“A caricature of the ecumenical movement founded in 1948”—that is how February’s Reader’s Digest characterized the World Council of Churches. The A council has “drifted,” it said, “from its original goal of Christian unity into the choppy waters of secular ecumenism.’ ” Remarkably, and somewhat sensationally, the Digest now blames the drift on a secret KGB plot.
It was not the first time the “world’s most widely read magazine” took aim at the WCC. Indeed, many North Americans owe their most vivid impressions of the council to a major Digest article in 1982. “Which master is the World Council of Churches serving,” the article asked, “… Karl Marx or Jesus Christ?”
An organization that claims only to be a “fellowship” of churches finds itself again at the center of controversy. A group formed to confess “the Lord Jesus Christ as God and Saviour according to the Scriptures” makes many Christians chafe. Is the controversy simply a result of “bad press”?
When CT went looking for contributors to take readers beyond the Reader’s Digest, we were repeatedly pointed to the names in this CT Institute Special Report. We asked Tübingen scholar Peter Beyerhaus to survey turning points in the WCC. Senior editor J. I. Packer tells why he once was “in” but now stands apart. James Stamoolis of Wheaton College’s Graduate School explores ecumenical lessons from the Eastern Orthodox, while African church leader Tokunboh Adeyemo wonders what has happened to evangelism in the WCC. We also asked tough questions of evangelical Wes Granberg-Michaelson, a WCC staff member. Finally, senior editor Tom Oden considers new forms for evangelical ecumenism.
The World Council of Churches traces its official beginnings to 1948, although ecumenical and cooperative missionary efforts stretch back well into the century before. That year delegates from 147 denominations, mostly from Europe and North America, met in Amsterdam to ratify the WCC’s founding constitution. To many Christians, the event came as a divine fulfillment of their sincerest spiritual aspirations and ardent prayers.
In the earliest days, the council drew its spiritual orientation from the so-called biblical-theology movement. This movement accented the Bible’s “salvation history,” its Christological center, and the oneness of the Testaments. The primacy given to Scripture made ecumenical Bible studies exciting and spurred new evangelistic enterprises.
Even so, some conservatives at Amsterdam had concerns. The council abstained from making any doctrinal document or historical creed binding for member churches or even its own teaching. The WCC wanted to invite into its fellowship all “churches who acknowledge our Lord Jesus Christ as God and Saviour,” as the constitution put it, leaving to individual denominations the interpretation of this formula.
The council emphasized three goals: world mission, organic church unity, and social service. To these ends, the WCC provided an informal platform for churches through commissions, consultations, study programs, conferences, literature, and a general secretariat in Geneva.
Everything could have turned out well if the WCC had safeguarded these goals with a healthy balance of involvements and solidly biblical interpretation of its own faith statement. In the early days, committees and commissions did indeed produce a number of impressive statements and reports that were gratefully accepted by member churches. But changes were in the offing.
To grasp the significance of what happened next, one must understand that the WCC’s life rhythm is marked by its general assemblies, usually convened every seven years (the latest held in 1991 in Canberra, Australia). These draw representatives of member churches, theological advisers, observers, journalists, and “fraternal delegates” of other ecumenical bodies.
Two assemblies in particular set the course of the latter-day WCC: the third at New Delhi in 1961 and the fourth in Uppsala, Sweden, in 1968. Both were convened in a period of worldwide change, ideological upheaval, and social transformation. Both marked the end of the colonial epoch and opened the council’s eyes to the reality of the continents soon to be called the “Third World.”
Several events at New Delhi stand out. First, the WCC incorporated the International Missionary Council (founded in 1921) as its new Commission for World Mission and Evangelism. Second, the council admitted four major Orthodox churches from the Soviet hemisphere. The Orthodox churches tended to stablize conservative theological traditions in the council, but they also seemed compelled to champion the Soviet Union’s view on political matters. Finally, at New Delhi, the WCC widened its constitutional statement of faith to include references to Trinitarian faith and devotion to Scripture. From many observers’ perspective, however, this did little to slow the turn from an emphasis on the church’s unity and spiritual mission to an agenda of political liberation and unification of all humankind.
At Uppsala the WCC made this transition more explicit. The council largely reframed world mission as a struggle for humanization rather than as an offer of redemption. The effect was to polarize ecumenists and evangelicals, inducing the latter eventually to realign themselves in the Lausanne Movement for World Evangelization. The motto of the Uppsala assembly, “All things new,” was taken out of its prophetic context in Revelation 21:4, signaling a de-emphasis on Christ’s second coming—once the major incentive of the world missionary movement.
Theologies of revolution?
Regular conferences—on World Mission and Evangelism, on Faith and Order, and on Church and Society—have been no less significant than WCC assemblies. The conference on Church and Society in Geneva in 1966 sought a “theology of revolution,” for example. The Bangkok conference in 1973 asked for a moratorium in Western missions, and the Lima conference in 1978 finalized a consensus statement about views on baptism, Eucharist, and ministry (known as BEM).
In addition, “pilot consultations” have explored new fields without at first carrying the weight of the headquarters’ official endorsement. Such consultations have paved the way for two highly controversial innovations in 1970: the Program on Dialogue with Other Faiths and Ideologies, and the Program on Combating Racism.
From the sixties to the eighties, the WCC’s most urgent world concerns were social justice and international peace. The 1988 Vancouver assembly added the ecological crisis to this agenda. To mobilize churches to avert the threat to global survival, the WCC responded positively to the German proposal of working toward a coming Universal Council for world peace, which, in a second stage, would include representatives of other religions. Since the convening of such an “ecumenical council” met with objections from the Orthodox as members and Roman Catholics as observers, the new move was renamed Conciliar Process for Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation (JPIC). The last general assembly in 1991 endorsed JPIC, and the current, newly elected German general secretary Konrad Raiser has called it the WCC’s chief agenda in facing the third millennium.
At present, some of the strongest criticism of the WCC comes from within. Scandalized by syncretistic worship elements in the assembly’s program at Canberra, Eastern Orthodox delegations fired off a protest. They demanded that the WCC return to its doctrinal commitments and threatened otherwise to reconsider their membership. Since the Orthodox by now have grown to be the largest single confessional block within the WCC, it must be hoped they will thus influence the council for the good.
Why I Left
J. I. Packer
I tell this story because I was asked to do so. It is an account of how, standing firm convictionally, I saw the leading organization of the world Christian-unity movement slide away from me. My attitude to it had then to change, just because my view of God’s truth had not changed.
Once, perhaps pompously, I spoke of my relation to the World Council of Churches and local enterprises linked with it as one of qualified involvement. Now my understanding of biblical ecumenism requires me to stand outside those structures and speak of the need for repentance. I call my position, again perhaps pompously, one of prophetic detachment. My narrative is offered as a case study. It has three parts.
Doing the do-gooders good
Part one began in 1944, when I was converted to Christ in my first term at Oxford. Both the student evangelical movement to which, under God, I owed my soul and the evangelical Anglicans, with whom, as a cradle Anglican, I then formed links, nurtured me in an isolationist mindset. I was taught to view professed Christians who were not wholly with us on matters like biblical inspiration and authority or personal conversion as hardly Christian at all. Against this my judgment slowly rebelled.
While I saw myself as much closer, doctrinally and devotionally, to evangelicals of other church allegiances than to nonevangelicals in my own denomination, I could also see that many “catholic” and “liberal evangelical” Anglicans loved my Lord, even though some of their beliefs made me wince. I became an ecumenical evangelical with a bilateral stance, stretching out my right hand to fellowship with the world evangelical movement, whatever its church affiliation (or lack of it), and extending my left hand to associate with Anglicans as such. So a concern for Christian unity—perhaps I should say Christian Christian unity—was born in me fairly early on.
When I was ordained and began my ministry in a church in 1952, my theology had settled down as creedal and Reformed, with a directly biblical and pastoral thrust, and my hopes and prayers centered on the need for a new evangelical revival in the Church of England.
As for the World Council of Churches, formed in 1948, with the powerful biblical theologian W. A. Visser’t Hooft as general secretary, and the announced aim of advancing Christian unity and service to the world, I saw no reason not to wish it well. I knew about the Faith and Order and Life and Work movements (both launched in the 1920s) that were coming together in it. And while I regretted the Life and Work slogan “Doctrine divides; service unites,” I thought, no doubt naively, that being tied in with Faith and Order would do the do-gooders good, and complement their agenda.
Alarm bells ringing
Part two of the story opens in the late fifties. An Anglican bureaucrat came to Bristol, where I was teaching in a theological college, to persuade me to set aside time to contribute to the work of various church commissions that were exploring new proposals about faith, order, and church relations. I said I would, and over the next 20 years I was involved in Anglican-Presbyterian and Anglican-Methodist unity talks, in the Archbishops’ Doctrine Commission, and for more than a decade in the Faith and Order Advisory Group of the Church of England’s General Synod, a body which, among other things, prepared responses to questions and documents sent from the WCC headquarters in Geneva. This obliged me to look more intentionally at what the WCC was doing, and I was not too happy with what I saw.
In the fifties, I had believed that the theological tools being forged by the “biblical theology” movement would be put to use in the WCC for purging and synthesizing in a directly biblical mold the many denominational traditions being brought together. The informal slogan of “biblical theology” was “read the Bible from within, in terms of its writers’ own faith,” and I was all for that (and still am). In the sixties, however, it became clear to me that the WCC was working not with a reformational but with a relativist agenda, based on the idea that the church should let the secular world rather than the Bible tell it what to think and speak about. Politicization, in the sense of seeking political influence and adjusting testimony and policy as a means to a political end, had thus begun. I found that very worrying.
In the fifties, “one world—one church” was an oft-used slogan, and suspicious critics alleged that the WCC was out to create a single global super-church, including all Roman Catholics, and headed by the pope. I never considered the criticism realistic, for the WCC was in no position to bring this ecumaniac’s pipe dream to pass, and I thought the WCC’s supposed commitment to “biblical theology” was in any case safeguard enough against it. In the sixties, however, while super-church talk dried up, so did “biblical theology” (academics were by then reacting against it), and the WCC now appeared as sponsoring a consensus theology that celebrated the Bible without encountering its authority. This theology seemed bent on reducing Christian tradition to secular concepts of “humanization.” The cloven hoofs of North American liberal Protestantism and Latin American liberation theology were seen as the council began more explicitly to identify at official levels with socialist and revolutionary politics. In doing so, it acted as if it represented its member churches. It committed churches to these programs, or at the least promised to ensure that concern for peace and justice on earth would henceforth be the churches’ top priority in this fallen world. The alarm bells in my mind were now ringing loud and clear.
What was the church’s true priority? To evangelize the world, and thereby establish self-supporting, self-propagating churches everywhere. Where should “humanization” in the sense of philanthropy and social service come in? As supporting expressions of the neighbor-love of which evangelism is the primary expression. What was the WCC, which had absorbed the International Missionary Council in 1961, now saying about cross-cultural evangelism? That the church of the West should put into force a “moratorium” on it (that is, an indefinite suspension of the activity). Was the WCC assuming that universalism is true, so that all will be saved whether evangelized or not? Apparently so. Did the WCC then wish to redefine the Christian mission in a way that makes evangelism optional, or leaves it out of the picture altogether? Again, apparently so. Was not the WCC hereby disqualifying itself from the leadership it claimed in the ecumenical—that is, the world-Christian—sphere? I began to suspect so, and waited anxiously to see. So to part three of my story.
The point of no return
The cat finally came out of the bag at the Conference on World Mission held in Bangkok in 1973. I was not there, but the reports that reached me affected me like a kick in the stomach. Bangkok was deliberately structured as an experience of ideological group dynamics, orchestrated with the set purpose of browbeating participants into accepting a new account of the Christian world mission. This view equated present salvation with socio-politico-economic well-being. The sinner’s reconciliation to God, sanctification by grace, and hope of eternal glory were no longer viewed as central; indeed, for all practical purposes they were pushed right out of the picture. Syncretistic humanization became the name of the WCC’s game. The WCC leadership celebrated Bangkok as the close of the era of missions and the opening of the era of mission: truly a watershed event. For me, too, it was a watershed event, but one to be described in different terms.
Bangkok impressed me as a point of no return. It confirmed my worst fears about the way the WCC was going. Now the council had betrayed the true church by abandoning the true gospel and the true missionary task and, what was more, made it a virtue to have done so. I saw this as the nemesis of the WCC’s politicization: seeking significance in the global power play, it had given up its trusteeship of truth. Its euphoria about Bangkok seemed spiritually unreal, if not indeed demonic. With all the charity in the world, I could not but see the WCC, ideologically speaking, as a juggernaut that had run off the road and totaled itself, becoming irrelevant to and useless in the furthering of the church’s God-given role.
So since 1973 I have as a matter of conscience stood apart from the world of the WCC and done what I could for Christian unity and the Christian world mission under other auspices. I live in hope that the WCC might show some signs of going back on Bangkok, and I wish I could see some, but none has appeared as yet. Affirmations of evangelism have certainly been made since 1973, but they are clearly meant to be fitted into the Bangkok frame. Meanwhile, however, informal ecumenism flourishes among creedal Christians—Protestant, Orthodox, and Roman Catholic, all round the world. And in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, to look no further, church-planting evangelism prospers wonderfully. Christian unity and the Christian mission still go ahead, despite the debacle of the WCC, and in that I rejoice.
Whatever Happened To Evangelism?
In 1989 I attended a joint consultation on evangelism attended by 21 delegates of the World Council of Churches, the Lausanne Committee on World Evangelization (LCWE), and the World Evangelical Fellowship (WEF). We gathered in Stuttgart in an atmosphere of candidness, and I came away with two broad impressions.
First, speaking for WEF and LCWE, evangelicals found several areas of convergence with the WCC. All agreed that compassion and not law should be our motivation for world evangelization. We acknowledged that “entry points” will vary from one people group to another. No one doubted the need for depending upon the Holy Spirit in the task before us. It was equally agreed that the Great Commission (evangelism) and the Great Command to love (social responsibility) should not be set at variance with each other. Finally, we all saw the necessity of cooperation.
Where we disagree
Several points of divergence emerged:
• The nature and theology of evangelism. From the presentation made by then—WCC Secretary for Evangelism Raymond Fung, evangelism seems to encompass every effort to improve the human condition—whether made by Christians or non-Christians. He stated that Christians have no monopoly on this task. In contrast, evangelical representatives spoke of evangelism to be the proclamation of the good news of salvation in Christ for the express purpose of conversion. We believe that nothing but the church may or can do this. In the face of the WCC’s implicit universalism, we see evangelism as essential in reaching the lost.
• The practice of evangelism. Representatives from the WCC spoke of “solidarity” with the world in ways that implied little or no difference between the church and the world. Fung, for example, said, “We get involved not because we are different but because we are not.”
Rather than unqualified solidarity, the evangelicals emphasized “incarnation,” a word that suggests that while we are in the world, we are not of the world.
• Our view of the world. I concluded that the WCC views the world as friendly to the church and capable of being tamed by worship and prayer. In contrast, evangelicals tend toward a view of the world as fallen, antagonistic to the church, and one day doomed for judgment.
• The place of non-Christian religions. At the risk of oversimplifying, the WCC purports that the best of the non-Christian religions is as good as (if not better than) the best of Christianity. Consequently, dialogue and cross-fertilization become the goals. Evangelicals affirmed instead that all non-Christian religions are products of fallen human cultures. The Christian faith directly results from God’s intervention in Christ (the Incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection) and includes a personal relationship to God by faith through grace.
• Concepts of sin. Throughout his presentation, Fung used the categories of “sinners” and the “sinned against.” To him, the poor and the oppressed of every society are the sinned against to whom God offers salvation freely. The oppressors are the sinners who need to repent.
While we see a holy bias toward the poor in the Bible, the issue of sin is categorical: “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” regardless of race, tribe, gender, and socio-economic class. Equally, salvation is God’s gift freely offered to all on the basis of the price paid by Jesus Christ.
Other issues came up in the discussion, including views of Scripture and Christ’s second coming. Differences persist. But the meeting was a step in the right direction, and meetings like it should be encouraged for the cause of Christ.
By Tokunboh Adeyemo, general secretary of the Association of Evangelicals of Africa and Madagascar.
Should Evangelicals Come On Board?
An Interview With The Wcc’S Wesley Granberg-Michaelson.
Not all evangelicals believe they should stand apart from the WCC. Some argue the time is ripe for dialogue or participation. Here an evangelical serving on the WCC’s Justice, Peace and Creation unit and staff task force on Relations with Evangelicals makes that case and fields CT’s questions.
You relate to evangelicals as part of your WCC staff responsibilities. How would you like to see evangelicals relate to the WCC?
People’s first assumption is that these are two different groups. It is much more complex than that. The first thing to say is that for the WCC to relate to evangelicals means in many cases relating to our own membership. Within member churches are millions of people who identify themselves as evangelicals—including specific member churches who would claim for themselves the evangelical or Pentecostal tradition.
The need for improved relations with evangelicals has appeared on the agenda of the WCC Central Committee several times over the past years. WCC observers have attended various national and international evangelical conferences. Likewise, evangelical participants have been visible—some in leadership positions—at most major WCC meetings. In recent years we have had meetings and exchanges with the World Evangelical Fellowship (WEF). Our new general secretary, Konrad Raiser, stated recently that he welcomes “a more open relationship” with WEF, and that “efforts to develop this further will continue with all my support.”
You have written that you believe we may be approaching a “kairos” moment for evangelical-ecumenical partnership. What did you mean?
From the WCC’s perspective, the time is ripe for fresh and open interchange.
At the WCC’s seventh assembly in Canberra, a hundred or so delegates, observers, and visitors with evangelical concerns met regularly. Near the assembly’s close, they released an open letter whose content and tone were largely positive. To be sure, it made several specific criticisms of the WCC and the assembly, but nearly every one of these was accompanied by a confession that the record of the evangelical community on that point is far from what it should be.
Many evangelicals balk because they perceive the WCC as soft on Christian conviction. The WCC asks member churches to agree to the constitution’s “Basis” (which confesses “Jesus Christ as God and Saviour according to the Scriptures”), but is that enough to constitute the WCC rightly as a council of churches?
The intent, as ecumenical pioneer Robert Gardiner said, was not to indicate “who is kept out” but “what holds together the churches.” I think history shows that the Basis does constitute a council of Christian churches. It reflects the formulations of the 1855 Paris Basis of the World Association of YMCAs and the Basis of the later Faith and Order movement. “Jesus Christ as God and Saviour” echoes Titus 2:13.
The Evanston assembly (1954) underlined that the WCC is not a church and does not perform ecclesiastical functions. It reaffirmed that the Basis indicates the nature of member churches’ fellowship—the belief that their unity is given in the person (“God”) and work (“Saviour”) of the Lord Jesus Christ. This allows for a wide range of fellowship, but it does not and should not be considered to offer a full statement of the Christian faith.
The council’s Faith and Order Commission has been involved for over a decade in studying how the WCC might move toward a common confession of apostolic faith using the Nicene Creed. General assemblies have affirmed that common witness to the one apostolic faith is an essential element of living in unity, but it is not clear whether adding the Nicene Creed to the WCC’s Basis would help or hinder that goal.
It is worth noting that objections to such a use of the Nicene Creed (or the Apostles’ Creed, for that matter) have come from the so-called noncreedal churches, many of which would clearly fall into the “conservative evangelical” camp.
Some argue that many leaders and spokespersons of member churches redefine the deity of Christ. In the light of this, can the council really be said to maintain a Christian commitment?
I would, of course, say that the WCC “really does maintain a Christian commitment.” Perhaps it would be more modest to say that it would be evident to anyone who attended a WCC assembly that the council strives to express and work out of a Christian commitment. And when I look at our 322 member churches worldwide, I have to contest the charge that “many leaders and spokespersons” redefine the deity of Christ. That’s nonsense. Can anyone cite specific examples of WCC member churches “redefining the deity of Christ”?
You can claim, of course, that within the millions of people in the member churches of the WCC you find individual speakers, writers, or seminary professors who explore all sorts of theological questions, including Christology. But the WCC does not, by common agreement of its churches, attempt to enforce, sanction, or discipline doctrine and teaching. Such matters quite properly are the responsibility of the churches themselves.
At its general assemblies, the council has sponsored speakers and worship services that in the eyes of many evangelicals are sub-Christian.While the council cannot be held responsible for what everyone in every constituent body says, certainly it must take responsibility for its own programs and its own leaders.
Speakers at WCC meetings reflect a wide diversity of opinion, and quite properly so. One function of the WCC is to bring widely divergent viewpoints into dialogue, interaction, and, we hope, mutual correction. Of course, evangelicals will hear opinions at WCC meetings with which they differ, as will all participants. But we act on the belief that the power of the Spirit is strongest when the varied gifts of all the body of Christ are fully represented.
If one wishes to judge the WCC’s positions and theology, the WCC can properly be held accountable to the official reports and statements of its governing bodies and assemblies. These are openly and carefully debated, adopted by vote, and form an extensive record. I think the National Association of Evangelicals or the WEF would make a similar request.
I am especially surprised by the assumption that some evangelicals regard worship at WCC meetings as “sub-Christian.” The “Letter of Those with Evangelical Concerns” from the WCC’s World Conference on Mission and Evangelism held at San Antonio specifically mentioned how signers were “enriched” by the worship and Bible study.
In the past, the WCC has financially supported left-wing political groups that have actively opposed evangelical and traditional Christianity. Is this still the case?
As one part of its program, the WCC has offered, and will continue to offer, support to churches and partners around the world in their work for justice and alleviating suffering. This is part of the call of Christ. In a few specific cases, such measures have been controversial. But I am not aware of how such actions can be said to be “actively opposed to evangelical and traditional Christianity.” Many evangelicals share these commitments.
Many wonder if the WCC sees leading non-Christians to Christian faith as a primary goal. Is the WCC committed to the Great Commission?
The first function of the WCC, as our constitution states, is “to call the churches to the goal of visible unity … and to advance towards that unity in order that the world may believe.” The second function is “to facilitate the common witness of the churches in each place and in all places.” The third is “to support the churches in their worldwide missionary and evangelistic task.” I have never heard any suggestion that these constitutional functions should be abrogated.
It is clear from these statements, however, that member churches, rather than the council, carry out the worldwide evangelistic task. The services of the WCC’s Secretary for Evangelism, our Schools of Evangelism, and efforts such as the Ecumenical Affirmations on Mission and Evangelism (adopted by the WCC’s Central Committee after thorough study and discussion) illustrate concrete steps undertaken by the WCC to this end.
Does the WCC do all this effectively enough? Probably not. Do all member churches consider conversion of persons from a non-Christian religion the primary indicator of whether they are being faithful to their calling? No. Several argue that faithfulness to Jesus Christ means witnessing, but leaving the question of conversion to God.
Unquestionably, tensions between evangelism, proselytism, and dialogue are matters of intense concern among churches today. I believe the WCC discusses the Christian challenge of relating to neighbors of other faiths more passionately, thoroughly, and realistically than any other Christian organization. And I don’t see that changing.
Five Reasons To Cooperate
CT asked several evangelical leaders known to support greater evangelical participation in the WCC to explain their position.
• We have some things to offer. Ron Sider, president of Evangelicals for Social Action, gives this example: “One of the WCC’s greatest weaknesses is lack of concern for evangelism. If evangelicals were more involved, we could insist on a more vigorous evangelistic emphasis.”
• We have some things to learn. “Though we question some of their bases,” says Sider, “the WCC has been a leader on crucial social-justice issues, such as the struggle against apartheid.”
• We have some things in common. Robert K. Johnston, provost of North Park Theological Seminary, notes, “It’s not that everyone in the WCC likes evangelicals. But there are large numbers of evangelicals within the council, particularly in Third World churches. And several influential leaders are evangelicals, or have views similar to those of evangelicals.”
William Pannell, professor of preaching and practical theology at Fuller Theological Seminary, notes, “I was at the WCC’s San Antonio conference on evangelism and mission and then at Lausanne II in Manila just weeks later; there is far less difference between the WCC and Lausanne than ever, owing largely to Third World peoples who have argued for a more holistic approach to mission.”
• We are being invited to. “The WCC,” says Johnston, “has sought in formal and informal ways to increase their relationship with evangelical churches.”
• We can strengthen our service to the needy. Says Gary Dennis, senior pastor of La Canada (Calif.) Presbyterian Church, “I worked with the WCC on an orphanage project in Romania. The needs were greater than our group working alone could have met.” Glandion Camey, associate director of InterVarsity Missions, believes evangelicals and those in the WCC could “accomplish much by sharing information with each other,” especially in relief and development work in areas like Bosnia or Somalia.
By Thomas Giles.
What Can We Learn From The Orthodox?
In spite of a history of involvement with the WCC, the Orthodox churches have not always approved of the implied or stated theological stance of the council. Their latest complaint was voiced during and after the seventh assembly at Canberra, Australia, in 1991. Signs of the Spirit, the official report of the seventh assembly, includes a document from Eastern Orthodox participants.
In that document, Orthodox concerns are clearly stated, and evangelicals should take note of them. The Orthodox are interested in the visible unity of the church but are not prepared to find unity apart from a biblically based Christianity. “We miss from many WCC documents,” their report read, “the affirmation that Jesus Christ is the world’s only Saviour.” They are concerned that openness to other religions not come at the cost of the uniqueness of the truth claims of Christianity.
What can we learn from the Orthodox experience in the WCC?
• Participation can provide a platform of influence. However frustrated the Orthodox may be in their involvement in the WCC, it at least remains true that the seventh assembly’s official report contains their testimony to the historic truth claims of Christianity. However much evangelicals would dispute the Orthodox Church’s claim to represent the earliest authentic tradition, from which the rest of Christendom has departed, we should admire a call back to a historic, creedal Christianity.
• Involvement need not mean losing identity. Orthodox churches have maintained their liturgical and theological position even while dialogue with other groups in the WCC goes on.
• Participation may bring unexpected opportunities for new interaction. The Orthodox experience in the WCC has helped bring them out of ethnic isolation. It has gotten representatives talking with other Christian groups. This has helped the Orthodox Church come to terms with today’s world instead of acting as if they still lived in Byzantium or czarist Russia.
Consultations, arranged by the Orthodox desk of the WCC, have been helpful in this regard. These meetings have reopened questions about reunion of the various Oriental churches that broke off communion with Orthodox churches centuries ago. There have also been interchurch dialogues exploring the theological differences between the Orthodox churches and Reformation churches.
• The Orthodax experience has to be viewed as a partial success. Orthodoxy has been forced into interaction with the wider world and into useful self-analysis. However, the Orthodox have not had an influence proportional to the numbers of their worldwide constituency. The Orthodox in the WCC are trying to maintain dialogue, while holding out for their theological and liturgical values. We should watch carefully whether the Orthodox can continue to do both.
By James Stamoolis, graduate dean at Wheaton College, and author of Eastern Orthodox Mission Theology Today.
How Should Evangelicals Be Ecumenical?
Thomas C. Oden
Senior editor Thomas Oden brings to this institute more than intellectual interest. “If anyone had told me in the early 1960s that I would come out of the ecumenical cauldron with sentiments similar to James Packer’s,” he notes, “I might have thrown up.” Raised in “the bosom of the the liberal ecumenical tradition,” Oden found himself “constantly on the left-leaning torque of every social concern that came by.” In liberal United Methodist and ecumencial circles, “we were strictly socialized to have no relations with evangelicals, and take pot shots at Baptists whenever possible.”
But in the midsixties, Oden began to suspect that the WCC was run by “radical political elites who cared less about the historic Christian faith than garish political posturing.” In the midseventies Oden began to read the church fathers—“the ancient ecumenical writers.” The more he did, the more he saw modern bureaucratic ecumenism as a “faded and feeble expression of the reality of the church.” And the more he found himself drawn to evangelicalism.
By the 1980s, through a series of what he terms “grace-enabled stages,” Oden found himself in the middle of a “flourishing evangelical ecumenism.” From that vantage point he now evaluates the WCC.
Something is happening in evangelical-ecumenical relations. The Holy Spirit is enabling a new form of dialogue, especially between Reformed and Wesleyan traditions of revivalism, and between these evangelicals and Eastern Orthodoxy. There is even some evangelical interaction with traditional Catholic moral teaching.
But that dialogue will not, I believe, be managed through an office in Geneva. It will take place instead on a more populist, local basis. It will center in the recovery by evangelicals of the ancient Christian ecumenical tradition.
What form will this emerging evangelical-ecumenical dialogue take? It will happen more through missional associations than formal, old-line religious bureaucracies. It is already happening in such unexpected places as evangelical publishing houses, evangelical seminaries, the academic arms of evangelicalism such as the Evangelical Theological Society and the Wesleyan Theological Society, and parachurch ministries that bring together Reformed, holiness, charismatic, and Pentecostal Christians.
I believe that evangelicals are called to dialogue with other Christians who, repenting, believe in Jesus Christ, and who by the power of the Holy Spirit seek to walk in holiness. But I distinguish between evangelical ecumenism and the mainstream of secularizing, syncretistic ecumenism as seen in the WCC.
The evangelical ecumenism I see tends to be a probing, open, personal dialogue between reborn Christians of differing histories and traditions. Generally it is low-key, arising from the grassroots, and spontaneous. And it is biblically grounded, committed to the sacred text at every point of interaction.
The ecumenical dialogue I experienced under WCC auspices tends to be a cautious interface between defensive institutions. It remains committed to a highly particular and dated political agenda that many evangelicals find objectionable.
The problem evangelicals have is not so much with the WCC’s official basis of union, or formal definitions of mission, or with mere diversity, but rather with the long history of well-documented political escapades and pretenses, accompanied by theological indifference toward the basis of union. The problem is hardly reducible to a dilemma of public relations. As long as bureaucratic ecumenism fixates on radical feminist rhetoric, the romantic idealization of the secular, excessive accommodation to world religions, and fantasies of rational redistribution of wealth by political elites, I see little hope for dialogue.
Admittedly, some denominations represented in the WCC have many evangelical members, but evangelicals have been grossly underrepresented in the staff and leadership of the WCC.
Even so, evangelicals are now in a strong position to join with the Orthodox in calling bureaucratic ecumenism back to triune, historic, creedal Christianity and the authority of Scripture, WCC ecumenists, if interested in dialogue with evangelicals, must listen carefully when evangelicals say they perceive that the truth claims of Christianity are being ignored in favor of glib accommodation to modern culture and world religions.
Evangelicals are more ready for serious dialogue with Eastern Orthodoxy and with Roman ecumenical initiatives than with a Genevan pan-Protestant voice that only faintly echoes Reformation teaching on Scripture, sin, and grace. Evangelicals must remind both secular ecumenists and their own constituencies that Christ does not seek friendship with the world on its own terms, but on the basis of the costly, atoning love of God.
On these grounds, this CT Institute moves me to stake out a possible position of negotiation between evangelicals and the WCC. This position will center in repentance on the part of all parties, faith in Jesus Christ as the only Son of God, by whom alone we are reconciled to the Father, and mutual rediscovery of the history of biblical exegesis as the basis of dialogue.
Even if the areas of evangelical-WCC convergence are thin, this very thinness can be the realistic basis for continuing dialogue. It is time to mark a new position that welcomes dialogue, but only on grounds consonant with evangelical faith.
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