Five years of covering major ecumenical occasions for this journal have seen the steady growth of what used to be a mere sneaking suspicion. It is now my firm conviction that in its Geneva fastness the World Council of Churches keeps a specialist word-spinner. His job (and he’s no slouch at it) is to put a gloss on all outgoing materials intended for general consumption. He makes certain that ecumenical utterances are hazy, ambiguous, and vaguely euphoric. Widely acclaimed for his dexterity in playing striking new variations on tired old themes, the word-spinner can take this a stage further and say things differently without being suspected of saying different things.
This brings me to the Heraklion meeting of the Central Committee, where evangelism was billed as the chief topic—and discussed surprisingly little, apart from a keynote address by the Rev. Philip Potter. He recognized three major questions: Is evangelism at the heart of the WCC’s life and work? What does the WCC mean by evangelism? How can the WCC better show its concern for evangelism? Good questions, deserving better answers than they got.
To the first, after surveying past WCC thinking on the subject, Potter replied in effect that it all depends on what you mean by evangelism. He went on to quote ecumenical statements of yesteryear, beginning with the pre-WCC World Missionary Conference declaration at Tambaram in 1938: “By evangelism we understand that the Church Universal, in all its branches and through the service of all its members, must so present Christ Jesus to the world in the power of the Holy Spirit that men shall come to put their trust in God through Him, accept Him as their Saviour and serve Him as their Lord in the fellowship of His Church.”
It was splendid to hear this at Heraklion 1967, but underlying the quotation was the assumption that this statement, unchanged and undiluted, would be acceptable to a representative WCC gathering today. This is at least dubious. For one thing, the Orthodox joined up in 1962, and their disproportionate influence is felt not least in a marked dislike of evangelism and, even more, of evangelicals. At the present time a sharp probe into Orthodox ecumenical involvement would create a shattering crisis in the WCC—a body that, ignoring this summer’s warning signs in Greece, is even now planning to increase Orthodox representation on its permanent staff.
In his address Mr. Potter had a section entitled “The Authority for and Urgency of Evangelism,” but every single word that followed was quotation, like this from the Amsterdam assembly: “If the Gospel really is a matter of life and death, it seems intolerable that any human being now in the world should live out his life without ever having the chance to hear and receive it.… Now, not tomorrow, is the time to act.” Good evangelical language, but simply not the speech of ecumenical gatherings today.
Subsequently Potter relapsed into that exasperatingly imprecise form of speaking that I call the Geneva gloss. When the Commission on World Mission and Evangelism met at Mexico City in 1963, he points out, “there was a moment of serious crisis … when it was claimed that there is evidence of changed lives in communities other than those of the recognized church. This is a challenge to the long held conviction that outside the Church there is no salvation.” The phrase I have italicized is familiar to traditional Roman Catholicism, but even the New English Bible puts clearly the doctrine of Acts 4:12: “There is no salvation in anyone else at all, for there is no other name under heaven granted to men, by which we may receive salvation.”
This paragraph ends with Potter’s conclusion: “The issue is perhaps best posed by the need for our churches to be radically renewed and flexible to meet man within his natural communities.” This prime example of the Geneva gloss sounds good, says nothing, offends no one, and could be part of an interfaith speech for any occasion.
Perhaps most revealing of all (how did this get past the backroom boy?) is Potter’s admission that in the almost twenty years of the WCC’s life “it cannot be said that cooperation in evangelism has been a high priority as an expression of the unity we have so far attained and as a means towards fuller unity.” Forgive my further italics; maybe I’ve misunderstood, but all this seems two or three stages removed from the real point: doing something because Christ commands it. We’ve got on to peripheral issues whose rallying cry seems to be, Do something together to show we’re united and to get us further united. But why? The evangelical who is doing his Master’s work might understandably decline an invitation to turn aside for ecumenical chit-chat with those whose view of the Gospel is basically different.
What was missing from Potter’s keynote address, and from the Heraklion meeting generally? I can put it in six words used by my good friend Leon Morris in describing an Australian evangelical conference: “The Cross received a continuing emphasis.” (No apologies for the italics). This is where the true ecumenical movement differs from the structure we know. This is where the Bible-based Christian differs from those ecumenists for whom heresy is one of the quainter notions inherited from a less sophisticated age.
In 1919 two Christian student groups at Cambridge University were considering a merger. Finally it all came down to one vital question: “Do you consider the atoning blood of Jesus Christ as the central point of your message?” The answer given by the second group was, “No, not as central, although it is given a place in our teaching.” Commented Norman Grubb, one of those present, “That answer settled the matter, for we explained to them at once that the atoning blood was so much the heart of our message that we could never join with a movement which gave it any lesser place.”
Is it really ingenuous to suggest that in ecumenical discussion the same answer might settle the matter for evangelicals today?
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.
Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.
Subscribe to Christianity Today and get access to this article plus 65+ years of archives.
- Home delivery of CT magazine
- Complete access to articles on ChristianityToday.com
- Over 120 years of magazine archives plus full access to all of CT’s online archives
- Learn more
More from this Issue
Read These Next
- TrendingA Tale of Two New York City PastorsOne formed me. The other entertained me.
- From the MagazineHow One Family’s Faith Survived Three Generations in the PulpitWith a front-row seat to their parents’ failures and burnout, a long line of pastor’s kids still went into ministry. Why?
- Editor's PickTheological Education Can’t Catch Up to Global Church GrowthUnless seminaries leave the ivory tower for local leaders in the public square. Like these ones have.