Melba Maggay on John Stott: A Life and Work of Equal Worth

A Life and Work of Equal Worth

The first time I saw John Stott, he was doing a series of Bible expositions for pastors and the staff of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship here in the Philippines. It was in the early 70s and I was a part-time staff member, relatively fresh from university. I do not remember much of what he said, but I was struck by the personal warmth with which he taught, unlike many wooden theologians who come to our shores and simply unload their abstract academic stuff on us. 

One student asked him why he had a strange accent, since our ears are used to American English, having been colonized and culturally assimilated by the US. His reply had both a tinge of humor and the old British sense of empire: “It is you who has an accent.” 

Much later, when I landed in Cambridge to do research at Tyndale House, a letter from him was waiting for me, welcoming me and inviting me to see him if and when I ever got to go to London. A few weeks later, I found myself wandering with a friend round central London as a tourist and happened to be near Weymouth street. I remembered that his flat was on that street so I urged my English friend to take me there. We knocked on the door and were graciously greeted by Frances Whitehead, his secretary. She asked if I had an appointment. I got flustered, since I assumed I could just drop by quite casually, as in my culture. “I have a standing invitation,” I said. “Sorry,” she said, “he is very busy.” She said this with a firm professional air that signaled finality. So we took our leave. It was my first cross-cultural lesson on the British way of doing things.

The next day, however, a handwritten note arrived from John Stott, apologizing that I had not been allowed to see him. He said he had given instructions to Frances that I should be let in, even for a few minutes, if I happened to be visiting again. I felt it was so very gracious of him to take the time to write and pay attention to a young, obscure scholar from the world’s backwoods.

When I finally managed to see him, he was surprised that I was not a man but a mere wisp of a girl. He rose and proceeded to make coffee for me. I jumped up and offered to do it myself, remonstrating that in my culture, we do not allow our older folk, especially men, to do that sort of thing for us. He said no, “take your seat and be comfortable.” There was an air of authority about him when he said this. At the same time, I could sense an inner mirth bubbling inside him.

These little anecdotes were to become quintessential on what John Stott the man symbolized for me. 

For a man of his stature, he was immensely accessible, unlike many church leaders whose cordon sanitaire is such that you have to go through layers of gatekeepers, as if you are approaching the very presence of God in a virtual Holy of Holies. 

In a time of globetrotting church leaders who see the world as merely a map to cover and leave their footprint, John Stott was a genuinely global servant to the churches. 

He listened carefully to the likes of Rene Padilla and Samuel Escobar who insisted that the Lausanne covenant he drafted in 1974 should include a statement about social responsibility. Quite early, he was prepared to lend the weight of his name to our fledgling Institute, at a time when we were under a cloud of suspicion as heretics and Marxists because of our pioneering work on gospel, culture and social justice issues. 

He wrote to us two decades hence: “I have been proud and grateful to be associated with you since you were born! And I continue to be supporting of your struggle to relate Christ and culture in an Asian context . . . God bless your next decade!”

John Stott traveled the world and came back not only moved but also changed by the heartbreaking poverty and troubles he saw. “There are such things as Christian tears,” he once remarked, “and too few of us ever weep them.”

Although he came from a fairly privileged class, he lived simply, keeping at the center of his vision the poor of the world. “I will live simply so that others can simply live.”

Some questioned the authenticity of such an identification with a suffering world. I happened to be at the first Lausanne Young Leaders’ Conference in Singapore in 1987. Some impudent participants insinuated that all his talk about suffering and sacrifice did not quite square with the fact that he had a rather charmed life and an education characteristic of the English upper classes. That he was single and had no family to scrape an income for, or be bothered with the responsibilities that usually weigh down married pastors, was also thrown at him as an issue.

His reply was a touching intimation of what it must have cost him to serve a larger world. “It is true,” he said, given his credentials, “that I could have climbed the ladder to the highest ecclesiastical post in the Anglican church . . . But I chose to be simply what I am – a servant.” He then moved on to a more personal note: “Many of you, when you come home, there is a wife waiting for you. When I come home, weary from all my travels, my flat is dark and cold, there is no light and there is no one there. There have been times when I have felt terribly alone and lonely.” At this his voice almost broke.

It was a moving moment, a revealing glimpse of an ageing leader’s vulnerability. The audience descended into silence. Later that night John Stott walked alone, up the hill to his lodgings in the university dormitory. His shoulders were a bit hunched, and it seemed to me that the rather brash and thoughtlessly rude young leaders, who put his integrity to question, had added to the toll of so many years of humble servanthood to the larger church, and of having to suffer fools.

In these days when church leaders tend to behave like rock stars, drunk with fame and living in a shadowy world of manipulative sex under the glitter, John Stott shines as an exemplar of gentlemanly courtesy and purity before the opposite sex. For more than half a century, his relationship with Frances was characterized by a deep respect and affectionate appreciation. 

John Stott's Right Hand

This tender, mutual caring was a thing to behold. This must have been the backdrop, besides Scripture, when he wrote:

“Sexual experience is not essential to human fulfilment. To be sure, it is a good gift of God, but it is not given to all, and it is not indispensable to humanness. . . . Jesus Christ was single, yet perfect in his humanity. So it is possible to be single and human at the same time!”

(John Stott, Issues Facing Christians Today, p. 470)

While John Stott had such clarity and insight in dealing with contemporary issues, I sensed that he too was a product of his time and context, which conditioned his reading of Scripture.

In later years, I have taken issue with his insistence that “women are equal, but subordinate.” This means, he said, that in a team ministry, a man should take the leadership. How could women be truly equal when at the outset they are to take a back seat to the men simply because of their gender? It may be possible to speak of subordination within the context of a marriage, as in Ephesians 5, but note that the reason given is christological, not creational: “As the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands . . .” To extrapolate this as operative in other contexts, like in church or in the larger society, is stretching it too far. 

In passages about roles in the church – Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 12, Ephesians 4 – the emphasis is on gifts, not gender. Gifts are given to the church to be used, not barred from being exercised just because they were given to women: “Having gifts that differ according to the grace given us, let us use them: . . . if it is leadership, let him govern diligently; if it is showing mercy, let him do it cheerfully.” (Rom 12:6–8, RSV, NIV)

There are issues where the lenses we use in reading Scripture tend to be heavily culturally conditioned. Gender is one such issue. It may be that John Stott, though born half a century later, was shaped in a measure by the generational attitude towards women described by a biographer of G. K. Chesterton: “Women before marriage were princesses on pedestals, and after marriage became the matriarchal rulers of their homes; Englishmen from boyhood had a tendency to get away from feminine domination by getting together at school, the university, clubs, and Parliament.”

From where I sit, the situation is quite ironical: the indigenous culture has already freed women, but the church still seeks to bind them. There is an egalitarian undercurrent in the culture which has remained strong and continuous even after Spain introduced inequality in the legal code and the American Bible belt exported to us suppressive readings of the Text. Truth be told, I am more comfortable working with my male peers in the larger academic world than in the evangelical community.  

I have the impression that the West, by and large, is a male-dominated world. Women, for the most part, have had to shoulder their way to power by adapting to the hard masculine ways of doing things. Hence, by the time they get to the top, they have become tough as nails, virtually honorary males. Since I live in an Asian culture that is uniquely without mythical narratives on the superiority of men, I am grateful that I do not have to fight so hard to find my place in the sun. 

We must recognize that we are all creatures of our time and circumstance. There are those, however, who like John Stott manage for the most part to break through the hermeneutical limits of privileged contexts because of a deep commitment to Scripture.

“We must allow the Word of God to confront us, to disturb our security, to undermine our complacency and to overthrow our patterns of thought and behavior.”

 (John Stott, Authentic Christianity)

The poet W. H. Auden paid tribute to the memory of William James in this way: 

            “Master of nuance and scruple, 

            Pray for me and for all writers living or dead,

            For there are many whose works are in better taste than their lives.”

John Stott is one rare writer and theologian whose life and work are of equal worth. I take off my shoes to such a man. 

Melba Padilla Maggay, PhD

A writer and social anthropologist, Melba Padilla Maggay is a sought-after international speaker and consultant on culture and social development issues, particularly on the interface of religion, culture and development. She is co-founder and President of the Institute for Studies in Asian Church and Culture (ISACC).