number 8, december 12, 1998

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Evangelicals work the stream at WCC

By Janice Shaw Crouse

While the WCC struggles to develop a Common Understanding and Vision, evangelicals within the WCC are coalescing across the spectrum of Protestant denominations to build networks with Orthodox and Pentecostal believers.

Those trying to navigate this stream at the 8th assembly have found it to be as exhilarating as a white water trip down the Zambezi.

Representatives from different groups are trying to forge alliances that, they hope, will bring ecumenism back into the mainstream of biblical orthodoxy. The biggest problem has been figuring out ways to steer clear of the shoals that threaten unity.

The man invited to the assembly to navigate that passage is Canon Dr Vinay Samuel, who is coordinator of the observer team of the International Fellowship of Evangelical Mission Theologians (INFEMIT).

In addition to the INFEMIT team, there is a six-member team of evangelicals representing the Association for Church Renewal (ACR), a North American group of church renewal executives and board members.

Groups such as the World Evangelical Fellowship, the North American-based Association for Church Renewal (ACR), the Assemblies of God, Latin American Theological Fraternity, the Reichenberg Fellowship, and Mennonite World Conference also have representatives with evangelical concerns.

Asked to present a two-thirds world evangelical perspective, INFEMIT’s Samuel has been meeting with evangelicals to draft a letter expressing the concerns that have surfaced during the half-dozen meetings held in the conference room of the Anglican Chapel on campus.

The discussions have been a lively exchange of perspectives from African, Asian, Latin American, European and North American theologians, lay delegates, visitors and observers.

The group has been a diverse mix – age, gender, nationality, and denominations. "The open, flexible, and competent discussions we have had together have been amongst the highlight of the assembly for me," said Rolf-Alexander Thieke, a German Lutheran theologican.

The central theme running through the meetings has been that evangelicals and evangelical concerns are not adequately represented in the WCC.

According to Hwa Yung, of Malaysia, a major concern of evangelicals is the lack of emphasis on wholistic mission. They argue that without a strong WCC commitment to its constitutional basis of unity in Christ, there is no mission imperative.

Youth delegate Kosta Milkov, from Macedonia, added, "Being here at Harare, I can clearly see what is at stake when the WCC tends to promote an agenda quite distinct from the original vision at its founding in Amsterdam."

Diane Knippers, president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy and a steering committee member of the ACR, said, "The vast majority of the members of the US Protestant churches in fact hold to a biblical Christian faith that is closer to Orthodox and two-thirds world evangelicals than our liberal denominational delegations here in Harare.

"Because these ecumenical gatekeepers do not represent us, we are being systematically denied access to the WCC’s great ecumenical project."

The evangelicals are also concerned about the processes of the WCC. Knippers continued, "The WCC seems to be captive to the Western liberal Protestantism – a small, shrinking minority of Christ’s church – and to its emphases on individual autonomy and moral relativity."

Parker Williamson, executive editor of The Presbyterian Layman, said, "WCC officials, whose liberalism is clearly not in tune with the overwhelming majority of Christians at this assembly, are pursuing a relentless divide-and-conquer strategy."

He added, "Celebrating diversity has meant organizing hundreds of padares and sessions with open microphones so every point-of-view can be expressed. In the midst of the cacophony of ideas, the WCC’s central committee sets forth its plan. Without a clear alternative and in the press of time, the people accede in the name of ‘unity in diversity’."

There was general agreement that the evangelicals wanted to present a positive approach rather than focus exclusively on points of controversy.

"There are areas where we applaud what the WCC is doing," said Tom Finger of the Mennonite Central Committee. "The Mennonites are here to support and participate in the WCC’s Program to Overcome Violence. But we want to ensure that this and other programs maintain a biblical and Christocentric focus," he said.

While there are serious points of difference between evangelicals and the Orthodox, the developing dialogue is encouraging to both sides.

Young evangelicals from Orthodox-majority areas are asking to be included in the second phase of the dialogue, pointing to their co-religionists who are engaged in graduate level study of Orthodoxy. Some evangelicals noted that the Orthodox-evangelical padare was the high moment of the WCC assembly for them.

Other evangelicals are quick to acknowledge evangelical short-comings. Canon Samuel agreed, "We need to recognize our areas of weakness and acknowledge that the WCC might have reservations and hesitations about Evangelical involvement in the journey of the World Council of Churches over the past 50 years."

A team of about a dozen writers volunteered to draft the Evangelical Letter. The canon said, "This letter is a frank and loving Jubilee call to the WCC from evangelical participants at Harare."

The Letter, still in draft format, praises the faith of many of the assembly participants, the vitality of the worship experiences, the beauty of the ecumenical vision and the continuing dialogue with the Orthodox delegation.

It expresses regret that the voice of the African church, which they describe as "committed to the centrality of scripture, cultural renewal, and social, political and economic change", was absent.

It expresses regret that no major speakers were recognizably evangelical and that several speakers clearly were outside the credal base of member churches and the WCC’s own faith base.

It expressed regret that the padares were ineffective and that "by appearing to give voice to all, it provided no clear channel through which that voice could be articulated, heard and count toward the outcome."

The letter stresses points of importance to evangelicals – the centrality of personal transformation in Christian mission and a biblical view of the Trinity.

The draft document concludes that "the WCC must operate more in accord with the Christocentric, missionary emphasis of its original vision. Jubilee is also a time to return to the beginning."

"In spite of our deep differences with the WCC, we will not be alienated from the unity to which we know the Holy Spirit is wooing the churches," asserted Diane Knippers. "We look forward to greater participation in the quest for unity in Christ, either through a radically reformed WCC or through new avenues we are confident that God will raise up as needed."

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Read other articles in this issue:

Polygamy no problem for African churches
Mandela to attend assembly tomorrow
Catholic Church doesn't want to 'dwarf' WCC
Evangelicals work the stream at WCC
Orthodox find the space for dialogue
Padare, the assembly energizer
Unmasking Orthodox claims
Amsterdam had a Message
50 million members, and growing fast
Some quiet nourishment

8th Assembly and 50th Anniversary

copyright 1998 World Council of Churches. Remarks to webeditor