Mission must come before unity, according to a decision made last month by the National Council of Churches’ General Board.

No attempt was made to define the mission. But whatever it might be, churches want its primacy assured in the organization planned to supplant the NCC. That’s the way the board’s special task force on ecumenical options saw things, and the board, after something of a skirmish, went along—at least for now.

The fifteen-member task force, reporting to a two-day meeting of the board in Phoenix, said it “observes a profound change in the role of the basic motivating objectives of mission and unity in the ecumenical movement. Historically, as in the preamble of the NCC constitution, we have been committed to keeping unity and mission in tension, each as primary motivating objectives. The data convinces us that the churches have established the fact that mission has an indisputably basic claim upon our common life and that at the very least mission is first among equals and therefore must be given the primary position.”

The report also argued that one main reason for envisaging a new ecumenical structure was “the difficulty experienced by the churches and agencies in seeking to achieve their mission aims within the (present) council.”

One of the report’s basic assumptions was challenged from the floor at this point by Dr. Eugene L. Smith, North American secretary for the World Council of Churches. Smith said:

“I do not think it is either scripturally accurate or spiritually true that unity and mission exist in tension. I think this is a serious distortion of the nature of Christian unity, and a serious distortion of the nature of the Christian mission.”

Smith conceded, however, that unity is not an end in itself ...

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