The spirit of ecumenical merger, motive force of contemporary Protestantism, has set as it next goal the integration of the International Missionary Council with the World Council of Churches. Most ecumenical leaders view this step as a logical move in shaping a master framework of organizational unity for Protestant witness, and they are confident that merger will be a fait accompli before the end of the 1960 WCC assembly. Many evangelical leaders, on the other hand, regard the drive for merger with dismay, and as tending to disrupt the harmony of missionary effort in many parts of the world. One fact is certain: while the merger would bring almost half the world witness of Protestant missions within the orbit of the ecumenical movement, it poses fresh problems for mission boards at home and missionary workers abroad.

35,000 Protestant Missionaries

The number of Protestant missionaries in the world today is just under 35,000. Standing at the frontiers of Christian faith against the powers of unbelief and darkness, this missionary force faces modern pressures for alignment unknown in apostolic days. The missionary today is caught in the tension between denominational and interdenominational or superdenominational alignment, which the ecumenical movement proposes to transcend, ostensibly by fulfilling the New Testament conception of the unity of the Church. Over and above this issue, however, hangs the theological tension of the day, posed by the conflict between the liberal and evangelical theology.

Strength Of Imc Effort

Since its organization in 1921, the IMC has gathered somewhat less than half the Protestant missionary personnel around the world into its orbit. Since IMC includes most of the older and established mission boards, it doubtless represents half the Protestant missionary effort. Most estimates place its missionary force between 12,000 and 15,000. The bulk of its strength is in missionary personnel from the United States and Great Britain; in fact, 60% of its missionary personnel is accounted for by the Division of Foreign Missions of the National Council of Churches, U.S.A., and much of the remainder by its British counterpart, the Conference of Missionary Societies. Of the 35,000 Protestant missionaries, 25,000 are from North America, and 43% of these are represented by IMC.

IMC functions as an association of national councils of missions and as an association of councils of national churches, with a shifting emphasis from mission boards to younger churches as the basis of membership. It is rooted in an effort to coordinate the missionary effort of national churches whose rise is an aspect of ecumenical Christianity in the twentieth century.

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At first IMC was promoted as a non-theological agency concerned only with missionary cooperation and efficiency. Its early efforts were carried on under the theme of the missionary proclamation of the gospel. Many evangelical missionaries cooperated with the understanding that its existence was wholly independent of ecumenical interests. Although the IMC program was increasingly represented as a means of fulfilling Christ’s prayer for the unity of the Church—the favorite theme of all ecumenical ventures—evangelical leaders who were apprehensive about this trend understood ecumenical pronouncements before and after the 1955 Evanston Assembly to mean that no plan was on foot to integrate IMC and the WCC.

The fact is, however, that IMC and WCC had already been brought into an official consitutional relationship at the Amsterdam assembly in 1950. IMC leaders, replying to evangelical protests that they were misled by ambiguous statements at Evanston, stress that the question in debate was not whether to merge, but when to merge, and that 1955 was not the propitious time. The announcement was not “we have resolved not to integrate,” but rather, “we have not resolved to integrate.”

Other Mission Agencies

Alongside IMC, which accounts for less than half of the Protestant missionary personnel, exist other missionary agencies organized on a specifically theological basis, both denominational and interdenominational. Organized in 1917 as an association of non-denominational faith mission boards, Interdenominational Foreign Missions Association now represents 6,000 missionaries. Evangelical Foreign Mission Association, an association of mission boards formed in 1945, reports 4,600 missionaries in direct membership. Doubtless these figures reflect some measure of overlap. But since EFMA represents an additional 1,000 missionaries not in direct membership but outside IFMA, these organizations account for more than 10,000 missionaries.

Both IFMA and EFMA are fundamentalist or evangelical in theology. IFMA excludes denominational and holiness groups, while EFMA includes both. In addition to its framework of spiritual fellowship, EFMA emphasizes its service features (expediting passports, protesting infractions of religious liberty, etc.).

Beside these movements exist denominational groups going their own way and represented by none of the larger organizations. For example, there are 1,000 Southern Baptist missionaries and almost 300 Lutheran (Missouri Synod) missionaries outside the orbit of IMC, IFMA and EFMA.

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The Shift In Imc Emphasis

When local and national councils of churches were organized in foreign lands by the ecumenical movement, many areas boasted a predominance of evangelical missionaries. In many instances these missionaries did not wish to be excluded from a voice in organized Protestantism. Since IMC was projected as a non-creedal agency assisting established missions in doing their job, these evangelicals did not resist its advances, but enlisted in the local IMC councils.

In recent years, evangelical opinion has cooled toward IMC, primarily for two reasons. Little by little IMC has moved into the realm of theological issues. The question of the nature of the Church has been constantly raised by the younger churches in relation to their mission boards, and this in turn has renewed the issues of liberalism, neo-supernaturalism, and evangelicalism. Moreover, while IMC has not directly implemented the WCC program, the agency has doubtless done much indirect footwork for WCC since the Amsterdam assembly.

The Big Merger Looms

These issues have now come into major focus with the announcement that merger of IMC and the WCC is under active consideration. Whereas a few years ago the imminence of merger was scouted, the current emphasis is that the WCC in reality is a product of the IMC as the symbol of ecumenical missionary concern. The IMC claims that its 1921 beginnings were really sparked by the Edinburgh Missionary Conference of 1910. Whereas the ecumenical movement has centered interest in the concerns of Faith and Order, and Life and Work, it is now proposed to center its outreach in the missionary movement.

The next step toward merger is scheduled next December when the IMC assembly at Ghana, on the African Gold Coast, will vote on a draft plan of integration. If approval is ratified by IMC constituent councils, the plan will come before the 1960 assembly of the WCC.

Denominational Questions

Structural and theological aspects of the proposed merger are causing concern to leaders in some denominational mission boards.

On the structural side the questions are numerous. The IMC has been and is, as its name implies, an organization strictly devoted to the business of missions. Those who compose it are, for the most part, persons who are engaged in the missionary task. Thus IMC is of the nature of a “trades association” in which those who are charged with a specialized responsibility meet for consultation and counsel concerning matters to which they hold a direct administrative relationship. The WCC, on the other hand, is quite different in structure. It is, as the name suggests, a council of churches. Representatives from various ecclesiastical bodies to the WCC are not persons who necessarily have any relationship to their own denominational program of missions. For example, of the 12 representatives of the Presbyterian Church in the U. S. in the WCC, not one has any administrative connection with its Foreign Mission Board or with its program of work overseas. The framers of the plan of integration have undoubtedly seen this difficulty and have sought to meet it by proposing that there be set up within the WCC a Commission on World Missions and Evangelism, approximately two-thirds of whose membership will be drawn from councils now affiliated with the IMC. However, this Commission would have no final authority within the Council, but would submit its report and make recommendation to the Assembly and the Central Committee.

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Some denominational spokesmen also fear that all this machinery of organization, with the interposition of additional steps before any action can be regarded as authorized, will have the effect of retarding the functions and processes that the organization is designed to serve. The unwieldiness of ever larger structures involves enormous overhead costs, time waste and delay, and inefficiency that one critic declares “would bankrupt any organization except one supported by charity.”

Fear Growth Of Power

Others warn that democratic liberties characteristic of Protestantism will be in serious danger under this system of concentrated power. While the new organization is projected as “consultative, not controlling,” designed to serve the purposes of reference and counsel, and without compromising the independence and autonomy of constituent bodies (the draft plan of merger asserts that “the Commission has no mandatory authority over any of the affiliated or associated councils in its membership”), they regard this as unconvincing. Mandatory power there may not be; but the power of pressure, persuasion, preponderance, publicity and propaganda is tremendous. A kind of regimentation can be brought about which is absolute in authority. Experience clearly shows, they argue, that organizations of this sort, begun for the purpose of mutual consultation and sharing, soon develop administrative powers.

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By way of example, such observers note that since the Foreign Missions Conference was superseded by the organization of the National Council in 1950 with its Division of Foreign Missions, there has been a gradual change with respect to function. The elements of reference, counsel and consultation are still there, but there is a definite development in the direction of making the Division of Foreign Missions and its Executive Board increasingly administrative and directive. Various units of the Division, such as the Africa Committee, the Far Eastern Committee and the Latin-America Committee, are setting up programs and projects administered centrally from New York, the boards participating by contributing their share to the special budgets required for these enterprises and by their representation on the controlling committees. There develops, through this process, a sort of collective administration of rapidly increasing programs of work in these several areas. Would it not be too much to expect, observers ask, that the same thing would not happen if the merger takes place between the IMC and the WCC?

Whatever the structural problems, the theological aspect is viewed by some denominational spokesmen as the real heart of the difficulty. Theologically speaking, the WCC is a disappointment to many who stand for a vigorous Christian testimony in the world. They feel that the Council, purporting to represent the major stream of Christian life, thought and action in the world, ought to have a more forthright testimony in faith and doctrine. What kind of mission will be fostered and promoted by a unity that seems to be interested primarily in organizational oneness, they ask, rather than in a united proclamation of a forthright full-rounded gospel that will be honoring to Christ?

Evangelical Concern

The evangelical missionary enterprise has been thrown into new tensions over ecumenical issues through the IMC-WCC merger maneuver. Evangelical missionaries enlisted in the IMC on the basis of its non-creedal framework are now threatening to detach themselves from local missionary councils on foreign fields unless those councils detach themselves from IMC in view of the proposed merger with WCC. The ecumenical drive for merger, it is protested, while ostensibly in the name of the unity of the Church, is actually disruptive, since it is now threatening and curtailing the range of missionary cooperation, in and through the identification of the broad missionary interest with an objectionably abbreviated theological base as represented by the WCC.

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Congo Protestant Council, one of the oldest members of IMC and also one of the most vigorous councils in Africa, has threatened to withdraw from IMC because of the provocative theological issue if the merger with WCC is consummated. The Norwegian Missionary Society has also given indications of withdrawal on the ground that its workers would not be at home within the new alignment.

Meanwhile, tensions between evangelical forces and the IMC are rising. Some missionary leaders resent increasing IMC pressures in behalf of the WCC aimed to secure evangelical continuance within the merger framework. IMC spokesmen have propagandized to preserve the status quo on foreign fields while home constituencies are pressuring missionary boards for theological reasons to pull their missionaries out of foreign councils that persist in affiliation with IMC. In French Indo-China, evangelical leaders complain, IMC advocates have sought to influence local churches contrary to the principles of their governing mission boards in America. EFMA has already set aside a day during its Winona Lake conference, October 1–4, when its executive committee will discuss problems related to the drive for merger.

Ecumenical spokesmen discount evangelical fears that the proposed merger will neutralize the missionary effort through a blurring of theological distinctives. But evangelical mission leaders point to the Church of South India, arguing that it was shaped according to the lowest common denominator theologically on the ecumenical pattern and then defected from a Bible-centered ministry.

Peace Of The Churches

In recent decades evangelical leaders have been exasperated frequently because they have been dismissed as uncooperative or divisive simply because they have not enlisted in ecumenical organizations and ventures. Many of them point to the implications of the IMC-WCC merger as an evidence that ecumenical forces are more interested in massively organized Protestantism than in harmony of the Protestant witness. What genuine devotion to the unity of Christian missions, they ask, dictates an unyielding drive for massive mergers that are provocative of tensions in evangelical missionary effort and disruptive of the harmony of established church enterprises?

Evangelical spokesmen point especially to the Congo, where the crisis posed by the merger possibility affects 54 mission boards. Of these, 46 are in the Congo Protestant Council, which is older than IMC, of which it is now an affiliate. Some of the largest of these boards are also in EFMA and IFMA, but all have cooperated and contributed to the Council within the IMC as a non-theological agency. The vast majority of these boards want no affiliation with the WCC for theological reasons, and their leaders have given advance warning that an IMC-WCC merger will split the Congo Protestant Council.

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The disruptive consequences of the IMC-WCC drive for merger, some evangelical leaders argue, gives a hollow center to ecumenical attempts to impute to evangelical Christianity blame for the disunity of Protestant witness.

As pressures increase for the ecumenical movement’s absorption of the missionary enterprise, reaction will also increase on the part of those lacking enthusiasm for the ecumenical effort in its present theological outlines. The present Protestant missionary situation is therefore not bright with the promise of harmony.

Is Merger Assured?

Some Protestant leaders doubt, however, that the IMC-WCC merger is certain of achievement in 1960, though they regard it as inevitable. Dr. Norman Goodall, secretary of the Joint Committee of the WCC and IMC, concedes some reservations have been voiced both within IMC and WCC to the present formulation. Moreover, the IMC constitution makes possible the defeat of the merger plan, once it is commended to the member councils in December at the Ghana assembly, by the opposition vote of but six of those councils during the subsequent two-year interval.

Already there are indications that the Congo and the Norwegian councils will oppose. Moreover, opposition to the merger has also been voiced by the Orthodox Church (both Greek and Russian), for reasons quite different from evangelical opposition. The complaint of the Orthodox Church is that the merger would imply WCC approval of the Protestant Reformation missionary witness to which the Orthodox Church is opposed in its own geographical sphere as objectionable proselyting. (Some ecumenical leaders think the Orthodox opposition will help to crystallize evangelical enthusiasm, while some evangelical leaders reply that the inclusion of the Orthodox Church within the ecumenical framework only serves to dramatize its objectionable theological base.)

Although Dr. Goodall concedes that the IMC assembly “could turn down” the merger plan as too divisive, he thinks the general proposal is more likely to receive a majority vote at Ghana, and that its fate will be commended to the constituent councils. In the event of their approval, the merger will be consummated at the 1960 WCC assembly.


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