John Stott – The Conservative Radical

Rev. Stott served as a contributing editor for Sojourners magazine, when it was known as The Post American, and wrote this article for the November/December, 1973 issue of the magazine.

It seems to be a characteristic of the Anglo-Saxon mind to enjoy inhabiting the “polar regions” of truth. If we could straddle both poles simultaneously, we would exhibit a healthy balance. Instead, we tend to “polarize.” We push some of our brothers to one pole, while keeping the other as our own preserve.

What I am thinking of now is not so much questions of theology as questions of temperament, and in particular the tension between the “conservative” and the “radical.”

By “conservative” we are referring to people who want to conserve or preserve the past, and who therefore are resistant to change.

By “radical” we are referring to people who are in rebellion against what is inherited from the past and who are therefore agitating for change.

In 1968 I attended as an “adviser” the Fourth Assembly of the World Council of Churches at Uppsala. I discovered on arrival that we were all immediately categorized. We were either rather scornfully dismissed as conservative, reactionary, status quo, stuck-in-the-mud traditionalists or enthusiastically embraced as reforming, revolutionary radicals. I found myself saying again and again during the Assembly that this is a ridiculous categorization. For every Christian should have a foot in both camps.

Let me now define my terms more precisely.

Every Christian should be “conservative,” because the Church is called by God to conserve his revelation, to “guard the deposit” (cf. 1 Tim. 6:20; 2 Tim. 1:14), to “contend for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). The Church’s task is not to keep inventing new gospels, new theologies, new moralities, and new Christianities, but rather to be a faithful guardian of the one and only eternal gospel. The authors of the book Growing into Union (SPCK 1970) have expressed this point clearly:

The Church’s first task is to keep the good news intact. It is better to speak of the habit of mind which this calling requires as “conservationist” rather than “conservative”, for the latter word can easily suggest an antiquarian addiction to what is old for its own sake and a blanket resistance to new thinking and this is not what we are talking about at all. Antiquarianism and obscurantism are vices of the Christian mind, but conservationism is among its virtues.

Some evangelicals, however, do not limit their conservatism to their biblical theology. For the truth is that they are conservative by temperament. They are therefore conservative in their politics and their social outlook, in their lifestyle, dress-style, hairstyle, beardstyle, and every kind of style you care to mention! They are not just stuck in the mud, but the mud has set like concrete. Change of every kind is anathema to them. Their very blood is blue. They are like the English Duke who during his student days at Cambridge University is reported as having said: “Any change at any time for any reason is to be deplored!” Their favourite slogan is “As it was in the beginning is now and ever shall be, world without end. Amen!”

A “radical,” on the other hand, is someone who asks awkward questions of the Establishment. He regards no tradition, no convention, and no institution (however ancient) as being sacrosanct. He reverences no sacred cows. On the contrary, he is prepared to subject everything inherited from the past to critical scrutiny. He wants thoroughgoing reform, even revolution (though not, if he is a Christian, by violence).

Now it is not sufficiently understood that our Lord Jesus Christ was at one and the same time both a conservative and a radical.

Read on…

Author: DanutM

Anglican theologian. Former Director for Faith and Development Middle East and Eastern Europe Region of World Vision International

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