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by John Stott

Evangelicals and evangelism have always been bracketed. So much so that the adjectives ‘evangelical’ and ‘evangelistic’ have often been seen as identical in the popular mind. It is not at all surprising, therefore, that whenever evangelicals have become concerned about social issues, some eyebrows have been raised, and questions have been asked whether the cause of the gospel is not about to be betrayed.

The Historical Background

The history of the ecumenical movement has unfortunately strengthened evangelical suspicions of social involvement. Modern ecumenism was born at the 1910 World Missionary Conference in Edinburgh. John Mott, its chairman, spoke of ‘an irresistible call to the Christian Church to carry the Gospel to all the non-Christian world before the present opportunity passes away’. The fact that still, centuries after Christ, there were millions of people who had not heard of him was a’long-standing reproach’ to the church, which must be completely removed. ‘Its plan of work, to be adequate, must provide for the evangelization of the whole of this multitude’, he said. From this high point of commitment to world evangelism, however, there seems to have been a steady decline. The two world wars and the creeping paralysis of theological liberalism were among its most obvious causes.’

Ecumenical leaders have themselves been aware of this. Following the inability of the World Council’s Commission on World Mission and Evangelism to make a satisfactory statement on the relations between evangelism and social concern at Mexico in December 1963, many hoped that agreement would be reached at the World Council’s Fourth Assembly at Uppsala in 1968. Speaking of the ecumenical movement’s mandate, the former General Secretary Dr. W. A. Visser’t Hooft bemoaned the ‘rather primitive oscillating movement’ between the extreme interpretations of the Gospel as emphasizing on the one hand’God’s saving action in the life of individuals’, and on the other’human relationships in the world’. He went on: ‘A Christianity which has lost its vertical dimension has lost its salt and is not only insipid in itself, but useless for the world. But a Christianity which would use the vertical pre occupation as a means to escape from its responsibility for and in the common life of man is a denial of the incarnation, of God’s love for the world manifested in Christ’ .2 Yet in spite of this plea, an adequate synthesis of Christian evangelistic and social responsibilities eluded the Assembly’s section on ‘Mission’.

The situation deteriorated further at the Bangkok Conference on ‘Salvation Today’, arranged by CWME in 1973. Its report spoke misleadingly of salvation in four dimensions (economic, political, social and personal), and then concentrated on the first three to the serious neglect of the fourth. When the Lausanne Congress convened less than a year later, therefore, the participants felt the need to disassociate themselves from the confusions of Bangkok. The Lausanne Covenant declares that, although we should indeed share God’s concern for ‘the liberation of men from every kind of oppression’, yet ‘social action [is not] evangelism, nor is political liberation salvation’ (Para. 5).

The World Council’s Fifth Assembly at Nairobi in 1975 made a genuine attempt to reduce the imbalance, and devoted a whole plenary session to evangelism. In his presentation Bishop Mortimer Arias of Bolivia recalled the missionary beginnings of the ecumenical movement, admitted a degree of unfaithfulness to its profession, and called for a ‘holistic’ approach to mission which would combine evangelism with social concern. It was a stirring summons, containing little with which evangelicals would wish to disagree, but its balance was not altogether reflected in Section I’s report ‘Confessing Christ Today’.’

The polarisation became particularly visible in 1980 when the CWME’s conference Your Kingdom Come was held in Melbourne in May, and the following month the Lausanne Committee’s consultation How Shall They Hear? took place at Pattaya, Thailand. Neither group had intended that these meetings should be juxtaposed in this way, although perhaps it served to highlight the continuing tension. A number of evangelicals attended both conferences and found reasons for hope in both. A perusal of the documents makes it plain that there was much common ground between them. Nevertheless, the emphases were different. At Melbourne the necessity of proclamation was clearly recognized, but the cries of the poor, the hungry and the oppressed predominated.’ At Pattaya also the cries of the needy were heard (one mini -consultation focussed on refugees, and another on the urban poor), but the call to proclaim the gospel to the unevangelized predominated.’

The Meeting

This, then, was the historical run-up to the Consultation on the Relationship between Evangelism and Social Responsibility (CRESR) held at Grand Rapids in June 1982. The planning group had taken great pains to ensure a balanced representation among participants between geographical regions, denominational backgrounds and

Adjusting one’s position demands a high degree of integrity and humility. Yet this is exactly what I witnessed in my brothers and sisters at CRESR.

evangelical viewpoints. It also defined clearly the goals of the Consultation. It expressed its resolve to study ‘Scripture, history, theology and the contemporary church, and the interaction among them’, and its hope and prayer for God’s blessing in the following ways:

‘1. that we shall come to understand each other better and to appreciate each other’s points of view more fully.

2. that we shall reach a greater unity of mind on the relationship between evangelism and social responsibility, not by a superficial semantic consensus but by a real theological agreement according to Scripture.

3. that we shall commit ourselves, and encourage other

Transformation: Vol. 1, No. 1, p.21

believers to commit themselves to a yet more active fulfilment of our evangelistic and social responsibilities.’

In spite of these declared goals, I confess that I arrived in Grand Rapids with a considerable degree of apprehension. The papers and responses, circulated in advance, had not only been critical of each other’s positions but even in some cases sharply so. How then could we possibly expect to reach accord? Yet underneath our natural fears there was a confidence that God could unite us, if we humbled ourselves under the authority of his Word. And so it proved. For me it was another and dramatic demonstration of the value of international conferences. When we remain apart from one another, and our only contact with one another is the lobbing of hand grenades across a demilitarized zone, our attitudes inevitably harden and our mental images of each other become stereotyped. But when we meet face to face (or, as our American friends vividly express it, ‘eyeball to eyeball’), and listen not only to each other’s arguments but to the cherished convictions which lie behind the arguments, then we develop towards one another a new understanding, respect and love.

This is not to saSk that we agree about everything (as our Report’ makes plain), but that our agreements are far greater than our residual differences. Nor is it to claim that the process of reaching consensus is simple. On the contrary, the sustained resolve to listen to one another, in order to discern the truths which each is anxious to safeguard, can be a painful experience. We do not find it easy to open our minds to concepts to which they were previously closed, and against which we have either spoken or written. Adjusting one’s position also demands a high degree of integrity and humility. Yet this is exactly what I witnessed in my brothers and sisters at CRESR.

The Agreement

Among the so-called ‘right-wing’ members of the evangelical constituency (how I dislike the theological use of this political vocabulary!), there had been a reluctance to accept the notion of a ‘partnership’ between evangelism and social responsibility, because this seemed to them to deny the centrality of the Gospel and the historic understanding of the Christian mission. But when they were convinced that the Gospel was not being compromised, but rather that it was being enforced by adding to its verbal proclamation its visual demonstration in good works, they were willing to accept the ‘partnership’ model.

Evangelicals on the ‘left wing’, however, had been reluctant to accept the affirmation in the Lausanne Covenant of the ‘primacy’ of evangelism because it seemed to them to deny its indissoluble link with good works of love. But they were willing to accept this when the reasons for asserting ‘primacy’ were unpacked, namely the questions of logical priority (there can be no Christian social responsibility without socially responsible Christians) and of eternal destiny (in the unlikely event of a choice being necessary, a person’s salvation must rank as more important than the relief of his or her temporal needs).

Thus ‘partnership’ and ‘primacy’were seen to be complementary rather than irreconcilable concepts.

The group entrusted with the task of drafting the Report consisted of Gottfried Osei-Mensah from Africa and Bong Rin Ro from Asia (co-chairmen of the Consultation), David Wells (USA), Samuel Olson (Latin America) and myself (Europe). Early drafts were approved by the group, and then submitted to plenary sessions throughout during the final day and a half of the Consultation. The revised draft, incorporating a large number of requested amendments, was re-submitted to participants by mail. A very few minor adjustments have subsequently been made to the text.

As we look back on our Grand Rapids experience, we are profoundly grateful to God for the common mind and heart which he gave us. We commend our Report to the study of individual Christians and of local churches. And we pray that our commitment to the evangelistic and social responsibilities which God has laid upon us will express itself in increasingly practical and dedicated action.

Rev. Dr. John R. W. Stott, the Director of the London institute for Contemporary Christianity, was the chairman of the CRESR drafting committee.

1. Evangelical assessments of the decline of evangelistic vision and concern in the World Council of Churches are: The Battle for World Evangelism by Arthur P. Johnston (Tyndale House, Wheaton, Illinois, 1978) and The World Council of Churches and the Demise of Evangelism by Harvey T. Hoekstra (Tyndale House 1979), published as Evangelism in Eclipse by The Paternoster Press, Exeter, 1979. See also my ‘The Rise and Fall of Missionary Concern in the Ecumenical Movement’ in Vocation and Victory, an international symposium in honour of General Erik Wickberg, SA (Brunnen, Base] 1975).

2 * The Uppsala 68 Report, edited by Norman Goodall (World Council of Churches, Geneva 1968) pp.317-318.

3. See Breaking Barriers -Nairobi 1975, edited by David M. Paton (SPCK London and Eerdmans, Grand Rapids 1976) pp.17-19 and 41-57.

4. See Your Kingdom Come: Mission Perspectives (CWME, World Council of Churches, Geneva 1980).

5. See the Thailand Report, published as a series of ‘Lausanne Occasional Papers’ Numbers 5-19. (Obtainable from LCWE, PO Box 1100, Wheaton, Illinois 60187 and Whitefield House, 186 Kennington Park Road, London SE1 I 413T).

6. Evangelism and Social Responsibility, published on behalf of LCWE and WEF by The Paternoster Press, Exeter, 1982, and also as ‘Lausanne Occasional Paper’ No. 21, from LCWE P.O. Box 1100, Wheaton, Illinois or P.O. Box WEF, Wheaton, Illinois.

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