John Stott’s Gracious Yet Incisive Engagement with Liberation Theology

I was listening to John Stott’s classic, Christian Mission in the Modern World and came a cross a section where he offers some appreciation as well as thorough critique of Gustavo Guiterrez’s liberation theology. I consider this a model of how to engage a theological position with which you disagree.

“I admire the deep compassion of Gustavo Guiterrez for the exploited, his insistence on solidarity with the poor, his emphasis on social ‘praxis,’ instead of unpractical theorizing, and his call to the church for ‘a more evangelical, more authentic, more concrete, and more efficacious commitment to liberation.’ Several times he quotes with approval Marx’s famous dictum that ‘the philosophers have only interpreted the world… the point however is to change it.’

We should have no quarrel with the goal he defines, namely, ‘liberation from all that limits or keeps man from self-fulfillment, liberation from all impediments to the exercise of his freedom.’ This is fully biblical. God made man in his own image ; we should oppose all that dehumanizes him. Again, ‘the goal is not only better living conditions, a radical change of structures, a social revolution; it is much more : the continuous creation, never ending, of a new way to be man, a permanent cultural revolution.’

… All this–the need for man to free and to fulfill himself, and to take responsibility for restructuring of his society–is biblical and right. Both the end and the means are well-defined. It is when the author begins to theologize, to try to present social liberation as if this were what the Scripture means by salvation, and to dispense with evangelism in favor of political action, that–reluctantly, but decidedly–I part company with him.” John Stott, Christian Mission in the Modern World

At this point in the book, Stott then proceeds to unpack his critique of liberation theology with clarity and conviction for the next 10 pages. However, this section that I have quoted, preceding the critique is an example of how you ought to interact with another viewpoint.

Stott acknowledges points of common ground, he acknowledges aspects he appreciates in the opposing view, but he still holds his convictions firm. I thought about this passage especially in the wake of the passing of James Cone. There were some Reformed folks that were utterly shocked that any evangelical Christian could have anything nice to say about James Cone’s life’s work. Let me just appeal to the example of John Stott (from the 1970s!), evangelicals classically have had no trouble acknowledging points of appreciation even with opposing viewpoints (and also, historically Reformed Christians have not had any trouble with this either).


The Gospel Fulfills Dashed Hopes

“the Gospel fulfills the hopes that our idols have promised and betrayed. The Scripture says that all God’s promises are yes in Jesus (2 Cor. 1:20). As sinful human beings, we all tend to think what we really want is freedom from authority, inheritance without obedience like the prodigal son. But what Jesus offers is the authority we were designed to live under, an inheritance we by no means deserve to share, and the freedom that truly satisfies our souls.” -Russell Moore, preface to The Gospel for Life series

Reflections on MLK Conference


I had the privilege to attend the “MLK50: Gospel Reflections from the Mountaintop” Conference put on by ERLC and TGC.

It was a truly wonderful and challenging event.There were several thousands of us. A very mixed group. Most of the speakers were minorities. As it should be. I wanted to write down a couple of unpolished thoughts in reflection on the event.

1. Churches talking about racial justice is not an incursion into politics. It is a broadly Christian and narrowly Gospel issue (creation and redemption).

I was taken aback the first time someone suggested to me that concerns about racism are really just politics. Red vs Blue. Republicans vs Democrats.

It was rightly pointed out at the conference that there is an inconsistency on the parts of some on this point. Some would say: the church must address issues like abortion and gay marriage (that clearly have political implications), but then say the church should not talk about race. Do we see the inconsistency in this?

2. Some whites have struggled to see how truly devastating slavery and Jim Crow were (and are) to the black community.

We may not really understand the lasting impact these have had. I have heard it said that slavery and Jim Crow happened a long time ago, so whatever those things were, they are long in the past. Many of the black speakers pointed out that this isn’t true. These racial realities psychologically devastated the black community and the effects are felt even to this day.

It makes sense that the damage would linger too. Essentially blacks were mistreated through slavery and Jim Crow by whites for close to 350 years in this country. Is it reasonable to think generations and centuries of damage, bitterness, and suspicion could heal in a mere 50 years on its own? This is why expecting the black community simply to fix itself is simply too much to ask. Not to mention it’s just not how Christians do things. We believe in repentance: we fix what we break.

My take: imagine the parable of the Good Samaritan, but with a twist. Imagine that after the robbers brutalized the man, they had a change of heart and said, “We are really sorry for doing that, we will never do that to you again.” But after the robbers apologized, they just walked away and left the man in a heap alongside the road. Clearly that would be wrong. They need to bear the fruit of repentance by repairing the damage that they have done.

But that is essentially what the white community has done with the black community. We brutalized the black community physically, psychologically, emotionally, and spiritually for 350 years and one day realized we were wrong to do that, and but then we just walked away not realizing we created a mess that we now need to clean up. The problem is we preach personal responsibility to them, when if we practiced what we preached we would realize we have a responsibility to rebuild trust and repair a people group that we have completely devastated.

3. A tired black church

This is the one that breaks my heart the most. A theme of the conference was a black church that is battling cynicism towards evangelicals. They are weary of seeing us run to Fox News for advice on racial issues instead of taking seriously their personal testimony and experience.

4. Family needs to trump politics

Russell Moore pointed out that there may need to be mortification of sin by white evangelicals before racial unity can happen in the Church. Among the things he said may need mortification is our politics.

What I took that to mean (and it was repeated later on) is that we need to remember that if we are Christians then Jesus has to have the final word on our approach to social issues. This means what our black brothers and sisters in Christ tell us must have more credibility than our favorite political pundits.

My personal opinion is that Christian character is much more important than having a ‘take’ on every issue coming down the pike. Have the humility and discipline to listen. Have the love to care about people to whom you may have no biological relationship. That’s how Jesus wins.

5. The way of the cross for white pastors

A few speakers made the point that white pastors must speak on this issue even if it gets them fired. The speakers are right. To not talk about this is cheap grace. But in being rejected by men, they will be identifying with Christ in his sufferings and with his suffering church.

6. A battle that will be won, the only question is… us

The cross and resurrection guarantee the success of racial reconciliation. It will happen. That is the eschatological hope of Christianity. The only question is whether history will show us to be hindrances to it or helps.

Will history remember evangelicals the way we remember Southern Presbyterians? Time will tell, but future generations will note what we did not have the courage to do.

7. Just listen

If all of this seems crazy or deeply wrong, just start by building some relationships with black people. Listen to them. Take them seriously. Give them the right to narrate their own life experience. See where that gets you. I really do think it will get you to no1-6 on this list, because I think these only seem like wrong ideas when we basically live in a cultural vacuum.