It seemed as though it might be an uneventful night in London … The many Christians who made their way to the Central Hall, Westminster for the opening of the Second National Assembly of Evangelicals were totally unaware of how eventful that meeting would be.
Even the members of the Westminster Fellowship who knew that their chairman was to speak about a very important issue had no idea of just how dramatically the meeting would conclude — and then be talked about for the next 50 years.
What happened? Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones, just into his 29th year as minister of Westminster Chapel, dealt with a vital but controversial subject. Every week he preached at midweek meetings in crowded buildings throughout the British Isles and he had but recently returned from a preaching tour in Finland, but this occasion was different.
He had even asked to be released from a preaching engagement in Lancashire to enable him to accept the invitation from the Evangelical Alliance (EA) to speak on the subject of Christian unity.
How had this invitation arisen? As we have seen, Christian unity was the big issue of the day. The ecumenical movement, with its avowed aim of uniting all professing Christians, regardless of their doctrinal beliefs was racing ahead, and liberal church leaders who held sway in most of the denominations were excited about it.
Evangelical churches and leaders differed in their views. Some were opposed to it on biblical grounds; others felt they should join to be an evangelical voice within it. Many were confused, while a great number just ignored the movement and were content to meet up once a year with fellow evangelicals at a gathering like the Keswick Convention.
A commission set up after the First National Assembly of Evangelicals ‘to study radically the various attitudes of evangelicals to the ecumenical movement, denominationalism and a possible future united church’ had concluded: ‘There is no widespread demand at the present time for the setting up of a united evangelical Church’.
This ‘conclusion’ was to be the focus of the Second National Assembly and Lloyd-Jones, who took a different view from that of the Commission, was asked to address the matter.
Some press reports afterwards said ‘he took the EA Council by surprise’ and many since have gone further and accused him of taking advantage of the occasion to foist his separatist opinions on the congregation. Such accusations are totally false. He had already given his views on Christian unity, in private, to the leaders of the Evangelical Alliance and they had actually asked him ‘to say in public what he had said in private’.
The chairman that evening, John Stott, would certainly have known the gist of what Martyn Lloyd-Jones would say, because the two men had talked together about Christian unity when they had met at the International Congress of Christian Physicians in Oxford a few months earlier.
If there was a problem, it was that the EA leadership failed to realise that Lloyd-Jones preaching Bible-based convictions in the Central Hall would be in an entirely different league from just talking about them in a committee. Lloyd-Jones cannot be blamed for doing what he was asked to do and doing it passionately and powerfully!
The scene is indelibly etched on my mind. The Central Hall was crowded and the platform was occupied by evangelical leaders of various persuasions — two rows of them. In many ways I felt sorry for Derek Prime, then President of the Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches. He gave the introductory Bible study on Philippians 2, and it was very good, but what followed was so electrifying that nobody had a hope of remembering what he said!
Morgan Derham, who had succeeded Gilbert Kirby as the secretary of the Evangelical Alliance, expressed his ‘appreciation’ of Lloyd-Jones which I described at the time and ever since as ‘eulogising the Doctor with faint praise’.
I am now convinced of that, because we learn from John Stott’s biography that Morgan Derham had already telephoned to ‘warn’ him that ‘the Doctor’s’ address might take the form of an appeal and that John Stott would be ‘well within his rights to challenge Lloyd-Jones’ appeal’.
As the Doctor rose to speak he began by saying, ‘It would be churlish of me not to thank Mr Morgan Derham for the remarks he has made, but I wish he had not done so because he has robbed me of my valuable time!’
As already mentioned, the address must be seen against the tense background of the increasing liberalism and mounting ecumenical pressures of those days. In most of the doctrinally mixed denominations, evangelicals were, at best, marginalised and ignored; at worst, often mocked and discriminated against.
Many young, evangelical ministers were fighting for survival, and would often find that a denominational official was working in league with disaffected members, to get them out of their churches. Numerous good, evangelical, theological students, looking for a church, were passed over. The ecumenical movement was marching forward to conquer, with strident voice and big steps, and with very little sympathy for those who stood in the way.
Against that backcloth, Martyn Lloyd-Jones stood to make his impassioned plea for evangelicals, who were divided up among the denominations, to come together ‘as a fellowship or association of evangelical churches’, and to stand together for the gospel.
It has often been said that he wanted to form a united church. In fact, just three days later, under a photograph of Martyn Lloyd-Jones and John Stott, the front page of The Christian declared: ‘An impassioned appeal to evangelicals in Britain to leave the major denominations and form a united church was made by Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones, minister of Westminster Chapel, London, when he addressed the opening meeting of the National Assembly of Evangelicals on Tuesday evening last at the Central Hall, London’.
The suggestion that he called for the formation of ‘a united church’ was totally false, but it has been repeated ad nauseam by many who were not there and some who were.
Also false and somewhat vicious was the suggestion made by some that he wanted to be the leader of this supposed new united church. He had dismissed this rumour well over a year before, at a meeting of the Westminster Fellowship when he said: ‘I have no personal interest in all we are discussing. I have not proposed a new church … I could have been President of the Free Churches Council or the Congregational Union years ago. I could have had it all’.
That statement was absolutely true and referred to something that had happened in 1942. On his deathbed, J. D. Jones, who was known as the ‘un-mitred bishop of Congregationalism’ and the ‘archbishop of Nonconformity’ had pleaded with Lloyd-Jones to be the leader of the Free Churches.
He refused the invitation, because of the compromise that would have been involved and because that night, after being in the presence of the dying preacher, Lloyd-Jones was overwhelmingly convinced that he himself must ‘preach as a dying man to dying men’ and, to do that, all compromise with error and all desire for personal prestige had to be shunned.
The constant use of the words ‘secede’ and ‘secession’ in reports of the 1966 Central Hall address, even though those words were never actually used by the speaker, have given the impression that it was something negative when in fact it was positive.
True, he longed for evangelicals to leave apostate denominations, but that was in order that they might demonstrate their oneness in standing for the gospel. Gordon Murray, editor of The English Churchman wrote: ‘He was not putting forward some negative scheme into which we are reluctantly forced, but rather he was pointing us to the glorious opportunity of taking positive action in the ecumenical sphere, of coming together as Christians, not because other people’s errors demand it, but because we want to and we realise we ought to if we are to be true to our evangelical convictions’.
Or, as Lloyd-Jones’ own summary of his controversial address put it, just over two months later, in his annual letter to the congregation at Westminster Chapel:‘I made an appeal, at a meeting held in the Westminster Central Hall in October, to all truly evangelical people in all the denominations to come together and to form local, independent evangelical churches, which should be in a loose fellowship together in order that the world might hear and see a living witness to the truth of the gospel…
‘We are living in momentous times, undoubtedly one of the great turning-points of history. The opportunity for evangelical witness is unique, the possibilities are tremendous. Are we equal to the times?’
This extract is taken, with kind permission, from the author’s recent book, 1966 and all that— an evangelical journey, EP Books; 128 pages, £6.99; ISBN 978-1783971275.