CHRISTIANITY TODAY asks the National Council of Churches to tell evangelicals about itself …

IT is GRATIFYING to be asked to write an article on this subject for an evangelical journal as respected as CHRISTIANITY TODAY. In preparation for this task, I asked my colleagues at the NCC to contribute their suggestions. A dozen responded, though not all of their responses can be included here. They expressed enthusiasm about this opportunity and eagerness to address this readership. Of course, mine must be the sole responsibility for what has been included and for what has been left out, but I am grateful for their help, and I hope you will be also.

Evangelicals have come into great prominence on the American scene in the past decade. Some among them—and some among the “mainline” churches—have viewed this as an occasion for heightened rivalry between the two groups, especially in such areas of disagreement as the propriety or effectiveness of prayer in public schools. A few mainline “liberals” have even viewed the greater assertiveness of evangelicals as an uprising to be put down before it gains an entrenched position in public awareness (perhaps not realizing that they are already too late).

Most leaders of the conciliar movement today, however, do not share that attitude. They have welcomed the emergence of evangelicals from what has sometimes seemed a self-imposed and somewhat anti-intellectual isolation, as one might welcome into the family circle a slightly shy brother who had needlessly been feeling inferior and rejected. Much of the animus that still divides us may be an inheritance from past experiences in which some brothers were the victims of intellectual and ecclesiastical snobbishness. They were not invited to join the local ministerial association, for instance, or to take a turn leading the high school baccalaureate or the Memorial Day service at the cemetery because they were not thought to be from, well, you know, real churches.

When the great day comes for the “real” churches to stand up, there may be some surprises. Since only the Lord of the church knows which the “real” churches are, Christians can only go by what they discern to be the outward marks of the church (such as “the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved” [Acts 2:47]). Many conciliar leaders now are seeing the marks more clearly in groups their predecessors had viewed with superciliousness. To the degree that we have caused or perpetuated this “putdown” of brothers or sisters in the faith, we have been false to our own ecumenical ideals, and bear an obligation to go more than halfway to repair the breach.

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While still disagreeing with some of our evangelical brothers and sisters on particulars, we are increasingly conscious of the far wider convictions and concerns we share with them. And we believe intensely that the Christian witness in the nation is not complete without strong, articulate, and authentic expression from evangelicals. We sincerely welcome them to their proper and vital role in the public dialogue and covet the opportunity for greater exchange of Christian insights with them in the church.

It has often been the case that various branches of the church have emphasized different aspects of the gospel, thereby providing valuable counterbalances and correctives to one another. Usually, though, they were unable to recognize the worth of each other’s contributions at the time. We want to do better than that. We want to explore and cherish others’ insights while their possessors are still alive to engage in give-and-take, rather than content ourselves with safely posthumous appreciations.

Inaccurate Labels

It is awkward and presumptuous to speak of “evangelical” and “ecumenical,” since many of the former are as ecumenical as the latter. (Has not Billy Graham invariably been willing to include in his crusades more denominations than were willing to participate in them?) And many of the latter are as evangelical as the former. “Mainline” is also presumptuous, almost as much as “real.” “Liberal” and “conservative” are relative, simplistic, and misleading. Even to say “we” and “you” tends to reinforce a polarity that overlooks the commonality we share in Christ. But without some terms, there can be no discussion, so I will continue to use “evangelical” and “ecumenical” with the caveat that they refer to branches of the same family.

Though inadequate and overlapping, these two terms are not entirely inappropriate. Most evangelicals are more consciously and visibly evangelistic than their ecumenical counterparts, who have to insist that they, too, are evangelical because it doesn’t always leap to the eye or ear. On the other hand, ecumenicals have an occupational trait that isn’t always visible in evangelicals: it could be called the “ecumenical itch.” We itch to get people together—even the most disparate branches of the church—in order to learn from one another, and so that the witness of the church can be more fully rounded and complete.

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This leads us to seek out and invite evangelicals far more than they seek us out. Perhaps that is fitting and necessary to make up for earlier condescensions, but after a certain number of fruitless overtures, one begins to wonder if evangelicals are afraid to engage in serious and continuing dialogue with us. When some evangelical leaders do participate in some of our programs or projects, they seem not to want it widely known lest it cause them embarrassment at home. This suggests that they, at least, know we are not ogres, but their followers don’t—or their leaders think they don’t—and they do not seem anxious to correct that misperception. That is understandable, since exoneration of the NCC is not their most pressing problem.

The NCC is the creature and dependent of the denominations that make it up, and it has their strengths and weaknesses, writ large. It does what they want it to do, and it does not do what they do not want it to do. It has often been the lightning rod or whipping boy for things the denominational leaders wanted to do, but could not do in the name of their own denominations. If the NCC is not responsive to the lay person in the pew, it is because a gap exists not between the denominational leaders and the NCC, but between the denominational leaders and their own grassroots members. It is a symptom they share with other churches and national membership organizations.

What we have said, we have said; what we have done, we have done, and I do not recall any statements or actions for which I feel we need to apologize—except perhaps that they were not more vigorously implemented. Some may not have proved as wise or effective as we thought them at the time, and some may not have been acceptable to others, then or now. But they were undertaken in what we believed to be fulfilment of the requirements of the gospel as we understood it, and that is all that anyone is called to do.

Other Facets Of The Ncc

Some of those actions have had—for better or for worse, depending on one’s point of view—an effect on the nation’s history. But rather than take a posture that is either triumphalist or defensive, I should like to mention a number of things the NCC does involving evangelicals that are not widely known, or that may be of special interest to them.

1. Publication of the Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches, which for 64 years has been the sole and indispensable reference work providing objective data about organized religion in the U.S., including, of course, evangelical bodies.

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2. Coordination of the 1978 Gallup Study of the Unchurched American, in which several evangelical groups participated.

3. Provision by the Associated Mission Medical Office of training courses for mission health professionals on such topics as “Medicine in the Tropics.” Some of these courses have been attended by far more registrants from evangelical mission agencies than from Roman Catholic and NCC member agencies together.

4. Conference on “Government Intervention in Religious Affairs,” the papers from which were published under that title this year by Pilgrim Press. The conference was cosponsored by the National Association of Evangelicals, the Southern Baptist Convention, the Lutheran Council, the Synagogue Council of America, and the U.S. Catholic Conference, and was attended by representatives of over 90 percent of organized religious bodies in the U.S.

5. Research project on religious television, which includes among its financial supporters and planners the Christian Broadcasting Network (Pat Robertson), the PTL Club (Jim Bakker), and other electronic church ministries, as well as the Southern Baptist Convention and other evangelical bodies.

6. Survey of church-based child day care services, financed mainly by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation, which will encompass the largest number of local churches ever included in a nationwide study.

7. Protecting the sanctity of religious conversion, whereby so-called deprogrammings are deemed illegal uses of force to reverse conversions, not only to unpopular new religious movements, but to evangelical, Pentecostal, and charismatic movements, some of them in mainline denominations. The NCC supplied the governor of New York State with a legal analysis of a “conservatorship” bill passed by that state’s legislature that would have legalized deprogrammings under court order. The NCC analysis helped persuade the governor to veto that bill in 1980 and again in 1981.

Some Strengths Of The Conciliar Movement

Whatever our real or supposed shortcomings, I would like to suggest three strengths of the NCC. These may even be marks of the church.

1. Diversity. One of the marks of the church is surely inclusiveness: “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). The NCC is making a conscious, determined effort to bring into its governing bodies, its staff, and its program committees a fuller participation by women and minorities.

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Though this effort has not yet achieved all that many have hoped, it is further advanced than in most denominations and evangelical circles. The result has been some initial turbulence, some shaking up of accustomed ways of doing things and accepted ways of thinking, but that is to be expected when new players join the game. The result has been a significant enrichment of our understanding of the gospel and a greater ability to live it out in action than was the case when our decision making was dominated by middle-aged, middle-class white clergy (like the author), who were dragged, resisting all the way, into a broader, better circle. We covet the same experience for evangelicals.

2. Conciliar decision making. There are small “ecumenical” organizations that operate on the cafeteria plan: each denomination can pick what it wants to participate in and “lay out” of the rest. Ours is a more difficult and demanding discipline. Every member denomination is a full partner in activities supported and decided on jointly. They sit down together around a common table and decide by majority vote what the conciliar body as a whole is going to do, and then that decision, commonly arrived at, is binding on the expenditure of the funds they have pooled for their joint operation. Such give-and-take can get strenuous at times, but it is a truer embodiment, we feel, of the “family-ness” that should mark the church than something one can opt into or out of on the basis of the shifting preferences of the moment.

3. Advocacy for the poor and the oppressed. One of the essential marks of the church, we believe, is its concern for the poor, its championing of the oppressed, its succor to the needy, its defense of those unable to defend themselves. This is not done solely by providing social service to needy individuals but by correcting the structures of social injustice that make and keep them needy. Oddly enough, this is not always a welcome ministry. It is sometimes threatening to people who are not poor or oppressed. Though they may feel no personal guilt for poverty or oppression, they fear that alleviating it will damage them. At any rate, this concern for the poor and oppressed is the reason for the statements, programs, and actions that have earned the NCC much obloquy.

We would covet such attentions—if they arose from the same causes—for our evangelical brothers and sisters. Perhaps you can find more gracious and less controversy-generating ways to side with the poor and the oppressed. But you cannot side with the rich, the comfortable, the oppressors against the poor and still be the church. Nor can you be neutral, for to stand aloof is still to take sides, the wrong side, the side of the priest and the Levite, the side that will inevitably prevail if nothing is done to rescue those who fall among thieves.

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An argument could be made, and I have sometimes made it, that the NCC’S solicitude for the poor may be a bit patronizing, since there are very few poor or oppressed people in our churches, and therefore we do not have as direct a knowledge of their situation and needs as we ought. When they need religious help, they don’t go to our churches but to storefront groups or the Kingdom Halls of Jehovah’s Witnesses. I suspect not too many of them go to evangelical churches either. Evangelicals and ecumenicals are both a little out of touch with the people for whom God has a special concern; perhaps we could help each other get closer to them.

This is only one of the many ways in which we could help each other to be better Christians in a better church, and we have deprived each other of this mutual upbuilding in Christ too long already.

Dean M. Kelley is director for civil and religious liberties for the National Council of Churches, New York City. He is the author of Why Conservative Churches Are Growing (Harper & Row, 1972, 1977) and the editor for Government Intervention in Religious Affairs (Pilgrim Press, 1982). CT asked Mr. Kelley a number of additional questions, which the editors felt were not addressed in his article. Those questions and his answers follow.

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