A Commentary by Thomas Schirrmacher
It was obvious that the World Council of Churches went out of its way to respond to the Evangelical movement in a welcoming and friendly manner, to inquire about our points of views on issues, and to include them in the General Assembly in Busan. This was evident in that the representatives of the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA) were able to contribute to various commissions and, where appropriate, to openly present WEA’s reservations.
Their gracious invitation to attend also included the appointment of Rolf Hille, a WEA representative as a member of its Program Committee. As well they invited a member of WEA’s Mission Commission to be a part of their Commission on World Mission and Evangelism (CWME). I was asked be on the Public Issues Committee, which compiled the General Assembly’s declarations and I was made chairman of the drafting committee which wrote a declaration against religious violence and for religious freedom. This declaration also included draft wording against the persecution of Christians, which was later adopted by the General Assembly.
We were impressed how cordially we were welcomed in Busan and how much space was given for us to present our mutual and divergent viewpoints. Through a number of workshops and short presentations in other workshops, we were free to express our views in our remarks and within the commissions. This occurred with a broad agreement of delegates and member churches of the WCC. We were even given two spots within the official program for WEA representatives to discuss among themselves our positioning. In addition in the exhibition hall, significant floor space was made available for WEA’s International Institute for Religious Freedom. Many visited out site. Joseph Yakubu and Christof Sauer spent 10 hours each day, meeting and speaking with some 1,000 delegates.
WEA was clear in its thanks to the World Council of Churches for its outstretched hand, making it possible for us to introduce our views on any items we deemed it important. The WCC sees the fruit in our joint undertakings concerning human rights. They have been helpful and cooperative in a number of forums and initiatives. These include the Global Christian Forum, the Conference of the Secretaries of Christian World Communions and the five-year process in which the Vatican, the WCC and the WEA wrote a joint document entitled “Christian Witness in a Multi-Religious World.“
As chairman of the sub-committee on religious violence and religious freedom, I observed the development of the General Assembly’s declaration against religious violence from close range, especially in their cooperation with Oriental bishops from the Islamic world. It became clear that the WEA’s efforts in the cause of persecuted churches is changing ecumenical relationships and bringing Evangelicals together with member churches of the WCC who have mostly been outside our sphere of interest. Consistent with this, in this past year I met with numerous Patriarchs of Eastern churches, along with the Coptic Pope, the head of most global Evangelical groups, a number of cardinals and the Pope. The many positive reactions to my plenary address in Busan (in consent with our Secretary General Geoff Tunnicliffe) demonstrate shifts taking place on the global denominational church landscape. These are more than we have seen for over 50 years.
In making a final analysis, it appears to me that the texts adopted at the General Assembly of the WCC are without exception, unobjectionable and supportable.
Their mission paper and, more specifically, its Commission on World Mission and Evangelism (CWME) document – titled Together Towards Life: Mission and Evangelism in Changing Landscapes –was adopted September 5, 2012 by the Central Committee of the WCC, a year prior to the 2013 General Assembly. Some Evangelicals in Germany expressed strong reservations about it. But I find that the WEA’s view of missions is expressed in a number of the paragraphs co-formulated by the WEA and Evangelical theologians on the verbal transmission of the gospel. In addition the long document lists many goals we principally share even though we would not have necessarily mentioned them in connection with the keyword ’missions.’ Rather, we would have cited them as what is just and good for the world. These goals correspond to long sections of the 2010 Cape Town Declaration, which was co-drafted by the Lausanne’s Movement theological Working Group and the Theological Commission of the WEA. It is regrettable, however, that neither the plenary assembly on missions or mission’s paper emphasized a holistic approach. I should note that remarks made by a Catholic speaker that the Holy Spirit is the origin of all religions was not representative and reactions to his presentation demonstrated this. That he referred to Pope Benedict XVI, of all people, as proof for his assertion, had a certain comic element.
What was particularly striking was that elements Evangelicals or Orthodox churches re critical of the World Council of Churches at this General Assembly were missing. There were no non-Christian religious ceremonies during the official program. In the plenary events, there was not a single time when – as was commonly the case before 1990 – ceremonies of other religions were performed. There were scattered brief words of greeting from representatives of other religions. Only the Jewish representative spoke somewhat longer.
It is apparent that the World Council of Churches is increasingly silent on some moral topics, which are intensively disputed among churches. The topic of homosexuality, a topic dangerous for global ecumenical relationships, practically did not rise, apart from a clear statement by the Russian Orthodox Metropolite Hilarion, made in a closed business session. This was in spite of repeated inquiries made to the WCC and leadership. They refused to offer any positive opinion on homosexuality, something which seemed to irritated member churches and lobbying groups who had traveled there, it seems, for this purpose. Despite this, all leaders successfully stayed the course.
The WEA consciously distanced itself from the confrontations and statements made by some radical Evangelicals grouped outside of the General Assembly and conducted discussions with the World Council of Churches in direct talks and not via the media.
On behalf of the WEA and its General Secretary in Busan, I conspicuously distanced myself from the demonstrators. They acted most irresponsibly and it was evident they represented only a fractional part of the Evangelicals in Korea. Posters included such slogans as, “Death to the World Council of Churches.” The General Secretary of the WCC was maligned (as was I) as the anti-Christ. Also on site of the Assembly often there were disturbingly loud megaphones. Police efforts served to remove intruders who were distributing despicable flyers, and excrement was smeared on a stage while a worship service was being conducted in the church of the chairman of the host committee. What happened in South Korea was incomparably more shame laden than what we experience here at home in Germany. This has nothing to do with theological disputes. Rather, everything to do with politics, and I must say, with violence. This is no way in which the WEA wants to discuss theological differences.
The three main content-based charges made from the side of the demonstrators were without consequence.
The charge of syncretism made against the WCC by demonstrators was rebutted by the General Assembly itself. As has been said, there was not a single time in the official program, and above all in the plenary events, that ceremonies of other religions were conducted as had earlier been commonplace.
The charge made relating to being public in speaking up for homosexuality – as we saw – did not correspond to reality. The demonstrators would have known that there are churches in the WCC who argue the case for homosexuality but that there are member churches, such as Orthodox and Evangelical who hold homosexuality to be incompatible with the will of God.
The charge made against the WCC that it defends and promotes communisms as well as the charge that they are controlled by some communist countries comes from the period of the Cold War. The Cold War is something, which somehow continues in Korea till the presenr, but it has nothing to do with the WCC of today.
Speech by Thomas Schirrmacher in Busan
The World Evangelical Alliance greets the Assembly of the World Council of Churches
Thank you very much for the invitation to bring greetings to the plenary session of the General Assembly of the World Council of Churches and its many member churches from around the globe represented here – on behalf of the World Evangelical Alliance representing churches with some 600 million Christians worldwide. I do this on behalf of our Secretary General, Geoff Tunnicliffe, the Director of Ecumenical Affairs, Rolf Hille, who is among us, as well as on behalf of the International Council, the Theological Commission, the Religious Liberty Commission, and the Mission Commission which are all represented at this Assembly.
„Christian Witness in a multicultural World”
When the Evangelical Alliance was established in 1846 it sought to work in four primary areas of concern:
Human rights, and in particular at that time the abolition of slavery
Religious freedom for all
One hundred and sixty years later these are still primary commitments of the World Evangelical Alliance.
Those four areas never were combined more clearly than in the first-ever joint document signed by the Vatican, the World Council of Churches and the World Evangelical Alliance, entitled “Christian Witness in a Multi-Religious World: Recommendations for Conduct”. The General Secretary of the World Council of Churches already emphasized its historic importance in his report to the General Assembly. The document speaks clearly against any kind of unethical way of doing mission. Witnessing to the gospel should never be done in a way that overrules the human dignity and the human rights of others. This is a document that fulfills all four of the historic concerns of the WEA: Christian unity, human rights, a positive outlook on mission and evangelism, and a major step towards religious freedom. Having been involved in the process for five years myself, I was amazed about the agreement found in the first sentence:
„Mission belongs to the very being of the church. Therefore proclaiming the word of God and witnessing to the world is essential for every Christian. However it is necessary to do so according to gospel principles, with full respect and love for all human beings.”
We are grateful to the World Council of Churches for its flexibility in including the World Evangelical Alliance in this project and keeping the process going for several years. Finally, the World Evangelical Alliance became a full partner in the drafting, with the result that our members in 128 nations agreed to the text. This has resulted in a historic document in which for the first time the three large global Christian bodies representing the majority of world Christianity have spoken with one voice. Presently the document goes from one country to the next and furthers Christian unity on a very broad base.
Global Christian Forum
Thus, the WCC and WEA have a common experience in giving Christian unity worldwide a higher priority than furthering their own organizations. One well developed example – again together with the Roman Catholic Church – is the Global Christian Forum, which the World Evangelical Alliance fully endorses on a global and on a regional level. This open platform makes it obvious that our organizations are no longer the main focus, but the unity of Christians itself. And it reaches out to those churches and Christians who for some reason or the other are still outside any global ecumenical community. The Global Christian Forum can become a useful resource in helping resolve some of the ongoing conflicts within the Christian family. In particular I mention the situation in the Middle East and Holy Land.
“Evangelical” is a broad term that can be used to designate all kind of groups. Definitions vary. So we ask you not to mix what so called “Evangelicals” do and say and what the World Evangelical Alliance stands for. We want to take responsibility for what we as a global community say and do, but we cannot influence what happens outside our membership. Often enough we are ourselves the goal of attacks by others.
Evangelism is the proclamation in word, deed and Christian character of the saving work of Jesus Christ on the cross and through the resurrection. He alone overcame sin and can forgive and overcome sin. Yes, evangelism lies at the core of the identity of being evangelical. Our churches are committed to seeing the gospel proclaimed and demonstrated in all nations of the world. The WEA stands for what we call holistic evangelism or integral mission. We emphasize the connection between both proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ in word and practicing it in our actions. Both are necessary for the integrity of the gospel. Furthermore, personal conversion must result in the growth of Christian character and witness. There have been times when mistakes have been made and evangelicals have struggled to link the proclamation of the gospel with acts of justice and peace. Yet in our history there have been many strong voices and lives that exemplify the holistic nature of evangelism and – by God’s grace – are on a good path to recover this aspect of witness to the gospel in the world.
Further, I would add that the WEA is deeply committed to biblical engagement. While there are more Bibles available in our world than ever before we find growing biblical illiteracy. Given the reality that our work and mission in the church is built on the authority of the Scriptures we must emphasize a recommitment to not only reading but following the Holy Scripture. This also is the necessary backing for holistic mission, as it is the Bible that also calls us to feed the hungry, help the poor, speak for the oppressed and utter our prophetic voice against structural evils in societies such as corruption or racism.
Religious Freedom /Korea
As mentioned, religious freedom was a central focus of the WEA already as early as the mid-19th century, as was the fight for freedom and human rights, at that time especially in the fight against slavery. Our International Institute for Religious Freedom is offering a workshop and a Madang exhibition stand in Busan.
I cannot finish my greetings without mentioning our lovely host country. We join others in working towards the reunification of Korea. Coming from Germany I can understand the feelings accompanying this, even though the situation of the two divided countries is very different in detail. But as in Germany we believe that human rights and freedom, including religious freedom, is the real goal, and reunification can be the result or even the means to achieve this, not the other way round. South Korea has a good history progressing from dictatorship to a functioning democracy. Receiving many shocking reports about the situation in North Korea, we want to work and pray for a day when the people in North Korea will experience freedom including religious freedom, and Christians in the North and South can unite in worshiping the Saviour.
Thus we ask God’s blessing on all the ongoing work of the Assembly of the WCC. May God the Father give us all the strength to work on behalf of his creation. May Jesus Christ, Son of God, who saved us from sin and death, be our example willing to give his live for the good of others. And may the Holy Spirit keep us all from evil ways and unjust thoughts and lead us into the growing truth promised to his church on earth.
- Plenary speech by Thomas Schirrmacher (PDF)
- Photo 1: Plenary speech by Thomas Schirrmacher
- Photo 2: Plenary speech by Thomas Schirrmacher
- Photo 3: PPress conference of the WEA in Busan, on the pulpit the director of the CWME of the WCC
- Photo 4: After the plenary speech, 3rd from left Cardinal Koch