The Conservative Radical: An Article by John Stott
[Editors' note: Rev. John Stott, one of the world's most influential evangelical figures over the past half-century, died this Wednesday at age 90. Rev. Stott served as a contributing editor for Sojourners magazine, when we were known as The Post American, and wrote this article for the November/December, 1973 issue of the magazine. We will always remember Rev. Stott for his profound contributions to our community and the Church.]
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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.
There is no question that Jesus was conservative in his attitude to Scripture. "The Scripture cannot be broken," he said. "I did not come to abolish the law and the prophets, but to fulfil them." And again "not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law until all is accomplished" (John 10:35; Mt. 5:17, 18). One of Jesus' chief complaints of contemporary Jewish leaders concerned their disrespect for and lack of submission to the Old Testament Scriptures.
But Jesus was also a radical. He was a keen critic of the Jewish Establishment, not only because of their insufficient loyalty to God's Word but also because of their exaggerated loyalty to their own traditions. Jesus had the courage to sweep away centuries of inherited tradition ("the traditions of the elders"), in order that God's own word might again be seen and obeyed. He insisted on caring for those whom society despised. He spoke to women in public (which was not done) and invited children to come to him (when his own disciples took it for granted that he would not want to be bothered with them). He allowed prostitutes to touch him (Pharisees would shrink from them) and himself actually touched an untouchable leper (Pharisees threw stones at them to make them keep their distance).
Thus Jesus was a unique combination of the conservative and the radical, conservative towards Scripture and radical in his scrutiny (his biblical scrutiny) of everything else.
There is an urgent need for Christians to follow Christ in this balance which he displayed, for more "Radical Conservatives" to emerge, and for evangelicals to develop a better and more critical discernment between what may not be changed and what may and even must.
Let me give an example of what may not be changed. It was customary in many English churches in former days for the Lord's Prayer, the Ten Commandments, and the Apostles' Creed to be painted on the east wall for everybody to see and read. In one village church the lettering had faded and a local decorator was engaged to touch up the paint where necessary. In due course the vestry received the following account (it was before the decimalization of our English currency):
To repairing the Lord's Prayer: 10s
To 3 new commandments: 12s
To making a completely new Creed: 17s 6d
On the other hand, although we have no authority to alter either the creed or the commandments which God has revealed, yet (as Leighton Ford rightly said at the 1969 American Congress on Evangelism in Minneapolis) "God is not tied to seventeenth century English, nor to eighteenth century hymns, nor the nineteenth century architecture, nor the twentieth century clichés," nor (one might add) to much else besides. Although he himself never changes he is also a God on the move, ever calling his people out to fresh and adventurous enterprise.
More particularly, we all need to discern more clearly between Scripture and culture. For Scripture is the eternal, unchanging Word of God. But culture is an amalgam of ecclesiastical tradition and social convention. Whatever "authority" culture may have is derived only from church and community. It cannot claim an immunity to criticism or reform. On the contrary, "culture" changes from age to age and from place to place. Moreover Christians, who say they desire to live under the authority of God's Word, should subject their own contemporary culture to continuing biblical scrutiny. Far from resenting or resisting cultural change, we should be in the forefront of those who propose and work for it provided of course that our critique of culture is made from a sound biblical perspective.
I thank God for The Post-American and for its witness to this truth. I have often quoted to others some words of Jim Wallis's editorial in the first issue of The Post-American (February 1971): "The offence of established religion is the proclamation and practice of a caricature of Christianity so enculturated, domesticated, and lifeless that our generation easily and naturally rejects it