This important question was raised by Rory Shiner in his thoughtful review of Allan Blanch’s biography of Sir Marcus Loane (Essentials Spring 2016). I tread warily as I seek to offer some thoughts on this important issue which has occupied my own thinking over the last decade or so.
My own assessment of statesmen like Marcus Loane (MLL), Leon Morris (LLM) and John Stott(JRWS) is that whilst they may have been unique in extraordinary gifts and iron discipline they were not alone in terms of their personal piety and godliness. As one who attended a typical Sydney evangelical parish from Sunday School in 1954, youth group in the 1960’s and converted in late 1964 (Loane was at Moore and then Bishop and Archbishop during this time till his retirement in 1981) I recall a deep piety among our clergy and lay leaders which mirrored that of MLL, LLM and JRWS. It was standard fare to have a quiet time which included Bible reading and prayer. Church was primarily a time of worship which included teaching and training within the context of warm hearted and caring fellowship. Within a week or so after my coming to Christ I was encouraged by one of the laymen of our parish “to try to read the bible every day and expect God to speak to you.”
I mention this because during the last 25 years daily Bible reading appears to have decreased (judged by the decline in bible reading notes) and the worship aspect of church down played at best and sometimes denied. There is little doubt that this has diminished us all with the result that we expect far too much from each other and not nearly enough from God. Without realising it our piety has morphed into a reliance on the approval of others and a dependency on their wisdom rather than our Heavenly Father’s leading and strength. Ironically the casualty has been our much sought after fellowship. It is far easier to talk about the Bible and its wonderful teachings than about the God of the bible. As I look back on my own opportunities to encourage my peers, I fear I talked more about exegesis than my experience of God and this often led to criticism of fellows, especially leaders. Sharing experiences of our Heavenly Father’s faithfulness were squandered. Fellowship was severely diminished because I did not have as much to give since I had not received as much as God would have given. I am not sure where this came from. It did not happen overnight yet I fear that it has happened. Hence the question raised by Rory in his review.
Very often our weaknesses flow out of our strengths. Our strength as evangelicals is that we love the Bible because we are committed to revealed truth and converted by its core message. Add to this J. I. Packer’s observation that the evangelical and reformed system of theology, especially within our Anglican expression, is very satisfying and intellectually stimulating, we can see how we might settle for a diminished experience of God. The careful exegesis of the text held together in a rational and thoughtful way can so easily become an end in itself since it is so intellectually satisfying. The means can become the end. Perhaps we settle for less because it is somehow easier to talk about the Bible and its treasures than our ever generous God whose fellowship is to be treasured above all else.
I saw this happen in the 1970’s with the rise of the charismatic movement. In response it was often remarked that” it is not the work of the Spirit within but the work of Christ outside us that saves us”. Biblical balance should have helped us to cherish these twin acts of God’s grace since they are obviously both necessary for our salvation. At a later time we found ourselves talking more about the Risen Christ than the Living Christ. We rightly defended the bodily resurrection but somehow forgot that His resurrection means He lives and dwells within (Col.1:28 and Rev.3:20). MLL’s tract on Revelation 3:20 was criticised as not appropriate for evangelism since the text is addressed to lukewarm Christians. This point was noted by MLL in the tract. But surely the prescription to lukewarm Christians can be applied to non-christians since the NT envisages Christ’s presence in us and we regularly appeal to Col 2:6-7 that we go on as disciples in the same way that we began. I have to confess teaching the youth group that it was better to sing “Jesus loves me this I know for the Bible tells me so” than “you ask me how I know he lives? He lives within my heart”. I am astounded by my eccentric teaching and emphasis since both are taught in the scriptures and have been an essential pairing in evangelical devotion, testimony and piety. What happened served to make us less likely to speak to each other of subjective experiences. I fear this has contributed to the piety gap and worse, our ability to find nourishment and contentment in difficult circumstances.
The New Testament church that scares me more than any other is that in Ephesus. Clearly one that displayed warm commitment to the apostle (Acts 20), played a vital part in the church plants of the Lychus Valley, loved sound doctrine, hated immorality and displayed remarkable perseverance ( Rev. 2:1-7). However they heard that devastating indictment of our Risen Lord “I have this one thing against you; you have lost your first love”. I am scared because this sounds like the evangelical church I want to be part of and for which I’ve laboured. Living in an age where the love of many continues to grow cold, except perhaps for our own group, which of course is not Christlike love, I find that I must be nurtured by more than reminders of God’s objective love for me (Rom 5:8). The subjective love of the Holy Spirit ( Rom 5:5) and fellowship with the living Christ (Rev 3:20, Col 1:28 and John 14-16) have been at the heart of evangelical piety and proved to be the means of sustaining Christians through thick and thin, in congenial and difficult circumstances alike.
One reason why MLL, LLM and JRWS were not unique is the observable pastoral fact that in the 1950’s and 60’s it was the norm for men and women to teach Sunday school, school scripture and lead youth groups for years on end ( when many worked 5 and a half days a week and enjoyed only 2 weeks annual leave). Now it is a matter of great rejoicing to have someone commit to a term! Could there be a link between warm hearted piety and whole-hearted commitment? At another level Christians who sustained themselves by reliance upon God in worship and the fellowship of the living Christ through the Holy Spirit seemed to be happier to put up their hands to serve in tougher, smaller and less noticed places.
Another evidence of the piety gap may be the move away from speaking of the call to ordained ministry. It is often suggested that there is no clear prescriptive text suggesting a call to ministry. Older evangelicals unashamedly asked God to confirm their sense of leading and expected the Holy Spirit to give them a clear assurance for such an important step. When this expectant leading is replaced simply with encouragement from fellow Christians an important element of pastoral confidence and ability to handle disappointment and loneliness is removed. The danger of this flattened approach may lead us to seek reliance and encouragement only from others.
I fear that we may, unintentionally be leading to what I would call “christism”, something akin to deism, an absent Christ. The wonderful evangelical revival of the 18th century was, I recall, diminished by the middle of the next century by deism. God was still believed in but He was essentially absent and disinterested. This lead to a joyless arm’s length experience that inevitably spawned a formal anti- supernatural faith and practice. Evangelicals kept themselves alive and vibrant with a warm hearted piety that found deep joy and assurance from the scriptures mediated by the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit. This was in reality the living Christ within, to be with them always as promised in Matthew 28:20.
As one who had the great privilege of hearing MLL, LLM and JRWS preach on a number occasions there was never any doubt that God had spoken through these servants with an authority that transcended their thorough preparation and compelling delivery. I am sure that this can only be put down to the fact that they knew the God of their Bibles as well as they knew their Bibles.
A great blessing of biographies is that we are challenged. To have been able to learn from Christian leaders like these will always be a two edged experience. The obvious challenge of exceptionally gifted and disciplined Christians causes us to examine our own discipleship. The great thing about these three is that they would remind us above all else that they, with us, stand before God only as forgiven sinners saved by His marvellous grace to us in Christ, sheeted home by the Holy Spirit. On the other hand, like the converted apostle they would remind us that God’s grace is always given that we might work hard at the good works God has prepared for us (Eph. 2:10 and 1 Cor. 15:10). One of these of course, is to play our part in bringing the message of Christ to our generation. One of God’s means in doing this is to allow the clear strengths of such leaders, which in my experience was evident in many, men and women, lay and ordained of their era.
I trust that these observations may be a help to us in our ongoing discipleship and solemn charge to hand on to others what has been delivered to us. The words of A. Morgan Derham:”If we do not consider the errors of our predecessors, we shall repeat them; if we do not contemplate their victories, we rob ourselves of our rightful heritage” remain timely.