by James W. Reapsome
Last winter Africa was the scene of two events that in different ways are going to have a profound effect on missionaries.
Last winter Africa was the scene of two events that in different ways are going to have a profound effect on missionaries. The one was predictable: the fifth Assembly of the World Council of Churches; the other wasn’t: the death of young Byang Kato, general secretary of the Association of Evangelicals of Africa and Madagascar.
Although evaluations of the WCC’s specific actions are bound to differ, it seems safe to say that ecumenical pressures on evangelicals around the world will be heated up rather than abated. Further, there is no indication officially that the WCC will give priority to evangelism and missions in the historical sense of proclaiming the gospel of redemption from the guilt and condemnation of personal sin.
Neither of these conclusions should necessarily mean that missionaries need to stoke up the anti-WCC fires. We believe the lines have been clearly drawn theologically and practically. However, those lines tend to be blurred when pressures mount for organizational unity in the national setting, and when political feelings and tensions are aroused. Therefore, firm convictions need to be explicated in each local situation.
It ought not to be inferred for one minute, for example, that American missionaries are anti-WCC just because the WCC’s Assembly provided a platform for attacks against U.S. foreign policy and big business. Certainly no missionary wants to give carte blanche approval to everything generated by either the State Department or Wall Street; he rather wants to make it clear that within Christendom there are fundamental differences of theology and practice that affect one’s basic understanding of the gospel and the mission of the church. And these differences are not first of all because of differences of race, nationality, politics or economics.
The obvious danger in trying to delineate theological differences is that the missionary will be linked with the West against the Third World. The way to avoid this danger is to train and to provide platforms for capable, theologically articulate evangelicals from the Third World, such as the late Dr. Kato.
The WCC ought not to be permitted to imply that conservative missionaries from the West are opposed to the strivings and concerns of Third World Christians. In some cases, it is true, Western missionaries have not only been slow to recognize and appreciate these legitimate strivings, but they have stood in the way and blocked them.
What concerns the Western missionary, moreover, is that his being linked with conservatism in politics, theology and economics will in some parts of the world lead to his being cut out of his role in evangelism, church growth, and discipling-to say nothing of such ministries as medicine, radio and television, and education.
It is against this backdrop of polarization between the West and the Third World that the loss of Dr. Kato appears especially tragic. This is not to question either the love or the wisdom of God, but it is to state the simple human predicament: the cause of Christ in the Third World needs leadership.
This man developed both administrative and theological skills; he learned to do his homework, so to speak, so his contributions were valued in an ever-widening circle of influence. Increasingly, he came to speak for a significant evangelical force across Africa.
No man is indispensable and the church is not built on the wisdom of men, but on the power of God. Yet the missionary s responsibility in terms of human strategy is to look for and train competent leaders. Each year, it seems, brings larger demands, more intense pressures, and more opportunities. In that sense, we need greater men of God, men to deal with complexities of church-mission relationships, of economic and political upheaval, and of theology.
While agencies of the WCC may seek to assist revolutionary forces in certain parts of the world, the evangelical wing of the church must come to grips with what seem like revolutionary demands: the demands of the three billion who have not heard of Christ, and the demands of national churches for identity and theological integrity, for training and leadership on a more profound level than ever before, so their churches and their theology are really theirs.
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