Evangelicals in Critical Discussion With WCC

IT IS A FACT of recent church history that the churches controlled by conservative evangelicals have generally not joined the World Council of Churches. This abstention is because they do not believe that the WCC legitimately represents the church's given unity in Christ. Furthermore, they have serious reservations regarding the deployment of the limited energies and means of the WCC and the churches it represents in dubious and, at times, divisive socio-political activities. . .

-secretary of the Northern Europe-West Africa Division at the time this article was written

IT IS A FACT of recent church history that the churches controlled by conservative evangelicals have generally not joined the World Council of Churches. This abstention is because they do not believe that the WCC legitimately represents the church's given unity in Christ. Furthermore, they have serious reservations regarding the deployment of the limited energies and means of the WCC and the churches it represents in dubious and, at times, divisive socio-political activities.

In actuality the WCC, during the past twenty-five years of its existence, has not conducted many formal theological discussions with nonmember churches. From the WCC's viewpoint, the discussions with the Roman Catholic Church have, no doubt, been most important. There have been some discussions, but no formalized conversations, with the Southern Baptists. Discussions have also taken place with representatives of the Lutheran Church---Missouri Synod, but these have not been structured or progressed over a period of time.

Of special significance, within the broad confines of a WCC--Conservative Evangelical dialog, have been the discussions with the Reformed Ecumenical Synod and with representatives of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. WCC representatives have met twice with the Moderamen of the Reformed Ecumenical Synod. From 1965 to 1972 regular yearly conversations were carried on between a small group of Adventist scholars and representatives of the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches, which led to a clearer understanding on the part of these officials concerning Seventh-day Adventist doctrine, belief, and practice. Papers produced as a result of these discussions were jointly published under the title So Much in Common

What do we mean by the use of the works "critical discussion with the WCC" in the title? Certainly not that faultfinding has been the main theme of the conversations. Nor do we mean that these conversations have always been an exercise in high level theological criticism. Furthermore, the discussions have not been critical to the extent that they have already fed to a crisis that will decide their favorable or unfavorable outcome. Critical in the context of this article simply means that the discussions between the WCC and conservative evangelicals involve careful judgment regarding truth, and are, therefore, of decisive, even crucial, importance with respect to their outcome.

Scriptural Concept of Unity

A first basic problem is the WCC's way of dealing with the scriptural concept of the "given unity in Christ." In the New Testament this unity is presented as a qualified unity-in-truth characterized by holiness, faithfulness, and obedience to the apostolic word and the commandments of God. The NT indicates, however, that the given and visible unity in Christ is threatened by anti-Christian penetration.

The establishment someday of complete organic unity of the churches is taken for granted in WCC documents (e.g., "Common Witness and Proselytism"). However, the NT speaks about final apostasy, about a "falling away." It envisions anti-Christian elements within organized Christianity, "in the temple of God" (2 Thess. 2:4, N.E.B.). The NT apocalyptic and eschatological picture of the people of God prior to the parousia is not one of a "jumbo-church" gathering all churches in organic union and drawing all mankind together, but of a comparatively small "remnant" keeping the "commandments of God and [having] the testimony of Jesus" (Rev. 12:17).

WCC pronouncements often present the given unity without qualification (e.g., the 1950Toronto statement on the church). The predicament in which unity-minded conservative evangelicals find themselves is how to join the WCC and lift up Christ the Divine Saviour before men by manifesting the given unity of the church, with out at the same time denying that Saviour and unity by "fellowship" with the false, humanistic gospel that apparently has a wide berth in not a few World Council member churches.

Authority of Scriptures

The ecumenical majority stance vis-a-vis the Bible, its authority and interpretation, is another critical problem that must be faced. Con servative evangelicals feel that the trend in ecumenical circles (as in contemporary church life in general) is toward devaluation of the normative authority of the Bible. The Bible by itself is not understood as inspired, normative, and authoritative. For many non-member churches, however, the Bible is not only a normative record of God's revelation and dealings with men but it is a unity.

While emphasis on Biblical harmony and unity can be found in the early days of the WCC1 the evolutionary ecumenical trend in Faith and Order, on the contrary, has been toward inspiration as experience, Biblical diversity, and even contradiction.

Conservative evangelicals express concern regardingthe current approach to the Bible in many ecumenical circles, based on such airy and elastic concepts as relativity, flexibility, fluidity, ongoing interpretation, contemporary situation, inspiration in immediate existential involvement. They fear that where the Bible is not accepted as normative in its direct meaning, the very basis of Biblical reliability and authority has been destroyed. This would tend to give the individual interpreter a theological carte blanche to select from the Biblical witness those aspects he wants to present as relevant for his own community.

On the other hand, WCC participants in the discussions have pointed out that an "authoritative" or "proof text" use of the Scriptures may reveal a simplistic mind and alienates thinking people. The question addressed to conservative evangelicals is how to avoid the misuse of Biblical authority in an oppressive sense.

A third issue that needs further ecumenical consideration and clarification is the problem of division. "Division is sin," and the "scandal of our divisions" have be come popular shibboleths in WCC circles. The WCC discussions with nonmember churches indicate that qualification and greater discrimination are needed in the use of such terminology. It should be clear that not all church unity is scriptural, nor all separatedness sinful. After all, separation in order to protect the purity of the gospel and the clear testimony of the Word of God, is a much lesser evil than unity in error and perversion.

Is there, perhaps, not the danger of the ecumenical movement stifling spiritual awakening and re form, because these could bring the so-called "sin of division"? In fact, a feature of dynamic spiritual awakenings, such as the Reformation, the Evangelical Awakening (including Methodism and the Reveil in Switzerland) has been a tendency to create new denominations.

Of course, denominationalism has been rife with self-deception and absurd excesses, but it has also been the fruit of vivid religious experience and renewal. It has played a role in support of human freedom and religious liberty. Ecumenists cannot overlook the fact that some of the most vital and dynamic elements of Christian history have resulted from uneasy dissidence rather than from comfortable agreement and status quo.

Religious syncretism is a fourth issue that must be squarely faced. Some ecumenists appear to project the view that the various Christian traditions present distorted versions of Christianity and that the churches should be brought together in a sort of "cocktail" mixture, in order to offer the authentic and balanced flavor.

The present dialog desired by the WCC with men of "living faiths" increases the danger of syncretism eating the heart out of Christianity, because religions like Hinduism and Buddhism are essentially syncretistic. Indeed, conservative evangelicals see syncretistic shoals ahead in what is now called "wider ecumenism," that is, an ecumenical outreach to the radically different religions that exist today.

The ecumenical movement began years ago by calling in question the age-old concept of heresy. To day it would seem that the term "paganism" is being brought into question. Does not the danger of syncretism lurk in the shadows of a dialog that implies a unifying parity between religions? The question that future discussion could usefully explore is whether or not, under these circumstances, dialog and world community risk becoming another savior, and ecumenism the syncretistic whirlpool of a general secularized mixing process.

Mission and Evangelism

A fifth important area that needs to be examined and discussed at greater length is mission and evangelism. Some ecumenists talk about evangelizing the impersonal structures of society. Conservative evangelicals fear that a major retreat from concentration on the proclamation of the gospel in order to carry out its unfinished mandate is being sounded in missionary strategy. It is becoming rather fashionable to label public evangelistic efforts as "ecclesiastical imperialism." True, arrogant and sectarian insensitiveness has characterized some evangelistic campaigns. But there is a more serious problem today; the risk is that the world will not hear the good news, because the church either does not proclaim or else is busy with all kinds of other demanding tasks.

Must Grow to Live

Church growth as an explicit aim of mission is rather out of style in WCC circles. We are told that "adding men to the church" is not really the important question. Viewed from one angle, this is true, but in another vital sense "adding" is a sine qua non for the life of the church. A church that is not "adding" is destined to wither and vanish like old soldiers who "never die" but "only fade away." It can be affirmed, as a general rule, that the nonmember churches are more missionary growth-minded than are WCC member churches.

Catholic Missiologist Adrian Hastings has recently written: "Unity schemes are in fact often more favorably received in churches which are declining rather than vigorously missionary." 2 The serious question that arises in this connection is whether WCC member churches find it more in their element to reach out for the lateral growth of ecumenism than to achieve the frontal growth of evangelism.

In 1911 about 30 percent of Protestant missionaries came from North America. In 1968 the corresponding figure was around 70 per cent. Almost three quarters of this last number came from churches or societies that are not members of the WCC. There appears to be little doubt that the center of gravity of Protestant missionary outreach is shifting away from the WCC bodies to churches of a more conservative evangelical stamp. Are unity and mission pulling in opposite directions? It is doubtful whether the ecumenical movement can long endure with out missionary urgency to actively spread the gospel message far and near.

A final issue that has come to the fore is the socio-political re sponsibility of the church. That Christians and the church have a responsibility in this domain, few would deny. Conservative evangelicals fear, however, that the concept of redemption is being stretched to the breaking point by applying it to current politicoeconomic structures of society. There are signs pointing to the church's becoming a mere sociological organization exerting a Red Cross-like more-or-less influence for good.

The WCC seems to view "new structures" as an essential part of salvation today. Those ecumenists, preoccupied with ethical action programs in the world, seem to view conservative evangelical emphasis on the new birth as a pietistic vestige of old-time revivalism. There is a widening hiatus between the traditional view of salvation as personal reconciliation to God in Christ and salvation seen largely as liberation from oppressive evils of society. A useful bridging concept presented at the WCC's recent Bangkok Conference, is that salvation from sin must somehow involve salvation for action to meet the world's crying needs.

Certainly, the church is both called out and sent into the world. However, when the overbearing stress is on the movement into the world, the danger is that the church will not only become this-worldly but actually worldly. The question conservative evangelicals ask the WCC, is whether in endeavoring to go out to the world it has not brought the secular world inside the ecumenical movement, to the extent that social ecumenism has now evolved toward secular ecumenism.

Love has social significance and the gospel a political fallout. Having said this, we must insist, however, that the church is commissioned first and above all to prepare men for the heavenly city, not for the secular city. The church should set before society reference points and goals. The first reference point must surely be that man was created in the image of God.

The central reference point is the cross, which makes possible through Christ the restoration in man of the image of his Creator. The final reference point is the parousia of Christ, which will mark the doom of Babylon and herald the establishment of the eternal kingdom of God on the earth made new.

Man must cooperate with the transforming Spirit of God. If man remains unchanged, the world will remain unchanged and continue to totter between Hiroshima and Armageddon.

The central problem in discussions between the WCC and conservative evangelicals is not so much one regarding ecumenicity or even WCC membership. "The Church is ecumenical when it is busy doing what the Church is called to do. . . . Genuine ecumenicity must, therefore, be viewed primarily not as a matter of ecumenical affiliation, but as a matter of ecumenical bearing." 3

The real question is: What is the nature, task, and calling of the church in this climactic period of human history? The duty of the church is still to be the church. Her task is to prepare men and women to meet their soon-coming Lord. The only valid ecumenism is one with a distinctly Adventist point of departure the first advent and Adventist point of arrival the Second Advent. Any other ecumenism is ephemeral.


1. A. Richardson and W. Schweitzer, Biblical Authority for Today.

2. One in Christ, No. 1, Mission and Unity From Edinburgh to Uppsala, 1972, p. 23.

3. The Acts of Reformed Ecumenical Synod, 1968, Supplement No. 8, p. 277.

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-secretary of the Northern Europe-West Africa Division at the time this article was written

July 1975

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