Evangelical, Mainline Protestant, and Roman Catholic leaders convened Tuesday in Geneva to announce the release of a historic document on the ethics of Christian evangelism. The World Evangelical Alliance (WEA) said Christian Witness in a Multi-Religious World: Recommendations for Conduct is the first document to receive unanimous endorsement from the WEA, the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue (PCID) of the Catholic Church, and the World Council of Churches (WCC).
The three-part document states that its intent is to "encourage churches, church councils, and mission agencies to reflect on their current practices … for their witness and mission among those of different religions and among those who do not profess any particular religion."
Jean-Louis Tauran, president of the PCID, said the text "will help us reduce unnecessary tensions and present the truth of God in a credible way to the world around us."
Geoff Tunnicliffe, secretary general for the WEA, said the document, which "covers very succinctly the essence of Christian mission," is the culmination of a five-year collaboration of theologians, practitioners, and Christian leaders.
"We might be surprised that the document does not say 'anything new,'" Tunnicliffe said. "After all, it states what many would consider to be obvious to the core of Christian mission. And yet, it has never been said before in this way! At least not so clearly and not within the context of collaboration between three Christian families of faith that jointly represent about 90 percent of all the Christians on the planet."
The organizations rarely meet together, let alone release joint documents. Documents released by Evangelicals and Catholics Together, for example, are endorsed by individuals on both sides but neither the WEA nor the PCID. But there has been an apparent thaw lately, especially between the WCC and WEA. In November the groups issued statements together on Sudan, and WCC general secretary Olav Fykse Tveit was invited to address October's gathering of global evangelical leaders in Cape Town, South Africa.
"It suggests that evangelicals are beginning to see their place as classic Christians in the broad scope of the Christian faith globally; we're seeing each other for who we are rather than who we're against," said Kevin Mannoia, professor of Ministry at Azusa Pacific University. As president of the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE, the U.S. body of the WEA) from 1999 to 2001, Mannoia attemped to work with the National Council of Churches (the U.S. body of the WCC). But his efforts, including allowing organizations to belong to both groups, led the National Religious Broadcasters to split from the NAE and were a factor in his resignation under pressure from the board.
Similarly, in 2001 NCC general secretary Bob Edgar signed a statement on marriage organized by Mannoia and endorsed by leaders of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Southern Baptist Convention, then withdrew his support when his constituents complained that it excluded same-sex marriage.
"I think the fact that the WEA is engaging with the WCC and the Catholic Church here indicates that they are becoming more willing to embrace interreligious dialogue," Mannoia said. "On the other side, I think for the WCC and the Vatican to make the statement that witnessing is in the nature of the church marks a significant adjustment."
George Hunter, dean of the School of World Missions at Asbury Theological Seminary, sees an even more significant adjustment in what's not in the document. "A lot of times in these documents it's what they leave out that's really telling," he said. "Probably the Catholics engaged in the greatest concession by omission here: sacramental expression. Omitting sacramental rites from the 'essence' of evangelism is a huge statement from the Catholic Church, and an indication that they are willing to give up an important part of their tradition in order to meet evangelicals in the middle."