by Arthur P. Johnson
Missionaries are caught in the swirl of fast-changing church and mission movements around the world, many of which were brought to the fore at the fifth Assembly of the World Council of Churches.
Missionaries are caught in the swirl of fast-changing church and mission movements around the world, many of which were brought to the fore at the fifth Assembly of the World Council of Churches. Therefore, the following article was prepared by an evangelical missionary who has become a scholar of the ecumenical movement, with the hope that his insights will provide useful guidelines for understanding what lies ahead.
Missionaries would do well to give careful attention to the fifth Assembly of the World Council of Churches held in Nairobi from November 23 to December 10, 1975. In previous decades the decisions of the International Missionary Council, which integrated with the WCC in New Delhi in 1961, carried moral weight. More than ever today they carry political weight as well. From its original purpose of world evangelization, the ecumenical movement has become an instrument of social and political reorganization.
Missionary societies and agencies will soon the increased political impact of the WCC, as decrees against racism begin to associate Western missionaries with racist societies and the support of multi-national corporations. Moratorium on missionary efforts may be interpreted as an effort to reduce the evangelical influence of Western missions that hinders the younger churches of the Third World from affiliating with the WCC. The evident anti-Western, anti- capitalist, anti- colonialist, attitudes so strongly expressed in small committee meetings and Assembly statements cannot help but tend to polarize developing nations and Western missions. This polarization is not an empty threat, because funds have been made available for "liberation movements" in Africa, the United States, and South America, and these funds are used to create loyalties to the Marxist or Maoist forces so often spearheading these revolutions.
THE HISTORICAL BACKGROUND OF THE WCC
The WCC looks back in its origins to the World Missionary Conference held in Edinburgh 1910. From the conference, chaired by John R. Mott, sprang three branches that were destined to merge and form what is today known as the World Council of Churches:
(1) The International Missionary Council was formally organized in 1921 and was destined to provide international relationships through the national missionary councils formed between 1910 and 1921.
(2) In 1925 the Stockholm Universal Christian Conference on Life and Work was held with the aims of uniting "the different churches in common practical work, to furnish the Christian conscience with an organ of expression in the midst of the great spiritual movements of our time, and to insist that the principles of the Gospels be applied to the solution of contemporary social and international problems."
(3) The World Conference on Faith and Order held its first meeting at Lausanne, Switzerland, in 1927 and dealt with these subjects: The Call to Unity; The Church’s Message to the World – the Gospel; The Nature of the Church; The Church’s Common Confession of Faith; The Ministry of the Church; The Sacraments; The Unity of Christendom in Relation to Existing Churches.
The Faith and Order movement united with Life and Work in Utrecht in 1938. The IMC merged with these two at New Delhi in 1961. The World Council of Churches has had four previous Assemblies: Amsterdam, 1948; Evanston, 1954; New Delhi, 1961; Upsala, 1968.
THE WORK OF AN ASSEMBLY SUCH AS NAIROBI
An assembly has three functions from the WCC viewpoint.
(1) To celebrate the Christian faith, for which each conference has one particular theme. For Nairobi, it was "Jesus Christ Frees and Unites. "
(2) To determine the implication of this theme in the contemporary life of the mission of the church.
(3) To decide through the delegates from the member churches "what kind of World Council they want themselves to be in the years ahead. " (Word Book, Nairobi 7 5, p. 5).
These objects are pursued through worship, plenary sessions and 80 Work Groups (comprised of 15 to 20 persons who meet for eight sessions), and two Work Shops that prepared specific program proposals for the WCC. One focused on "Youth" and the other on "Spirituality for Liberation and Community. " The Work Groups report directly to the General Assembly and the Work Shops report to the Program Guidelines Committee and in turn report also to the plenary sessions.
The basis of the WCC states, "The World Council of Churches is a fellowship of churches which confess the Lord Jesus Christ as God and Saviour according to the Scriptures and therefore seek to fulfill together their common calling to the glory of the one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. " As an organization, the WCC has three major characteristics that flow from this basis: (1) It is pluralistic in theology; (2) It is inclusive in cooperation; (3) It is organizational and institutional in ecumenical unity.
THE SETTING OF NAIROBI
It is hard to imagine a location more suitable than Nairobi, Kenya for the propagation of the idea that the WCC is the patron of all that is national and that which is good for the developing countries of the Third World.
Modern buildings of all sorts attest to the stability and progress of Kenya. Liberty of expression (except for Carl McIntire) and racial equality after many years of British colonialism made Nairobi a particularly good picture frame for the WCC ideologies. However, an estimated 80 percent of the Christians in Kenya are not members of the WCC and its All Africa Conference of Christian Churches.
THE NAIROBI CONSTITUENCY
Delegates numbered 747, representing 100 different countries and 271 different churches. The entrance of the Third World churches and the growing influence of the large number of Eastern Orthodox churches has drastically altered the blatant liberalism so prevalent before New Delhi, 1961. Eighty percent of the delegates attended an Assembly for the first time. Twenty percent were women; 10 percent, youth and 40 percent, laity. Of the 120 advisors, 10 were Roman Catholics (in addition to 16 observers) and 10 were conservative evangelicals, such as President David Hubbard of Fuller Theological Seminary and Michael Cassidy of South Africa.
THE OVERALL WORK OF NAIROBI
Delegates to Nairobi received "Notes for Sections" prepared by the Geneva staff several months in advance of the Assembly on the major subject, "Jesus Christ Frees and Unites." This subject was first considered against the background of five position papers dealing with pertinent aspects of the Assembly theme: "Who is this Jesus Christ who Frees and Unites?"; "That All May be One… "; "… That the World May Believe"; "Shackles of Domination and Oppression"; "Creation, Technology and Human Survival.
Then the delegates were divided into six sections for discussion of the following subjects. Each one deals with subjects touching the life and work of the missionary in one way or another: Confessing Christ Today; What Unity Requires; Seeking Community – The Common Search of People of Various Faiths, Cultures, and Ideologies; Education for Liberation and Community; Structures of Injustice and Struggles for Liberation; Human Development – the Ambiguities of Power, Technology and Quality of Life.
The above sections were divided into subsections of about forty delegates which in turn reported back to the entire section. Their combined reports. were then sent to the plenary Assembly and became a theological or practical guideline for- the Central Committee and the Geneva staff until the next Assembly in seven years. Bible studies, hearings, business sessions and special events, such as a play depicting the history of African peoples in relation to their tribal religions, and a presentation by the United Bible Societies completed the Assembly program.
CONFESSING CHRIST TODAY
Section I was entitled "Confessing Christ Today" and its content was studied by four sub-sections. The fruit of their study may be summarized from the Section Report. It was the most theological of all the sections and was most widely sought after by the delegates.
I. Confessing Christ as an act of conversion. Evangelism is identified with social action. Christians are to do both as a means of confessing Christ. "We are commissioned to proclaim the Gospel of Christ to the ends of the earth. Simultaneously, we are commanded to struggle to realize God’s will for peace, justice and freedom throughout society" (p. 1).
It is very difficult to find statements that assert the necessity of preaching the Scriptures in order to lead people to reconciliation with God through the Cross. Conversion seems to be more toward bringing people to the horizontal program of God in world society. There are statements recognizing the need of "liberation to private and eternal dimensions, " but the pervading universalism that limits or negates the eternal lostness of man without personal faith in Christ seems to eliminate the necessity of the new birth as evangelicals understand it.
2. Many cultures, one Christ. Each culture, it was found, will produce its own theology, but unity is possible because of a common confession of Christ. But how can Christ be confessed, this sub-section asked, when a culture is intimately associated with racism, materialism and sexism?
Evangelicals recognize that social evils inherent in a society can limit their testimony, but they believe that God uses redeemed individuals in any culture to proclaim Christ. They also recognize the power of the Word to penetrate hearts and that of the Holy Spirit to "translate" the Scriptures to any culture. It is to be feared that the ecumenist often possesses a low view of inspiration and finds himself dependent upon human methods of communication alone.
3. The Confessing Community. The confession of Christ in the community is to include all those issues raised at Nairobi: "sin and forgiveness, power and powerlessness, exploitation and misery, the universal search for identity, the widespread loss of Christian motivation and the spiritual longings of those who have not heard Christ’s name" (p. 6). The messianic kingdom was anticipated but this would not be an achievement of individuals, churches, or societies. Confession of Christ, it said, will not be in vain.
This sub-section seemed to have the most conservative expression, yet it insisted on involving the churches in political life and social action. Many evangelicals believe that politics and social action are part of the believer’s responsibility as a citizen of his country, but would question whether this is the responsibility of the church. If the church does get involved in politics, does it not limit its ministry to all men in the community, to those without Christ who would be hindered by a political affiliation?
4. Confessing Christ in Worship and Life. A plea was made for true discipleship born out of authentic Christianity. This sub-section viewed with some alarm the superficiality of many Christians who implicitly reject the consequences of the gospel in all areas of life and do not use their special gifts. A verbal proclamation of the name of Christ was necessary and martyrdom for it was seen as a blessing to the church today as well.
The inherent weakness of this sub-section was primarily in the universalism that saw all people reconciled, gathered into Christ’s one body, and attaining life everlasting. John Stott, in replying to the Assembly paper of Bishop Mortimer Arias of Bolivia, pinpointed this issue and condemned it:
Universalism, fashionable as it is today, is incompatible with the teaching of Christ and his apostles, and is a deadly enemy of evangelism. The true universalism of the Bible is the call to universal evangelism in obedience to Christ’s universal commission. It is the conviction not that all men will be saved in the end, but that all men must hear the gospel of salvation before the end, as Jesus said (Mt. 24:14), in order that they may have a chance to believe and be saved (Rom. 10:13-15). (Plenary Document 20, p. 2).
5. A Call to Confess and Proclaim. This addendum made a deliberate appeal to both the Lausanne Congress, 1974, and the Roman Catholic Synod of Bishops, 1974, in the study of evangelism. It emphasized "the whole gospel, and whole person, the whole world, and the whole church. " It called for a renewal of the churches of the WCC to proclaim the gospel, to evangelize. Part of the content to be confessed was "the responsibility to participate in the struggle for justice and human dignity, the obligation to deny all that hinders human wholeness, and a commitment to risk life itself" (Plenary Document 48, p. 10).
Caution must be exercised by evangelicals in reading the commendable aspects of this addition, for while many see it as a biblical orientation, it may also be interpreted as an inspirational appeal to greater involvement in the horizontal sphere, the betterment of man’s social condition, and a stimulus to commitments more clearly defined in the five following section reports. Evangelicals ought to be thankful for all that is good and commendable, but alert to the fact that this report in no way represents a clear return to what Lausanne 1974 so clearly and biblically affirmed.
WHAT UNITY REQUIRES
Section II, "What Unity Requires, " reviewed the progression of unity concepts from New Delhi, 1961, to Uppsala, 1968. Whereas the former "described God’s will for unity in terms of one fully committed fellowship of all God’s people in each place, in all places and in all ages, " the latter sought for a new approach to unity in terms of catholicity, "the opposite of all kinds of egoism and particularism" best described as "diversity in unity and continuity."
The WCC leadership was clearly disappointed that the Roman Catholic Church had not consented to membership. It looked forward toward an eighth Church Council "united by a common ministry, and a common eucharist" (Section II, Report, Plenary Document 39, p. 2). The quest for unity, however, will not diminish, for the post-Nairobi era will concentrate upon practiced ecumenical relationships among "neighboring churches in the same locality" and interdependent ecumenical initiatives.
Deep and continuing disagreements were recognized, and even where there is theological consensus the churches are seen as slow to act upon it. The increased participation of Third ‘World churches has added to the problems of unity. A number of circumstances at Nairobi indicated a continuing doctrinal accommodation to Roman Catholicism so that the evangelical may be assured that the WCC is preparing seriously for a new structure, as necessary, to facilitate the new relationship with the Roman Catholic Church. Legitimate Reformation objections to Roman Catholicism have not changed for those evangelicals holding to verbal inerrancy and authority of the Bible. Nor have biblical objections to liberal Protestantism lost their validity.
Evangelical churches and missions need to remain alert to the contemporary dangers involved in WCC unity overtures, even as they recognize what may be a moving of God’s Spirit among individuals and churches in both Roman Catholicism and historic Protestantism.
THE COMMON SEARCH OF PEOPLE
Section 111, "The Common Search of People of Various Faith, Cultures and Ideologies," sought the establishment of "world community" based upon dialogue. Christians were called to seek world community and undertake dialogue with those of other world religions and ideologies, such as capitalistic humanism, scientific humanism, and Marxist and Maoist humanism. The work of this section took place with a Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim and Jew present as guests of the Assembly.
The first report of this section received strong criticism for traces of syncretism and dialogue that extends beyond the bounds of Scripture, and for overlooking the necessity of the scandal of the cross in the world. The final report affirmed the continued tension that divides the church from the world, and the validity of the Great Commission, while opposing any form of syncretism and any attempt to create a new religion comprised of elements taken from different religions.
Evangelicals may be concerned that this report did not lead to the conclusion that the common search of these peoples can find fulfilment in Jesus Christ. The entire section was evasive about evangelism and conversions to Christ. Dialogue was clearly not an instrument for conversion. From statements made on the floor and in papers, the entire thrust of the section seemed to be toward diverting evangelicals from making converts from other religions and ideologies, and at the same time a preparation of the delegates for the adoption of a Marxist or Maoist governmental structure for world community.
EDUCATION FOR LIBERATION AND COMMUNITY
Section IV, "Education for Liberation and Community," enters into how to change the social structures and transform society by education. Preparatory material promoted anti-Western, anti- technological attitudes, creating a polarization against the West, Western Christianity and the white race. The "struggle" between the "oppressed and oppressor classes" characterized the Assembly documents and left little doubt as to the political philosophy of the authors.
The emancipation of women was considered in this section, but the pre-Nairobi popularity of this subject was lost in an ecclesiastical world at the Assembly.
Transnational companies received abusive criticism in the plenary Assembly. While evangelicals are not unaware of the abuses of certain international businesses, the entire preparation for this section and its report leave the clear impression that the answer to the world’s economic and social problems begins with education that leads to revolution and the destruction of capitalism as the root of all evil. Wittingly or unwittingly, the WCC ‘is promoting Maoism and Marxism, totalitarian systems based upon class dialectic and controlled economic systems. Cardinal biblical doctrines of sin, the nature of man, salvation, and eschatology have not been introduced into their philosophy of education.
STRUCTURES OF INJUSTICE AND STRUGGLES FOR LIBERATION
Section V, "Structures of Injustice and Struggles for Liberation," entered into the goals of the ecumenical movement in the political and social spheres. The report identified Jesus as a Servant who was born into poverty, so "Christ himself calls us to follow him on the same path, committed to the cause of the oppressed and with readiness to suffer" (Plenary Document 28, p. 1). Christians are to struggle for fundamental human rights, for the basic guarantees for life such as the right to work, health care, adequate food, decent housing, education, and the special need’s of women.
Amid the rightful condemnation of the "world-wide web of racist penetration," an appeal was made to the churches and their Western foreign mission agencies, "to reexamine their use of human and material resources so that they can effectively support. liberation efforts and contribute to human dignity in developing countries in ways that are beyond the scope of traditional patterns of giving and receiving" (p. 12). This seems to be an appeal to the churches and missions to use their funds and personnel to liberate countries such as South Africa "because of the legal enforcement of racism there" (p. 13.) At a press conference it was reported that at the present time funds are being directed from the WCC Program to Combat Racism to the American Indian Movement, Indians in Bolivia and Paraguay, Aborigines in Australia and New Zealand, Koreans in Japan, and the Malcolm X University in the USA.
Evangelicals recognize the sinfulness of racism and have greatly contributed toward racial equality by evangelism and missions that have sowed the seeds of justice by the transformation of the human heart. Great wisdom and understanding are needed in dealing with these questions, so that the gospel can best produce its by-products of transformation of society and the elimination of social evils.
Section VI, "Human Development: Ambiguities of Power, Technology and Quality of Life," presented a section report that has much to commend it. It stressed forced revolutionary and powerful elements involved in the process of change in the next decade: the demands of twothirds of the earth’s people; the ecological problems that threaten present and future generations; the misuse of power and the struggle of the powerless; the questioning of the growth-oriented affluent societies and the consequences of this for the rest of mankind (Plenary Document 35, P. 1).
Armament, technology, energy conservation, biology questions, population, the quality of life and a proper asceticism received extensive study and recommendations.
The WCC has taken its "agenda" from the world because it sees Christ in the world working toward the reconciliation of it and the redemption of the world system. Thus the biblical distinction between the church and the world has been blurred in some cases and lost in others. The entire program of the WCC appears to have been reorganized and reoriented from its original purposes to promote the unity of the churches so that the world may be evangelized in the biblical spirit of Edinburgh 1910, to an horizontal philosophy of world governmental restructuring resulting in the promotion of international Marxism and Maoism.
Continued and increased concern may be expressed for the WCC attitudes toward scriptural authority and the doctrines of Christ, salvation and eschatology. Evangelization has not only acquired the dimension of social concern, but the WCC understanding of salvation is distorted from that of the Scriptures by ambiguous views on the atonement, the lostness of man, and the "new man" in the world since the incarnation.
God has blessed those who in love have remained faithful to the Scriptures as the infallible (verbally inerrant) Word of God. Conservative evangelicals need to persevere in the way the Lord has led them by his Spirit during recent decades. There is no valid reason to believe that the Lord will speed world evangelization through the visible and organizational unity of Christendom. In fact, world evangelization will most certainly be hindered by conservative evangelical participation in the WCC: the simplicity of biblical Christianity will be complicated and the great strength of proclaiming and persuading by the preaching of the Bible in the power of the Holy Spirit may be seriously dissipated and diminished.
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