. That indeed is the conviction, quite consistently, of those who hold to Independent church government. But to call for unity at the level of church, not just movements, is to presume that the church does have some identity which transcends the physical gathering of a number of converted people. There is therefore, to my mind, a crashing contradiction in the penultimate sentence of Lloyd-Jones’ appeal, in which he expressed his hope that we might look back on this time as an opportunity which
‘…made us face our problems on the church level instead of on the level of movements, and really brought us together as a fellowship, or an association, of evangelical churches.’
The problem with this is that a ‘fellowship’ or ‘association’ is a ‘movement’, not something ‘at the church level’. Lloyd-Jones displays an incompatibility between the instincts of his Presbyterian background (desire for unity at the church level) and the theology of the gathered-elect church which he clearly held to.
And so on that front Stott’s refutation was absolutely right. He heard Lloyd-Jones’ appeal as a call to a pure gathering of the elect which he knew to be both practically impossible and theologically unwarranted. Ironically, it could be argued that it was his belief in unity ‘at a church level’ which drove him to disagree with Lloyd-Jones! For had his call been heeded what would have resulted would have been a mere association, and not an ecclesiological unity at all. And so Stott concluded, as his followers have done ever since, that his appeal had to be dismissed as a whole in favour of working within the Anglican structures as the only alternative.
And thus was set up a classic false dichotomy. Stott and the Anglicans saw, quite rightly, that pure-gathered-church independency is not only impossible but unbiblical. The letters to the seven churches would never have been written as they are if it were correct; the entire book of Acts is suffused with the interconnection of churches at a level far deeper than just a parachurch movement or association. Lloyd-Jones and the independents saw, quite rightly, that formal-church-communion-with-false-teachers is not only unbiblical but self-contradictory. You cannot claim independence from those you are bound to by your church constitution, practice and your ordination vows; and thus to remain in such a communion, and for men entering ministry to go on making such ordination vows, is a violation of every New Testament verse on false teachers. Thus each was right – and each, quite wrongly, assumed that the only viable alternative to the other position was his own. And this false dichotomy has remained a defining feature of evangelicalism in England to this day. If I see the unacceptability of Anglicanism, I must be an independent; if I can’t embrace independency, I must be an Anglican.
The tragedy which Presbyterians see here is that national-church episcopacy and gathered-church independency are not the only options on the ecclesiological table. But in England in 1966 it seemed like that, and for many evangelicals in England it still does. This tragedy is particularly hard to understand, for the alternative and, to our mind, manifestly more biblical doctrine of the church is hardly a closely-guarded secret. It is possibly the majority view among orthodox protestants in America and much of Western Europe, it is all but universal north of the border in Scotland, it was the mainstream view in the continental Reformation, and it received its clearest historical exposition in the standards written in, and named after, a building not 200 yards from where Lloyd-Jones and Stott had their disagreement! It is the Presbyterian view, found in the Westminster Confession of Faith, that the church is a covenant family.
We can summarise this view as follows:
– The church is defined by God’s covenant made with her in Christ. As all through the Bible, the covenant is made unilaterally by God, and we are required to respond to his promises in faith. In making his covenant with us God has constituted us as his people, one family, bound to our one Lord by his one gospel of his death, resurrection and return
– The church as a family has a real identity even when she is not gathered. There is a real unity between believers, and a real connection between churches, even when they are not physically together. For the same reason, there is a real communion with our forefathers who went before us and with our children who will come after us. The church is a family where our children are counted as part of the family, and are instructed in and urged to believe the faith of the covenant family into which they have been born, and brought up identified as Christian people.
– The church as we see her – public and visible – is the same church as God sees in his eternal decrees, yet we do not see her edges the way God does. The church is the context wherein it is possible to have faith, in which we are constantly called to believe the covenant promises made to us in Christ, and in which discipline is to be maintained to exclude open unbelief; but we overreach ourselves and bring on our heads all sorts of pastoral problems if we believe we can identify the elect. God sees election; we can only see profession of faith and public manner of life. So the church is not a pure church, for that awaits the return of the Lord. But she is a place of pure doctrine, where the teaching of the faith is to be clear, unified, public, and enforced.
– The bonds of fellowship between churches are therefore real, solid, and accountable. Accountability means not a mere association but fellowship with teeth. It means the power to choose, ordain, discipline and dismiss ministers. It means pooling resources to finance new churches and support weak ones. It means that ministers and elders are themselves men under authority; the authority of the ‘council of elders’ who ordained them, whose authority derives from Christ himself. The church cannot and must not tolerate false teaching, and false teachers must be driven from the church. The church is defined by the gospel, and the councils of the church are to uphold, preserve, teach and proclaim that gospel.
It is a tragedy that for so many Evangelicals in England, the existence of this view of the church has remained so unknown. If there is a particularly sad effect of the Stott-Lloyd-Jones debacle then this is it. As one wise, elderly Anglican clergyman confided in me as a young man just starting in ministry, ‘Biblically there is no answer to Presbyterianism… if I had had the opportunity, I would have been a Presbyterian. But in England, it just has not been an option.’
But this need be so no longer. It is of course true that we will continue to need ‘movements’ and ‘associations’ to show what unity we can at a sub-church level. We need them because differences over exactly this question of the nature of the church persist. For that reason, may God bless Regional Gospel Partnerships, and other parachurch bodies such as Affinity. Furthermore, for Independents who are theologically committed never to rise above the ‘association’ level of unity – quite properly, given their view of the church – I am delighted that organisations such as the FIEC exist to give a loose connection between churches rather than none whatsoever.
But surely, 50 years on, with the horrific effects of secularism unfolding around us in a manner neither Stott nor Lloyd-Jones could have imagined in 1966, it is time to heed what Lloyd-Jones got so right, and with which Stott, in a real but different way, concurred: we should indeed ‘face our problems on the church level instead of on the level of movements’. But to do so will require not a gathering-of-the-elect nor a communion-with-false-teachers but a covenant-family view of the church; that is, a Presbyterian ecclesiology. Presbyterian churches are still few and far between in England, but they are multiplying as more and more people realise that evangelicals in our country have been living a false dichotomy for fifty years; and that the glorious unity of the church means real, covenantal unity in Christ and can be wonderfully expressed, as biblically it should be, in the formal and organic union of the church as a covenant family. In embracing this, believers in England have the opportunity to rediscover what vast numbers of our brothers and sisters in Reformed, orthodox churches all over the world have long understood as part of basic evangelical Christianity: the unity of the church in the gospel, as Christ prayed for and as the scriptures urge us to, is, can and should be expressed in the nature of the church herself. The more we do so, the more we will find our witness strengthened, our fellowship deepened and our understanding of the gospel enriched. May God speed the day.
Matthew Roberts is the Minister of Trinity Church in York, England and a former Moderator of the International Presbyterian Church British Presbytery. This article appeared on his blog and is used with permission.