Europe has recently seen a number of interesting reactions to the Lausanne International Congress on World Evangelization and its covenant. One is the genuine appreciation the covenant must have found in influential circles of the Bishops’ Synod in Rome last November. It appears that copies of the covenant were circulated at the synod, and that some of the leading men would have loved to issue a comparable affirmation.
Reports of the Bishops’ Synod focused mostly on the intriguing aspects of church government. The subject matter that was the same as Lausanne’s, evangelization, received less attention. Yet one gets the impression that most of the main problems that plague Protestant unity were also alive at Rome, and that in the end the Pope and the bishops found answers similar to those of the Lausanne Covenant:
• Social service, yes; but no reduction of the message to a mere “social gospel.”
• Dialogue, yes; but no reduction of the uniqueness of Christ.
• Indigenization, yes; but not at the price of a moratorium on the internationality of the Christian faith.
Another echo of Lausanne is the remarkably friendly acceptance of its covenant within the mainline Protestant churches. The recent synod of the West German United Protestant Church on the subject of mission is a case in point. But a certain uneasiness remains. Leading opinion-makers today say: If Lausanne represents the spirit of evangelicalism, why all the fuss with the confessing movement and its Frankfurt and Berlin declarations? And the religious press in their reports from Lausanne were quick to intimate that this was a dogmatic provincialism that had by no means beset evangelicals in the rest of the world.
But it would be foolish to ignore the fundamental differences that still exist and cannot be explained away as matters of local church politics. They are of a basic theological nature. No appeals to church unity by leading figures, no amount of glossing over the hard facts that have created unrest in past years, will be able to remove this antagonism. It is no good, for instance, to try to calm the Christian public by saying that Bangkok 1973 only mentioned but did not vote for the moratorium on missionaries and money, when Lusaka 1974 did just that. Not even a declaration of loyalty to the Church’s task of mission (as given by all main speakers at the Berlin synod) and the willingness to quote the statistic of 2.7 billion unreached are enough.
“Mission” can mean many things nowadays. There is a strong tendency to interpret mission as inter-religious dialogue with reciprocity of witness, founded upon the assumption that Christ is at work in all religions. Here proclamation of the Gospel is debunked as propaganda, and preaching as an expression of a deplorable crusade mentality. On the other hand we see the social concern that is a necessary element of every true Christian stance almost identified with something very close to zealotism, i.e., including armed struggle for political liberation. The third motif (which is behind the moratorium idea), the quest for indigenization and nationalization of the Gospel, in some recent prominent statements comes near to rejecting not only Western cassocks and harmoniums but also the centrality of justification of the sinner. To let these things go unchecked for the sake of peace means to do theology with half-closed eyes.
It is no help either to earmark the debate as a mere folly of quarrelsome West German theologians who may already have a bad reputation for this particular pastime. Whoever does not see these developments as touching the very identity of the Church and its mission may not yet be fully awake.
I predict trouble ahead.
I marvel, for instance, at the stubbornness of some high-powered dialogians who will not even be corrected by the clear definition of possible Christian forms of dialogue given by Visser ’t Hooft in his 1972 Berkelbach-van-der-Sprenkel lectures. I shake my head over the obstinacy with which they, in order to push their ontological understanding of salvation, continue on all continents to quote John 3:16 without its distinction “whosoever believeth in him,” and Second Corinthians 5:19 without the following verse. I wonder what makes theologians go on and on quoting the reception of Isaiah 61 in Jesus’ sermon at Nazareth, Luke 4, as a program of socio-political liberation although his following activity in Galilee was nothing of the kind. I also observe the astonishing thrust with which some African theologians seemingly without apprehension propose the nationalization of Christianity although internationality is fundamental to the Church and although nationalized Christianity already has a sorry record of becoming the lackey of political nationalism in many lands.
Now I am sure that the battle is not a matter of progressive vs. conservatives or of ecumenicals vs. evangelicals. When I hear the working aims of mission as recently put by an evangelical speaker reduced again to “conversion of the individual and planting of churches,” I do not know whether I must be evangelical or ecumenical. It is wrong to reduce the Gospel. I want to be strictly biblical, and I shan’t bother about accepted party borders.
Biblical truth often consists of two times 100 per cent, a fact that our common or garden logic will not accept and often uses to create division. Mission is the proclamation of the kingship of Christ. He is indeed the Lord coming as a servant, but as the servant he also is the Lord. He is the example of the new humanity on earth, but not without his heavenly authority.
What we need is exact biblical-theological analysis. We need to study in depth the biblical meaning of dialogue (as John Stott began to do at Lausanne), and of the ways of God’s preparatory work with the non-Christian. We need to study thoroughly the forms and content of the prophets’ social messages, in contrast to ambiguous language in hastily drafted conference documents. And we might do well to concern ourselves with former experiences of unconditional indigenization in the history of Christianity. The sad seduction of the German church by nationalism in 1933 is one of the latest. Behind all this of course looms the question of the authority of the Bible, on which we need to work through to fresh clarity.
These are troubled days. But let us no longer avoid such work. Charles de Foucauld, the great saint and martyr of the Sahara, one day noted that Jerusalem was rebuilt in angustia temporum, under the pressures of the day. He added:
Difficulties are no passing states-of-affair, the end of which must be waited for, like the end of a storm, so that we would go on working when the weather has calmed. No, they are normal, and we must reckon that we will be “under the pressures of the day” for all the good we intend to do.
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