Jesus Christ liberates and unites.” This theme will be brought to Nairobi, Kenya, when the World Council of Churches gathers there in November for its fifth General Assembly. The theme will be studied in six sections: (1) Confessing Christ Today, (2) Unity of the Church, (3) Search for Community (i.e., among persons of different religions, cultures, and so on), (4) Education for Liberation and Community, (5) Structures of Injustice and the Fight for Liberation, (6) Human Development (problems of technology and the quality of life).
This will be the first General Assembly with no section on mission and evangelization. There will be, however, a new section on dialogue with other religions—instead?
One might think that proclaiming the Gospel would now come under Section I, “Confessing Christ Today.” The collection of preparatory materials for this section describes the burning problems and different situations of confessing Christ today, but the situation of straight witness is not among them.
This packet of materials may show the main theological motives now steering the WCC. The basic principle is the idea that God is to be found at work in the world, in the “context” of the Church today. He is to be found, for example in other religions and in the political movements of our time, inasmuch as they aim at the “humanization” of man. The task of the Church is to discover and support Him in these “signs of the time.” The Church can recognize the voice of God in what men most long for.
This idea, popular in the WCC during the last decade, is supplemented by the more recent concept of “experience.” In dialogue with other religions, “experience” will be more useful than rigid doctrinal statements.
To these basic principles the two assembly theme words correspond: liberation, almost everywhere used in the political sense, and unity, of late used with the much wider meaning of the “vision” of unity of mankind.
The preparatory material shows, though, some elements of refreshing variation from typical ecumenical themes. An example is a remarkable report on a conference of orthodox theologians in Bucharest in 1974. These elements could serve as opportunities for some necessary corrections of ecumenical steering. So could the articles of the Lausanne Covenant, which has been accepted by the WCC to be used as conference study material at Nairobi.
Senior church leaders in Germany today harbor grave doubts whether after Nairobi it will be possible to keep ecumenical unity on a truly biblical basis. That these fears are not unfounded is shown by a 500-page documentary volume edited by W. Künneth and P. Beyerhaus. This new book ought to be translated into English immediately.
Nairobi may, of course, like Uppsala, provide by itself a critique of the WCC course. Nairobi will be different from Bangkok. It will be a plenary assembly of the WCC legislative body, which controls and directs the executive. Members of the assembly are not participants, as in Bangkok, but delegates and representatives of their churches. Their individual experiences at Nairobi will be secondary to their commission to represent the creed and confession of their denominations. They are not there as private persons, and the WCC is not a church.
Lending a hand to correct the WCC course will require clearsightedness and readiness to fight for the truth. To my mind these three major changes, among others, are needed:
1. The time has come to put the edge of sharp theological analysis to the religious poetry produced at Geneva and related places. What kind of liberation? What sort of unit? Precisely what experience?
Experience is a good word. Pietists will feel especially at home with it, as pietism began with the demand to combine doctrinal orthodoxy with personal experience and piety. Experience was to follow doctrine and was identified by it. Not every kind of religious experience would be acceptable—otherwise we would have to admit not only the experience of other religions but also the experience of the demonic as valid.
It is nonsense if those who drew up the preparatory materials for Section I think that some Christians hold to doctrine without experience and others hang to experience without doctrine. Doctrine must authorize experience, and experience must realize and give evidence to doctrine. Otherwise the road is open to all sorts of religious subjectivism. The Section I materials themselves show this well enough when they propose that the messenger is more important than the message. Think of what kind of unity this will produce!
Whoever refuses to allow his religious experience to be analyzed for the purpose of seeing whether it accords with Scripture comes under suspicion that he is out to push an unbiblical concept of his own.
2. The authority of Scripture must come to prevail again. Although mentioned in the WCC creed, it has had little prominence in recent years. Every concept has to be proved by the Bible. Liberation, for example, is a good term with biblical content if we understand it to mean release of the suppressed as shown in Isaiah 58, but not if it means violent self-emancipation as a Christian commission. Unity, too, is a proper Christian concept meaning the unity of those who have become disciples of Christ (as seen in John 17); but it is unbiblical if it means the “unity” of mankind without conversion and discipleship to Christ.
New concepts, new ways of expression, are always welcome, as long as they are authorized by the Bible. Under the authority of Scripture we will be delivered from that perilous slogan which sends us to seek God in any religious experience or political movement.
3. We need to come back to our primary theme: God. We have had enough of horizontal theology that interprets every biblical concept in a this-worldly way. For example, according to the Section I material, the death of the guerrillero is similar in character to the sacrifice of Christ’s flesh and blood and has to be remembered at the Eucharist. No! Make theology go back to its true and proper content: God, and God in Christ. Theology’s task is to inculcate the Great Commandment: to love God, and to love your neighbor. All attempts to reduce it to its second half alone must cease. Let us do away with the secret or openly admitted assumption that the theme of God must rest for a while in a time of social crises like ours.
The WCC’s reintroduction of religious experience signifies no improvement. Experience not clearly distinquished might be only this-worldly religiosity, the Kingdom of Man extended into religion. Nothing less than the reality and authority of God himself according to the Bible must become again the number-one theme of the World Council of Churches.
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.
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