If believers are to follow Jesus, they must work and pray for Christian unity. But unity means vastly different things, and some efforts toward unity are more faithful to the biblical vision than others.

In May of 2001, I went to Malaysia to attend the General Assembly of the World Evangelical Fellowship (since renamed the World Evangelical Alliance, or WEA). In December 1998 I attended the General Assembly of the World Council of Churches in Zimbabwe. What I saw in these very different meetings helps us think about cohesion and cooperation between Christians—about our participation in global, national, and even local efforts at "being one."

The World Council of Churches is an organization of churches, historic denominations chagrined about their divisions. Its task is to bring church bodies into a formal dialogue leading toward visible unity.

The WEA is an alliance of evangelical missions, parachurch ministries, and national and regional fellowships of evangelical churches and alliances. Its task is to bring these associations of ministries into loose and informal cooperation, into joint practical efforts at proclaiming the gospel and building national movements. Evangelicals are not even talking about organic unity among church bodies. They assume the era of the denominations is over. They prefer missional variety and trust the Spirit to bring unity to the body of Christ.

The WCC wants to claim sole proprietary ownership of the term ecumenical. It aspires to be the one inclusive ecumenical organization for Protestants in dialogue with Orthodox. But it is not inclusive, as is seen from its long history of frequently ignoring evangelical concerns, missions, initiatives, and spectacular growth. It has hardly recognized that the growing half of the world church is not liberal, but evangelical, charismatic, and Pentecostal— and strongly biblical in its orientation to social issues.

A few evangelicals appear on WCC committees, but these are typically "safe" evangelicals who will not offer substantive critique of the Geneva office, and whose attendance makes the WCC appear to be evangelically acceptable. It will not work. Not until the WCC receives centrist evangelicals as equal partners can there be constructive engagement. Thus evangelicals have had virtually no corrective voice in WCC affairs, even when large portions of the mainline constituencies are evangelical believers. Strong resistance to evangelical witness remains among WCC bureaucrats, who often view evangelical themes pejoratively as "proselytism."

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This is ironic. The evangelical mission movements invented ecumenism in the mid-19th century. While evangelicals were integral to early ecumenism, liberals took it over and spent its capital, good will, and support systems on supposedly prophetic political pronouncements. The WCC's Geneva offices were controlled for many years by leftist ideologues. By colluding with Marxist regimes, fixating on regulatory politics, fantasizing about various liberation theologies, fostering illusions about world anti-capitalist revolutions, and advocating some forms of sexual liberation, the WCC has defined itself in ways that evangelicals (and good Orthodox and good Catholics) cannot in good conscience participate. Though many Marxist regimes have passed, the historical pro-Marxist flavor remains in much of the political and social interpretation that comes out of Geneva.

The WCC is hierarchically organized to coordinate competing church hierarchies, each with their own vast bureaucracies. But evangelicals have long resisted central control in favor of local initiatives grounded in scriptural authority. Thus, the WEA has almost no bureaucracy, which makes it more flexible and less defensive. It has tiny regional offices that do not support extensive salaried bureaucracies. It trusts grassroots leadership. It sees its mission not as controlling or coordinating that leadership, but supporting the varied gifts of the Spirit in active ministry.

Evangelical missions are generally more flexible, less hierarchical, and less bureaucratic. For this reason the World Evangelical Alliance appears better positioned than the World Council of Churches to support effective Christian proclamation in the 21st century.

Perhaps I have drawn too sharp a line between these two worlds. Some in WEA would love to see their organization lurch in more liberal directions in environmental and government regulatory policy, while some in WCC would like to see more biblical and classical Christian teaching.

Listening to the politicians

How the two general assemblies related to their host countries further illustrates the differences between them. The WEA held its assembly in Malaysia, a predominantly Muslim nation with a small, mostly Christian minority. The WCC held its assembly in Zimbabwe, which has a supposedly Christian political leader, but one whose reputation has been long sullied by corruption.

Both the WEA and WCC assemblies featured addresses by political leaders of the host nations—Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe and Mahathir bin Mohamed in Malaysia. Despite religious restrictions and human-rights abuses in both countries, neither assembly criticized its host publicly. The WCC, however, declared its support of Mugabe's policies, despite the regime's corruption and brutality.

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The WEA doubtless showed more courage in encountering a Muslim nation than did the WCC in its support for a corrupt regime with a nominal Christian leader. At Kuala Lumpur, evangelicals were going directly into one of the most strongly Islamic countries in southeast Asia, and that Muslim country's prime minister seriously addressed Christians who have a decisive stake in nation-building in that region. Religious liberties are crucial to evangelicals, who are restricted from assembling, purchasing property, and publishing as they wish. The prime minister set forth an illuminating new Islamic clarification of religious liberty that many evangelicals could affirm.

In Zimbabwe, one of the major concerns of the WCC was debt relief, which would benefit Mugabe and his cronies. Mugabe has abused foreign debt many times, at the expense of the working poor of Zimbabwe, whose standard of living has been diminished radically by repeated debt cycles, which have increased taxation of the poor.

Debt relief was also a key theme at Kuala Lumpur, but the WEA closely connected it with microeconomic strategies for growth. The jubilee year was a theme at both conferences, but in Zimbabwe the WCC saw it largely as a government-to-government arrangement, while at Kuala Lumpur the WEA built on microeconomic models that would not be prone to government corruption. Evangelicals saw debt relief as a stimulus to grassroots development, so that ministries could meet the banking needs of small businesses.

Different worlds

To be fair, neither the WCC nor the WEA adequately embodies our Lord's prayer that we "all may be one." At one time the WCC grasped a plausible ecumenical vision, but squandered it in extremist causes that alienated much of its lay support. But the WEA, with its roots in Protestant free-church congregationalism, has not yet sufficiently grasped the historic vision of Christian unity or the ways in which evangelical witness today stands in the historic stream of the communion of saints.

Yet while the WCC shows many signs of demoralization and disintegration (annual funding crises, leadership squabbles, bilateral conversation disasters), the WEA is currently reforming itself under new leadership for more flexible globalization and for an increasingly holistic mission. This means bringing into sharp focus solidly grounded evangelical witness with strong nation-building, social service, and relief efforts. While the WCC gives lip service to such integration, it often lacks a high doctrine of revelation and a clear focus on the personal relation of the faithful with Jesus Christ.

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The WEA does not want more fond attention from the WCC, but simply less magisterial pretension that the Geneva bureaucracy holds the moral high ground. The WEA is busy doing its tasks effectively and does not need WCC surveillance or approval. The WCC, meanwhile, is almost desperately trying to achieve modest cohesion between competing churches while resolutely carrying on its ideological programs, syncretism, universalism, and the greenest of the green world's ecological agendas.

The only unity desirable for serious evangelicals is based on the truth of the gospel, not on denominational diplomacy. Issues of scriptural truth are very hard to raise among liberal ecumenists, who have been bitten hard by the postmodernist relativism bug. Yet scriptural truth is the main concern of evangelicals.

There is an idolatry within ecumenism that makes a god out of simply talking and meeting. There is a liberal temptation to assume that any dialogue seeking organic union is likely to be genuine and productive. Evangelicals are not so persuaded.

The WCC's hegemony is crumbling. The Orthodox are often in significant tension with the WCC, and the Roman Catholic Pontifical Council on the Promotion of Christian Unity recognizes the WEA as a significant dialogue partner. Oddly, there is more conversation between evangelicals and Catholics than between liberal and evangelical Protestants.

Orthodox and Roman Catholic ecumenical initiatives are now recognizing that they have much more in common with evangelicals who care about classic Christian teaching than with liberal ecumenists. They are beginning to realize that they have invested far too much energy in a limited dialogue with the narrowly based WCC.

What can evangelicals do for the unity of the body of Christ? We can be in dialogue with those who are not apostate. We cannot be in a cheap peace of supposed dialogue with those who are apostate or moving rapidly toward apostasy in sexual and political activism, pantheism, and universalism.

The more patient, more radical strategy of Church of England evangelicals during the last century is wiser: Stay in. Persist. Be prepared to assume leadership of the collapsing institutions and liberal church bureaucracies. There is apostasy in all wings of the church as wheat and tares grow together. A clearer grasp of what the Holy Spirit is doing in all of them will bring greater health to any one of them and to all together.

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From 1953 (as an observer at the Evanston World Assembly of the WCC) to the present I have made a long ecumenical journey from liberal to orthodox. I pray for an increasing awareness in these disjunctive organizations of the Spirit's untiring work in bringing unity to the body of Christ.

Thomas C. Oden is Henry Anson Buttz Professor of Theology and Ethics at Drew University and general editor of the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture.

Related Elsewhere

Also appearing on our site today:

The Not-So-New EcumenismA recent initiative is structured to exclude evangelicals in the mainline.
'CCT's Proposed Theological Basis Is Solidly Orthodox'

The World Evangelical Alliance official site has more information on the group and lists of member organizations.

The World Council of Churches has online sections on "who we are," "what do we do," and lists of other resources.

Christianity Today articles on the WCC and the WEA include:

World Evangelical Fellowship Calls for Religious Freedom Across Globe'Religion has been sidelined,' group tells United Nations. (April 17, 2002)
Muslim Leader Appeals to EvangelicalsPrime minister of Malaysia speaks to World Evangelical Fellowship as group addresses domestic abuse and debt relief (May 11, 2001)
World Council of Churches Trying to Unite Future Easter ObservancesOrganization still pushing 1997 Aleppo statement, noting that East and West will share observance again in 2004. (April 10, 2001)
Do Evangelicals Practice Holistic Outreach?World Evangelical Fellowship focuses on broad demands of Great Commission (Mar. 29, 2000)
Orthodox, Evangelicals Push for WCC ReformsThe World Council of Churches (WCC) is hoping to broaden its base in an appeal to Catholics and Pentecostals. (January 11, 1998)
Evangelicals Seek to Refocus WCCIn charting future, evangelicals' voices must be heard. (December 7, 1998)
Evangelicals Aim to Extend Reach of Global Alliance (June 16, 1997)
Strapped WCC Appeals for Funds (September 16, 1996)

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