The delegation divided on August 24 into four sections to study the four main subjects on the agenda of the council : (I) The universal church in God's design; (2) God's design and man's witness; (3) the church and the disorder of society; and (4) the church and international disorder. Under the guidance of the provisional committee, two hundred theologians and laymen in various countries had labored over these subjects, and had prepared materials for discussion, which were made up into four volumes and put in the hands of delegates.
While these matters were being discussed, the council proceeded to complete its organization. Six presidents were elected: (I) Archbishop Geoffrey Fisher of Canterbury (Anglican) ; (2) Pastor Marc Boegner, president of the French Protestant Federation (French Reformed) ; (3) Bishop G. Bromley Oxnam, bishop of the Methodist Church, New York area (Methodist, for the free churches) ; (4) Archbishop Germanos of Thyatira (Orthodox) ; (5) Archbishop Erling Eidem of Upsala, Sweden (Lutheran) ; and (6) Dr. Chai Tsechen, dean of the School of Religion of Yenching University (for the younger and missionary churches). Dr. W. A. Visser 't Hooft was continued as general secretary.
It was voted to hold a plenary session of the council every five years. A ninety-member council was elected, twenty of them chosen from the United States, but eight of the seats were left vacant in the hope that representatives of the Russian and Eastern Orthodox churches might soon occupy the vacancies. A small executive committee was appointed to carry on as an interim committee. Twelve departments of activity and study were organized within the jurisdiction of the council. A budget was voted for the year 1949, amounting to $539,66o, 85 per cent of it being pledged from the churches of the United States.
In addition to the six presidents, Dr. John R. Mott, veteran of foreign missionary activity and leadership, was made an honorary president. No single president was chosen, because it would have seemed necessary to have had a European presiding, and since the death of William Temple, there was no outstanding European available. Also, there was a desire that no one church should dominate in the presidency.
The council warmed up to its work when the reports began to come in from the four large study groups. For the council to define what the church of Christ is, proved extremely difficult, because in some communions the definition of the church is a matter of dogma. The statement finally adopted by the council was not conclusive. It was less difficult to adopt a report admonishing the church to be active in its witness for Christ in a world evidently needing that which the church of Christ has always professed to have.
When it came, however, to examining the report of the third group, which was seeking to establish a definition of the church's responsibility in a disordered society, interest became intense. Here the council was led to face contemporary economic issues. The report asked the council to pronounce, quoting Shakespeare, "a plague on both your houses" by endeavoring to point out the weaknesses and failures of both communism and capitalism. Communism, the report said, has failed in fulfilling its promise of redemption of the world; in seeking materialistic determination. It is indicted for failing to grip the hearts and loyalties of men, because of the methods used. Capitalism was indicted for subordinating the satisfaction of human needs to capitalism's objective of acquiring material values. It thus could be accused of following a philosophy which is practically materialism. It had allowed and fostered gross inequalities in society, and had permitted the subjection of people to such social catastrophies as mass unemployment. The church was urged to "seek new creative solutions which [would] never allow either justice or freedom to destroy the other."
One commentator pointed out that the condemnation of capitalism must have brought chills to the men who were responsible for raising 85 per cent of the budget by appeals to American pocketbooks. Taft sought to have the report toned down somewhat in its condemnation of capitalism, but obtained only the insertion of the words laissez faire to describe the kind of capitalism the council was condemning.
The report of the fourth group, dealing with the disorders in international society, had perforce to face the question of war. War was, of course, condemned as a means for solving international problems. Peace was set forth as an objective which must be attained if society is to be saved. The report condemned war as usually unjust, in that it involved in hardships all levels and areas of society. It gave some heed, not too disapproving, to pacificism, and indeed it was surprising how much approval there was from the delegates of the pacifist's position in respect to war.
From this fourth group also there came a statement on religious liberty, which inevitably attracts the attention of the many who have been fearing that a World Council of Churches might result in the loss of religious liberty to the minorities. A resolution condemning religious totalitarianism, which could have been construed as a rebuke of the papal system, failed to pass by only a few votes. The report set forth four principles of religious liberty on which there was a final unanimous agreement, although some delegates from the Eastern Orthodox churches objected to freedom of propagation of religious ideas. We quote from the Christian Century of September 22, page 990:
"(I) Every person has the right to determine his own faith and creed. (2) Every person has the right to express his religious beliefs in worship, teaching and practice, and to proclaim the implications of his beliefs for relationships in a social or political community. (3) Every person has the right to associate with others and to organize with them for religious purposes. (4) Every religious organization, formed or maintained by action in accordance with the rights of individual persons, has the right to determine its policies and practices for the accomplishment of its chosen purposes."
It is much too early to evaluate what happened at Amsterdani, and, of course, far too early to know what the outcome will be. Though there is some gratification expressed at what was done there, it can be said that in general there is disappointment and disillusionment. Time, in its issue of September 13, headed its discussion of what the council was doing with the rather caustic title, "No Pentecost." One commentator spoke of the contrast between the activism of the delegates from the United States and Europe's seeming passivism. The Czech theologian, Joseph Hromadka, who taught at Princeton while he was in exile from Nazism, declared, as he faced his return to Russian-dominated Czechoslovakia, "It won't embarrass me at all in returning to Prague. Of course, it's [the council] pretty negative and doesn't offer much in the way of action."
One observer pointed out that the result of the meeting was the creation, not of a union, but of a "loose federation" of the Protestant and Orthodox churches. It was remarked that the conference seemed more like a United Nations session than one of spiritual leaders. In reply to this objection, it is stated that a union might not be expected, since there never has been a union. But there has been achieved an "internationalization" and an "interdenominationalization." There has not arrived "doctrinal and organizational results," but "let us hope for advance in the recognition of the existence of a world-wide Christianity." Time's observer stated that the council succeeded in putting into verbal form the agreement its legates reached, and putting into organizational form the purposes its member churches had undertaken.
After all, the difficulties the council faced were serious. There were denominational loyalties to satisfy. There were sectional loyalties to bring to a common denominator. There was the problem of the place of women in the church, and the problem of the youth. Someone stated that these conflicting loyalties were horizontal rather than perpendicular ; that is, the tensions which made the work of the council difficult were not denominational or sectional tensions, but rather were strata running through all denominations and sections.
The most obvious points of tension, as the discussion of the report reveals them, were the tension between capitalism and communism, as witnessed by the debate between Dulles and Hromadka ; the differences in understanding and ideals between the free churches and the state churches, which was felt constantly throughout the council ; and the differences in theological approach, not in terms of tenets of dogma, but in terms of who God is, what He expects of men, and how men are to discover what God wants and carry out His will. That the council was able to draw up some kind of report in view of these conceptual fissures was something of an accomplishment.
Two striking facts emerge from an analysis of the discussions of the council. One is that the church, along with all human society, has moved to the left to a most extraordinary degree during the last century. That a conclave of church leaders, gathered from all over the world, could vote a condemnation of capitalism as a way of life, illustrates, perhaps better than all the discussions coming from political assemblies, lecture platforms, and trade union meetings, the extent to which human thinking and practice has moved toward the economic and political and social left. Socialism, undoubtedly the majority way of life today, is being stopped in its leftward course only by the extremes of communism. In relation to this remarkable fact, the United States emerges as a conservative nation, and Americans present to the world the peculiar spectacle of a people who, while priding themselves on their democratic spirit, are as a whole somewhat conservative in respect to economic and social life.
The second striking fact is the great difference between the attitude of the state churches of England and Western Europe, and the free churches of America. The difference between these two positions showed up very strikingly at the council, and it is surprising that so thoroughgoing a set of resolutions on religious liberty was adopted. The relationship of state and church in Europe, whether the state is showing a mild paternalism toward the church or is exercising a strong control, affects deeply the thinking of Christian leaders, and indeed of the laity. This is so not only for the great state churches but for the dissenting churches who live under the shadow of state churches. Since this gave an atmosphere of tension to the council at Amsterdam, it is not surprising that it also creates problems in all denominations which are carrying on an international program.
These two great points of tension are related; nay, they are tied together. Socialism—paternalistic at best, totalitarian at worst—must seek to regulate all the activities of society. The church has always been eager for and needy of material benefits. Socialistic governments in state-church countries have not proved in practice to be antireligious but have frequently helped the churches, and thus are able to strengthen their position in relation to the churches.
There was a time when it was thought that socialism was a temporary phenomenon in society. There was a time when it was thought that the state-church tendency was going out. The developments of recent years indicate that neither of these ideas is correct. What the outcome will be cannot be guessed in detail, but the tensions manifested at the Amsterdam council are certainly the tensions in society today.
The question arises, What of the common man, the ordinary member of a church, and his ideas concerning Christian world unity ? It has been demonstrated more than once that steps for unity are ordinarily urged by The ecclesiastics, and that the people are reluctant to make any moves to surrender denominational distinctions and loyalties. There have always been ministers opposed to one kind of unity or another, but opposition has been much more effective on the level of the laity.
A Gallop poll published on July 3, 1948, indicates that whereas 42 per cent of church members in the United States favor the idea of unity, 47 per cent are opposed, with II per cent having no opinion. The same report pointed out that the poll taken in 1937 indicated that only 40 per cent at that time favored union, whereas 51 per cent were opposed, and nine per cent had no opinion. In the eleven years that have intervened between these two polls, there has been a decrease of four per cent in lay opposition to union. Two per cent have moved into the column of favoring it, and two per cent into the column of uncertainty. This period of eleven years is the period of the second world war. It would seem that the experiences of the war led people to feel the need of the security to be found in united action. This is the period of the formation of the United Nations, and the period of increasing demand for unity by church leaders. It seems rather significant, indeed, that with all these pressures there has been so little decrease in lay opposition to church unity.
In this matter of popular opinion it should be noted that Dr. E. Stanley Jones, noted Methodist missionary to India, is consecrating himself to the task of bringing both clergy and laity to the support of a federal church, which he proposes shall be called the United Church of America, in parallel with the United Church of Canada. Dr. Jones has been traveling over the country campaigning for his plan of federation, and claims to have already ioo,000 signed pledges in favor of his plan. As this is written Dr. Jones is again starting out on a crusade for union which will take him into the churches of twenty-five cities.
Seventh-day Adventists have never been asked to join any of these unions, nor have they desired to do so. It is quite inconceivable that we would join. Our fears concerning church union are similar to the fears of the World's Evangelical Alliance. We agree, too, with the International Council of Churches that the only acceptable union of churches is a union based on the Word of God.
However, we go even farther than the International Council of Churches in taking the Bible, just as it reads, for a basis. We believe that the Bible was given by God and is profitable for all the instruction man needs to find salvation and to be spiritually equipped for the service of God. We believe that God has protected His Word, that it might always have this spiritual sufficiency.
When, therefore, we read in the Word of God that the seventh day is the Lord's day, we do not understand that worshiping Him on any other day can take the place of the day He has sanctified. When we read that baptism is a process of going down into the water in complete immersion and coming up again to a newness of life, and that it becomes us thus to fulfill all righteousness, we understand that no substitution of any other form, or the omission of it, is pleasing to God. When the Bible calls the condition of man between his death and resurrection a sleep, we understand that that means unconsciousness, and that belief in purgatory or a present burning hell or a state of bliss now enjoyed by the souls of the saved is a source of confusion that affects man's relationship to God.
We believe that when the Bible speaks of the literal, personal return of the Lord Jesus Christ to gather His church and to take it with Him to the presence of the Father, it means what it says, and that a miscomprehension of Christ's promises concerning His return has always had an adverse effect on a sound spiritual experience. We do not expect complete uniformity among children of God concerning the interpretation and application of every text of Scripture, but we believe that there are certain outstanding doctrines concerning the nature of the Godhead and His will concerning men that are fundamentally necessary to a right standing with God. Hence, when we say that unity can be formed only on the Word of God, we mean taking the Bible the way it reads.
More than this, we understand that Bible prophecy indicates the time has been when a powerful church prevailed over the minds of men, and by uniting with the state compelled men's consciences. It sought to crush dissent, and to compel religious uniformity. We understand that in prophecy this church is called the "beast," and we understand that there is yet to be formed an "image to the beast," which will repeat the intolerant program of its original. Someday there will be completed a united church which will repeat past persecutions.
Church unity based sincerely on the Bible could not become an image to the beast, because the Bible forbids intolerance and persecution, and the suppression of men's consciences. But a union of churches that is not based on the Word of God cannot know its restraints or maintain its sacred ideals. We cannot, therefore, engage in present efforts toward union.
We do not know what the future of the World Council of Churches may be, nor for that matter, what the future may be of the International Council of Churches, or of the World's Evangelical Alliance. We point no finger of scorn at the council's efforts at union. With them we lament the disruption of sectarianism and the bitterness of religious controversy. We rejoice in the council's stand on religious liberty. But we believe in the Word of God and its prophecies, and therefore, refrain from participation in any union which fails to declare itself for the fundamental truths of Scripture.