The apostle Paul couldn't write about theology without meddling in the lives of his readers. In his letter to the church at Rome, he wrote about sin, law, grace, and election, and then spelled out the connections to obeying government authority and relating to believers whose weak consciences compelled them to observe dietary laws. In Colossians, he waxed poetic about the cosmic supremacy of Christ and then informed his readers what that meant for relationships between husbands and wives, children and parents, and slaves and masters.
Every good theology spills over into ethics, and the Cape Town Commitment is no exception. The first part of this document, released near the end of Lausanne's Cape Town 2010, spelled out a narrative and missional theology of world evangelization framed in the language of love (my analysis of the document's first part appeared in the December 2010 issue of Christianity Today).
The document's second part applies the love theme to the practice of ministry and mission. This ethical epilogue, promised for November, was finally released today and runs more than 40 percent longer than the first part.
Love, which is an unusual way to frame systematic theology, has been the central theme of Christian ethics since Jesus summarized the law as love for God and love for neighbor (Matt. 22:3739). Indeed, the Cape Town Commitment is a commentary on these verses: it is an exposition of love for God followed by an application of love for neighbor.
When Theology Spills into Ethics
The ethical issues in Part II are organized around the themes of the conference. Organizers selected those themes because they are truly global issues that a global church needs to wrestle with. Because North American evangelicalism represents only one-tenth of global evangelicalism, our hot-button issues are dealt with more briefly than those that plague the larger church.
Thus HIV/AIDS is featured prominently in four out of the nine paragraphs the document devotes to disordered sexuality, while there is no mention of abortion (curious, since abortion is a serious problem outside North America, especially in countries where it is used to prevent the birth of baby girls). Similarly, homosexuality, which dominates North American church discourse, gets one 50-word clause, while wife beating (a problem in North America, but not a matter of debate) garners 51 words.
The 1974 Lausanne Covenant was memorable for its affirmation of sociopolitical involvement as a necessary expression of Christian belief and an integral part of mission. But social justice and political issues do not dominate the ethical section of the Cape Town Commitment. Such issues are there: political corruption, ethnic conflict, slavery, poverty, human trafficking, and creation care, among others. However, missional and pastoral issues dominate: greed and corruption in the church, the prosperity gospel, interfaith dialogue, insider movements and fears of syncretism, witness to immigrant groups, Bible translation for unreached peoples, the particular needs of oral cultures, and the training needs of future leaders.
Four Interesting Issues
Several specific topics are worth noting.
First, corruption in church leadership. Corruption and greed are issues especially where the church is growing rapidly and new leaders cannot be developed fast enough to meet the needs. As a result, immature leaders with charismatic personalities abound. "Many use their positions for worldly power, arrogant status or personal enrichment," the document's authors complain. "As a result, God's people suffer, Christ is dishonoured, and gospel mission is undermined."
Leadership training programs have been instituted in many places to meet the urgent need, but, the document continues, "The answer to leadership failure is not just more leadership training but better discipleship training. Leaders must first be disciples of Christ himself." Character formation as Christ followers should take precedence over training in the techniques of leadership.
Second, men and women ministering in partnership. At Cape Town 2010, the strong affirmation of women's gifts in ministry during plenary sessions produced consternation, particularly among Western delegates. Those who complained to me directly said they were not so much concerned that women's evangelistic gifts were affirmed, but that no similar affirmation was made of women who choose a domestic role supporting men in ministry.
Part II of the Cape Town Commitment repeats the strong affirmation of women's gifts, citing the Lausanne Movement's 1989 Manila Manifesto: "We affirm that the gifts of the Spirit are distributed to all God's people, women and men, and that their partnership in evangelization must be welcomed for the common good." This document attempts balance by recognizing differences of opinion and counseling mutual acceptance and Bible study between those who disagree on this issue. The document does not, however, shy away from its own clear commitments: "We encourage churches to acknowledge godly women who teach and model what is good, as Paul commanded, and to open wider doors of opportunity for women in education, service, and leadership, particularly in contexts where the gospel challenges unjust cultural traditions. "
Third, the good news of grace in "cultures of honor." The importance of personal and family honor dictates vengeance in such cultures, and it is very hard for people not steeped in traditional ways to understand the importance placed on honor. Thus we read with horror about "honor killings" when, for example, a young woman is raped through no fault of her own but nevertheless brings shame on her family. It is beyond North American comprehension that such a young woman's brothers would kill her in order to restore honor.
Precisely because of this cultural gap, it is also beyond the comprehension of many who live in honor cultures that God would freely offer grace to sinners. The Cape Town Commitment addresses these cultural barriers to the gospel by counseling Jesus followers to commit to live long term in these cultures and model lives of grace. Only through such examples of grace can the gospel begin to be comprehended.
Fourth, prayer. Prayer is central to the Christian life and central to participation in God's mission. "Prayer is a call, a command, and a gift," the document says, adding that prayer is "the indispensible foundation and resource for all elements of our mission."
It struck me, however, that the statement on prayer is entirely positive. We are to pray for God to send laborers into the harvest. We are to pray for God's kingdom to come. We are to cry out to God for suffering brothers and sisters. None of this is remarkable. All of it is healthy. But what is remarkable is the omission of any "praying against." In some of the rapidly expanding streams of Christianity, there is a focus on demonology and witchcraft, and prayer is often focused against evil powers. Sometimes believers who focus on evil powers grant the powers more attention than they do to God.
There is much more to this document, including a welcome expansion of Chris Wright's call to the Cape Town delegates to live lives of humility, integrity, and simplicity.
Everything in the document relates somehow to two themes the drafters heard from the delegates: love and obedient discipleship. Or, as stated near the document's end,
- The need for radical obedient discipleship, leading to maturity, to growth in depth as well as growth in numbers;
- The need for radical cross-centred reconciliation, leading to unity, to growth in love as well as growth in faith and hope.
Those goals, summed up in the document's final prayer, turn our attention away from our failings and the world's daunting challenges, and refocus our attention on God and God's mission.
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Previous articles on Cape Town 2010 include:
Teeming Diversity | The Third Lausanne Congress demonstrated that global evangelicalism has been transformed. (December 1, 2010)
Underrepresented at Cape Town | Meditations on missing megapastors. (October 22, 2010)
Who Got Invited to Cape Town and Why | Cape Town 2010 claims to represent the global evangelical church. How did they do it? (October 20, 2010)