The 1974 Lausanne Covenant quickly became the defining theological document for missions and evangelism--two things evangelical Christians care about most. That statement, largely drafted by English pastor-theologian John R. W. Stott, was broad because mission touches on everything from the nature of Christ to critical engagement with cultures. But its most notable feature was a careful affirmation of the proper place of sociopolitical involvement next to evangelism as a Christian duty. It carefully distinguished between the two categories, but it held both to be "necessary expressions" of Christian belief.
Now comes the Cape Town Commitment, the first half of which deals with Christian belief. It was fittingly crafted by Irish biblical scholar Christopher Wright, Stott's successor as leader of the Langham Partnership/John Stott Ministries. In the spirit of the Covenant, the Commitment affirms not only deeds of mercy, but also "solidarity and advocacy on behalf of the marginalized and oppressed." But that is not what it will be remembered for.
The most obvious difference from the previous statement is that the Commitment is organized around the theme of love. Statements of belief invite us to mentally check off our agreement with each article. This can reassure, allowing us to connect with our forebears in the faith as we recite a creed or read a historic confession.
But the Cape Town Commitment is disturbingly organized as a series of properly ordered loves. "We love because God first loved us," "We love the living God," "We love God the Father," and so on, through, "We love God's World," "We love the Gospel of God," and "We love the mission of God."
It is easy to mistake mental assent for faith. But introduce the language of love, and it forces me to take an inventory of my passions and commitments. Thus, the Cape Town Commitment asks what I have risked for the gospel lately, what I have done for love of neighbor, where my passion for what touches the heart of God has transformed my life. The Commitment also moves beyond the Covenant by showing that evangelical theology has matured since 1974. It is missional, narrative, and more conscious of the early church's theology.
It is missional: The year Stott drafted the Lausanne Covenant, Lesslie Newbigin, the retiring Bishop of Madras, was returning home to England. It would be another 12 years before this godfather of missional thinking published his keen insights into the nature of the church and its role in God's mission. The Covenant laid a foundation, but the Commitment benefits from 20 years of evangelical interaction with Newbigin's ideas. We no longer talk about our mission as if it were distinct from God's mission in Christ. God himself is on a mission, and we participate in that mission.
It is narrative: The Covenant summarized its points in tidy statements. The Commitment frames its points at length with the biblical story of rebellion and redemption. You might compare the 1974 document to the apostle Paul's more densely reasoned expositions, and the 2010 Commitment to the apostles' sermons in Acts. Those sermons rehearsed the saving work of God: the election of Abraham's descendants, their repeated failures, the Prophets' warnings, and the fulfillment of God's promises in Jesus the Messiah.
Before Stott crafted the Lausanne Covenant, evangelical theologians were known for their defense of "propositional truth" over against a "theology of encounter" that they claimed divorced Christian faith from concrete history. Since 1974, evangelical theologians have been paying attention to the narrative structure of theology. Robert Webber, for example, challenged evangelicals to frame theology, church life, worship, evangelism, and spiritual formation by the biblical narrative. The goal is to recognize that the propositions defended by evangelicalism's founders have a fundamentally narrative nature: they summarize the story of God's rescue plan to reconcile the entire cosmos to himself. This narrative approach and the Commitment's language about the Atonement also reflect the writings of key early church theologians.
Finally, the Commitment features a call to integrity and obedience paired with a corresponding note of repentance. Near the end of the congress, Wright told the delegates that the greatest obstacle to God's mission is not persecution or other religions, but the disobedience of God's own people. He pointed to Christian leaders' idolatry of power and pride, popularity and success, and wealth and greed. He called them to stop frustrating God's mission by instead living lives of humility, integrity, and simplicity. This message is repeated in the Commitment, and it is this for which the Commitment deserves to be remembered.
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Previous articles on Cape Town 2010 include:
Teeming Diversity | The Third Lausanne Congress demonstrated that global evangelicalism has been transformed. (December 1, 2010)
Underrepresented at Cape Town | Meditations on missing megapastors. (October 22, 2010)
Who Got Invited to Cape Town and Why | Cape Town 2010 claims to represent the global evangelical church. How did they do it? (October 20, 2010)
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