Thirty years of hurt?
Putting the record straight concerning Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones's 1996 address to the Evangelical Alliance
This is as good a time as any to set the record straight. This month sees the 30th anniversary of the events of October 1966 which were to prove so significant for evangelicalism in this country.
The popular reading of what happened at the Central Hall, London, on October 18 is that the late Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones dealt a blow to evangelical unity from which it has never recovered. Isn't that what you have been led to believe?
Even this year Clive Calver and Rob Warner have furthered this misconception by their treatment of this incident in Together we Stand (Hodder), a book published to mark the 150th anniversary of the Evangelical Alliance. The Doctor's call is misrepresented as being for 'a single united evangelical church' (p. 127) and his 'fiery rhetoric' is painted as 'impassioned eloquence. . . in the heat of the moment' (p. 65).
The facts, however, are quite different. His theologically-reasoned address publicly presented the position he had privately set before the Commission which reported to the National Assembly of Evangelicals. The Doctor's appeal was rejected, not because of his passionate manner, but because John Stott and others disagreed with the content of what he had said.
Basil Howlett was present that day and here is what he recently wrote in the British Evangelical Council newsletter, 'The ecumenical movement was on the march and anyone who stood apart was regarded as a fool or a fanatic. Against that backcloth, D.M. L-J made his impassioned plea for evangelicals, divided among the denominations, to come together 'as a fellowship or association of evangelical churches', and to stand together for the gospel. The words 'separate' and 'secede' were not mentioned. It was a positive appeal for evangelicals to stand together, not just occasionally but always.' His burden was that the ecumenical movement was endangering the gospel itself and an opportunity existed for churches sharing that concern to act together.
The true text
Fortunately the whole text of the address has been available since 1989 in Knowing the Times (Banner of Truth) and Iain Murray has well explained the background in Volume Two of his authorised biography of the Doctor. Those who genuinely wish to acquaint themselves with the facts can easily do so. Yet, over the years, the myth has had more currency than the truth.
I too was there. The next morning the late Kenneth Paterson and I submitted a motion proposing a discussion of the practical implications arising from the night before but, to our huge disappointment, the organising committee of EA had decided that no such motions would be accepted. Responsibility for closing down any real consideration of steps towards evangelical church unity does not belong to John Stott alone. It lies also with the 1966 officers of the Evangelical Alliance who changed the advertised programme and denied the Assembly, set up for that very purpose, any opportunity for practical consideration of the issues the Doctor had raised.
So what went wrong? With hindsight, most of us did not fully understand how strong was the grip of the ecclesiastical sub-cultures in which we had been brought up. The 1967 Keele Conference showed how hard it was for gospel men in the Church of England to contemplate working in any other context. Subsequent attempts to reduce the height of denominational walls, even between wholly evangelical free church groups, were not conspicuously successful. Some who agreed that the Doctor's appeal was based on Scripture principles found reasons not to act upon it. In the meantime, the concept of gospel co-operation without church separation from false gospels has gained ground.
Putting the clock back
Evangelical unity, without it being evangelical church unity, has become the preferred option for many.
We cannot put back the clock. We no longer live in 1966. The Doctor could talk then about 'a new situation' and 'a day of glorious opportunity'. That day has passed. But the issues are still with us and the church scene remains confused and divided. The last 30 years have not rendered the Doctor's challenge irrelevant. There are signs that some conservative evangelicals are again beginning to consider their options in the face of moral and theological pluralism in their churches.
Not all are content to see Rome's errors being accepted and a robust insistence on justification by faith alone derided as old-fashioned. Properly understood, even the very failure of the 1966 appeal has a great deal to teach us.