The World Council of Churches: Seventh-day Adventist Conversations and Their Significance

The World Council of Churches: Seventh-day Adventist Conversations and Their Significance---Part 1

While in Rome in connection with the Vatican Council a WCC staff member and an Adventist representative came to the conclusion that an informal meeting of a small group of Seventh-day Adventists with an equal number of representatives from the World Council of Churches would fulfill a useful purpose Adventists being insufficiently informed regarding the WCC, and the WCC staff and church leaders being equally in need of additional and more comprehensive knowledge regarding the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

Historical Background

While in Rome in connection with the Vatican Council a WCC staff member and an Adventist representative came to the conclusion that an informal meeting of a small group of Seventh-day Adventists with an equal number of representatives from the World Council of Churches would fulfill a useful purpose Adventists being insufficiently informed regarding the WCC, and the WCC staff and church leaders being equally in need of additional and more comprehensive knowledge regarding the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

The first meeting was held in 1965, the participants being selected by the two organizers. Thus, the conversations got under way on a completely informal basis and were held under the sole responsibility of the participants. Subsequent meetings have become somewhat more formal, in the sense that the employing bodies of the SDA participants, including the three Adventist divisions involved, have given their approval by facilitating the selection of the SDA representatives. The General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists has been kept informed regarding the meetings, though it has taken no direct, active part in the consultations. The November 24-26, 1969, consultation was the fifth in the series.

Purpose of Conversations

The original purpose in meeting together was quite simple, straightforward and unpretentious: acquaint each side with the structure, functioning, and thinking of the other side. This frank exchange of views was to be accompanied by a sincere endeavor to remove misconceptions and improve understanding. Because of the incontestable usefulness of the first meeting, it was felt by all participants that the conversations should be continued on a regular basis. As a result, subsequent consultations have been more in the nature of dialog, by moving from the level of information to the niveau of serious theological discussion.

It was made unmistakably clear from the very start that there is no plan or expectation on the part of the Adventists of joining the WCC; nor is the WCC pushing for SDA membership, though, taking a long-range view, it may feel that this would be desirable. On the other hand, the Adventist partners in the conversations do not set out expecting the ecumenists to become a part of the Advent Movement, though they may feel this would be apropos. It is, of course, appreciated by all engaged in the conversations that there is a fundamental difference in the nature of the two organizations which precludes comparisons. While the SDA Church is a world church with established fundamental beliefs and one polity, the WCC is a great council or fellowship of churches representing an immense variety of theological beliefs, traditions, and church polities, with each church preserving its own doctrines, ecclesiology, and that measure of complete in dependence which it feels called upon to exert. The WCC is not empowered to legislate for its member churches.

In addition to generating increased mutual understanding, the exploration of possible areas of Christian cooperation and concrete, practical Christian service has become another valuable intent of the conversations.

Style of Meetings

The conversations have been conducted in a rather free, informal, and friendly atmosphere, under the joint chairmanship of the WCC and SDA conveners. Approximately fifteen to twenty participants have taken part each time. WCC participants have included members of the WCC staff (especially from Faith and Order) and representatives of various Christian traditions. The SDA group has included SDA church leaders and educators. There has been a greater turnover of participants on the WCC side. The consultations are held on the basis of equal footing, with each yearly meeting taking place part of the time at the WCC headquarters in Geneva and the rest of the time at the nearby Seminaire Adventiste at Collonges, just across the border in France. The core of each consultation centers around the presentation and discussion of papers dealing with the subject matter chosen for the meeting. In addition, time has been given over to general discussion and exchange of views regarding questions and developments of mutual interest or needing clarification.

Subject Matter of Conversations

The 1965 conversations started with a broad tour d'horizon and concentrated on discussion of the organization, beliefs, and aims of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, and consideration of the organization, basis, and aims of the World Council. The questions of proselytism and religious liberty were briefly touched upon. Subsequent consultations dealt with the following areas: Law and grace, Sabbath versus Sunday, proselytism and religious liberty, prophecy. The November, 1969, conversations pinpointed the 1968 general discussions of prophecy by coming to grips with specific exegesis of Revelation 13, 14; Matthew 24; and 2 Thessalonians 2, pas sages which Seventh-day Adventists believe have a real relevance to Christianity today.

Without endeavoring to present here a full summary of the subject matter of the conversations, a few general observations can be made. In the discussion on law and grace there was considerable agreement. If there was a difference, it was mostly one of emphasis, the WCC possibly laying greater stress on the superiority of grace and the SDA participants giving more emphasis to the compatibility of law and grace.

In the discussions dealing with Sabbath and Sunday, the incongruity of views, as could be expected, was quite substantial. For the Seventh-day Adventists the seventh-day Sabbath is a weekly memorial of God's creative act as recorded in the Old Testament, and of Christ's redemptive act in the New Testament. The fourth commandment, therefore, has continuing, heterocentric significance for modern man. The WCC participants connected the Sabbath commandment more with Mosaic social legislation than with Creation and felt that the present-day Christian Sunday is tied to the resurrection and eucharistic service, and has only a remote connection with the Sabbath requirement of the Decalogue. In regard to the related question of calendar reform, the discussions revealed that Seventh-day Adventists have no objection to a fixed Easter date in the present Gregorian calendar, but strongly oppose calendar reform of the "blank"- day type, which would disrupt the orderly succession of the weekly cycle by interposing from time to time extra days. This would cause the first (Sunday) or seventh (Sabbath) day of the week to fall on other days. The WCC participants expressed similar opposition to this type of new calendar suggested in some circles.

The agreement in the discussions about religious liberty was very substantial in deed. Increased cooperation in this area is considered by both sides to be desirable. Concerning proselytism, there was a large measure of mutual understanding. Agreement was complete regarding methods, the SDA Church having since 1926 an official policy which in its provisions closely resembles the 1961 WCC document entitled "Christian Witness, Proselytism, and Religious Liberty." Both sides fully agreed that conversions can only come by uncoerced faith, and sharing of Christian conviction is not only a right, but a duty. Conversations did reveal some divergence of views regarding relationships and ecumenical implications of Christian witness. Seventh-day Adventists have a deep conviction that it is their duty to proclaim their distinctive witness to all men, and the church therefore consistently stands aloof from territorial comity arrangements. There was some discussion regarding the proper use of the term proselytism. Both sides admitted that the expression is somewhat ambiguous, because the word has received in ecumenical circles a definitely pejorative connotation, implying corrupted witness, which does not harmonize with the common dictionary definition of proselytism.

The Faith and Order Secretariat has prepared an excellent analysis of the discussions regarding "Apocalyptic Prophecy." Suffice it to say here that while exegesis of particular passages does not by any means always lead to disagreement, there are some marked differences in the respective under standing of the prophetic and apocalyptic texts. The conversations indicated that the SDA approach tends to be more "systematic" (looking for inner coherence and parallels between various apocalyptic texts) and the WCC approach more "situational" (looking for the original purpose and situation for which the texts were written). The WCC side greatly underlined the "paranetic" nature of prophecy, while the SDA representatives dealt at greater length upon the "predictive" dimension of the apocalyptic writings.

(To be continued)


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May 1970

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