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Edinburgh to Salvador: Twentieth Century Ecumenical Missiology by T.V. Philip


T. V. Philip, born in India and a lay member of the Mar Thoma Church, has worked and taught in India, Europe, USA and Australia. He is a church historian, and a former Professor at the United Theological College, Bangalore, India. This book was published jointly by CSS and ISPCK, 1999, Kashmere Gate, Delhi, India. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Chapter 5: Ecumenical -- Evangelical Polarity


‘Ecumenical’ and ‘Evangelical’ are not exclusive terms. Many so called "Ecumenicals" are manifestly Evangelical and many "Evangelicals" are overtly Ecumenical. These terms lack both theological precision and accuracy. Unfortunately these labels have been converted into the symbols of opposed positions and divisions. It is only for the sake of convenience and simplicity that we use these terms to refer to those whose main emphasis is on the unity of the church and the transformation of society (Ecumenical) and to those whose main emphasis is on evangelism and personal conversion (Evangelical).

The modern missionary movement from its very beginning in the nineteenth century faced controversies and tensions throughout its history. When the modern missionary movement arose there was the tension between the missionary movement and the ecclesiastical establishment that resulted in a large number of missionary societies being organized outside official church bodies. There was a separation of church and mission, both in theology and practice, in the Protestant missionary movement of the 19th century. By Madras 1938, there had developed a church-centric view of mission in the International Missionary Council, and in the ecumenical movement as a whole. But this church-centric view of mission was challenged by a number of people, including Stanley Jones. One result of the influence of the church-centric view of missions was the integration of the International Missionary Council and the World Council of Churches in 1961. When the integration of the two Councils was discussed at the Ghana Assembly of the International Missionary Council in 1958, there was serious opposition to the integration from the Evangelicals as well as the Orthodox. The integration was proposed on the grounds that mission and unity belonged together (see Chapter 3). But for the Evangelicals, unity was not a precondition for mission. Consequently, one sad result of the integration was that several of the evangelical groups, who were associated with the International Missionary Council, and through it with the ecumenical movement as a whole, now felt alienated from the ecumenical movement as represented by the World Council of Churches. Ralph Winter saw the emergence of world evangelicalism and its Congress of 1960s and 1970s as a direct result of the Ghana Assembly of the International Missionary Council (IMC)1958. World gatherings of the Evangelicals, such as the Berlin Congress on Evangelism in 1966, the Wheaton Congress on World Christian Mission, also in 1966, and the Lausanne International Congress on World Evangelism of 1971, were seen by Winter and others as a response to the absorption of missionary concerns into the World Council of Churches.1

From the New Delhi Assembly of the World Council of Churches in 1961, ecumenical discussions on mission moved slowly away from a church-centric to a world-centered view of mission. This view found its strong expressions in the statements of the Geneva Conference of Church and Society, the Uppsala Assembly of the World Council of Churches and the Mission Conference at Bangkok. The emphasis was not so much on what God was saying and doing in the church but on what God was saying and doing in the world. The Christian mission was thought of in terms of serving the needs of the world and making life on earth more human i.e. Mission was thought of as humanization. The Evangelicals who spoke of sin in personal rather than in structural terms, and put great stress on personal conversions and growth in holiness, were very much upset by this new emphasis within the ecumenical movement on mission as humanization. This gave rise to conflicts and controversies between the "Evangelicals" and the "Ecumenicals". Referring to Uppsala, James A. Scherer wrote:

Uppsala foreshadowed the growing rift with evangelicals, epitomized in Donald MacGavran’s question, "Will Uppsala betray the two billion?’. It also anticipated the debate on mission priorities in the 1970s. For ecumenical missionary thinking, Uppsala’s significance lay in the fact that it consolidated the emphasis on mission with the secular world and the focus on the world as the arena for mission, a focus that began shortly after New Delhi.2

According to Alan J. Bailyes, there were five theological issues between the ecumenical and evangelical positions : Church and world, the nature of conversion, Gospel and culture, Christology, and hermeneutics.3 Bailyes explains that a sound and solid ecclesiology has long been a weak link in the evangelical chain of theology, "coming a poor second or cven third behind its soteriology with its emphasis upon the individual and his/her relationship with God. The ‘world’ is an almost alien environment from which souls must be saved. This fundamental antipathy to the world is seen in a reticence to be involved with thc structures of human society which are transient and doomed to pass away. Thus evangelism (the proclamation of the message of eternal salvation to the lost and the incorporations of converts into the church) tends to receive priority over every other activity, including, of course, seeking church unity. The latter was seen as beneficial only if co-operation led to more effective evangelism."4

In the ecumenical thinking of the 1960s, God’s concern was seen as not primarily with the church, but with humanity as a whole. Consequently, mission had to aim at the ‘humanization of society’, the seeking of political and social liberation from all that would stand in the way of life in justice and community. If this meant political involvement, even revolutionary engagement with forces of injustice and oppression, then so be it. "In ecumenical thinking, therefore, the boundary line between church and world (and thus between salvation history and world history) was becoming progressively vague. God was to be found at work far more in the secular rather than in the religious sphere".5

Evangelicals lay great stress upon conversion and being ‘born again’ and this is often defined in strongly individualistic terms. In the area of Gospel and culture, in contrast to the basic understanding of the Gospel as represented by western missions, which was to all intents and purposes a non- negotiable given, the evangelicals speak of the necessity for churches in the non-western world to find indigenous expression of Christianity in ways appropriate to people’s culture and traditions. In the 1970s, the ecumenical movement however, gave preference to contextual theologies. Contextual theology arises out of a dialectic between Gospel and culture. Its focus is located in praxis within the world rather than primarily the exegesis of Scripture.

With regard to hermeneutics, Bailyes points out that the Evangelicals favored the deductive method. The first step being to determine what the Scripture says on a particular subject and then applying it to the present situation. In contrast, the ecumenical approach often argues inductively, taking the present situation as the point of departure and then reading the Scripture in the light of that situation.

Wheaton Congress 1966

By 1960 there was a growing distrust of the World Council of Churches among many of the Evangelicals. This was expressed in some of the evangelical conferences held in the 1960s. In 1966, there was the Berlin Conference of the Evangelicals, organized under the leadership of Billy Graham. At this conference, the hostility to the World Council of Churches was very marked. In the same year there was the Wheaton Congress sponsored by the Evangelical Foreign Missions association and the International Foreign Mission association. Its purpose was to discuss the church’s worldwide mission. The Congress was attended by some one thousand representatives from various evangelical groups. Horace L. Fenton Jr, General Director of Latin American Mission points out that there were strong differences in conviction among the evangelicals themselves and the very fact that they were able to meet, together seemed almost a miracle in itself. "It seems safe to say that five years ago such a congress could not have taken place - so strong were these differences in such matters as Pentecostalism, holiness teachings, and co-operative evangelism".6 Yet they met. They were all united in one area, as Fenton writes:

But in one area, our position is unequivocal - in our commitment to the Gospel, as we understand it, and the task of world evangelization. We may occasionally err in making our charges of neo-universalism and syncretism against individuals and organizations. We ourselves may sometimes fail to present the Gospel in its biblical fullness. But we want no one to misunderstand our basic position: we are committed to a Gospel which has at its heart a demand for, and a provision of, an experience of new birth - an experience offered to all, and effective for those who receive the good news in Christ. And we remain convinced that, whatever the social implications of the Gospel, our primary task is to take this redeeming message of personal salvation to every creature, and to use every legitimate means for the evangelization of the world in our generation. Hence there was in the congress a strong emphasis on evangelism and a readiness to explore new ways of communicating our message to our day. we were ready to face up to our obligations to express the love of Christ in a great variety of ways, but we know that at the heart of all our effort, there must be an invitation to men to be reconciled to God, and not merely an attempt to announce to them that they were already reconciled.7

Fenton made clear where the Evangelicals stood. It was their conviction that the Gospel is a message of personal salvation and offers new birth to all, and that this Gospel should be preached to every creature. This conviction, together with other major issues discussed at the Congress, made clear where the Evangelicals differed from the Ecumenicals in the 1960s. The crucial issues mentioned in the Wheaton declarations were: Mission and syncretism, mission and universal salvation, mission and proselytism, mission and the Roman Catholic Church, mission and church growth, mission and foreign mission and mission and Evangelical unity.8 In all these they appealed to the Scripture as final authority. The declaration said, "In line with apostolic precedent, we appeal in many issues that confront us, to the Bible, the inspired, the only authoritative, inerrant word of God. The Scriptures constitute our final rule of faith and practice. Many of these issues were presented as if they were in opposition to the ecumenical positions. For example, with regard to Church unity the Congress said:

Today many voices call for organizational Church union at the expense of doctrine and practice (faith and order). Denominational divisions are seen as the great scandal of our day. Union becomes a major objective. However, organizational Church union of itself has seldom released a fresh missionary dynamism, or upsurge of missionary recruitment.

Christians having been regenerated by the Holy Spirit and who agree on the basic evangelical doctrines can experience a genuine biblical oneness even if they belong to different denominations.9

For the Evangelicals, the unity of the church was directly and significantly related to the world mission of the church. In this context, the Congress called everyone to encourage and assist in the organization of evangelical fellowships among churches and missionary societies at national, regional and international levels.

Eugene L. Smith, Executive Secretary of the World Council of Churches Office in New York , was an observer at Wheaton. He wrote:

The distrust of the ecumenical movement within the group has to be experienced to be believed. Fifteen major papers were presented. ... Nine of the fifteen carried attacks on the ecumenical movement, and at times, the World Council of Churches by name. They ranged from the sadly irresponsible to one that was a careful analysis of Church growth in the United Church of Canada and the Church of South India and a conclusion that Church union does not of itself ensure evangelistic passion. There were frequent comparisons of the best in ‘evangelicalism’ with what seems to them the worst in ‘ecumenism’... The most frequent charges against us were theological liberalism, loss of evangelical conviction, universalism in theology, substitution of social action for evangelism, and the search for unity at the expense of biblical truth. Those comparatively mild phrases by no means suggest, however, the deep intensity of conviction underlying them. 10

One of the key evangelicals involved in the controversy with the World Council of Churches was Donald McGavran, the dean of the school of Missions of the Fuller Theological Seminary in USA. He was well known for his ‘church- growth’ theory of mission. Since the 1950s, he had advocated ‘church- growth’ as the object of mission. For him, the object of mission was to plant churches in every land and not to engage in social activities. "The growth and expansion of the Church is demanded by the Great Commission ... When the resources of the mission devoted to philanthropy are spent, they leave behind no organizations to continue the acts of mercy. But when they are devoted to establishing growing churches, then they create partners in the task of proclaiming the Gospel, making disciples of all people and teaching them all things commanded by our Lord".11 McGavran was critical of the social activities of missions as a preparation for the Gospel. Like Rolan Allen, he pointed out that St. Paul never engaged in activities that prepared for later discipling, but always baptized and established churches.

Just before the Uppsala Assembly of the World Council of Churches in 1968, in an article ‘Will Uppsala Betray Two Billions’, McGavran challenged the World Council of Churches to take seriously the salvation of two billion people in the world who had not heard of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. His criticism was In response to a draft document on Renewal in Mission that had been prepared for the Assembly. He wrote:

By Uppsala I mean, of course, the Fourth Assembly of the World Council of Churches which is to be held in Uppsala, Sweden in July 1968. By the ‘two billions’ I mean the great number of persons, at least two billion, who either have never heard of Jesus Christ or have no real chance to believe on Him as Lord and Savior. These inconceivable multitudes live and die in a famine of the word of God, more terrible by far than the sporadic physical famine which occur in unfortunate lands.12

He argued that if the sufferings of two billion people in Vietnam, South Africa and other places excited the imagination and compassion of the church, how much more should the spiritual sufferings of two thousand millions move her to bring multitudes of them out of darkness into God’s wonderful light. The church, to be relevant, must augment her program to carry the bread of life to starving multitudes and dig wide and deep channels through which water of life may flow to the two billions perishing of thirst. The precise issue before the churches was the salvation of the two billion children of God.:

The precise issue in 1968 when the World Council of Churches will meet at Uppsala is this : how can the Christian world carry the gospel faster and better to the multitudes who want to become Christians? The chief issue is not dialogue with hostile non-Christians. In the days of his flesh, our Lord instructed his disciples to by-pass indifferent and hostile villages to hurry on to the receptive. Such days have again come. This is not a time to betray the two billions but to reconcile as many as possible of them to God in the Church of Jesus Christ. For the peace of the world, for justice between peoples and nations, for advance in learning, for breaking down hostilities between peoples, for the spiritual health of countless individuals and the corporate welfare of the humankind, this is a time to disciple the nations, baptizing them on the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit and teaching them whatsoever our Lord has commanded us.13

McGavran claimed that in many lands in Asia, Africa and Latin America, an unprecedented receptivity to the Gospel existed. He said, "According to the World Christian Handbooks, the Christian population of Africa, south of the Sahara, increased from twenty million in 1950 to fifty million in 1968. It is likely to increase to a hundred million by 1990".

Eugene L. Smith took strong exception to McGavran’s criticism of the Uppsala document. He pointed out that the individualistic evangelism that McGavran advocated was not adequate and that the peoples of both western and eastern countries needed to be evangelized. Smith asked, "Is there no need for true evangelism among the white Christians of South Africa who supported apartheid; among the white Christians in Latin America who maintain corrupt oligarchies; among the Christians who support the neo-Nazi movement in Germany"? Smith maintained that McGavran’s position leads to a false emphasis on statistical Christianity and focused exceedingly on private morality. Instead, he advocated, "impelled both by the biblical imperative and by the nature of the human need, our task is to be used by Christ in shaping a pattern of witness as broad in vision of justice as the prophets, as deep in power as the Pentecost : development of it will require, on our part, among other things, a deep willingness on the part of those particularly concerned with justice, and those particularly concerned with evangelism, to learn from each other and move out together in joint witness to Him who is both Savior and Lord". According to Smith, the Uppsala Assembly itself pointed out that "we have been charged with a message and ministry that have to do with more than material needs, but we can never be content to treat our concern for physical and social needs as merely secondary to our responsibility for the needs of the spirit". 14

It was not only McGavran who was critical of Uppsala. Echoing McGavran, John Stott said that he failed to find, in the Uppsala report, any concern for the spiritual hunger which had been expressed in regard to physical hunger and poverty. The prior concern of the church should be in relation to millions of people who, being without Christ, are perishing. "The World Council confesses that Jesus is Lord. The Lord sends his Church to preach the Good News and make disciples. I do not see the Assembly very eager to obey its Lord’s command. The Lord Jesus Christ wept over the city that had rejected him. I do not see this Assembly weeping similar tears". Buna Kibongi of the Evangelical Church of Congo, Kenneth Grubb of Church of England, and K.E. Skydsgaard of Denmark also raised similar concerns.15 According to A.F. Glasser, the North American Evangelical, the evangelical voice had not been heard at Uppsala.

After noting that the Second Vatican document Ad Gentes also spoke of millions of people who had not heard the Gospel preached to them, Timothy Yates said that specific missionary and evangelistic dimensions, for which the International Missionary Council stood, were perceived, by Evangelical leaders, as being under threat. He says, "To read the Uppsala 1968 section report ‘Renewal in Mission’ along side the documents issuing from Vatican II,.. is to understand why the evangelicals could have come to the view that their own emphases were more likely to be conserved and stated with a more positively biblical note on such matters as proclamation and witness by the Roman Catholic Church than by the WCC".16

McGavran who protested against the Uppsala statement also voiced his dissent on the statement on Salvation Today that was released by the Bangkok Conference . He wrote:

Does the word salvation, according to the Bible, mean eternal salvation or does this mean this worldly improvements? Which is the basic meaning? It appears as if the conciliar forces are set to maintain, on the basis of the Old Testament, that salvation means primarily, if not exclusively, this-worldly improvements. Evangelicals will maintain on the basis of total biblical record (the New Testament as well as the Old) that salvation means a change in the status of the soul, the essential person, is achieved through faith in Jesus Christ alone, and results in abundant life in this world. ... If salvation today means political liberation, land distribution, better pay for factory workers, the downfall of the oppressive systems of government, and the like, then the whole apparatus of missions is rightly used to achieve these ends. Evangelism will be downgraded. Churching the unchurched will be neglected and ridiculed. The airplane of missions will be directed away from the propagation of the Gospel to the establishment of utopias..17

He went on to say that the Evangelicals should work and pray that this deliberate debasing of Christian currency cease and that reformation of the social order not be substituted for salvation. Salvation is something conferred by the true and the living God on His creatures in accordance with His once-for-all revelation in Jesus Christ. Salvation is a vertical relation (with God) which issues in horizontal (human) relationships. The vertical must not be replaced by the horizontal. 18

It was the refusal of the Bangkok Conference to separate the human being into body and soul, or, to resolve the tension between the personal and social aspect of salvation that had given rise to the severe evangelical criticism of the ecumenical movement.

Like the Evangelicals, the Orthodox churches also voiced their protest against the statement on salvation at Bangkok. Patriarch Pimen of Moscow wrote to the Central Committee of the World Council of Churches pointing out the misgivings of the Russian Orthodox Church with regard to the salvation discussion at Bangkok. While agreeing that Christians should commit themselves to the struggle for social justice, he pointed out that the salvation completed by our Lord Jesus Christ, which was realized through the action of the Holy Spirit, should remain as the unshakeable foundation for the whole life and activities of the church. The Patriarch complained that in Bangkok nothing was said about the ultimate goal of salvation, namely, eternal life in God; nor did anything point to the moral improvement and perfection as an indispensable condition for the achievement of the goal. He felt that Bangkok put an exclusive emphasis on the horizontal aspect of salvation neglecting its vertical aspect. According to Patriarch Pimen, "The sociological concept of the Bangkok Conference reflects to a certain extent a trend to live without any connection with the past. But, as a famous Russian ecclesiologist said, ‘the Church of the present that has no close connection with the Church of the past and future is soon to turn into the Church of the past’. 19

In the 1960s, the Evangelicals seemed to be taking an anti-ecumenical stand. About this Baileys writes:

Evangelicalism was seen to be more and more militantly anti-ecumenical. Certainly the conference held at Wheaton (Illinois) and Berlin in 1966 reflected a crusading spirit with the WCC family in its sights. The Uppsala Assembly of the WCC (1968) confirmed the betrayal of the Gospel as far as many evangelicals were concerned (for example McGavran and Beyerhaus). It was further underlined by the CWME meeting in Bangkok in 1973.20

The late 1960s and early 70s were periods of attacks and counter attacks by the Evangelicals and Ecumenicals. It was a period of steady worsening of the relations between the two groups. David J. Bosch has described the controversies as a crisis "more radical and extensive than anything the Church has ever faced in her history"21 By the early 1970s there were serious misunderstandings between the Evangelicals and the Ecumenicals.

Lausanne 1974

While those controversies were going on, a significant gathering of the Evangelicals took place in 1974. The International Congress on World Evangelization was held in Lausanne (Switzerland). It was a gathering of over 2400 participants belonging to 135 Protestant denominations from 150 countries. Half the participants were from the third world. "Some hoped, while others feared that Lausanne would usher in a global organization in opposition to the WCC.22 This did not happen. Instead the Evangelicals were challenged to rethink their theological position with regard to mission. Lausanne proved to be a new beginning, as far as the Evangelicals were concerned, in re-evaluating their missionary theology and their relationship to the ecumenical movement. Both in the speeches and in the statements of Lausanne, there was a note of repentance. John Stott, a leading evangelical theologian and New Testament scholar from Britain said at Lausanne:

I do not propose to put up a few ecumenical skittles in order to knock them down with well-aimed evangelical balls, so that we can all applaud our easy victory! We all know that during the last few years, especially between Uppsala and Bangkok, ecumenical-evangelical relations hardened into something like a confrontation. I have no wish to worsen the situation... I hope in my paper to strike a note of evangelical repentance... We have some important lessons to learn from our ecumenical critics. Some of their rejection of our position is not a repudiation of biblical truth, but rather of our evangelical. caricatures of it.23

Lausanne grappled seriously with the theological position of the World Council of Churches. It was the participants at Lausanne from the third world countries, especially from Latin America who helped in this process. In this they were greatly influenced by Liberation theologies. A new evangelical voice was heard from the third world participants. Samuel Escobar from Peru, warned the Evangelicals to avoid the temptation to reduce the Gospel to a spirituality without discipleship. Rene Padilla of the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students in Buenos Aires denounced the ‘culture Christianity’ associated with the American way of life as being as harmful to the Gospel as secular Christianity. Together with several others, they succeeded in securing in the Lausanne Covenant an affirmation that "evangelism and socio-political involvement are both part of our Christian duty. Lausanne made it clear that to discuss whether we should evangelize or promote social actions is worthless. They go together and are inseparable. We must not try to justify service for our neighbor by claiming that it will ‘help us’ in our evangelism".24

The Lausanne Covenant said:

We affirm that God is both the creator and the judge of all men. We therefore should share his concern for justice and reconciliation throughout human society and for the liberation of men from every kind of oppression. Because mankind is made in the image of God, every person, regardless of race, religion, color, culture, class, sex or age has an intrinsic dignity because of which he should be respected and served, not exploited. Here too we express penitence both for our neglect and for having sometimes regarded evangelism and social concern as mutually exclusive. Although reconciliation with man is not reconciliation with God, nor is social action evangelism, nor is political liberation salvation, nevertheless we affirm that evangelism and socio-political involvement are part of our Christian duty. For both are necessary expression of our doctrines of God and man, our love for our neighbor and our obedience to Jesus Christ. The message of salvation implies also a message of judgement upon every form of alienation, oppression and discrimination, and we should not be afraid to denounce evil and injustice wherever they exist. When people receive Christ they are born again into his kingdom and must seek not only to exhibit but also to spread its righteousness in the midst of an unrighteous world. The salvation we claim should be transforming us in the totality of our personal and social responsibilities. Faith without work is dead.25

Though Lausanne still maintained the primacy of evangelism, it affirmed the socio-political involvement as an essential aspect of Christian mission. Commenting on the Lausanne Covenant, Rene Padilla claimed that the Covenant eliminated the dichotomy between evangelism and social involvement, giving socio-political concern a place of prominence that could hardly be regarded as characteristic of evangelical statements. It represented "a death blow to the superficial equation of Christian mission with the multiplication of Christians and churches".26 He went on to say, "With Lausanne Covenant, Evangelicalism has taken a stand against the mutilated Gospel and the narrow view of the Church’s mission that were defacing it, and has definitely claimed for itself a number of biblical features that it has tended to minimize or even destroy".27

Lausanne was a repudiation of several of the criticisms raised by McGavran against the World Council of Churches’ understanding of mission; and, like the conference in Bangkok, it came to a comprehensive understanding of salvation. It was a great step in the narrowing of the gulf between the Evangelicals and the Ecumenicals., David Bosch observed:

The Lausanne Covenant is one of the most remarkable evangelical documents of recent decades and one with which a wide spectrum of Christians can identify, inter-alia because of its comprehensive and unpolemical nature. Much of what it affirms differs only slightly from WCC positions at the time.28

Lausanne was considered to be a new beginning. John Stott described the Lausanne Covenant as not so much a text for exposition as a basis for further theological construction, a spring board for fresh innovative thought".29 Later evangelical conferences looked to the challenge of Lausanne and tried to work out the implications of the Covenant. The later conferences spoke of God’s preferential option for the poor, divine judgement on oppressors, the pattern of Christ’s own identification with the poor, the risk of suffering for Christ’s sake, and Christian support for change in political studies -themes seldom associated with such passion in evangelical circles.30

At a Consultation in 1982 at Grand Rapids in the United States of America on "The Relation of Evangelism and Social Responsibility", the Consultation explained the Lausanne statement, concerning the primacy of evangelism, in two ways. First, evangelism has a certain priority; this does not necessarily imply temporal priority, but a logical priority. "The very fact of Christian social responsibility pre-supposes socially responsible Christians, and it can only be by evangelism and discipling that they have become such. If social activity is a consequence and aim of evangelism (as we have asserted), then evangelism must precede it. In addition, social progress is being hampered in some countries by the prevailing religious culture; only evangelism can change this". Second, since evangelism has to do with people’s eternal destiny, then, if a choice has to be made between addressing ‘physical’ and ‘spiritual’ need, we have to say that the supreme and ultimate need of all humankind is the saving grace of Jesus Christ. A person’s eternal spiritual salvation is of greater importance than his or her temporal and material well being. But the Consultation pointed out that such a choice is largely conceptual. Rather than competing with each other, they mutually support and strengthen each other.31

The next great international gathering of the Evangelicals in Manila, (often referred to as Lausanne II) also maintained the primacy of evangelism but affirmed the continuing commitment to social action - as we preach the Kingdom of God, we must be committed to its demands of justice and peace. The Manila manifesto said:

Evangelism is primary because our chief concern is with the gospel, that all people may have the opportunity to accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. Yet Jesus not only proclaimed the Kingdom of God, he also demonstrated its arrival by works of mercy and power. We are called today to a similar integration of words and deeds... We repent that the narrowness of our concerns and vision has often kept us from proclaiming the lordship of Jesus Christ over all of life, private and public, local and global. We determine to obey his command to "seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness" 32

It should be noted that in the Lausanne statement there was an underlying dichotomy between evangelism and social action. Though they accepted both as Christian responsibility, there was a division between social action and evangelism in their thinking, which David Bosch called the ‘two-mandate approach’. Hence the Evangelicals spoke of priority in evangelism. The two-mandate approach, according to Bosch was inadequate and theologically insupportable, ‘because it lacks the ‘holism’ of the New Testament, which binds the two together into a single obedience in discipleship’ 33 This was one of the important issues that distinguished evangelical thinking from that of the Ecumenicals.

Despite the conciliatory tone of both Lausanne and Manila, there was still criticism of the World Council of Churches by some leading Evangelicals. In 1975 there appeared in Germany a book entitled: The Berlin Ecumenical Manifesto, on the Utopian Vision of the World Council of Churches, edited by Walter Kunneth and Peter Beyerhaus.34 The book attacked not only the World Council of Churches but also the Lutheran World Federation, World Student Christian Federation, certain Roman Catholic groups, the German Evangelical Kirchentag, Taize, and to some extent even Lausanne.35 According to H. Berkof, the common thread through all the articles in the book was the desire to demonstrate that the World Council of Churches no longer sought to proclaim the Gospel throughout the world, but strove rather for a purely horizontal, social and political, humanization and unification of mankind by means of religious pluralism and syncretism. "Unwearyingly, the authors point out again and again that with such a program the World Council of Churches is on the way to Anti-Christ. They believe that the last days are just around the corner... and that in the decisive hour the World Council will stand on the sides of the enemies of Christ".36 Peter Beyerhaus, one of the editors of the book, deplored the influence of liberation theology on the missionary theology of the World Council of Churches. It was shocking for him to see how present day theologians and church leaders even drew parallels between the New Testament salvation and that salvation which is brought about by present day ideologies and religions. "Jesus, as far as he is still referred to by them, is reduced to the type of liberation... from Cyrus to Mao Tse-tung ... this is a terrible distortion of the biblical Gospel of the kingdom".

H. Berkof points out that German theologians had played a leading part in the concentration of forces of evangelicalism by a combination of confessional Lutheranism and pietism. Though in its theological form it was German, in its doctrinal content it was ecumenical. "Not only in Europe and North America but equally even in Eastern Europe, Asia, Africa and Latin America, we find countless Christians with the same strongly held suspicions of the World Council of Churches or at any rate the same type of evangelical faith".37 Then Berkof makes an important observation. He says that it is important to remember that there has been, in many respects, a substantial shift in the World Council of Churches since 1965.

The chief cause of this shift has not been lain in the WCC itself but in the rapid growth of tension between First and Third Worlds. The Council has taken this to be a critical challenge to which it has responded by increasing its statements and activities in the field of social and political ethics. New concepts like ‘development’, ‘revolution’, ‘racism’ and ‘liberation’ advance to the center of the stage. The press and other public media took a much closer interest in, and in a few years convey to the public quite a new image of WCC. Does this mean that there has been a fundamental change in the Council? The Berlin people think it does. 38

Berlin Evangelicals also expressed the opinion that things were, in general, much better under Visser’t Hooft.39

At Uppsala, M.M. Thomas from India, was elected as Chairman of the Central Committee of the World Council of Churches. Philip Potter from Jamaica became its General Secretary in 1972. At the same time, Emilio Castro from Latin America was appointed as the Director of the Division of World Mission and Evangelism. The influence of theologians from the Third World was substantial at Bangkok. There was no doubt that the growing influence of the churches from the Third World in the ecumenical movement was part of the problem of the Evangelicals.

In July 1975, Donald McGavran and Peter Wagner addressed an open letter to Philip Potter warning him of the imminent prospect of a division among confessing Christians "as deep and lasting as that which took place in Europe in the sixteenth century". They spoke of the forthcoming Nairobi assembly of the World Council of Churches as a possible last opportunity to avoid such a rift, urging that the Assembly should reverse the trend of Uppsala-Bangkok.40

Response of the World Council of Churches

The World Council of Churches was certainly aware of the Evangelicals’ criticism of the ecumenical movement. John A. Mackay of Princeton Theological Seminary and a great ecumenical leader in the USA, was sympathetic to some of the concerns of the Evangelicals. In an article he wrote in 1966 in Christianity Today (an Evangelical Journal), he spoke of what the ecumenical movement could learn from the conservative Evangelicals. He pointed out the contribution which the Evangelicals could make in the sphere of mission, their emphasis on conversion, and in their stress on the Bible. The Evangelicals always insisted on Bible as the final rule of faith and practice and their criticism of the Ecumenicals was that they did not take the Bible seriously enough. In 1961, at the New Delhi Assembly, the basis of the World Council of Churches had been altered to include references to ‘Scriptures’ and ‘Trinity’. It now reads that the World Council of Churches is a ‘fellowship of Churches which confess the Lord Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior according to the Scriptures and therefore seek to fulfil together their common calling to the glory of the one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit’. In order to explore deeper what it means to live, confess and act, ‘according to the Scriptures’ as Christians, Churches and a Council of Churches, the World Council of Churches established a portfolio of Biblical Studies in 1971. Bible studies have been central to the ecumenical movement from the very beginning. However, the World Council of Churches was aware that no form and no movement can escape the danger of misusing the Bible, of seeking only a ‘Biblical rationale’ for what is already thought and done. "One can easily become deaf to biblical judgement, gradually replacing the presence of the ever-astonishing Christ, witnessed to in Gospels, with a closed system of Christology or ideology". The portfolio was established with the hope that through its work, ‘the voice of God of the Bible will be heard as a judging and renewing power in the Council’s work’. Framing Bible study for the member churches was one of its tasks. The portfolio also had another purpose to serve - to become an instrument in building up relationships with such groups as conservative Evangelicals and the renewal movements within the Roman Catholic Church. "Churches and persons involved at present in the World Council of Churches’ life and work can learn much from the above mentioned groups; and, on the other hand, these groups need the correction and support of the ecumenical fellowship".41

The World Council was becoming increasingly aware of the fact that Evangelicals constituted a large proportion of the membership of the World Council of Churches. The real issue was not, therefore, ‘Evangelical’ versus ‘Ecumenical’, but instead, how the testimony of those who call themselves evangelical was to be taken as part and parcel of ecumenical life. The Division of World Mission and Evangelism of the WCC, under the leadership of its Director Philip Potter undertook a review of the World Council of Churches’ role in evangelism, the report of which was presented to the Central Committee in 1967. Philip Potter, being sensitive to the charge that evangelism was a neglected vocation in the life of the Council, examined three questions: Is evangelism at the heart of the life and work of the Council? What does the World Council of Churches mean when it speaks of evangelism? What is to be done to manifest more evidently the central concern of the World Council of Churches and its member churches for evangelism?42

In 1973 a symposium on evangelism was held which included, amongst its delegates, a number of conservative Evangelicals. The discussions revealed a wide spectrum of views but also significant lines of convergence. At the end of the symposium, Visser’t Hooft who was an observer at the meeting said, "I could put in one single phrase the importance of this meeting for me. It has for me largely demythologized the ecumenical-evangelical relationship".43 It was not only the Commission on World Mission and Evangelism (CWME) in the World Council of Churches which gave greater attention to evangelism, but also other departments. In 1971 the Faith and Order Commission undertook a serious, study of ‘Giving Account of the Hope that is in Us’. This was undertaken because the Commission was aware that "the one community is a confessing community, and the churches will, therefore, find the way to unity only if they learn to speak together of their common faith".44

Nairobi Assembly, 1975

The Fifth Assembly of the World Council of Churches was held in Nairobi, Kenya from Nov 23-December 10, 1975. The theme of the Assembly was "Jesus Christ Frees and Unites". James A. Sherer points out that the Nairobi Assembly met at a time when the Churches of Africa, the Orthodox theologians, the Evangelical world and the Roman bishops were all giving attention to the meaning and practice of evangelism. Nairobi not only reflected these antecedents, but also sought to build bridges toward other Christian movements in relation to the missionary and evangelistic task.45 The All Africa Conference of Churches at their meeting in 1974 gave special attention to evangelization of frontier situations. The World Council of Churches Commission on World Mission and Evangelism had convened a consultation of Orthodox theologians at Bucharest in 1974 on the subject of Confessing Christ Today, as a preparation for the Nairobi Assembly. At this meeting, Prof. Meyendorff mentioned that Confessing Christ Today "will be a major theme of the ecumenical dialogue in Nairobi. The mere adoption of such a theme represents a response to the wide spread criticism that the ecumenical movement has departed from its original Christian concern".46 The Consultation made it clear that the uncommunicated Gospel (Good news) is a potent contradiction.

Two aspects of mission were emphasized by the consultation. On the one hand, mission was seen as confessing the activity of the Logos in all creation. The understanding of Christ as the Logos of God and the recovery of the doctrine of the cosmic Logos for missionary theology was strongly stressed. On the other hand, mission takes place in the context of struggle with and resistance to evil and sin, of overcoming divisions which prevail in the social world, in various forms of injustice and oppressions, and in the material world of sickness and death. The cross is the inevitable context of mission. By its nature, mission is first of all a clash between two ways of existence, between the new creation and the fallen world. The church’s mission cannot build up the kingdom of God by historical process but can lead to a taste of the kingdom. Mission points to the event of communion which God offers to the world as the Body of Christ, the Church, that is a community in history which reflects the life of God as communion.47

In July 1974, the World Congress of the Evangelicals met in Lausanne. Finally, in October 1974 the Third General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops met in Rome to consider, "Evangelization in the Modern World". The Synod affirmed that the mandate to evangelize all people constitutes the essential mission of the church. Addressing the Roman Synod, Philip Potter, the General Secretary of the World Council of Churches said that the ecumenical movement found its origin, amongst other things, in the requirements of evangelization that call for unity among Christians; the conviction of the World Council of Churches has been that evangelization is the ecumenical theme par excellence. This was the background of the Nairobi Assembly.

Evangelism received prominent attention in the plenary presentations of the Assembly. Bishop Mortimer Arias of the Evangelical Methodist Church in Bolivia spoke on the text. "That the World May Believe". Evangelism was highlighted in the report of the moderator. James A. Sherer observes, "The prominence of the evangelistic theme and the treatment it was given were surprising in view of the developments which took place between New Delhi and Uppsala. The earlier pre-occupation with mission in the secular world, and the sharp critique of churchly structures, were no longer prominent. In their place, Nairobi provided a churchly, confessional and triunitarian statement on mission. Nairobi marks the beginning of a new phase in the development of ecumenical mission theology, as seen in the attempt to reconcile ‘churchly’ and ‘worldly’ approach to mission".48

Bishop Mortimer Arias spoke of evangelism as the primary calling and responsibility of the churches and drew equally on the Lausanne Congress and the Roman Catholic Synod of Bishops as evidence. He proposed a holistic approach - the whole Gospel for the whole man for the whole world - rejecting equally a reduction of evangelism to- ‘saving souls’ and of the Gospel to a program of service or social action. He stressed that evangelism must be integral in content as well as in form, in the inseparable union of word and action; and it must be contextual. The Gospel cannot be authentic unless it is faithful both to the Scriptures and to real people in real contexts. Speaking of the unity of the church, Arias said that we are not seeking unity per se, but that the world may believe. We are sustained in the evangelistic task not only by the horror of a world without Christ, or by gratitude, but above all by the all-powerful intercession of him who prays, "That all may be one that the world may believe". Recalling the vision behind the act of integration of the International Missionary Council and the World Council of Churches, and the commitment made in New Delhi, Arias said "we have not always been faithful to our recognized calling; we have not always given priority to what ought to be our priorities; we have not always been worthy of our predecessors from Edinburgh 1910 to Mexico 1963; and we have not always fulfilled the hopes which gave rise to the WCC and its merging with the IMC". Hence he called the World Council of Churches to confession and repentance.49

John Stott, the British Evangelical leader, who played a prominent role at Lausanne Conference, in his response to Arias’ speech pointed out five things which the World Council of Churches should recover.

1. A recognition of the lostness of man. According to the New Testament, men and women are not anonymous Christians already in Christ and only needing to be told so. They are dead in their trespasses and sins. Universalism is a deadly enemy of evangelism;

2. Confidence in the truth, relevance and power of the gospel of God;

3. Conviction about the uniqueness of Jesus Christ. Of course there is truth in other religions and ideologies. But Paul’s argument in Romans is not that the knowledge of God saves men but they are without excuse because they suppress it;

4. A sense of urgency about evangelism; and

5. A personal experience of Jesus Christ: the greatest of all obstacles to evangelism today is the poverty of our own spiritual experience.

John Stott ended his response by saying, "We are all conscious, I think, of the wide gap of confidence and credibility which exists today between ecumenical leaders and evangelicals, between Geneva and Lausanne. "What do we do about this"?

Ecumenical leaders genuinely question whether evangelicals have a heartfelt commitment to social action. We evangelicals say that we have, but I personally recognise that we have got to supply more evidence that we have. On the other hand, evangelicals question whether the WCC has a heartfelt commitment to worldwide evangelism. They say they have, but I beg the Assembly to supply me more evidence that this is so.50

The participants as a whole were appreciative of Arias’ address. Jan Achimuk of the Orthodox Church in Poland later wrote that the most impressive feature of Bishop Arias’ speech was his forcefully expressed conviction that the proclamation of the Good News is not limited to the transmission of the content of the Gospel and of Christian doctrine, but that a loving, quiet, and respectful participation in the life of our neighbors, a readiness to help and to be involved in their everyday concerns, belongs to the very essence of proclamation.51

While agreeing with Bishop Arias’ holistic approach to mission, Metropolitan Osthathios of the Syrian Orthodox Church in India disagreed with the statement that unity is sought, not for its own sake, but for the sake of evangelism. For the Metropolitan, the unity of the church was not just a means but an end in itself. "That the world may believe" was the natural outcome and not the intentional effect, of unity. "The lighted candle dispels the darkness as the consequence of being a light. Similarly the world believes in Jesus Christ when the Christians become true Christians, the church the authentic body of Christ. ‘That the world may believe’ is the outcome of the manifestation of holiness, equality and unity modeled on the Holy Triunitarian structure," the Metropolitan said. He also took strong exception to the emphasis on 2000 million who are lost as the motivation for mission.

My evangelical brothers are in the habit of numbering the lost and those who have never heard of the gospel. I feel that this is a very wrong approach - biblically, theologically, psychologically and factually. Biblically we are not permitted to judge before the time. Theologically, in the words of Arias himself, "the grace of God is not confined to the church". Psychologically, it creates a superiority complex in the mind of the ‘saved’, and those who are approached with the gospel see the arrogance in our approach. Factually, no one knows exactly the number of those who have never heard the Gospel, and the number of those who have heard and yet did not hear it. And did not our Lord say: "Not everyone who calls me ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of God, but only those who do the will of my heavenly father (Matt:7:2)".52

The Metropolitan pointed out that there was a need to find a new motivation for mission and evangelism other than ‘lostness’ of the so called ‘lost’. Mission must become the spontaneous expression of the joy of Christian discipleship. We preach the Gospel to those who have never heard of the Gospel because we cannot contain the sense of release from sin and the joy of salvation. Hence evangelism is the sharing of a joy which is freely given to us by Christ.

The subject of evangelism was drawn into the center of attention of the Assembly by M.M. Thomas in his moderator’s report.53 Thomas said that since New Delhi, ecumenism had been marked by two thrusts which made it theologically distinct from the position of the earlier period of the World Council of Churches. First, the theological impact of the integration of Faith and Order, Life and Work and the missionary movements. It has produced interaction between unity, mission and service at theological and spiritual depth; each has been forced to define itself more explicitly in the context of the other two. Secondly, a deeper awareness of the contemporary realities of the world has made its own theological impact on ecumenism. This has been experienced through three channels. The large number of churches of eastern Europe, Africa, Asia and the Pacific, the Caribbean and Latin America, have brought with them into the Council the hopes, the aspirations, and struggles of their peoples, races and nations. For the first time, they have ceased to be external objects for observations and have become internal subjective realities of the Council’s fellowship. The Council has also listened to the poor, the marginalized, the oppressed people with a new sensitivity. Further, the lay experts with whom the Council has consulted on social questions, and the social scientists and politicians who have come together with theologians to consider their own Christian vocation or the church’s mission in the secular world, have brought to the Council a new awareness of the problems and tasks facing the contemporary world. As a result, most of our traditional understandings of and responses to the world lie shattered, and this demands of us fresh theological explorations at many levels. "The Council has come to realize that life and mission of the Church must be rethought in the context of, and in challenging relevance to, the human issues agitating mankind in our present historical situation. And, conversely, it has also realized that the contemporary world is prepared to listen to the Church’s interpretation of the human issues of our time only if this interpretation is set within the context of the Church’s faith in, and witness to, the renewal of all things in Jesus Christ". Thomas clearly pointed out how human issues are directly related to our concerns for Christian unity.54

Since the church and the world exist for each other in the Gospel, radical thinking is necessary in the concept and form of world evangelism. Referring to the Bangkok Assembly of the WCC, The International Congress in Lausanne, the Bishops’ Synod in Rome on evangelism in the modern world, and the Orthodox Consultation on Confessing Christ today, Thomas said that theological convergence in these meetings is striking in three points: Firstly, in their emphasis on the whole gospel for the whole man in the whole world; secondly, in their effort to relate evangelism to the identity of the church and to its growth, renewal and unity; and thirdly, in their affirmation of the realities of the contemporary world. For Thomas, these meetings and consultations are to be considered as conversations and encounters within the ecumenical movement. "Precisely because of this convergence, it is worth looking at the remaining divergences in the concept of evangelism, so that our dialogue at this Assembly may be more ecumenical . Speaking of the Bangkok theme, ‘Salvation Today’, Thomas pointed out that the consensus of Bangkok. Lausanne, and Rome with regard to the understanding of salvation comes at three points - the affirmation of its comprehensive nature, thc recognition of the eschatological basis for historical action, and the understanding of the church as a sign and bearer of salvation.55

The moderator’s report also dealt with some of the criticisms raised against the World Council of Churches. Referring to the criticism made by Peter Beyerhaus and some others that in the World Council’s emphasis on social and political justice there is present a social utopianism which denies the fact of sin and affirms a self-redemptive humanism, Thomas admitted that the danger is always present, but pointed out the opposite danger of not admitting the fact of divine grace and the power of righteousness it releases for a daring faith in the realms of social and political action. "And often anti-utopianism", he said, "lays itself open to the suspicion that it is not an expression of faith but an ideology of the status quo and excuse for non-participation in human liberation in history."56 It is the task of ecumenical theology to warn us against both these dangers, he said. For example, Thomas referred to the Faith and Order discussions on "Giving Account of our hope that is within us" where it is clearly affirmed that "the future of perfected humanity lies in the fullness of the Godhead" beyond this side of history where sin and death prevail. But our hope in the coming of the Kingdom of God in Jesus Christ takes on the character of concrete utopia, that is, an idea of our aim and a critical point of reference for our action in society. This provides us with an incentive to participate in efforts to build a more human social order in the perspective of the Kingdom of God. The Faith and Order statement then went on to point out how every social order is limited by the ‘continuing sinfulness of man’ which are meant to protect human beings in society. Given this limitation, "concrete social utopias can correspond to the eschatological reality of the Kingdom of God".57

In August 1973, Patriarch Pimen of Moscow and the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church wrote a letter to the Central Committee of the WCC, drawing the attention of the Committee to the statement of the Bangkok Conference on salvation. The letter stressed that the salvation completed by our Lord Jesus Christ and which is being realized through the action of the Holy Spirit constitutes the unshakeable foundation for the whole life and activities of the church. The truth of salvation is the very essence and the center of the Christian Gospel as a whole and it is the sacred responsibility of Christians to confess this truth and to safeguard its purity and wholeness. The essence of the truth of salvation should be understood or explained in full faithfulness to the Word of God and to the abiding tradition of the church. With regard to the Bangkok documents, the letter said:

Perplexity and great regret are aroused by the fact that in the ‘Letter to the Churches’ there is no significant reference - and primarily from the pastoral point of view - to that dimension of the process of salvation without which the very concept of salvation loses its implication. Nothing is said about the ultimate goal of salvation, in other words. about the eternal life in God; nor does anything point to moral improvement and perfection as an indispensable condition for the achievement of this goal... It is only just to say that every man has an inherent right to favorable conditions for him to enjoy all-round development in his striving for a full-blooded life... However one cannot agree with the opinion that where there are no conditions of life worthy of man one cannot even speak of salvation today. For salvation is not an adjunct to human existence or an ‘excess’ available only for those who are already in favorable condition, but is a bringing of man to a fullness of being from the state he is in now. This action by God demands hard human effort too and is carried out, if necessary, by the struggle against exploitation and injustice.58

Thomas in his reply also referred to the Declaration of the Ecumenical Patriarchate on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the WCC in 1973. Thomas accepted the criticism of the Orthodox Churches. He said:

The Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church has felt sometimes the WCC has not placed its thinking on the social content of salvation solidly within the perspective of the ultimate goal of salvation ... the eternal life in God, "with the result that appropriation of eternal life is made to depend on social conditions rather than social conditions on the appropriation of eternal life"; and the Ecumenical Patriarchate has warned us that in "turning towards the anguish of the man today", the WCC must not forget the basic truth that man sees himself as hungering for an answer to a basic question over and beyond his acute interest in the most vital socio-political problems of the day." The question is: What is the reason for man’s existence on earth, as a living person, as an ethical personality, as an entity stretching out towards something beyond this present life and finally embracing the eschaton? 59These comments and warnings must be heeded. For the historical and ethical dimensions of life will be handled superficially if we lack ‘awareness of their ontological and eschatological roots. But here again the point has been made by the Orthodox themselves that the hunger for meaning and eternal life is not merely ‘over and beyond’ but also ‘within and through’ the anguished longing for humanity. As Uppsala 1968 said, it is in the very cry arising out of the conditions of contemporary existence that the Church can discern that the deepest cry, albeit often unrecognized, is for the Triune God.60 According to the Bucharest Orthodox Consultation on "Confessing Christ Today", the Church’s mission is ultimately concerned with pointing to a quality of existence which reflects that of the Trinity; at this point, the anthropological, sociological, and ecclesiological concerns of the Church overlap; they all point towards "the event of communion which God offers to the world as the Body of Christ, the Church".61

With regard to the evangelical insistence on the priority of evangelism, Thomas said that people are not isolated individuals but are social beings inextricably related to the structures of nature, history and cosmos through which they express the creativity of their freedom as well as the sin of self-love and self-righteousness. Persons, society and cosmos interpenetrate one another in the unity of human existence. Therefore, if salvation from sin through divine forgiveness is to be truly and fully personal it must express itself in the renewal of these relations and structures. Such a renewal is not a consequence but an essential element of the conversion of the whole human beings.

In answer to the criticism that WCC is syncretistic because of its program for inter-religious dialogue, Thomas said that if the word syncretism denotes all processes of interpenetration between cultures and religions, the only answer to a wrong syncretism, which means the uncritical, superficial, normless mixing of basically incompatible religious concepts and cultural attitudes, is a Christ-centered syncretism which grapples with and evaluates all concepts and attitudes critically in the light of Jesus Christ and converts them into vehicles for communicating the truth of the Gospel and for expressing its meaning for life. "Acknowledging the common humanity given in Christ, can we not work with men of all religions and no religions for a secular human culture and community, and even for a secular humanism open to insights from all religions and ideologies, evaluated in the light of, Lad informed by, the true manhood of Jesus Chris?", he asked.62

When Thomas spoke of convergence, not all evangelicals agreed with him. John Stott, the British evangelical, pointed out that Lausanne had drawn a sharp distinction between salvation and political liberation and he was conscious of a wide divergence between Geneva and Lausanne. About this Thomas wrote later, "In a speech on evangelism given by the British evangelical, John Stott, he criticized me for seeing too much convergence in the theologies of evangelism of the Lausanne Conference 1974, the Roman Catholic Bishops’ Synod 1974, and the WCC Bangkok Consultation 1973. He wanted to emphasize the divergence between Lausanne and Bangkok, while others were happy that I had pointed out the convergence" 63 John Milic Lochman of the University of Basel, referring to the Moderator’s report later wrote, "He tried to point out ecumenical bridges to other movements, especially the Synod of Bishops in Rome and the Lausanne Congress. He was clearly anxious to develop something in the name of a common Cantus firmus in the matter of evangelism in spite of differences of emphasis. John Stott promptly called his attempt ‘over optimistic’ and this judgement was probably not entirely wrong. It seems to me, however, that the intention of M.M. Thomas’s report is clearly welcomed:especially in this matter the World Council should not pursue its own individual line. Evangelism is its traditional and permanent task". 64

Confessing Christ Today

In the section report in ‘Confessing Christ Today’, the Assembly expressed its commitment to evangelism and social action. In introducing the report, William Lazareth acknowledged the help received from the reports of the Bangkok Conference on Salvation Today, of the Lausanne Congress on the evangelization of the world, and of the Synod of Bishops of the Roman Catholic Church on evangelization in the modern world. He spoke briefly on the way in which the report moved from a bold confession of Christ alone as Savior and Lord to emphasize the Confessing Christ as an Act of Conversion. There are many different cultures in which the one Christ was to be confessed, and in them Christ is confessed especially by the Confessing Community of the Church in its Witness and Life. The report ends with a call to confess the whole Gospel to the whole person and the whole world, urgently, intelligently and imaginatively.65

Nairobi was, without doubt, a Christ-centric Assembly. In unambiguous terms, the report said that we boldly confess Christ alone as Savior and Lord. Jesus Christ is the one, true and faithful witness to God. His name is above every other name "that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.(Phil. 2:10-11)" To confess Jesus Christ is to be engaged in both evangelism and social action.

As our high priest, Christ mediates God’s new covenant through both salvation and service. Through the power of the cross, Christ promises God’s righteousness and commands true justice. As the royal priesthood, Christians are called to engage in both evangelism and social action. We are commissioned to proclaim the gospel of Christ to the ends of the earth. Simultaneously, we are committed to struggle to realize God’s will for peace, justice and freedom through out society.66

Confessing Christ and being converted to His discipleship belong inseparably together. "Without clear confession of Christ our discipleship cannot be recognized; without costly discipleship people will hesitate to believe our confession". Hence the report deplored cheap conversions. The report rejected all divisions in the thinking and practice between personal and corporate dimensions. "The whole gospel for the whole person and the whole world" means that we cannot leave any area of human life and suffering without the witness of hope. The report affirmed the necessity of confessing Christ as specifically as possible with regard to our own cultural settings. Though there is a great diversity in our confessions of Christ, nevertheless through the illumination of the Holy Spirit, we are able to recognize Him in the proclamation of Christians in cultural settings different from our own. This is possible because we confess Christ as God and Savior according to the Scriptures. With regard to dialogue with people of other faiths, the report said:

We believe that in addition to listening to one another, we need to know what people of other faiths and no faith are saying about Jesus Christ and his followers. While we cannot agree on whether or how Christ is present in other religions, we do believe that God has not left himself without witness in any generation or society. Nor can we exclude the possibility that God speaks to Christians from outside the Church. While we oppose any form of syncretism, we affirm the necessity for dialogue with men and women of other faiths and ideologies as a means of mutual understanding and practical co-operation.67

The report identified number of structures and social factors that obscure the confession of Christ. such as the structures of social oppression, economic structures, and structures of sexism. The report stated it is not only societal power structures that can obscure the confession of Christ. Sometimes the institutional structures of the churches themselves are oppressive and dehumanizing; often they uncritically reflect the values of their own cultures. "Where churches are identified with wealth and privilege both the preaching and the hearing of the gospel are hindered and Christ is obscured". Yet, the report stressed:

Despite all our cultural differences, despite the structures in society and in the Church that obscure our confession of Christ, and despite our sinfulness, we affirm and confess Christ together, for we have found that he is not alien to any culture and that he redeems and judges all our societies. Our common confession is "Jesus Christ frees and unites".68

The report made it clear that confessing Christ is a communal activity, the activity of the community in the spirit. "Those who take part in the life of Christ and confess him as Lord and savior, liberator and unifier, are gathered in a community of which the author and sustainer is the Holy Spirit. The communion of the spirit finds its primary aim and ultimate purpose in the eucharistic celebration and glorification of the Triune God. The doxology is the supreme confession which transcends all our division"69

The report made a call to express and proclaim the whole Gospel to the whole person throughout the whole world by the whole church. The Gospel is Good News from God. It always includes :announcement of God’s Kingdom and love through Jesus Christ, the offer of grace and forgiveness of sins, the invitation to repentance and faith in him, the summons to fellowship in God’s church, the command to witness to God’s saving words and deeds, the responsibility to participate in the struggle for justice and human dignity, the obligation to denounce all that hides human wholeness, and a commitment to risk life itself. In the process of communicating the Gospel throughout the world, the Spirit discloses ever-new aspects and dimensions of God’s decisive revelation in Jesus Christ. It speaks to our particular situation and context. In our time, to the oppressed, the Gospel may be new as a message to persevere in the struggle for liberation; to women the Gospel may bring news of a Christ who empowered women to be bold in the midst of cultural expectations of submissiveness; to children the Gospel may be a call of love for the little ones; and to the rich and powerful it may reveal the responsibility to share the poverty of the poor. The Gospel, through the power of the Holy Spirit, speaks to all human needs and transforms our lives. Because God so loved the whole world, the church cannot neglect any part of it - any person or group, or any aspect of life in the world. Evangelism cannot be delegated to either gifted individuals or specialized agencies. It is entrusted to the whole church. The report called the churches to begin the evangelization of the world at the level of local congregations, in the local and ecumenical dimension of its life : worship, sacrament, preaching, teaching, healing, fellowship and service, witnessing in life and in death.70

The subject of the church’s mission and service was raised and discussed in other presentations in the Assembly and in other section reports. For example, Michael Manley, the Prime Minister of Jamaica spoke on the subject "From the Shackles of Domination and Oppression", in the plenary. He pointed out that the churches have a clear duty to make common cause with the Third World in the search for a new world order. Christendom cannot cease from struggle until outrages that violate our faith are ended. The Third World needs to be clear about its moral foundation and set its own house in order by tackling the internal injustices among its members. He said:

I am concerned, therefore, that whereas the churches must first be concerned with Christian witness as it relates to personal salvation, they also have an historical mission to assist in the definition, validation, and articulation of just political, economic, and social objectives; and the ‘men of God’ ought to equip themselves to help the political leader renew his moral insight.71

Similarly, Charles Birch of Sydney spoke on ‘Creation, Technology and Human Survival’ and told the Assembly that our goal must be a just and sustainable society; and this demands a fundamental change of heart and mind about humankind’s relation to nature. "If", he said, "we are to break the poverty barrier for almost two-thirds of the earth’s people, if we are to continue to inhabit the earth, there has to be a revolution in the relationship of human beings to one another. The churches of the world have now to choose whether or not they became part of the revolution"72 Birch’s speech brought to a clear focus the church’s responsibility to creation, which later became a major concern of the World Council of Churches.

Nairobi Assembly was called at a time when the evangelicals. the Orthodox, the Roman Catholics were giving special attention to evangelism. It also took place at a time when the evangelicals severely criticized the WCC for its lack of proper direction in evangelism. The Russian Orthodox Church also criticized the World Council of Churches’ understanding of Salvation Today. Yet, M.M. Thomas has pointed out in his Moderator’s report that there were convergences between the evangelicals, the Orthodox and Roman Catholics at some important points. At the Assembly itself, as the plenary presentation and section reports indicate, efforts were made to listen to various view-points, promote reconciliation and arrive at consensus. By the end of the Assembly, as Kenneth Slack pointed out, "most of the members felt that there was more danger from undue stress on the evangelism of individuals than the other way round, despite widely expressed anxiety, given expression by Stott, that liberation in political, social and economic sense was in danger of replacing salvation from sin at the heart of the redeeming gospel".73 There was no doubt that, despite the narrowing of the range of disagreements, important differences continued, especially with regard to the meaning of salvation and the program of dialogue with people of other faiths.

At Nairobi, as Philip Potter said, none of the prophetic positions of the World Council was repudiated, including the most contentious program to combat racism. It refused to divide faith from action, evangelism from socio-political movement, and evangelical from ecumenist. It did not shirk from facing the issues which divide the world, our churches and ourselves as men and women, white and black, rich and poor. The participants were asking their churches and themselves to be more closely and extensively identified with the poor and the oppressed and to find new styles of living to express more credibly the identification.74

Nairobi did not repudiate or try to reverse the trend of Uppsala and Bangkok, as Donald McGavran and Peter Wagner wanted. However, the statement of Stephen Neill that Nairobi probably saved the World Council of Churches, was an exaggeration.75

It is important that channels of communications are maintained between the evangelicals and the ecumenicals. They need to heed and respond to each other and discover one another as partners in a common missionary calling. Dialogue between them is necessary for an holistic understanding of mission. In dialogue there is always openness and reception. Very often, as the history of the church demonstrates, creative and sound theological thinking took shape in dialogue and discussions with alternative points of view.

 

ENDNOTES:

1. IRM, July 1978. p. 352.

2. James A. Sherer, Gospel, Church and Kingdom, Minneapolis, Augsburg Publishing House, 1987. p. 121.

3. Alan J. Baileys, "Evangelical and Ecumenical Understanding of Mission", IRM, October, 1996, pp. 485-504.

4. Ibid., p. 487-88.

5. Ibid; p. 488.

6. Horace L. Fenton Jr. "Debits and Credits - The Wheaton Congress", IRM, October, 1966, p. 477.

7. Ibid., p. 479.

8. "The Congress of Church’s World Wide Mission, convened at Wheaton, Illinois, April 9-16, 1966", IRM, October 1966, pp. 458 -

9. Ibid., p. 470.

10. Eugene L. Smith, "The Wheaton Congress in the Eyes of an Ecumenical Observer", IRM, October 1966, p. 481.

11. Donald McGavran, "New Methods for a New Age in Mission", IRM, October 1955, p. 354.

12. Norman E. Thomas (ed.), Classic Texts in Mission and World Christianity, New York ,Orbis Books, Maryknoll, 1995, p. 158.

13. Ibid.. pp. 158-159.

14. Ibid., p. 169.

15. The Uppsala Report, p. 26

16. Timothy Yates, Christian Mission in the Twentieth Century, Cambridge University Press, 1994, pp. 197,198.

17. Norman E. Thomas (ed.), Op. cit.. p. 129.

18. Ibid., p129.

19. IRM no. 249, January 1974.

20. IRM, October 1996, p. 487.

21. Ibid., p. 489.

22. Ibid., p. 490.

23. Ibid..

24. Norman E. Thomas (ed.), Op.cit, p. 144.

25. James A. Scher & Stephen B. Bevans (eds.), New Directions in Mission and Evange1icalism, Basic Statements 1974-1991, Orbis Books, 1992, p. 253.

26. C. Rene’ Padilla (ed.), New Face of Evangelism, Hodder & Stoughton, 1976, p.12.

27. Ibid., p. 15.

28. Ecumenical Review, Vol. 40, 1988, p. 465.

29. IRM, October 1996, p. 491.

30. Ibid., p. 492.

31. Ibid., p 488.

32. Scherer & Bevans (eds.), Op cit, p. 30.

33. Timothy Yates, Op.cit., p. 208.

34. Walter Kenneth & Peter Beyerhaus (eds.), The Berlin Ecumenical Manifesto on the Utopian Vision of the World Council of Churches, Liebnzeller Mission Press, 1975.

35. H. Berkof, "Berlin versus Geneva: Our Relationship with the Evangelicals", Economical Review, January 1976, pp. 80-86.

36. Ibid., p. 82.

37. Ibid., p. 83.

38. Ibid.. p. 83.

39. Ibid., p. 82

40. IRM, October, 1996, p. 485.

41. World Council of Churches, Uppsala to Nairobi (Report of the Central Committee to the Fifth Assembly) 1975, pp. 52-53.

42. Ecumenical Review, no. 20, 1968, p. 171.

43. IRM no. 249, 1974, p. 122.

44. Uppsala to Nairobi, p. 81.

45. James A. Sherer. Op.cit, p. 127.

46. IRM, January 1975, p. 70.

47. Ibid., p. 67.

48. James A. Sherer, Gospel, Church & Kingdom, Augsburg Publishing House, Minneapolis, 1981, p. 126.

49. David M. Paton (ed.), Breaking Barriers, Nairobi 1975, SPCK, London and Wm. B. Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 1975, pp. 17-18.

50. Ibid., p. 19

51. IRM, no. 257, January 1976, p. 38.

52. Ibid., pp. 40-41.

53. The Report of the Moderator of the Central Committee, Breaking Barriers, pp. 226-243.

54. Ibid., pp. 228 - 229.

55. Ibid., pp. 231 - 232.

56. Ibid., pp. 234.

57. Breaking Barriers, p. 134. (See also Uniting in Hope, Faith and Order papers, WCC, Geneva, 1975, p. 86.

58. "Message of Patriarch Pimen of Moscow and all Russia and the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church to the Central Committee of the WCC", IRM, no. 249, January 1974, pp. 125-129.

59. Declaration of the Ecumenical Patriarchate on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the WCC, 16th August, 1973.

60. The Uppsala Report, p. 28.

61. Breaking Barriers, pp. 234-235. (For the Bucharest Report see IRM, January 1975, p.67).

62. Ibid., p. 236.

63. M.M. Thomas, My Ecumenical Journey, Trivandrum, Ecumenical Publishing Center, 1990, p. 443.

64. IRM, no. 257, January 1976, p. 43

65. Breaking Barriers, pp. 41-42.

66. Ibid., p. 43.

67. Ibid., p. 46.

68. Ibid.. pp. 47-48

69. Ibid., p. 48

70. Ibid., pp. 52-53

71. Ibid., p. 22.

72. Ibid., p. 23.

73. Kenneth Slack, in Timothy Yates, Op.cit., p. 220.

74, Philip Potter, Ecumenical Review, January 1976 (editorial).

75. Stephen Neill, Salvation Tomorrow, London Lutterworth Press, 1976, p.x.

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