The World Council of Churches—Which Road?
“ANTI-DEMOCRATIC!” “Constant manipulation, the deliberate suppression of views contrary to the accepted party line.” The description of some despotic regime? No! The verdict of a clergyman delegate at an assembly of the World Council of Churches. But he is also convinced that the World Council is on the right road. What happened at that assembly to produce such contradictory responses? Which is the right road?
The Council’s sixth world assembly was held last year for 18 days in Vancouver, Canada. In attendance, along with thousands of visitors, were 838 delegates from 253 churches, representing many different religions in more than 90 lands. They met to examine the theme, “Jesus Christ, the Life of the World,” and to explore pathways to unity.
The World Council’s ecumenical road began in the years after World War I when a few religious dignitaries got together to see what could be done to heal the rifts in Christendom. A series of conferences on ecumenism led to the formation of the World Council in Amsterdam, Holland, in 1948. It is a fellowship of churches, not a superchurch; a forum for the exchange of views, with unity as the destination. Its logo is a boat with a cross for its mast; its slogan: oikoumene, meaning “all the inhabited earth.” From this Greek word comes “ecumenical,” which one dictionary defines as “seeking world-wide Christian unity.”
Although membership is open to all churches that believe in the Trinity doctrine, Christendom’s largest religion—the Roman Catholic Church—has not joined. Nevertheless it has lately been sending observers to the Council’s assemblies.
Initially the majority of the Council’s members were from the Western world. But additions from communist and Third World countries gradually altered the balance. Now it “appears to be an ecclesiastical clone of the United Nations,” according to Time magazine. By 1968 the Council had made little progress toward “the visible unity” it seeks. Worship and evangelism were troublesome subjects that only emphasized the lack of such unity. So the social gospel gained prime attention. Here was a cause that would surely win wide support. Preach justice and freedom for the exploited.
London’s Daily Telegraph headlined a feature article: “Clerics with other gospels to preach.” It said: “Some activities of the Churches, too, might be regarded by the faithful as outside the legitimate field of religious activity, which is to propagate the Gospel. . . . Most notorious is the World Council of Churches, which has announced further grants of £320,000 [$480,000, U.S.] to 47 ‘liberation movements.’” The Salvation Army was so incensed over this that it withdrew from the Council and now has only associate status.
Many within the World Council believe that violence is defensible when liberation is not forthcoming by negotiation. Allan Boesak, president of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, reasoned this way at the World Council assembly in Vancouver. He said: “When oppressed people are put in a situation where, after years of non-violent struggle there has been no response and they pick up the gun, then the Church must clearly choose for the oppressed.” Nearly all the audience of 3,000 gave him a standing ovation.
Is the road the Council walks the same road walked by Jesus Christ, in whose name the assembly was convened? Jesus, well aware of human exploitation and misery, taught his hearers to seek, not a temporary political solution, but a complete solution by the Kingdom of God. In the Sermon on the Mount, he said: “What I tell you is this: Do not set yourself against the man who wrongs you.” (Matthew 5:39, The New English Bible) He also counseled: “Keep on, then, seeking first the kingdom and his [God’s] righteousness, and all these other things will be added to you.” (Matthew 6:33) Jesus did not try to reform government. He taught his followers to wait patiently for God’s Kingdom. It alone, by massive intervention at the appropriate time, would bring peace, justice and equality to the human family. Never did he advocate political activism. Never did he support Jewish movements for liberation from Rome, though invited to do so.—John 6:15.
Should Christians Proselytize?
At Vancouver, one of the markers laid down for the road ahead concerned the need to promote evangelism. For some years, emphasis on the social gospel had pushed traditional evangelism aside. The intention now is to revive it. Interesting questions arise. What about taking the gospel to the large sections of the human family that do not accept the truth of the assembly theme—“Jesus Christ, the Life of the World”? What about Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists, for instance? What do the churches of the World Council propose to do about preaching the profound and unique truths of the Bible to all mankind?
According to the dictionary, “proselytize” is not a disparaging word. It means simply “to convert (someone) from one religious faith to another.” Is that not precisely what Jesus taught his followers to do? “Make disciples of people of all the nations,” he commanded. (Matthew 28:19) Jesus’ close associate, the apostle Peter, emphatically and unambiguously said of his Master: “There is no salvation in anyone else, for there is not another name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must get saved.”—Acts 4:12.
However, the world in general frowns on religions that proselytize. And the World Council has its own definitions of proselytism, saying that it is “an unworthy kind of witness.” For its contacts with non-Christian religions the Council prefers the word “dialogue,” which it defines as an “encounter where people holding different claims about ultimate reality can meet and explore these claims in a context of mutual respect.”
No evangelistic conviction and fervor there. Nothing about making disciples. If that is how the member churches of the World Council intend to go about their evangelism, how will people ever become disciples of “Jesus Christ, the Life of the World,” and get on the road to salvation?
John Whale wrote in London’s Sunday Times: “Growing numbers of Western Christians find the idea of spreading the word awkward, because it can imply a claim that Christianity is right and other religions are wrong, perhaps damningly wrong. But they don’t like to say so.”
Is the goal of the World Council to get “all the inhabited earth”—their oikoumene—onto the broad ecumenical road to unity, regardless of what they believe? Is this timid approach born of a fervent desire to evangelize, or is it symptomatic of a lack of conviction? Roman Catholic priest Tissa Balasuriya wrote in One World, the World Council’s official magazine: “The God of the Christians is not a particularist deity, a monopoly of Christians and their churches. Liberated from captivity to Christians, Christ would be seen as the God whom all theists accept.”
However, the apostle Paul thought differently. He wrote: “They do not believe, because their minds have been kept in the dark by the evil god of this world. He keeps them from seeing the light shining on them, the light that comes from the Good News about the glory of Christ.” And later in the same letter: “Do not try to work together as equals with unbelievers, for it cannot be done. How can right and wrong be partners? How can light and darkness live together? How can Christ and the Devil agree?”—2 Corinthians 4:4; 6:14, 15, Today’s English Version.
The Road to What?
Despite all the controversy, the World Council is confident that it can achieve reasonable success in its journey down the ecumenical road. The question is: Is that the right road for Christians? Is it the narrow road that leads to life? Or is it the broad road that accommodates nearly everyone and that Jesus warned his hearers to avoid?—Matthew 7:13.
Jesus said of his followers: “The world has hated them, because they are no part of the world, just as I am no part of the world.” And he told Pilate, “My kingdom is no part of this world.” (John 17:14; 18:36) The World Council considers it to be its Christian duty to influence world affairs as powerfully as it can. It thus makes itself a part of the world and ignores Bible truth and Jesus’ instructions.