Theological confusion on the theme itself, “Salvation Today,” marked the international conference sponsored by the Commission on World Mission and Evangelism (CWME) of the World Council of Churches. The two-week session ended in Bangkok, Thailand, last month amid a plethora of pronouncements but, in the words of an evangelical participant, “with no clear or definitive statements on the meaning of salvation today, yesterday, or tomorrow.” Widely diverse opinions offered on the floor and in smaller work groups ranged from left-wing Marxism to conservative evangelicalism.
The conference brought together more than 200 representatives of churches in nearly seventy countries to “celebrate salvation as a gift of God through the Holy Spirit and … consider what are the implications of salvation today for the life of the churches and the ecumenical movement.” About 40 per cent were from third-world nations. An estimated 10 per cent were staffers of the WCC, the National Council of Churches, and the East Asia Christian Conference (EACC). It was the seventh such meeting held by the CWME since 1910; the last was in Mexico City in 1963.
Layman M. M. Thomas of the Mar Thoma Church of India, chairman of the WCC’s Central Committee, showed in his opening speech which way the WCC leadership was headed in its interpretation of the theme. Said he:
The primary concern of the Christian mission is … with the salvation of human spirituality, with man’s right choices in the realm of self-transcendence, and with structures of ultimate meaning and sacredness—not in any pietistic or individualistic isolation, but in relation to and expressed within the material, social, and cultural revolutions of our time.
In short, the mission of the church “is to be present within the creative liberation movements of our time,” he declared.
WCC general secretary Philip Potter endorsed Thomas’s views, expanding the liberation angle and lashing out at the social sins of the West, particularly America’s role in the Viet Nam conflict. (Potter was formerly head of the CWME. As such, he was the chief architect of the Bangkok consultation.)
Concluding that “salvation in Christ … is concerned with the liberation of persons and societies from all that prevents them from living an authentic existence in justice and a shared community,” Potter declared that “the church itself needs to be saved, liberated from all that is false to the revolutionary, convicting, and renewing nature of the Gospel.” Even the church is a mission field, he said, because of its “racial, economic, and cultural captivity.”
Dialogue as the major contemporary method of expressing the church’s mission found frequent mention in the program from Potter’s opening remarks on. One group visited a Buddhist temple to have dialogue with the monks there. But when the general secretary of the Church of Thailand gave a stirring report of how revival had broken out in the Buddhist land, resulting in a doubled conversion rate in the past year, a German delegate reacted negatively. “Very bad,” he scowled. The revivalistic theology of the Thai church and the enumeration of “so many souls saved” slaps the whole dialogue program in the face, he said.
The presence of invited evangelicals early projected controversy into the plenary “open hearing.” Missions and ecumenics professor Peter Beyerhaus at Germany’s Tübingen University requested the floor in order to protest the polarization of ecumenism and evangelicalism since the 1963 sessions in Mexico City. Declaring that an “infection of faith” was spreading throughout the world, he charged that the WCC and the CWME had not responded to the Wheaton and Berlin congresses and the 1970 Frankfurt Declaration (an evangelical missions statement) with any positive affirmation of the nature of contemporary evangelism and missions. He suggested that the conference consider the declaration.
CHAPEL ON THE HILL
Until last summer, the congressional prayer room—a tiny hideaway off the Capitol rotunda whose existence is unknown to most tourists—had been restricted to “prayer only” for nearly two decades. But reporters Vera Glaser and Malvina Stephenson did some digging and discovered that House speaker Carl Albert okayed its use as a chapel for divorced congressmen who wanted to remarry quietly. Since then, House chaplain Edward G. Latch had presided there over the remarriages of three members: Presbyterians Al Ullman (D-Ore.) and Charles Gubser (R-Calif.), and United Church of Christ Communicant William D. Ford (D-Mich.). They married aides.
All in all, the Ninety-second Congress had its share of marital strife. A number of senators and congressmen were separated or divorced from their spouses last term. Five congressmen from Michigan alone, with seventeen children among them, were divorced.
Latch expects no run on the prayer room for remarriage purposes by members of the new congress, but he wouldn’t mind having troubled members and mates flock to it in fulfilling its intended use. Something about the family that prays together.…
Response was varied, almost all negative, ranging from assertions that the problem was one of biblical hermeneutics and semantics to an African’s statement that he was disgusted with such attempts to foist controversies of the West on the third world. Batak churchman Sorita Nababan from Indonesia complained that the Frankfurt Declaration (Beyerhaus was a chief architect) had become a center of controversy in some areas of his church. Potter insisted that the WCC had responded to the declaration by running articles on it in a mission journal. Meanwhile, Beyerhaus argued in vain that consideration of a biblically based statement is not imposition of a Western controversy.
A Dutch delegate in the plenary meeting proposed immediate chartering of a plane to take at least 100 delegates to North Viet Nam to identify with the suffering and death caused by U.S. bombs there. The conference settled instead for a statement, overwhelmingly passed, calling on the WCC to send a team of leaders to North Viet Nam as a gesture of solidarity, and asking churches everywhere to pray “for the conversion of the power-deluded politicals” responsible for the Indochina turmoil. The rhetoric throughout the resolution was decidedly anti-American.
There were other politically oriented statements, an expression of “concern regarding relationships between conservative evangelical groups and churches traditionally related to conciliar groupings,” and—almost laughably—an offer to help with the evangelical Congress on World Evangelization to be held in Lausanne, Switzerland, in July, 1974.
A work section led by Uruguayan Methodist Emilio Castro, who succeeded Potter as head of the CWME, rationalized:
Our concentration upon the social, economic, and political implications of the Gospel does not in any way deny the personal and eternal dimensions of salvation. Rather, we would emphasize that the personal, social, individual, and corporate aspects of salvation are so inter-related that they are inseparable.
What was left unsaid was perhaps more significant than what was said. There was no call for justice and liberation of the subjugated people in Iron Curtain countries, no adequate recognition of the evangelical revolution (the international spread of the Jesus movement, revival in many lands, Key 73, Explo ’72, the congresses on evangelism, the surging Pentecostal phenomenon), and no emphasis on reaching the world’s two billion people without Christ.
With the exception of a few lone voices raised in small sections and Bible studies, the concept of salvation as the redemption of the individual from sin unto eternal life through faith in a crucified, risen redeemer was not sounded. During the open hearing, a bearded Copt in robes spoke up quietly: “I am fearful that the church will forget salvation by the blood of Christ … and I am concerned about reaching non-Christians around the world.” His was the plaintive voice of one crying in a seeming wilderness of organized Christendom.
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