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."
But Lon Allison, executive director of the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College, said the document doesn't include everything evangelicals would have liked to see, either. "We wish that the verbal witness of the good news of Jesus was considered more central to how we express love to our world," he said. "While it was appropriate to teach how acts of service and justice, as well as Christian behavior, are witness, we desire to say that the most essential element of witness must be the verbal expression of the gospel adorned by love acts, respect, and gentleness."
Love, respect, and gentleness get a lot of attention in the "Christian Witness" document, which denounces "all forms of violence, even psychological or social, including the abuse of power" in Christian witness, along with "all arrogance, condescension, and disparagement." Allison said he appreciates it "as far as it goes. … It speaks eloquently to other world religions who, in many places, condemn the Christian Church for coercion. This brings needed correction to those claims." But he wonders if the document overemphasizes those issues as central problems in evangelism.
"The document operated from an assumption that Christians do witness, but do it badly or incompletely," Allison said. "At least in the Western world we argue that gospel witness is not done badly as much as it is not done."
Jerry Root, professor of evangelism and leadership at Wheaton College, said that he similarly fears the document's failure to make verbal proclamation explicit "leaves the door open for some to consider any proclamation at the time of service a coercive act." The document, he notes, says Christians "should not … violat[e] others' rights and religious sensibilities" and "never denigrate, vilify, or misrepresent them for the purpose of affirming superiority of our faith."
"This is ambiguous," said Root, author of The Sacrament of Evangelism. "If I said to another person, 'We need Jesus for the hope of heaven,' could this be considered a denigration of another's faith because of that faith's inability to provide a Cross-centered redemption? We never want to be offensive, but there are some features of the Cross that simply are offensive, by nature, to those outside the faith."
But Root said he likes the spirit of the document.
"I am amazed that careful work was done among groups who do not have a history of such good spirited cooperation; this is an encouraging sign. … The collective wisdom of Christian traditions is a valuable asset as well as an affirmation of the Gospel, 'They will know you are my disciples by the love you have for each other.'"