by C. Peter Wagner
One of the good things about the “Salvation Today” conference convened by the Commission on World Mission and Evangelism of the World Council of Churches at Bangkok, Thailand, December 29, 1972 through January 8, 1973, was that you could form your own opinion of it without much fear of being contradicted.
One of the good things about the "Salvation Today" conference convened by the Commission on World Mission and Evangelism of the World Council of Churches at Bangkok, Thailand, December 29, 1972 through January 8, 1973, was that you could form your own opinion of it without much fear of being contradicted. No matter how the conference struck you, you were bound to find some who agreed as well as some who developed different points of view. Since your impression of the conference depended largely on which Bible study sessions and group interactions you attended, it is unlikely that any two of the 300-odd participants emerged with identical evaluations.
If I may be excused for a California analogy, Bangkok seemed to me to be an ecclesiastical Disneyland. Not only did the quaint curved roofs, the winding paths and the fancy landscaping remind one of Anaheim, but the impact the conference made on a person depended largely on the particular ride he happened to take. Some of the participants had good rides, and they are rather optimistic about the future course of the WCC/CWME. Mine, I’m sorry to report, were mediocre to poor.
The first bad ride came soon after I checked in. The conference had already been running for a few days. Several of my friends greeted me with the same question: "Did you hear what happened to Beyerhaus?" I soon heard that when, in the second session, German missiologist Peter Beyerhaus had suggested that the conference grapple seriously with the theological points raised in the Frankfurt Declaration, he was virtually declared out of order by WCC General Secretary Philip Potter himself. The conference newspaper reported Potter’s saying that because the Frankfurt Declaration was produced by a particular group of Western German theologians, the CWME was prepared to discuss it in Germany, but not to share it as a world document. Potter’s attack effectively tossed the issues of the "fundamental crisis of Christian mission" right out of Bangkok and back to Frankfurt.
Even before that, however, Potter had tackled another contemporary missiological issue, that of the "two billion." Fuller Seminary’s Donald McGavran for several years had needled ecumenical leaders with the poignant question as to whether the two billion people in the world who have not yet had an opportunity to commit themselves to Jesus Christ would be betrayed by the conciliar movement. He had made the "two billion" a symbol in missiological circles, and had sharpened the debate between those who considered Christian mission as making disciples of these two billion in the classical sense and those who were more concerned with humanizing them by struggling to bring about a "shalom" of peace, justice and brotherhood.
Philip Potter dealt with the two billion like he dealt with the Frankfurt Declaration. In his opening address entitled, "Christ’s Mission and Ours in Today’s World," he brought up the matter of the debate on the two billion, then promptly dismissed it as "totally futile." His message reflected little sensitivity to such essential components of salvation doctrine as the depravity of the heart of man, the need for personal regeneration by the Spirit, and the eschatological realities of eternal life and eternal damnation. Instead, he dwelt on the Christian responsibility toward "the liberation of persons and societies from all that prevents them from living an authentic existence in justice and a shared community." Evangelicals could agree on the need for this social concern, but they were not willing to let it stand as the central objective of "Christ’s mission and ours."
Having effectively muted the voices of McGavran (who was absent) and Beyerhaus (who was present), the conference was then forced to face the strong evangelical voice of Arthur Glasser, Dean of Fuller Seminary’s School of World Mission, who had been invited as a "reflector." Glasser’s "reflection," which was given by invitation in a later plenary session, rang loud and clear with evangelical content and evangelistic passion. When asked to flesh out his notes for Evangelical Missions Quarterly, he stayed up until the wee hours of the morning to write the piece below. Glasser’s powerful delivery was a highlight of the conference, a good ride, but the leaders dealt with him in another way. The full-page mimeographed document summarizing that plenary session carried references to Rubem Alves’ gloomy reflections on the sickness of Western culture, the despair of mankind and his own resulting hopelessness. It described other reflections on the servanthood and powerlessness of the church. But Glasser’s biblical challenge rated not even a line!
A widely-publicized dialogue with Thai Buddhist leaders turned out to be a slow ride. Phra Maha Vorasak, an authority on Vipasana, advocated a "middle way." When he recommended that participants not drive their cars too fast, he drew a reaction from the social activists. When he commented that women in Thailand drive too slowly, the women’s libbers protested. Evangelicals wished in vain that the dialogue would move from man’s relationship to himself and other men to the subject of man’s relationship to a living, personal God.
Ecumenical conference hoppers were of a general opinion that Bangkok marked a new era for Third World church leaders. Not only were they present and not only were they listened to, but it appeared that for the first time they were able to influence the course of a conference in a significant way. With Philip Potter, a West Indian, as General Secretary of the World Council of Churches, and Emilio Castro, a Uruguayan, installed at Bangkok as Director of the Commission on World Mission and Evangelism, there is little question that Third World leadership will yet increase as the years move by.
But whether this will help speed the fulfillment of the Great Commission and gather the harvest among the two billion remains to be seen. One of the serious structural problems of the Bangkok conference was that so few missionaries or evangelists participated in the meetings of the Commission on World Mission and Evangelism. Whether from the West or from the Third World, the predominant voices were those of churchmen, not missionaries. Their concerns were not so much winning those outside of the church, as housekeeping chores within the church. Bangkok was a living example of what I have called "The Babylonian Captivity of the Christian Mission."
In a press conference, for example, three African leaders expressed their relief that the age of the missionary was finally over. When someone suggested that perhaps Africa could now send missionaries to the West, they shrugged off the idea with the comment that such a request seemed to them to be a thinly-disguised obsession of guilt-ridden Westerners, and that it is clearly the wrong track for the future.
Some of the unplanned side shows reflected feelings of churchmen which appear to be running deep in some circles. The morning after a meeting on China, for example, a large poster appeared on the public bulletin board with this text: "At China meeting – did you notice the compulsive neurosis of the West to `convert’ China? Salvation – God save China from ‘conversion.’ "
One Third World leader, in a group meeting, expressed an opinion that was fairly widespread concerning the attitude of the Western, especially American, participants. He was visibly disturbed by what he described as the "masochistic feeling" of Americans there. "Hit me, hit me!" he heard the Americans saying. "We’re not yet saved!" Tongue-in-cheek, he questioned the efficacy of self-flagellation as a soteriological option.
All the rides weren’t that bad. The final report of Sub-Section III-B, "Growing Churches and Renewal," stands out as a landmark like the snow-capped peak of Disneyland’s Matterhorn. It mentions "the proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ to all the world so that, by responding to him, persons and their situations may be saved." The whole sub-section report is a plea for a return of the church to biblical evangelism. It was no coincidence that Arthur Glasser, Peter Beyerhaus, and Bishop Chandu Ray, along with other evangelicals, were actively involved in that section.
These men, joined by Bishop Manuel Gaxiola of Mexico, Donald Hoke, Harold Lindsell, and several others of like mind, made their presence felt. A ray of evangelical concern does shine through, even in the final "Letter to the Churches." It reaffirms salvation in the name of Jesus Christ, and states that "through the work of the Holy Spirit we have recognized together the power of salvation by his cross as it is manifest in his resurrection." One of the official resolutions pledges the CWME to "press efforts at all levels to understand the concerns and consider the implications of the performance in mission of conservative evangelicals both within and without the membership of the WCC." The official news release recognizes that "the presence of conservative evangelicals and proponents of the Frankfurt Declaration point to a new dialogue of what mission really is."
When the CWME finally decides "what mission really is," will they change course and return to biblical priorities? Will they distinctly persuade the member churches to dedicate time, energy, budget, and personnel to a renewed effort to turn men and women from idols to serve the living and true God (1 Thess. 1:9)? Will they clearly offer the Bread of Life right along with the bread of development and justice? Will they adopt Jesus’ priorities which he articulated in terms of "not laboring for the food which perisheth, but for that food which endureth unto everlasting life" (Jn. 6:27)?
If the conciliar movement is truly interested in the concerns of conservative evangelicals, they will come to grips with these and a score of other equally penetrating questions. At this point I am not willing to predict which way the WCC/CWME will go in the years to come. Recent history would lead one to guess that the biblical emphasis on mission and evangelism, prominent at Edinburgh at the beginning of the century, will continue to be stifled. However, a new spiritual awakening, being felt increasingly in many parts of the world, produces a degree of hope. If we can do nothing else, we can pray sincerely for our brethren in the conciliar movement at this crucial juncture of their history and ours.
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