World Council of Churches-2

A look at religious world trends.

By FRANK H. YOST, Associate Secretary, Religious Liberty Department

With the setting previously described the World Council went to work.


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.

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By FRANK H. YOST, Associate Secretary, Religious Liberty Department

February 1949

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