In the quaint old university town of Uppsala, Sweden, students have already cleared out for the summer holidays. Ordinarily, the townspeople would also be busying themselves with vacation plans by this time. Swedish law provides everyone with a guaranteed four-week vacation, so most industries shut down completely. But this will not be a normal summer in Uppsala. Beginning July 4, the town will play host to the biggest and most important ecumenical clambake yet, the seventeen-day Fourth Assembly of the World Council of Churches.
Uppsala residents may not be aware that the assembly could turn their town into an ecclesiastical storm center. Radical forces in the WCC, bent on making churches a major instrument of socio-economic change, will seek delegate approval of militant strategies. A draft of a document due to be adopted by the assembly calls for “revolutionary action” to correct social ills, acknowledging that such action “may, if not kept under control, lead to even greater suffering.”
As many as three thousand persons, including 800 official delegates, may pour into Uppsala to witness the assembly. The town, about forty miles north of Stockholm, has a population of about 80,000. Since the year 1164 it has served as the seat of the Swedish Lutheran archbishop. Parts of the Gothic cathedral in Uppsala date back to the thirteenth century.
But the assembly theme, appropriated from Revelation 21:5, is “All Things New,” and delegates will be expected to use twenty-hour days occasioned by the northern latitude (about the same as that of Juneau, Alaska) to help engineer the demise of old orders. The WCC Central Committee’s report to the assembly contends that “the Council has moved out of the stage of discussing social ethics in general and has stimulated the churches to take specific action to establish social justice.”
A big question is whether delegates will put more muscle in the draft on “revolutionary action” (see adjoining text) or will soften it. Militant churchmen can be expected to attempt to win endorsement for force and violence.
Pope Paul VI has been rumored to be a possible speaker at the assembly. The late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was to have given a major address. Evangelist Billy Graham has accepted an invitation to attend, but his role on the program has not yet been announced.
Some WCC leaders will be inclined to temper pronouncements, in the light of the World Council’s deteriorating public image and its financial standing. The WCC’s basic annual budget is now up to about $1,000,000, and the Uppsala meeting may cost nearly half that much. The council has not been able to put as much money aside for Uppsala as it desired. Official reports indicate that operations this year will create a sizable deficit for the first time in the WCC’s twenty-year history. “Inflationary tendencies and the rising costs throughout the Western World” are blamed.
Another problem facing the World Council is the growing theological confusion since its New Delhi assembly in 1961. The WCC Central Committee now openly admits that “the emerging ecumenical consensus on a number of important points of faith and order or of life and work is less stable than had been supposed.”
Toward A Sadder Tomorrow?
From a draft of a proposal to be presented to the Fourth Assembly of the World Council of Churches:
In their faith in the coming Kingdom of God, Christians agree that no given state or society is sacrosanct, and that it is their duty to contribute actively to the continual renewal of social institutions and structures, where these have fallen short of allowing individuals, groups, or communities to develop and live in human dignity.
While we do not differ about the ultimate goal of these endeavours, we find it hard to agree on a common road to achieve them:
There are those who argue that the injustice done to certain people under the present state of affairs is such that the entire establishment order should be overthrown. To wait for an evolutionary change of conditions would be to cover up and condone corruption and violation of human rights.
On the other side, there are those who argue that there are certain problems of social reconstruction for which, by the nature of things, there is no quick solution. Bloodshed and other violence could not produce them, since the fabric of human society today is too complex and interdependent. No one would gain from its destruction.
Although we cannot reconcile these extreme positions, we recognize that there are situations in which development is prevented by the existing power structure, and in which revolutionary action to achieve a radical change of social structures or of the political regime seems the only way to arrive at a social order based on greater justice. Such revolutionary action should not be idealized, for it may be costly in terms of many human values and may, if not kept under control, lead to even greater suffering. But the possibility should not be excluded that, in this dilemma, it may be an expression of Christian responsibility to take revolutionary action rather than to acquiesce in the indefinite continuation of an oppressive status quo.
Still another persistent issue is the WCC’s problem of identity and nature. It is still trying to figure out what it is. The Central Committee notes that “it became clear” at a faith-and-order conference in Montreal in 1963 that “it was not yet possible to arrive as a common ecclesiological definition of the nature of the World Council.” The same year in Rochester, New York, the Central Committee discussed, “What can we say together about the meaning of membership in the WCC?” A paper on the subject by the WCC general secretary was sent to member churches for study and comment. “Unfortunately,” the Central Committee notes, “so few churches responded that it was not possible to prepare a further report.”
Undeterred by the muddle, WCC leaders seek to expand the influence of the ecumenical movement and to make it more inclusive of Christendom. Their priority target (aside from the world’s half billion Roman Catholics) is “the conservative evangelicals.” Organizationally, these prospects are manifest mainly in the Southern Baptist Convention, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, and the National Association of Evangelicals. The Central Committee report says about the NAE churches that “there are many in their leadership and membership who are well-disposed towards the World Council and who participate in its consultations and conferences, but others are ambivalent or take a more negative view.” Two consultations between the WCC and “the conservative evangelicals” have already been held (in 1961 and 1965), and another is to take place in Bossey, Switzerland, after the Uppsala assembly.
On the one hand, Chairman Franklin Clark Fry of the Central Committee argues that “nobody even faintly intends that the Council should ever get away from the churches, either to be above them or distant from them.” From another perspective, however, the World Council propels the concept of a more centrally authoritative, inclusive Christian ecumenism.
Among proposals to be offered at Uppsala is one expressing “hope for a Universal Council.” “How will the churches of the whole world speak and act together?” a draft asks. “Will it happen again as in the first centuries that they will occasionally come together in a Universal Council?” The ecumenical movement, it adds, “works towards the time when such a Council may become a reality.”
Observers from three East Europe satellite nations were among observers at last month’s General Council of the World Evangelical Fellowship in Lausanne, Switzerland. Most of the week was spent on housekeeping matters for the WEF, which stresses a minimum of central organization.
The Rev. I. Ben Wati, a Baptist from India, won a five-year term as council president, the first person from outside the United States and Britain to hold the post. In contrast to previous meetings, only three of the sixty-five persons attending the council were U. S. delegates: President Arnold T. Olson, General Director Clyde W. Taylor, and Dr. Hudson Armerding, all representing the National Association of Evangelicals.
Canadian Baptist Dennis E. Clark was re-elected international secretary, but WEF headquarters will be shifted from Canada to Lausanne.
The meetings were closed to the press. One delegate said little mention was made of the World Council of Churches. The sixteen-year-old WEF, a conservative counterpart of the WCC, has several affiliates that have ties with both groups, including alliances in Germany, France, Denmark, and Switzerland that were voted into the WEF at the recent meeting. The WEF constituency includes several million evangelicals in eighteen countries, and five new national associations are close to joining.
After much discussion of evangelism, the WEF decided to support the Rev. Samuel Kamalesan, a Methodist in Madras, India, in part-time evangelism. It also appointed part-time coordinators of youth work and theological study.
CLIMAX IN CONFUSION?
Student groups in Scandinavia urge churches that “wish to take biblical revelation seriously” to withdraw from the World Council of Churches. They cite a need for a viable alternative to the present ecumenical movement.
The call came out of a four-day meeting at Enebakk, Norway, this spring. On hand were representatives of Danish, Finnish, Norwegian, and Swedish evangelical student organizations. They adopted a declaration saying, “The preparatory documents for the Uppsala assembly this summer clearly show that the criticisms of the World Council of Churches over a period of many years have not been unfounded, and that the ecumenism within the World Council of Churches now has been carried to a preliminary climax of confusing ideas and opinion about the faith of the church and its tasks.”
In contrast to most other evangelical student unions around the world that are members of the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students, such as Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship in the United States, the Scandinavian movements have a strongly confessional Lutheran orientation. Since the four Scandinavian state churches belong to the World Council and have played an important role in WCC development, and since the Scandinavian student fellowships want to maintain loyalty to their national Lutheran heritage, the official relation of the state churches to the World Council is more of a problem in Scandinavia than elsewhere, with the possible exception of French-speaking Switzerland, where conformist pressure is also strong.
At the Enebakk meeting, attention was frequently drawn to the inhibiting effect that the WCC and the Lutheran World Federation have had upon the evangelizing and catechizing work of Norwegian Lutheran missionaries.
Participants unanimously concluded that biblical principles have virtually disappeared as a motivating force behind WCC actions. They felt that an alternative movement should be initiated, not with syncretistic, bureaucratic, super-church tendencies, but as an actively functioning theological forum in which evangelical believers could express and implement their unity in Christ and their fidelity to the whole of the biblical revelation without prejudicing the diversity of theological and confessional opinion that exists among them. It was agreed that organizations such as IFES and perhaps the World Evangelical Fellowship are a step in the right direction, but that they leave unmet the need for a real discussion of disputed doctrinal issues, such as those that divide the Lutheran churches from the Reformed.
HAROLD O. J. BROWN
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
- TrendingRussell Moore: I Already Miss Tim Keller’s Wise VoiceThe late pastor theologian gave strong counsel to me and so many others in ministry.
- From the MagazineWhen Politics Saved 25 Million LivesTwenty years ago, Republicans, Democrats, evangelicals, gay activists, and African leaders joined forces to combat AIDS. Will their legacy survive today’s partisanship?
- Editor's PickBecome a Shadow of Your Future SelfManifesting isn’t the answer. Consenting to holiness is.