Changes over the past 25 years demand a fresh look.

Evangelicals do not agree on what evangelicalism is, so it is no surprise that they do not agree on what to do about the World Council of Churches. It would be foolhardy, therefore, to attempt to prescribe what all evangelicals ought to think about the World Council. Our goal is much simpler: to spell out how we ourselves respond to it.

Ecumenism (the unity of the household of faith) has always been a deep concern of evangelicals. They recognize that unity of the spirit is far more important than any unity of structure. Yet since Reformation days, evangelicals have had a continuous history of attempts at union. In spite of meager success, Luther’s dialogue with Zwingli, the Diet of Augsburg, and the correspondence of Lutheran leaders with the Eastern churches bear witness to their hope that the body of Christ might be united.

The modern ecumenical movement began with evangelicals during the nineteenth century. The National Council of Churches, however, was never distinctly evangelical. Nor was the WCC when it was organized at Amsterdam in 1948. Ernest Hocking’s famous Layman’s Report on Missions typified the viewpoint of liberal ecumenists of that day. It decried efforts to convert the heathen. The aim of missions, so it argued, was not to convert Buddhists to Christianity but to make Buddhists better Buddhists. In 1948 at Amsterdam, liberals, many holding such beliefs, nurtured the new world organization through its infancy. Only the insistence of a block of European conservative churches eventually secured a commitment to the deity of Christ.

Karl Barth’S Rebuke Of The First Council

Karl Barth addressed the Amsterdam council as an outsider. Though he would hardly be recognized as a spokesman for American evangelicals, he roundly rebuked the council for its cavalier use of the Bible. The leaders, so he charged, did not acknowledge it as their authority. They employed it only as a resource from which they could pick and choose what supported radical views they had already adopted on wholly other grounds.

After Amsterdam, the WCC leadership quickly went from bad to worse. The gospel soon became lost in all sorts of political and social causes with which the World Council identified. It represented the tail end of the Roosevelt New Deal/Fair Deal/New Frontier bandwagon. From 1960 through 1980 this seemed to be the permanent direction of the council.

Most troubling to biblically oriented evangelicals were the following: (1) The deity of Christ was left undefined, though the council’s constitution gave it lip service. Vastly differing views on the person and work of Christ flourished equally within the leadership of the council. (2) The New Testament gospel became lost—the gospel that Jesus Christ, the divine Savior and Lord, became incarnate, died on the cross and rose again bodily from the dead to redeem mankind from sin through personal faith in himself. (3) The Bible was an honored book from which proof texts were selected when they supported views considered relevant on other grounds, but no attempt was made to deal seriously with scriptural teaching. (4) Universalism—the view that all will be saved regardless of faith, religion, or moral condition—became standard doctrine. (5) World history was interpreted in Marxist terms, superficially glossed with traditional Christian vocabulary. (6) Left-wing offenses against human rights and human freedom were seldom noted, and rarely rebuked. By contrast, right-wing oppression was made a cause célèbre; and the council actively opposed efforts to further human rights and political democracy in Marxist countries.

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Winds Of Change In The World Council

After 1960, the WCC found itself faced with new pressures. In the United States, mainline denominations, composing the bulk of support for the National Council and World Council, were losing tens of thousands of members yearly. By contrast, the largest Protestant group and the fastest growing—the Southern Baptist Convention—remained outside the fold. Ecumenical leaders in America, therefore, made a determined effort to woo the conservative Southern Baptists.

Then, in 1961, the Eastern Orthodox churches joined the council and became an increasingly significant voice for a more conservative theology. In the sixties the World Council also began seriously to attract into its orbit the Roman Catholic church, which had undergone a number of changes. Through these years, moreover, the Third World missionary churches, especially in Africa and South America, began to influence the World Council. These conservative pressures in and out of the organization were finally climaxed at the Melbourne Missionary Conference in 1980. To a lesser extent, the council’s sixth assembly at Vancouver followed in this same direction. Though it did not quite reach the heights of Melbourne, it provided a noticeably different climate than that of the assembly at Nairobi in 1975 or at Uppsala in 1968.

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New Wcc Trends Demand A New Evaluation

Clearly it is time, perhaps past time, to reassess the new ecumenical situation. What can be made of these new winds of change blowing through the WCC—long written off by most evangelicals as a liberal wasteland? The perspective of the World Council has changed completely for some. A group of evangelicals at Vancouver, headed by Arthur Glasser, dean emeritus of the Fuller School of World Mission, and Richard Lovelace of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, called for an end to evangelical stereotypes of the World Council. Their “open letter,” signed by 200 evangelicals attending the Vancouver assembly, ended with the plea, “Should evangelicals not seek to receive all who confess Jesus Christ as Lord, even though they may seriously disagree on theological issues apart from the core of the gospel? There is no biblical mandate to withdraw from those who have not withdrawn from Christ.”

Another Viewpoint

We respect this reevaluation of the World Council and hope it is valid. From our perspective, however, it is not realistic. Yet while rejecting what we believe is an overly optimistic evaluation of these new trends in the World Council, we are glad to note that the Vancouver meeting was not just a repetition of old heresies. And our response to the World Council’s recent move cannot be wholly negative.

1. We are grateful for the obvious desire of the World Council to include evangelicals and to give them a hearing. Sincere dialogue, though it has its dangers, is good. We cannot expect to communicate unless we are also willing to listen.

2. We are also grateful for the increased emphasis upon biblical exposition. Evangelicals were amazed at the serious attention given the Bible in study groups at Vancouver. The Bible is a dangerous book—for World Council leaders as well as for anyone who takes it seriously. Martin Luther began to search its teaching, and the Protestant Reformation was the result.

3. We were also deeply impressed by the earnest piety evident in the worship services, and the commitment to prayer. Here evangelicals have much to learn.

4. We recognize many World Council supporters as fellow believers in Christ, and rejoice in our common faith. The word “evangelical” is derived from a Greek root meaning “good news,” the gospel. In its broadest sense, therefore, “evangelical” includes all who believe in Christ. Particularly in the United States, however, the word has traditionally been employed in a much more restricted sense. In common American-English, “evangelicalism” has meant those who adhere to the basic doctrines of the Reformation churches—Lutheran, Reformed, Anglican, and Anabaptist (independent and Pentecostal groups would also be included now).

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It is evident, then, that the whole church is not evangelical in this more contemporary sense of the term. Many nonevangelicals are fellow believers and are part of the body of Christ—the oikoumene of faith. For example, members of the National Association of Evangelicals and the Evangelical Theological Society acknowledge as fellow believers many who could never sign either organization’s statement of faith. Neither poses as a church but as an association of evangelicals.

5. Apart from theological considerations, evangelicals appreciate the battle the World Council wages against oppression, the violation of basic rights, and the disregard of our God-given environment. To cite Peter Beyerhaus, Arthur Johnston, and Myung Yuk Kim in their generally negative evaluation of the sixth assembly at Vancouver, “Evangelicals are no less concerned for welfare, justice, and peace than other Christians, although we might differ in our analyses, in our proposals for solution, and in the theological motivation of our Christian task to help the poor and depressed.”

Yet when all is said and done, many of us are unwilling to identify with the World Council. We cannot in clear conscience support it in its educational and teaching ministry, and in its social and political involvement. In spite of changes for which we are grateful, neither the missions statement at Melbourne in 1980 nor the Vancouver assembly in 1983 changed the basic nature of the WCC.

Necessary Areas Of Change

Most evangelicals will find it difficult to join forces with the World Council as long as the following basic areas remain unchanged:

1. Its equivocal stand on the deity of Christ. It is true that the constitution of the World Council includes a confession of “the Lord Jesus Christ as God and Savior, according to the scriptures.” Yet it does not define what it means by these terms. We can understand that the World Council is not responsible for what every individual in its member churches will teach. But it is responsible for its own teaching officially sponsored at its assembly or dispersed from its Geneva office. And much of the teaching sponsored by the World Council clearly sets forth a much lower Christology. For example, Dorothee Soelle, as the representative of the German church, argued in a major teaching session at Vancouver for a complete reconstruction of the traditional concept of God. Many less blatant simply leave their views of Christ undefined.

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We are not asking the World Council to clear up all the mysteries of the eternal Trinity or to unravel how the human and divine natures are related to each other in the one person of Jesus of Nazareth. Yet we are asking the council to stop giving mere lip service to an undefined doctrine of the deity of Christ that permits it to teach anything. In short, the World Council must clean up its act. It must let us hear a consistent commitment to a basic Nicean and Chalcedonian Christology, for this is the very heart of biblical revelation.

2. Its failure to diagnose the predicament of mankind. The biblical diagnosis is that human sin separates man from a holy God and rightly calls down divine judgment. This alienation from God, this human lostness, in turn produces man’s alienation from himself and from others. Yet at Vancouver once again the focus was not on separation from God, but on human disorder on the horizontal level.

3. Its wrong diagnosis surely leads to a wrong remedy. So the basic thrust of the biblical gospel still fails to shine through with recognizable clarity. In the WCC study volume prepared for the Vancouver assembly, John Paulton lists as one unlikely option that “only those calling upon Jesus as their personal savior, can be saved, the rest of humanity being assigned to eternal perdition.” We hear no clear presentation of the biblical doctrine of justification only through faith in Jesus Christ. And this is the crux of the biblical and evangelical gospel. As Luther taught us, by it Christianity stands or falls. And its absence is a fundamental obstacle to evangelical support of the World Council.

4. Its almost exclusive concern for the horizontal dimension of salvation. The World Council’s inadequate diagnosis of the human predicament leads it to view salvation primarily as horizontal. Its purpose is to heal the alienation between man and man. Again and again at Vancouver (as at previous assemblies) and in its constant flow of study materials, the WCC makes salvation an earthly affair. In this view, the root evil lies in the social and political structures of human society, and the remedy is to change them. While occasional speeches might have referred by indirection to the vertical dimension, horizontal relationships certainly represented the overpowering concern of the council’s leadership. In his opening sermon, the outgoing general secretary, Philip Potter, surprised and pleased evangelicals with a biblical message that offered some splendid insights. Yet his conclusions point only to the horizontal or communal salvation, one that leads to a new humanity and a restoration of society rather than to personal faith in Jesus Christ, a right relationship to God, and the new birth.

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5. Its religious pluralism. World Council confusion about the gospel leads inevitably to a synchretism that finds salvation in other religions. The Vancouver theme, “Jesus Christ the hope of the world,” could be interpreted as a rejection of synchretism, but it was not so interpreted by the World Council in its official preassembly study guide. “In the end the great communities of faith will not have disappeared. None will have ‘won’ over the others. Jews will still be Jews; Muslims still Muslims; and those of the great Eastern faiths, still Buddhists or Hindus or Taoists. Africa will still witness to its traditional life view; China to its inheritance. People will still come from the east and the west, the north and the south, and sit down in the Kingdom of God, without having first become ‘Christians’ like us.” All religions, apparently, lead to God. Jesus Christ is merely our way. At Vancouver, this growing synchretism gained further support from the Indian mythology employed in worship, from the role given to the leaders of other religions, and from the stern warning presented by World Council official D. C. Mulder against evangelizing because it imposed an obstacle to dialogue with other religions.

The Issue Of Authority

By contrast, evangelicals plead for a clear recognition of the lostness of mankind without Christ. They insist on an unambiguous commitment to a Savior who is fully God and fully man, united in one person, who died for our sins and rose bodily from the grave—the Christ of the Bible; this commitment was witnessed to in the historic creeds of the ancient church, and reaffirmed in Reformation days. Neither Holy Scripture nor historic Christianity supports religious pluralism or synchretism or universalism.

The World Council, moreover, carries on an immensely influential teaching role in the church. The constant flow of study papers from Geneva proves this. Evangelicals, therefore, are concerned that it adhere to sound doctrine—theology clearly set forth in Scripture.

For the evangelical this points out the importance of biblical authority for the life of the church and, therefore, its importance for any realistic evaluation of the WCC. The council’s official publication The Bible: Its Authority and Interpretation in the Ecumenical Movement rightly states: “The churches will inevitably be confronted with the issue of the authority and the right interpretation of the Bible.… To form a fellowship of effective common witness, it is essential that the churches reach a common understanding of the priority of the use of the Bible in the life and witness of the church.”

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Unfortunately, the surprising emphasis on biblical exposition at Vancouver did not really include a commitment to the authority of the Bible. Although many individual representatives were undoubtedly sincere in their devotion to Scripture, the leadership at the council maintained, as in the past, a very selective approach to biblical passages. It chose those that would support its special interests. Biblical teachings about man’s social obligations, therefore, were drawn upon skillfully. But there was little or no exposition of those grand doctrinal themes that abound in Old and New Testaments. Or of those teachings about personal responsibility and personal ethics the Epistles are so concerned to inculcate in the lives of first-century Christians.

It should not be a surprise, therefore, to discover that the World Council study guide on the Bible declares: “There are diverse literary traditions in the biblical writings.… Some of these traditions may be contradictory. The church is in dialogue with Scripture, but has been fed from many sources, in the light of which, biblical statements may have to be declared inadequate, or erroneous.… We are not to regard the Bible primarily as a standard to which we must conform in all the questions arising in our life.”

For these reasons, therefore, we cannot encourage evangelicals to identify with the World Council of Churches. Rather, we would recommend as an alternative the National Association of Evangelicals and similar bodies. No doubt evangelicals need to seize their opportunities more boldly, and to raise a more prophetic voice. But it is our conviction that NAE, World Evangelical Fellowship, and the series of evangelical congresses sponsored by Billy Graham at Berlin in 1966, in Lausanne in 1974, at Pattaya in 1980, and at Amsterdam in 1983 have accomplished infinitely more for the kingdom of God than all the assemblies of the World Council and the meetings of its study groups and subsidiary organizations put together.

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The World Council encourages Christians in a multitude of good causes; but in doing so, it manages to squeeze out the biblical gospel and distances itself from the authority of Scripture. So long as the World Council persists in its departure from truly biblical Christianity, most evangelicals will find it unwise to support it in its teaching and in its ministry.

Appropriate Response

How, then, shall evangelicals respond to the new winds stirring in the World Council? We certainly cannot speak for all evangelicals. Recognizing that some may chart quite a different course, we for our part commend the following approach:

1. Listen to hear what the WCC is really saying. The evangelical must be willing to set aside stereotypes and let the council be what it chooses to be, without either expecting it to be perfect or faulting it for erroneous views it never espoused or no longer defends.

2. Dialogue from a position of faith. The evangelical is not searching for the gospel; by grace he has heard and received it. To some, this may sound arrogant. To the evangelical, this is his assurance of faith in the truth and goodness of God.

3. But still he must dialogue. The evangelical has much to learn from dialogue with those of no faith or of other faiths. Certainly, he has much to learn from dialogue with the mixed bag that the wcc represents. By sincere dialogue he understands better those to whom he is seeking to communicate the gospel or those whom he hopes to call to more obedient faith. But he has much to learn beyond this. We evangelicals can greatly enlarge our understanding of reverence, of proper worship, of application of the gospel to the world, of Scripture, and of biblical ethics.

Being wrong on essential points does not preclude the possibility that the World Council is right on some points. Evangelicals must be humble enough to learn from brothers and sisters in the faith whom they believe to be dead wrong on important doctrines.

4. Pray for the spiritual discernment of WCC leaders, and for their greater commitment to biblical faith. Especially we must pray for fellow evangelicals seeking to minister within the framework of the National and World Councils, that they may be wise as serpents and as harmless as doves as they seek to further the cause of Christ.

5. Love each person in the World Council. Evangelicals must learn to treat the ecumenist with tender consideration and with strict adherence to the truth as we see it. When necessary, we must warn him in a loving manner of his departures from the truth or from right action. We will exhort him faithfully to a greater obedience through our Lord Christ and his written Word—yet always in humility as befits sinners who themselves daily fall short of perfection.

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Yet, so long as the World Council fails to teach essential truth, or in its teaching and practice denies what is essential to biblical Christianity, we shall continue to oppose it, and to warn against its subversion of the faith. And though other evangelicals may disagree, we shall refuse to support it or to identify with it.


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