This article is part of a larger series, Has the WCC Kept the Faith?
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.
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