Reflections on the Christlike leadership of John Stott

Rico Tice | March 25th 2021

What is John Stott’s legacy in this, the hundredth year since he was born? We could think of his preaching, his writing, his evangelism or his impact on student ministry. But more than any of those, I think his greatest legacy may be his personal godliness.

I joined the staff at All Souls, Langham Place in 1994, and so had the privilege of getting to know “Uncle John” as both a colleague and friend. And it was his godliness that most struck me over the next 17 years. In fact the closer I got to him, the more apparent it became. His secretary Frances Whitehead put it well at his Memorial Service in St. Paul's Cathedral: “I worked alongside him for 55 years and I want you to know that he was authentic. He lived what he preached.”

“He lived what he preached”—that is perhaps what we most need to remember and learn from as we confront the heartbreaking truth that a number of Christian leaders have failed in this area.

I was at the Keswick Convention for his last public sermon in July 2007. Its central point was this: Christlikeness is the will of God for the people of God. I have never forgotten these lines:

"There was a Hindu professor in India who once identified one of his students as a Christian and said to him, ‘If you Christians lived like Jesus Christ, India would be at your feet tomorrow’. I think India would be at our feet today if we Christians lived like Christ.”

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As I look back on his impact on me, who he was was more important than all he achieved, character more important than competence. It seemed to me that the heart of his godliness lay in his humility, expressed in a desire to serve others. He had come from an immensely privileged family. The chauffeur would drive him up to his boarding school at Rugby, where he was Head Boy. His father, Sir Arnold Stott, had rooms on Harley Street in London. But having come to Christ as a 16-year-old, John’s longing was to lay aside this privilege and serve others as Christ had served him.

That longing never left him. As an old man, when he preached at All Souls there would be long queues of people waiting to meet him after the service. Quite often these individuals were very demanding. One of his study assistants, John Yates (who became Rector of The Falls Church in northern Virginia), told me that he trained himself to say under his breath, “John, Christ died for them—they are, therefore, infinitely valuable to God. Now you must listen to them.” That reflected his key motto: the other person is more important than you are. There was a constant reference to Philippians 2 v 3-5: “In humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but teach of you to the interests of the others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus.”

I learned from Uncle John’s humility both in private and in public from my earliest days at All Souls. I remember going for tea at Uncle John’s at the beginning of 1995. He'd watched me for those opening months of my time at All Souls and asked me as I came into his study, “Have you read The Christian Priest Today by Archbishop Michael Ramsey?” It had been part of my ordination reading, and so with a little pride I enjoyed saying, “Yes, I have”.

“Do you remember Chapter 8?” he asked.

“No,” I replied.

“Let me read it to you,” he said.

The title of the chapter was “On Divine Humility” and four of its main points are still seared into my brain:

1. Confession and thanksgiving are soil in which pride does not easily grow.

2. Rejoice in your humiliations—they are good for you.

3. Cultivate friends who laugh at you.

4. Laugh at yourself.

I remember walking away from tea that day and thinking, “Well we didn’t go through those points for Uncle John’s benefit”!

Then there was the most powerful sermon I’ve ever heard. I was so wrought upon that halfway through I stopped taking notes and found myself face to face with my Creator. I don’t need to turn to my notes to recall what was said. The date was 11th February 1996, the passage was Mark 10 v 35-45, the title was “The Servant of Many”, and as in my mind I can still hear Uncle John declaring:

“We have to choose between two value systems and two lifestyles. There is one way of living and it’s the way of James and John, Mark 10 v 35: ‘We want you to do for us whatever we ask’. The other way of living is in verse 45: ‘For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many’.”

“He lived what he preached”—that is perhaps what we most need to remember and learn from as we confront the heartbreaking truth that a number of Christian leaders have failed in this area.

Uncle John called us to choose between the way of James and John and the way of Jesus. It’s a choice between:

1. self-seeking and self-sacrifice

2. power and service

3. security and suffering

He declared there is no middle ground, for there is no harmonisation between the two. Then he called us to underline four words in red in our Bibles from Mark 10 v 43: “Not so with you.”

The points from that sermon form the structure for one of the chapters in my book Faithful Leaders, because they have been so fundamental to the approach I’ve tried to take to ministry within my own family as well as in the church. Servant leadership is right at the heart of authentic Christian leadership.

And Uncle John lived what he preached, right to the end. His last lesson to me about service came for me on the day in 2011 that he died. There was a rota amongst the church staff to go down to his residential home and it happened to be my day to go on 27th July. That morning I got there at about 10am. The doctors were clear that he was dying. I sat with him, and at one point read through John 14. He barely acknowledged me. But when one of the Filipino cleaners at the home came in to say goodbye, with a monumental effort John took his hand and rose up out of his bed to kiss it, before slumping backwards. As I was leaving, Uncle John’s closest friends and family began to arrive, but I noted that none of them were given anywhere near the greeting that he had given that young man.

As I shut my eyes, I can see him giving everything he had to serve the person who had the lowest status. He was a Christian servant to his last breath and—perhaps now more than ever—I’m so deeply grateful to God for his godly example.

Rico Tice

Rico Tice is a passionate evangelist, and former Senior Minister of Evangelism at All Souls, Langham Place in London. Co-Founder of Christianity Explored Ministries, he is a regular speaker at missions and evangelistic events around the world, and is the author of several books, including Honest Evangelism and Capturing God. Rico loves to play and watch rugby. His other hobbies include playing golf and watching films. He’s married to Lucy and they have three children.

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