Evangelism and the ecumenical movement

While there are pitfalls in the ecumenical understanding of evangelism, there are enriching dimensions as well.

Bert B. Beach, Ph.D., is former director of the Public Affairs and Religious Liberty Department, General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Silver Spring, Maryland, United States.

The 1910 World Missionary Conference in Edinburgh may well be considered the foundation stone for the modern ecumenical movement. That it was a "missionary" conference indicates an early connection between ecumenism and evangelism. In 1921 the Edinburgh Continuation Committee evolved into the International Missionary Council. When the council was founded, many viewed it not only as an instrument to coordinate the evangelistic and missionary activities of various national missionary societies, but also as an agency to unite Christians in the search for justice in international and interracial relationships. This early tendency toward a sociopolitical orientation in mission needs to be remembered for its influence on the World Council of Churches later. In 1961 the International Missionary Council was integrated into the World Council of Churches. The result: the Commission on World Mission and Evangelism. At that time, the advocates of the merger claimed that the integration was being done because the WCC had taken "the missionary task into the very heart of its life."1 However, its subsequent history seems to indicate that the WCC has been suffering from evangelistic heart trouble!

Though evangelism played a role during the organization of the World Council of Churches in Amsterdam in 1948, it was largely lost sight of until 1975, when the Nairobi assembly reaffirmed its commitment to evangelism. Likewise, the WCC Central Committee meeting in 1982 also issued a declaration on evangelism.

In 1973 the Bangkok meeting of the Commission on World Mission and Evangelism called for a moratorium on North Atlantic missionaries. Many perceived this as an ecumenical trend away from traditional missionary work. This step, in fact, followed the Barbados Declaration of 1971, which resulted from a WCC financed symposium on racism. The declaration called for the suspension of "all missionary activity" among South American Indians because evangelization of this native population was considered a spurious religious approach akin to colonialism.2

The next major WCC conference on evangelism was held in Melbourne in 1980. The theme "Your Kingdom Come" did not refer to the Second Advent, but to good news, especially for the poor now. Though the conference affirmed proclamation, it essentially ignored the question of evangelistic proclamation to nonChristians.

In 1989 two major world ecumenical conferences on mission and evangelism took place. The WCC Commission on World Mission and Evangelism met in San Antonio, Texas. A month later the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization held its conference in Manila.

There was very little cooperation be tween the two conferences: the first fol lowed the WCC line: the second the approach of "conservative evangelicals." As Alan Neeley and James R. Scherer have noted, the two conferences didn't pass each other as ships in the night, but signaled each other as ships passing in the day.

The two conferences stressed clearly two different approaches. The San Antonio meetings emphasized mission in Christ' s way by making the gospel known in deed and word. This emphasis included the new dimension of ecological concerns as part of mission. Evangelism was mentioned only in a perfunctory way, and the hope of the Second Coming escaped all reference. The Manila conference, on the other hand, focused on the theme "Proclaim Christ Until He Comes" to make Christ known in word and deed. The Manila conference recognized social action as needed, but stressed evangelism as primary.3

So much on historical landmarks; now we turn to specific consideration of the World Council of Churches and evangelism.

WCC and evangelism

The term evangelism (and even more so evangelization) is hardly seen in WCC documents since the New Delhi assembly in 1961. This has led Priscilla Pope-Levison to state that evangelism is a "suppressed concept in WCC circles." 4 Among ecumenists, the favored terms are witness and mission, not evangelism.

Both the New Delhi assembly of the World Council of Churches (1961) and the Mexico City meeting of the Commission on World Mission and Evangelism (1963) saw evangelism as the "whole church" presenting "the whole gospel to the whole world." However, it was made clear that the whole gospel includes not only proclamation of Christ but working for justice and peace, including political action. Instead of calling people out of the world through conversion, ecumenical evangelism invites people in conversion into the world to perform deeds of faith. The whole gospel, in ecumenical understanding, not only reconciles individuals with God but structures them in their work, including the socioeconomic realm. Evangelistic proclamation (Melbourne, 1980), we are told, can never be general ("Jesus saves"), but must be specific and contextual. Especially, it needs to denounce injustices in order to make proclamation both credible and trustworthy.

In 1982 the WCC produced an important document entitled "Mission and Evangelism: An Ecumenical Affirmation." Several concepts emerged from this study:

1. Evangelism and social action go together.

2. Evangelism must make the good news a reality in the life of the poor.

3. Evangelism must encourage personal conversion through accepting the saving lordship of Christ.

4. Evangelism must sow seed locally in order to develop local churches (a rather new evangelistic concept in WCC documents).

The 1982 WCC document also challenged member churches to witness to Christ's uniqueness and "cooperate in witnessing to the millions of people who have not yet had an opportunity to respond to the gospel.5

In 1989 the Commission on World Mission and Evangelism met in San Antonio. This was a crucial conference for defining the relationship between ecumenism and evangelization. Out of this conference's reports, six concepts relative to evangelism may be noted:

1. The conference saw the just use and distribution of land as an important aspect of fulfilling mission in Christ's way.

2. After hearing reports that some U.S.-based churches, parachurch organizations, and sects supported "ideologies and practices of domination through evangelism and aid programmes that promote and protect U.S. interests," the session called for an end to evangelistic practices that promote U.S. hegemony.6 Arie Brouwer, then general secretary of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A., went so far as to denounce the "pernicious" connection between national power and conservative evangelical foreign mission enterprises.7

3. The conference declared that "material" and "spiritual" gospel must be one.8

4. The conference endorsed the idea that the mission of WCC involves participation in struggle and suffering. This includes the use of power in violent action where nonviolent means "have been tried and crushed." 9 All this was seen as part of the missionary task working for justice.

5. San Antonio saw an "inextricable relationship" between ecumenism and evangelization, and postulated that working the way of Christ requires that churches "necessarily join their actions where possible." 10

6. Eugene Stockwell, the retiring director (1984-1989) of the Commission on World Mission and Evangelism, spoke on the topic "Mission Issues for Today and Tomorrow." What were the issues? He talked about foreign debt; global annihilation; the pain of war, torture, hunger, poverty, and divisions. He said nothing about the problem and pain of billions lost in sin without salvation. For him, apparently, this was not one of the mission issues for today and tomorrow.

Evangelistic issues in the setting of ecumenism

Evangelism and social responsibility. As we have already indicated, the main line ecumenical movement has emphasized socioeconomic and political involvement to the neglect of proclamation evangelism. In San Antonio, not surprisingly, the emphasis was on doing evangelism by defending the needy and the oppressed, denouncing racism, classism, sexism, and even nationalism.

We can agree that the gospel must be both heard and seen, and that gospel deeds must accompany gospel words. We need good news and good works, but the overarching responsibility must be evangelism.

It is interesting to note that conservative evangelicals have moved toward social concern as part of Christian mission. However, they still give evangelistic proclamation priority. For example, the "Grand Rapids Report Evangelism and Social Responsibility" of June 1982 proposed three proper relationships between evangelism and social responsibility:

1. Social action is a consequence of evangelism (evangelism precedes).

2. Social action can be a bridge to evangelism (evangelism follows).

3. Social action accompanies evangelism (evangelism accompanies).

John Stott is right: social action is not evangelism, and mission must include both evangelism and service. Social action is part of our Christian service responsibility. It is a thrust parallel with evangelism, but not evangelism.

Evangelism and proselytism. The mainline ecumenical movement has condemned "proselytism." But what is proselytism? There are two basic definitions. First, the dictionary definition that refers to converting a person from one belief to another and this has been the traditional understanding of evangelism since the days of Paul. Second, the ecumenical definition that refers to "corrupt witness," using wrong methods, such as offering material inducements, making false statements regarding other churches, playing on the ignorance of people.

Increasingly, proselytism is seen as evangelizing the wrong address! San Antonio declared: "Active proselytism aimed at gaining members from another Christian church is contrary to the spirit of Christ." But San Antonio went even further: Evangelism that does not pro mote good relationships with other Christians "must inevitably be called into question" 11

How much good relationships can evangelism really promote when members leave one church to join another? Little, if any. The result of following that dictum would be no evangelism among those who already have church member ship, even if in name only. Apparently this is what the WCC and most ecumenists would like to see.

Another aspect of evangelism, seen as corrupt witness and proselytic in nature, is "programmes for denominational aggrandizement." 12 Furthermore, San Antonio declared that witness deteriorates into counterwitness when there is a denial of "the authenticity of the faith experience of other Christians. All unhealthy competition in mission work should be avoided as constituting a distorted form of mission," 13 and therefore being proselytism. It should be noted, in passing, that the Manila conference of conservative evangelicals (1989) also indicated that churches and mission agencies should cooperate in evangelism and repudiate "competition" and "duplication."

In theory, San Antonio recognized that Christian churches can become "in grown," "stagnant," not involved in evangelism. In such cases, Christians should not try to evangelize other groups with a view to drawing them away from their traditional churches, but rather "play a catalytic role in renewal for mission" and identify with the local faith community. 14 In practice, this approach would make Seventh-day Adventist evangelism almost impossible in a country like Greece.

Ecumenism, evangelism, and non- Christian faiths. Dealing with non-Christian religions is certainly an important aspect of evangelism. How does ecumenism view the Christian relation ship to other great religions? The traditional evangelical position has been that salvation is only through Christ and that the gospel must go to all. The ecumenical position is much more open and sees salvation in other religions. The Vancouver assembly (1983) stated that in all great religions there is a true search for God (but it didn't actually say that this search could find God!).

The San Antonio conference stated that it is the Christian task to invite others to accept the lordship of Christ. On the other hand, Christians must also recognize that they can never claim to have a full understanding of truth, and that they "cannot set limits to the saving power of God." As Christians we can testify that Christ is our salvation, but San Antonio did not say Christians can testify that Christ is also their (non-Christians') salvation. Christians are to be witnesses, not judges of others; they can be "missionary" and "nonaggressive" at the same time. 15 "Jesus is not the only way" if this means that one has to "name Jesus" to be saved. We need to be open to "God's gifts of grace so evident" in many other religions. 16 Emilio Castro, the WCC general secretary, stated at the San Antonio conference that the "cause of God's kingdom has other advocates" outside the Christian church and that "others are engaged in God's mission even without knowing the name of Jesus." Such others include those fighting for freedom and justice. 17

These statements are somewhat ambiguous. There is in WCC circles an unresolved tension between the evangelistic commission and the concept that "God is present in and at work in people of other faiths." In the Seventh-day Adventist Church, there is a similar polarity between the urgency of the missionary task of preaching the gospel in preparation for the promised return of the soon-coming Lord and the assurance that God is mighty to save even outside organized Christianity.

However, as Seventh-day Adventists we believe that this church has a special task to proclaim the message of salvation in its end-time setting. We also know that God's saving action reaches out beyond the borders of our church and even beyond other Christian churches to those within non-Christian religions or those with no religion (Rom. 2:14,15). But we also know that Christian evangelization cannot relinquish or relativize the truth including "present truth" in a current defensive or apologetic reaction to past Christian arrogance and the sins of Western colonialism. There is, indeed, "no other name" (Acts 4:12, NKJV). How ever, if our evangelization is to be credible and successful, then we ourselves as its agents must not obscure the good news by sloppy biblical understanding, isolationism, divisions, self-seeking material greed, and unjust practices within the church.

Evangelism and dialogue. The ecumenical movement has long advocated dialogue and has been involved in it, including bilateral and multilateral dialogues with "living faiths." Some see dialogue as a form of evangelism, but many ecumenists view dialogue as some thing different from evangelism. The Roman Catholic Church, more than any other, is involved in ecumenical dialogue. Pope John Paul II in his encyclical Redemptoris Missio makes it clear that "dialogue does not dispense from evangelization." 18 Though dialogue and evangelism are connected, they are not identical, and those involved in dialogue must be "consistent" with their own religious beliefs, with no "abandonment of principles." 19 I would fully agree. In dialogue you need what Hans Kiing has called standhaftigkeit, that is, the courage and resistance of standing fast and firm.

The San Antonio conference stated that witness, far from precluding dialogue, invites dialogue. Dialogue "extends and deepens" witness. True dialogue does not water down Christian commitment, but is rather an "encounter of commitments." 20 In dialoguing with others, Christians are to discern the unsearchable riches of God.21 However, dialogue must always be conducted on the basis of equality, one-to-one other wise there is really no dialogue.

Contributions and pitfalls

To be fair, we must acknowledge several insights that the ecumenical movement (WCC) has given to theological understanding, with implications for evangelism. Such understandings should lead us to affirm that:

  • sin is not limited to personal life, but includes collective life.
  • the gospel is not to be equated with or obscured by a given culture.
  • the gospel has a justice dimension that requires Christian involvement.
  • evangelism/mission has a special option for the poor.
  • worship of success becomes idol worship.
  • institutional aggrandizement must not be equated with gospel advance.
  • mission includes stewardship of the earth's resources.
  • the sin of discrimination (race, sex, language, culture) denies the gospel.
  • evangelization is the primary responsibility of the local congregations.
  • evangelization with domination is wrong.

We live in an ecumenical age. We need to be aware of evangelistic dimensions and pitfalls that ecumenism brings with it. While our commitment to proclamation of the gospel must ever remain paramount, our methods and strategies should take into account these principles:

  • We must be committed to social responsibility, including standing for justice and peace.
  • Our evangelistic strategies should be sensitive to the values of divergent peoples, and we should not seek cultural domination.
  • Impure motives and unworthy methods such as concern for declining membership, subtle political agendas, and rivalry with others have no place in evangelistic endeavors.
  • We must maintain a constant vigil against secularism (absence of ultimate, theocentric meaning) infiltrating our churches and ministry. Interestingly enough, San Antonio suggested a way to combat this peril: not succumb to the spirit of the age nor withdraw into a "ghetto existence," but adopt a simple lifestyle "in which sharing and solidarity have priority over possession and individualism." 22 Simple lifestyle is certainly in harmony with vintage Adventism.
  • Evangelism must acknowledge and promote the role of the laity, both men and women.
  • We may use dialogue with appropriate parameters.
  • We must promote human rights and religious liberty because it is right to do so, not because we will benefit as individuals or as a church.
  • Evangelism must avoid narrow, exclusivistic, introverted approaches. We should not ignore what other Christians are doing, and should acknowledge that all agencies that lift up Christ are part of the divine plan for the evangelization of the world.23
  • In all that we do, we need to be faithful to the golden rule and deal fairly and honestly with other people, churches, and religions. We need to abide by the scriptural principle of always being ready to give a reason for our faith, but doing it with humility, respect, and honesty (1 Peter 3:15, 16).

1. The New Delhi Report, ed. W. A. Visser't Hooft (London: S.C.M. Press, 1962), pp. 249,250.

2. See Bert B. Beach, Ecumenism: Boon or Bane? (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1974), p. 183.

3. Alan Neeley and James R. Schsier, Missiology, April 1990.

4. Priscilla Pope-Levison, "Evangelism in the World Council of Churches, Part One: From New Delhi to Vancouver," International Review of Mission 80 (1991): 242.

5. International Review of Mission 71 (1982): 427-451.

6. The San Antonio Report, ed. Frederick R. Wilson (Geneva: WCC Publications, 1990), p. 51.

7. Ibid., p. 153.

8. Ibid., p. 26.

9. Ibid., p. 40.

10. Ibid., pp. 27, 28.

11. Ibid., pp. 75, 29.

12. Ibid., p. 29.

13. Ibid.

14. Ibid.

15. Ibid., p. 32.

16. Ibid., pp. 126, 127.

17. Ibid., p. 134.

18. Redemptoris Missio, encyclical letter of John Paul II (Vatican City: Libearia Editrice Vaticana, December 1990), p. 95.

19. Ibid., p. 97

20. The San Antonio Report, pp. 32, 33.

21. Ibid., p. 31.

22. Ibid., pp. 30, 32.

23. See Working Policy of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists (Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1990-1991), pp. 371-373.

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Bert B. Beach, Ph.D., is former director of the Public Affairs and Religious Liberty Department, General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Silver Spring, Maryland, United States.

April 1992

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