December 19, 2013

World Council of Churches Takes Wide Evangelism Stance

More than 4,000 delegates of the tenth assembly of the World Council of Churches met in the coastal South Korean city of Busan in late October and early November to determine how best to proclaim a Christian message in a world of stark contrasts and competing ideologies.

The World Council of Churches (WCC) is an interfaith organization that counts membership among most mainstream Christian denominations. Christian unity is a linchpin of the organization, and a top priority for many of its key members. While the Seventh-day Adventist Church regularly sends observers and journalists to WCC assemblies, the denomination is not a WCC member, and remains concerned about ecumenism in light of the movement’s understanding of biblical prophecy.

The ecumenical organization, which values Christian unity and cooperation in mission, unveiled its first statement on evangelism in more than 30 years. The document, called “Together Toward Life: Mission and Evangelism in Changing Landscapes,” emphasizes what speakers called “holistic” evangelism. Seemingly absent was any direct reference to the Great Commission of Matthew 28, to “go and make disciples” of all nations.

Jooseop Keum, secretary for the WCC Commission on World Mission and Evangelism, asserted he read Matthew 28 “from a contextual context” of what was customary in the Roman Empire, and not as an “imperial” command to go forth and disciple others.

The document states that “God’s Spirit . . . can be found in all cultures that affirm life.” For some evangelicals, this statement implies universalism—the belief that God will ultimately save all human beings who practice some kind of life-giving spirituality.

Kirsteen Kim, professor of theology and world Christianity at Leeds Trinity University in the United Kingdom, responded by saying that the “[Holy] Spirit moves much wider than the Christian community.”

In the Northern Hemisphere, by and large, Christianity is challenged by other world religions and the rise of the “nones,” or people who declare no religious affiliation at all. In the “global south,” on the other hand, Christianity is burgeoning in places such as Africa, South America, and parts of Asia, despite increased tensions and persecution.

The leader of the world’s 80 million Anglicans, Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, told reporters that he hopes for global Christian unity, but as a move of the Holy Spirit, and not through human efforts.

“Unity is a gift of God,” he said.

Welby said he expected from the WCC event something “I’ve already had, [which is] a broader vision of the global church. I’m learning a lot from this assembly. It’s been a real learning experience and a wonderful thing for me. God’s church is so extraordinary and miraculous globally and what a wonderful work of God we have in His church, so different and so amazing in so many countries of the world, and I praise God for that.”

At a packed news conference at the start of the Busan assembly, two WCC executives were pressed for an understanding of the global ecumenical
organization as a facilitator of interchurch and interfaith dialogue and cooperation.

Asked about addressing the persecution of Christians in the Middle East, Africa, and other areas—often at the hands of non-Christians—Olav Fykse Tveit, WCC general secretary, said that while the group has as its purpose the expression of “Christian solidarity” with the persecuted, “we have had to address this in different ways.”

But in a stinging address to the assembly the next day, a leader of the Russian Orthodox Church slammed what he saw as a tendency to skirt controversial issues at the assembly.

“While we continue to discuss our differences in the comfortable atmosphere of conferences and theological dialogues, the question resounds ever more resolutely: will Christian civilization survive at all?” asked Hilarion Alfeyev, the Metropolitan of Volokolamsk and chair of the Department for External Church Relations of the Moscow Patriarchate.

Alfeyev cited “militant secularism” and “radical Islamism,” which he said was a philosophy distinct from traditional Islam, as continuing threats to Christianity.

While calling on Christians to defend traditional values, Alfeyev lamented that some churches are moving in a different direction: “Unfortunately, not all Christian churches today find within themselves the courage and resolve to vindicate the biblical ideals by going against that which is fashionable and the prevalent secular outlook. Some Christian communities have long ago embarked on a revision of moral teaching aimed at making it more in step with modern tendencies,” he said.

The assembly also drew criticism from outside the Busan Exposition Center, where protesters gathered and some decried the group as the “antichrist.”

WCC moderator Walter Altmann addressed their concerns, asserting that protests against the group often stem from a “misunderstanding” of its purpose and intentions. “We are not replacing any church—the WCC is a place for collaboration and cooperation” among denominations, Altmann added. “We are committed by our Lord to unity, but there is not a structured program of melting the churches to have a ‘super church.’ ”

Readers can find Mark Kellner’s “Busan Diary” blog entries, including a personal commentary at the close of the WCC session, online here.