Last week we blogged about the conclave of world evangelicals, Roman Catholics, and liberal Protestants that put together a document on the Ethics of Evangelism. Christianity Today has a good analysis, including what the document leaves out and what it says that some might find troubling:
“I think the fact that the WEA [World Evangelical Alliance] is engaging with the WCC[World Council of Churches] and the Catholic Church here indicates that they are becoming more willing to embrace interreligious dialogue,” Mannoia said. “On the other side, I think for the WCC and the Vatican to make the statement that witnessing is in the nature of the church marks a significant adjustment.”
George Hunter, dean of the School of World Missions at Asbury Theological Seminary, sees an even more significant adjustment in what’s not in the document. “A lot of times in these documents it’s what they leave out that’s really telling,” he said. “Probably the Catholics engaged in the greatest concession by omission here: sacramental expression. Omitting sacramental rites from the ‘essence’ of evangelism is a huge statement from the Catholic Church, and an indication that they are willing to give up an important part of their tradition in order to meet evangelicals in the middle.
But Lon Allison, executive director of the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College, said the document doesn’t include everything evangelicals would have liked to see, either. “We wish that the verbal witness of the good news of Jesus was considered more central to how we express love to our world,” he said. “While it was appropriate to teach how acts of service and justice, as well as Christian behavior, are witness, we desire to say that the most essential element of witness must be the verbal expression of the gospel adorned by love acts, respect, and gentleness.” . . .
Jerry Root, professor of evangelism and leadership at Wheaton College, said that he similarly fears the document’s failure to make verbal proclamation explicit “leaves the door open for some to consider any proclamation at the time of service a coercive act.” The document, he notes, says Christians “should not … violat[e] others’ rights and religious sensibilities” and “never denigrate, vilify, or misrepresent them for the purpose of affirming superiority of our faith.”
“This is ambiguous,” said Root, author of The Sacrament of Evangelism. “If I said to another person, ‘We need Jesus for the hope of heaven,’ could this be considered a denigration of another’s faith because of that faith’s inability to provide a Cross-centered redemption? We never want to be offensive, but there are some features of the Cross that simply are offensive, by nature, to those outside the faith.” . . .
Craig Ott, professor of mission and intercultural studies at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, said that while the omissions are significant, evangelical leaders are likely to be more uncomfortable with some of the language that’s included than with what’s left out.
“There’s at least four mentions of the necessity of interreligious relationships and continuous commitment to engagement with other religions, and I’m not sure that this is realistic or theologically a major part of missions,” he said. “This leans very heavily toward Catholic and WCC notions that the God of other religions is the God of Christianity, and that’s something evangelicals are not willing to accept.” . . .
Similarly, Hunter notes one section that states, “Christians are to acknowledge that changing one’s religion is a decisive step that must be accompanied by sufficient time for adequate reflection and preparation, through a process ensuring full personal freedom.”
“That is not consistent with evangelical policy in the past,” Hunter said. But he thinks it’s worth questioning evangelical emphasis on the “moment of decision.” “Faith is more like a gift—like falling in love—than a methodical, carefully discerned decision.”
But is “changing one’s religion” the same as “converting,” or “having faith”? The terms faith, religion, and witness appear repeatedly in the document, but not evangelism.
“This document steps back from a lot of the activistic language we see in the Great Commission and throughout Matthew and favors the more Jesus-centric language of John—Jesus as the perfect witness to the gospel,” said Dana Robert, co-director of the Center for Global Christianity and Mission at Boston University. “You don’t see any language like convert or evangelize in the document because it would be perhaps perceived as too strong.”
So we have a sort of Evangelicals Catholics & Liberals Together moment. Evangelicals feel good that they have been included at the table for once. Catholics gave up the sacramental dimension and evangelicals gave up going for the instantaneous decision. With the emphasis on peace and justice and interfaith dialog, rather than the actual Gospel, it sounds like the liberal protestants basically had their way. Or am I missing something?
(Lutherans, of course, unlike evangelicals, were not included at the table except for the liberal variety in the WCC.)
HT: Ted Olsen