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The Unresolved Controversy: Unity with Non-Evangel

Category Articles
Date November 12, 2001

THE UNRESOLVED CONTROVERSY:UNITY WITH NON-EVANGELICALS

THE REALITY IS WE COULD HAVE DONE WORSE THAN THOSE WITH WHOM WE DIFFER

[In the discussion and controversy which followed the publication of “Evangelicalism Divided: A Record of Crucial Change in the Years 195O-2OO1”, its author, Iain Murray, was invited by Dr John F MacArthur to give an address on the book’s main theme. The following is the first four pages of a 30 page address, given at the Shepherds’ Conference on 11 March 2001, and now available as a Banner of Truth booklet with the above title.]

All books have a story of some kind behind them. They come into existence and take their shape in many different ways. It may help to introduce the subject before us if I begin by saying something on the origin of “Evangelicalism Divided”. In Britain the year 1996 marked the thirtieth anniversary of an event which became a milestone in the evangelical history of our country. Thirty years before, on 18 October 1966, Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones spoke at a National Assembly of Evangelicals in London. His subject was Evangelical Unity. At the end of his address the chairman, the Rev. John R.W. Stott, instead of closing the meeting, did something unscheduled. He took several minutes to make clear to the assembly that he disagreed with what they had just heard, and he gave some reasons. So a conference intended to promote evangelical unity had the opposite result. It was said that evangelical unity was fractured; some said it was wrecked’. Who was to blame for that outcome? On the anniversary of that event, thirty years later, the question was again being discussed, both in magazines and in books. It figured prominently; for instance, in the biography of Dr James I. Packer, published in 1997. My interest in this renewed debate prompted me to give an address on the subject in Australia in February 1998.

At that date, while I was still in Australia, I came across the sympathetic and definitive biography of Billy Graham, “A Prophet With Honor”, written by William Martin. One might suppose that a biography by an American and on an American would have no connection with the difference which had occurred among British evangelicals, but the Graham biography provides strong confirmation that there was indeed a connection. As the Martin book further opened out the subject for me, it became clear that the disagreement in London in October 1996 had to be understood in a much wider context, for to a surprising degree the main issue was the same on both sides of the Atlantic. This led me to research the subject more thoroughly, and in the course of two years my initial address grew into the recent book.

There are personal reasons why I found the theme difficult to handle. For one thing, Evangelicalism Divided is a sad book. I found it sad to think about and sad to write. One reason for this is that the subject has to do with a difference, not between the good and the bad, but between genuine, eminent, Christian men. The devil has often used the strategy of distracting believers from their work by provoking them into controversy with each other. In that way, instead of strength being united against a common enemy, energies are weakened and opportunities are lost. The Book of Genesis pointedly tells us that at the time when the unhappy strife between Abram’s servants and those of his nephew Lot occurred, – the Canaanite and the Perizzite dwelled then in the land’ (Gen. 13:7). Scripture means us to note the words and to be warned. Our first duty is to love one another, not contend with one other. When disagreement among Christians cannot be avoided, it should be a cause of pain, and we ought to do all we can not to aggravate it. The wisdom which is from above, says James, is ‘peaceable’, and I have tried to write with respect and esteem for evangelicals with whom I have to disagree. But, lest any should find Evangelicalism Divided depressing, I need to add something which is really obvious. The book, of course, is not intended in any sense to be a history of the gospel in the last fifty years. In that period there have been great spiritual blessings across the world and my theme is in no sense a denial of that reality

A further difficulty for me in writing the book was this: As the subject developed I was not able to record events merely as an onlooker. Rather I found myself confronted with a searching, humbling question. As I thought that other evangelicals made mistakes and erred in judgments, I was forced to ask myself how I might have fared had I been in their situations, and subjected to the same pressures as they faced. Unusual success, popularity, and eminent positions are dangerous things. For those of us who have little exposure to such dangers, it is easy to imagine how much better we might have done. But the reality is that we could have done worse than those with whom we differ. We share a common frailty and proneness to err. We are all ‘unprofitable servants’. ‘We all stumble in many things’, says James (3:2). The more I saw this, the more I found my whole subject to be a humbling one. Sometimes we may have to disagree with other believers, and even to disagree strongly, but at the same time it is imperative that we watch ourselves and our own motives. We are fellow-servants in Christ and Paul’s words are very searching:

“But why do you judge your brother? Or why do you show contempt for your brother? For we shall all stand before the judgment seat of Christ … So then each of us shall give account of himself to God’ (Rom. 14: 10, 12).

I come then to the main question before us: When we talk about evangelicalism divided, what was the cause of the division to which we are referring? What were Lloyd-Jones and John Stott disagreeing about? To ask this question leads us immediately into the controversy because, strange as it may sound, to this day there is no agreement over what the difference actually was! This much is clear: It was not over any basic evangelical belief. No fundamental truth was being denied or opposed by either side. Both sides held to Scripture and to the Person and work of Christ. How then could there be such a serious difference? To explain I need to give you a brief resume of some British history.

by Iain H. Murray.

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