Volume 16 - Issue 2
Conference theology: Four personal views
The author of Ecclesiastes would probably say the same thing about conferences as he did about books: there is no end to the making of them and they can be much weariness to the flesh! However, ever since the earliest councils of the Church, beginning with Acts 15, Christians around the world have engaged in concords, councils, congresses, consultations and conferences whenever important issues have been at stake. Our historic creeds arose out of such events. Some of us belong to denominations whose confessional stances go back to the conferences of past centuries. The twentieth century has seen a steady stream of these events and we may be tempted to wonder if they achieve anything for the advancement of fruitful theology.
1989 was a vintage year, with the major ecumenical conference in San Antonio and then the evangelical Lausanne II congress in Manila—both concerned with mission. Both events, however, were part of broader processes which need to be understood. We asked four participants in these events to reflect on different aspects of their significance for the task of theology, to highlight the trends at work, and to comment on areas of convergence and remaining disagreement. We are grateful for their response, and would underline that, since they were asked to express their personal opinion, their reflections do not necessarily represent any official editorial stance.
Christopher Sogden is Registrar of the Oxford Centre for Mission Studies, England.
Tormod Engelsviken is senior lecturer at the Church Theological Faculty (MF), Oslo, Norway.
Erhard Berneburg is a pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church, in Sulingen, Germany.
Arthur Glasser teaches at the Fuller School of World Mission, Pasadena, USA.
Conferences and the theological process
In the light of the expense involved in international conferences, is there sufficient justification for them in the theological endeavour? Why gather people from all over the world? Why not simply circulate papers?
We must begin with the nature of the Christian church. It is meant to be a community that crosses the barriers that disfigure human society, barriers or race, class and gender, Paul in his epistles was clear that in the developing theological understanding of the early church, Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians had much to learn from one another: Jewish Christians could learn from Gentile Christians what it really meant to be saved by faith, as their father Abraham was, and Gentile Christians could learn from Jewish Christians what obedience to God meant. No part of the Christian church is meant to grow in theological isolation. It is important that we hear and listen to people from other contexts and settings. Theology is essentially a team game.
Mission the midwife of theology
Secondly, the true midwife of theology is mission. The important theological questions of the last twenty years for evangelicals have been prompted by the experience of mission. What is the relationship between evangelism and social responsibility? What is the place of the poor in the work of God? What is the relationship between the uniqueness of Christ and the religious experience of those of other faiths? What understanding should we have of the experience of the Holy Spirit? How should homosexual relationships be handled pastorally and biblically? What is the role of women in leadership in the church? These questions require theological reflection—but they are initially posed from the experience of mission in a world that is increasingly aware of global poverty, of the rights of women, of the emergence of communities of those of other faiths in the European heartlands of Christianity.
An important process in this theological reflection has been the sharing of stories of Christian mission in the various contexts in which the people of God find themselves. This process gives a dignity and a value to the Christian experience of people in those contexts. One difficulty with the dominance of the dialogue of biblical Christianity with the rationalist culture is that the rationalist culture assumes that it is the universal culture; therefore the formulation of Christianity within that culture also tends to make universal claims. Once those universal claims are made, the experience of people in other cultures appears to be irrelevant unless it contributes to the rationalist project. Given this dominance, theologians from the two-thirds world in particular have been regarded as interesting only in the realm of missions, not in the realm of theology. Therefore conferences with them have appeared rather irrelevant to some Western observers, as far as contributing to the rationalist theological project is concerned.
Sources of theology
There are two sources of theology. One is the Bible and the Christian tradition that has developed from it. The second is the experience of Christian people. Theological study for many involves the study of the two sources as written in books.
The experience of the church in the two-thirds world exists mainly in oral tradition. One of the few places where there is access to this experience is through theological conferences. These do not produce theology. But they do act as places where the experience of the church in the two-thirds world is shared, and often reduced to writing through papers presented or tape-recorded.
The importance of people’s experience in their contexts and the effect of that experience on the way that people hear the Christian gospel explained and on the way in which people explain it to others was brought to the attention of the evangelical world at the Lausanne Congress on World Evangelisation in 1974. The result was the Lausanne Covenant which particularly endorsed the work of social responsibility as part or Christian mission. This unleashed a torrent of evangelical social concern around the world, as it legitimized such involvement as an expression of, rather than a betrayal of, the gospel.
Further questions arose: What is the relation of the gospel to the culture in which it is shared? What is the precise relation of evangelism and social responsibility? What is the theology that should underlie evangelical involvement in relief and development? These questions could not be solved in academic settings by scholars writing books about books and articles about articles. They were questions of mission; they were questions which arose out of the experience of people in different contexts. In many of the contexts in which people engaged in misson, exchanging printed pieces of paper was not the primary method of communication. Their primary process was face to face discussion. To insist on exchange of written materials would be to load the process against them.
The process of theological discovery that took place through these meetings can be charted in three volumes of Evangelical Texts on Social Ethics, edited by René Padilla and Chris Sugden (Nottingham, Grove Books on Ethics Nos. 58, 59, 62, 1987–8). The theological themes that emerged in these conferences have been charted by this author in ‘Theological developments since Lausanne I’ in Transformation Vol. 7 No. 1 (January 1990) and also in Proclaiming Christ in Christ’s Way, Vinay Samuel and Albrecht Hauser (eds.) (Regnum, 1989).
A second major conference where the experience of the two-thirds world church in mission proved of major significance was the Lambeth Conference of Bishops in 1988. This was initially planned as a conference on the lines of ‘classical theology’: that is, exposition of classic theological themes and then their application to the issues of the day. The co-ordinator of studies for the conference, an evangelical from the two-thirds world, Bishop Michael Nazir Ali, proposed instead that the experience of mission of the churches in obedience to the gospel in those parts of the world where the churches were growing apace—Africa, Latin America and Asia—should be part of the process of theological reflection. Thus the bishops were asked to ‘bring their diocese with them’—not their star theologians to do battle with the Bishop of Durham, but their mission theologians.
One such was Bishop David Gitari, former chairman of the World Evangelical Fellowship Theological Commission, and a former travelling secretary of the Pan-African Fellowship of Evangelical Students. He told the story of evangelism and church-planting among nomadic groups in Northern Kenya. In the press conference after the presentations, the Bishop of Durham commented that he had something to learn from Bishop Gitari.
Another result of the Lambeth Conference was that the African bishops shared their experience in evangelism and challenged the rest of the Anglican church to engage in evangelism with similar commitment. The result was the Decade of Evangelism which is providing stimulus to churches around the world, and beyond the Anglican Communion.1
Beyond mono-cultural theology
An important value of these conferences is to help the global church discover where it is. It helps churches in particular cultural contexts to break out of their cultural isolation. As Samuel Escobar says, biblical interpretation is a global task. One leading British evangelical theologian attended a conference of two-thirds world theologians a few years ago, and shared with the conference at the end that it had changed her life. And it has, permanently. It helps the evangelical constituency come to a common mind. In 1974 it was over the validity of social responsibility; in 1988 at Lambeth the Anglican Communion came to a common mind over the need to evangelize.
That does not mean that the outcome must always be agreement. A conference sometimes calls a halt to a process which appears to be getting out of control. In 1980 the Lausanne Congress on World Evangelisation at Pattaya appeared to be putting all its eggs into the church growth basket. A determined group of two-thirds world evangelicals found other methods and approaches more effective in their own contexts and initiated a process so that at the Lausanne Congress in Manila 1989 a wide range of approaches was considered. In 1989 the WCC sponsored a conference on Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation.2 This clearly took a one-sided view of God’s involvement in the sufferings of the poor and excluded the contributions of those in business and industry. The reactions indicate that Christians and theologians must take the issues of capital, income generation and employment creation more seriously in their consideration of a theology of creation and stewardship.
Theological students and research
So theological students would do well to keep up with the news of these various conferences. They provide access to an important source of theology, the experience of the people of God in discipleship and mission. The conferences also provide access to the themes for reflection and work that are concerning the leaders of the churches today. A leading British missiologist commented to me over twenty years ago what a shame it was that evangelical research students insisted on doing research on issues that were of very little moment for the mission of the church, and that crucial issues of Christian mission today were neglected. That prompted me to concentrate my research on violence, revolution and liberation theology in the early seventies. I hope it prompts other theological students to read the reports and papers from theological conferences so they might put the privileged time they have for study at the service of the church by studying those issues that are of major current concern. I end with suggesting a few: creation and the environment; the uniqueness of Jesus and other religions; human sexuality; and the international debt crisis.
Ecumenical or evangelical—is there any difference?
The history of missiological thinking in this century can to a large extent be read out of the major mission conferences. These conferences, from Edinburgh 1910 to San Antonio and Manila 1989, have focused on matters and trends of supreme importance for mission and evangelism, and the documents issued have reflected the current stand within the ecumenical and the evangelical movements.
Given the broad and comprehensive character of the ecumenical movement, there has naturally always been a significant number of evangelicals who have worked within its framework. The ecumenical and the evangelical movements are not mutually exclusive, although there is possibly a majority on either side looking at the other with some scepticism.
In the ’60s and early ’70s the distance between the dominant ecumenical mission theology and the evangelical was particularly great, being expressed in Uppsala 68, Bangkok 72/73 and Lausanne 74. Crucial areas of debate were the notion of salvation. Christian attitude to other religions, and socio-political involvement.
In recent years, however, positions seem to have changed on both sides; so much so that some have been talking about a convergence of the ecumenical and evangelical streams. Some evangelicals wanted to arrange one mission conference in 1989 instead of the two in San Antonio and Manila, and in San Antonio there was an express desire to ‘work for a joint world mission conference in the future’.
Already in February 1989 a small joint consultation of five representatives of the World Council of Churches, five representatives of the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization and five representatives of the World Evangelical Fellowship met in Stuttgart, Germany, to ‘consult one another across the existing frontiers’ and to ‘dialogue at a theological level’. The underlying agenda that some of us who were present had to face was whether there really had been a ‘convergence’ between the two movements that warranted increased contact and maybe even co-operation.
Although it was significant in itself that one came together, there was after the consultation a certain disappointment that leading representatives of the two movements still stood quite a way apart on central missiological issues.
Among the many questions that were discussed, a representative of the Commission on World Mission and Evangelism (CWME) in the WCC pointed out three areas in particular where he had difficulties in accepting the evangelical position, namely the authority of the Bible, the doctrine of atonement’ and the attitude to other religions. I believe this indicates clearly where some lines of demarcation still are to be drawn.
The doctrine of Scripture
The basis of the World Council of Churches contains a reference to the Scriptures, but the composition of the Council, with Orthodox churches as members, makes it impossible to maintain the Scriptures as the solesource and authority for Christian faith and practice. This does not mean that the Scriptures do not play a central part in WCC/CWME documents and conferences. On the contrary, Bible studies and Bible references are very important since the Bible is common ground for all churches. But the use of the Bible as source and norm is nevertheless very different from the practice of the evangelical movement. The Bible is not seen as the final arbiter of all questions of dispute. References to the formal authority of the Bible are scarce in the documents, although there are a lot of references to the Bible itself.
As an example we could take the document ‘Mission and Evangelism—An Ecumenical Affirmation’, which is the most representative mission statement issued by the WCC. Since its publication in 1982 it has received widespread acclaim as a moderate or even evangelical statement, and it was firmly endorsed in San Antonio last year (1989). In spite of the number of references to the Bible there is no emphasis on the role of the Bible as such or on the authority of the Bible.
This is quite different in both the Lausanne Covenant and the Manila Manifesto. In article 2 of the Lausanne Covenant the ‘inspiration, truthfulness and authority’ of the Bible are confirmed, and in the second and third of the twenty-one affirmations of the Manila Manifesto it is affirmed that ‘in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments God has given us an authoritative disclosure of his character and will, his redemptive acts and their meaning, and his mandate for mission’, and that ‘the biblical gospel is God’s enduring message to our world’.
This observation of a fundamental difference between the ecumenical and the evangelical movement is neither new nor original. It is nevertheless of profound significance. The evangelical missionary movement is programmatically taking its fundamental understanding of mission from the Bible alone, and desires to let the biblical mandate set the agenda for mission today. The ecumenical movement as a whole is less bound by the Scriptures’ own perspective and more open to let the contemporary context set the agenda for the mission of the church. This may mean—at least in the shorter perspective—more relevance, but it also means less substance and a fatal tendency to err from biblical truth when confronted with the challenges of today.
The doctrine of atonement
In his address in San Antonio the director of the CWME, Dr Eugene L. Stockwell, expressed his gratitude to the evangelicals for ‘pressing us all to understand the basics of Jesus’ message, for your intense awareness of human sin and your liberating search for true salvation, for your insistence on biblical truth and your insistence on personal morality’. This statement expresses gratitude and focuses on differences at the same time.
There is a deep inner connection between the evangelical doctrine of sin and of atonement. To state it very simply: sin is first and foremost sin against God, which means that our basic predicament as human beings is that we are under God’s just judgment upon us. This implies that all human beings are lost without Christ. The Manila Manifesto says, ‘Humanity is guilty, without excuse, and on the broad road which leads to destruction.… Left to themselves, human beings are lost forever … we repudiate false gospels which deny human sin, divine judgment.…’
It is against this dark background that the biblical message of salvation is to be understood. The doctrine of atonement as it is expressed in the Manila Manifesto is therefore not only one of many possible understandings of Christ’s death on the cross, but the very basic one without which there would be no salvation. Any proclamation of the love of God as shown on the cross lacks depth and reality unless it also includes the following confession: ‘We confess him as the eternal Son of God who became fully human while remaining fully divine, who was our substitute on the cross, bearing our sins, and dying our death, exchanging his righteousness for our unrighteousness, who rose victoriously in a transformed body, and who will return in glory to judge the world’ (Manila Manifesto).
Although the ‘Ecumenical Affirmation’ contains a strong emphasis on the death of Jesus as a revelation of God’s love, and also refers to his death as sin-bearing, the judgment of God does not come into view. The possibility of eternal lostness is not addressed. There remains in the ecumenical documents a hesitation to speak biblically and radically of the human predicament without Christ, and therefore also of God’s remedy in Christ.
Christ and other faiths
This brings us to the third point where there still exists a profound difference between evangelicals and many leaders in the ecumenical movement. The ‘Ecumenical Affirmation’ states: ‘Among Christians there are still differences of understanding as to how this salvation of Christ is available to people of diverse religious persuasions’, while one in San Antonio expresses this openness a little differently: ‘We cannot point to any other way of salvation than Jesus Christ; at the same time we cannot set limits to the saving power of God’. These rather vague statements do not exclude the possibility of salvation for people in other religions without an explicit faith in Christ.
On this point the Manila Manifesto is clear: ‘Because human beings are sinful, and because “the whole world is under the control of the evil one”, even religious people are in need of Christ’s redemption. We, therefore, have no warrant for saying that salvation can be found outside Christ or apart from an explicit acceptance of his work through faith’.
This statement in the Manila Manifesto, which reflects a basic evangelical attitude, can be said to account for the insistence within the Lausanne Movement that all people need to hear the gospel and be converted to Christ. Therefore one has focused on reaching all ethno-linguistic groups and all ideological and religious segments of the earth’s population. The Manila Manifesto affirms that even the Jewish people need Christ and that therefore the gospel should be taken to ‘the Jew first’. The passion for worldwide evangelization within the evangelical missionary movement is a consequence of its view of sin and salvation, while the ecumenical movement, without insisting on the priority on proclamation and conversion, has focused more on social issues.
The differences between the evangelical and the ecumenical mission thinking are less pronounced as we enter the ’90s than they were some years back, but the basic issues are still with us. There is still a need for evangelicals to ‘affirm the biblical gospel’ and to ‘defend, proclaim and embody it’ (Manila Manifesto).
Mission theology after San Antonio and Manila
Parallels or polarity?
Some see it as a nuisance, others as a clarifying signal. In 1989, two separate conferences on world mission were held: one by the WCC in May, in San Antonio, Texas; and, only six weeks later, the second congress of the Lausanne movement for world evangelization, in Manila. The fundamental crisis of mission that has emerged in the seventies still has consequences up to the present. The Protestant movement for mission does not give a homogenous picture, but presents itself on the one hand as ecumenical, on the other hand as evangelical.1
The fact that this parallelity, or even polarity, has not changed much until 1989, however, disturbed not only ecumenicals. Quite a few evangelicals would have preferred to end the unpleasant fraternal strife and present the image of a really ecumenical mission movement, united in the perception of Christ’s mission command, to the non-Christian world. There have been talks aimed at achieving this, but they have not yet produced significant results.2
It is a daring undertaking to compare the mission conferences of San Antonio and Manila because the character of the two assemblies is quite different,3 even though they were partly dealing with the same challenges of the present towards mission theology. These challenges included: the meaning of the gospel for the poor; the relationship of the unique revelation of salvation in Christ to the claims of non-Christian religions; the role of the Holy Spirit in mission;4 the parish as supporter of mission;5 and mission’s answer to challenges of the secularized modern age.6
Are the two mission movements, which turned in different directions twenty years ago, possibly coming back to an inner agreement? Are there, after San Antonio and Manila, even prospects of a future co-operation?7 We would like to look for an answer to these questions in examining two of the most urgent topics of the debate.
The gospel and other religions
The main subject of the San Antonio conference became the question whether Jesus is the only mediator of salvation (which was not officially put onto the programme, but had nevertheless been planned and prepared for a long time).8 This debate was set off by a short but provoking and highly explosive passage in the basic lecture of the retiring director Eugene Stockwell. He wanted to answer the question whether Jesus were the only way with no more than a relative ‘yes’ concerning the personal profession of faith, whereas an absolute statement about the uniqueness of the Christian way of salvation was not permitted. According to his point of view, gifts of God could clearly be seen also in many other religions.
This directly contradicts Jesus’ statement, ‘No-one comes to the Father except through me’ (Jn. 14:6b) as well as the apostolic word, ‘There is no other name … by which we must be saved’ (Acts 4:12). Therefore, it was no surprise that this position did not find a majority—mainly because of vehement protests by theologians from the two-thirds world. The report of Section I concerning the relationship of dialogue and witness said neither more nor less than the corresponding statements in the frequently quoted ecumenical affirmation of 1982.
Manila also treated the challenge by non-Christian religions as a matter of great importance—for the first time with international participation. Colin Chapman called for an intense theological dealing with non-Christian religions. The evangelical mission organizations, he said, had concentrated too much on the strategic aspect so far. All evangelicals who agreed with the Lausanne Covenant affirmed also in Manila that salvation comes exclusively through Christ. Evangelical Christians will discuss neither whether other religions can be equal ways of salvation beside the Christian one (pluralistic view of religions) nor whether the final revelation is indirectly or implicitly present in other religions (inclusive point of view).
The secretary-general of Germany’s YMCA, Ulrich Parzany, criticized in Manila the relativizing understanding of dialogue in the ecumenical mission movement as it had been set forth in San Antonio a short time before. The uniqueness of Christ, he said, which is founded by the divine sonship of Jesus and his work of redemption, must under no circumstances be sacrificed in the attempt to achieve a tolerant unity of all people.
Lausanne II admits an important role for dialogue as a missionary method, but stresses theologically: ‘There is only one Gospel because there is only one Christ.… We reject therefore both relativism … as well as syncretism …’ (Manila Manifesto A.3).
The gospel and socio-political action
The concluding documents of both conferences have explicitly taken up responsibility towards the poor, the oppressed and the marginalized. It was a basic belief in both that the good-news must be proclaimed to all people not only through the word, but also through the deed. Both conferences have worked on their mission theology in awareness of the social needs of mankind. In Manila it was stressed that ‘the proclamation of God’s kingdom necessarily demands the prophetic denunciation of all that is incompatible with it. Among the evils we deplore are violence, including institutionalized violence, political corruption, all forms of exploitation of people and of the earth, the undermining of family, abortion on demand …’ (Manila Manifesto A.4). That evangelization inevitably includes social action cannot be seriously questioned any more in the Lausanne movement after Manila. At first sight, therefore, it seems that the two mission movements have been approaching each other on the disputed field of the socio-ethical consequences of mission. On closer analysis, however, the differences can clearly be seen.
Section II in San Antonio affirmed the CWME’s politicized mission theology: ‘Participating in suffering and struggle is at the heart of God’s mission and God’s will for the world’. San Antonio calls the disciples of Christ ‘to participate with the people who are crushed in their struggle for the transformation of society’ (Section II). Popular revolts and participation in the struggle or liberation organizations realize thus the message of resurrection. The struggle is expressed in non-violent actions, but also in armed fight if non-violent resistance has been tried and was suppressed. These general theological statements are referred to actual situations of injustice. The Intifada, for example—the Palestinian revolt against the Israeli occupying power—is, without criticism, considered an authentic expression of the activity of God’s Spirit.
In my view, however, the attempt to reinterpret crucial salvation events like the resurrection or the gift of the Holy Spirit as political programs is intolerable for a biblically orientated theology. It is not political consequences of missionary work that are talked about here, but the transformation of mission into political programs.9
Comparably radical statements concerning social and political responsibility will be searched for in vain at Manila. Lausartne II confirms (with Lausanne I) that ‘the biblical gospel has inescapable social implications’, that the good news and good deeds cannot be separated, and it is demanded that ‘true mission should always be incarnational’ (Manila Manifesto A.4).
Very different ideas were expressed, however, about the relationship between social commitment and the proclamation of salvation:
- Only in a few contributions (e.g. that of Luis Palau) was the view taken that evangelization was the best form of social action.
- Many contributions of leading evangelicals showed, again and again, a striving for ‘credibility’. A direct connection between the social impact of Christian faith and the power of evangelization was seen (for example, by Tom Houston, director of the Lausanne movement).
- Others asked for a theological concept that could bring evangelization and socio-political action together and suggested a ‘wholistic evangelization’ (e.g. Peter Kuzmic). The kingdom of God is seen as the integrating concept.
- Several speakers (e.g. Cesar Molebatsi and Valdir Steuernagel) asked the evangelical assembly, beyond that, to formulate concrete political statements. Mission is understood as a comprehensive transformation that also includes the sociopolitical dimension.10
The Lausanne movement after Manila appears to me to be farther away than ever from a united view of social responsibility. The consensus of the ‘Consultation on the Relationship between Evangelism and Social Responsibility’ held in Grand Rapids in 1982 does not seem to hold any more.11 The Lausanne movement as a whole is being challenged whether it wants to follow the wholistic understanding of mission that has always been insisted on by the social-concern evangelicals, or to remain an evangelization movement by emphasizing the personal dedication of salvation that is granted by the forgiving of sins through the cross of Christ.
Lausanne II continues, in spite of many other impulses, to give priority to the proclaiming of salvation as it was stated in Lausanne I: ‘Evangelism is primary because our chief concern is with the gospel, that all people may have the opportunity to accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour’ (Manila Manifesto A.4).
San Antonio and Lausanne: still alternatives
There were statements at San Antonio that raised hopes among evangelicals. As had never happened since the Willingen conference of 1952, participants thinking in a biblical way were able to contribute important Bible-orientated statements at least to a section report, i.e. section 1 (‘Turning back to the living God’). In particular, there are references to the triune God as originator and preserver of the church’s mission, to his merciful attention towards us in Jesus Christ, the crucified and risen Lord and Saviour, and to the church’s order to witness together to the reconciliation.
In spite of this positive aspect, the evangelical observer must remain uneasy over San Antonio’s equivocation about other faiths and its socio-political ideology. It seems to me, therefore, that a bridging between the ecumenical and the evangelical mission movements is still premature. A group of more than 160 participants at the San Antonio conference, who called themselves ‘those with evangelical concerns’, signed an open letter to the forthcoming Lausanne II congress in Manila.12 The letter contains a report about ‘the good things we have learnt and been enriched by at this conference’. It solicits assent even to the WCC’s sociopolitical commitment and recommends, because of an alleged convergence between ecumenicals and evangelicals, that the CWME and the LCWE should hold their next world conference in partial co-operation at the same place and time. Because of the serious theological differences in the understanding of mission, however, it was the decision of Lausanne’s executive committee to have the letter discussed in a seminar group, but not to accept the suggestions. The opinion of the European Convention of Confessing Fellowships, of which Peter Beyerhaus is president, was that: ‘Under the present theological circumstances, such a co-operation of both movements would lead to fatal confusion, and, moreover, a disastrous deformation of Christian world mission even among evangelicals could be the result’.13 I would agree with this point of view and hope that the Lausanne movement will maintain its commitment to proclaim Christ until he comes.
J.D. Douglas (ed.), Proclaim Christ Until He Comes. Calling the Whole Church to Take the Whole Gospel to the Whole World. Lausanne II in Manila, Minneapolis (World Wide Publications), 1990.
Alan Nichols (ed.), The Whole Gospel for the Whole World. Story of the Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization, Charlotte (LCWE and Regal Books), 1989. Frederick R. Wilson (ed.), The San Antonio Report. Your Will be Done. Mission in Christ’s Way, Geneva (WCC Publications), 1990.
Messianic Jews—what they represent
Arthur F. Glasser
The outstanding evangelical missiologist of our generation, David J. Bosch, evaluated the San Antonio, Texas, USA, meeting of the Commission for World Mission and Evangelism of the WCC in the following fashion: ‘It did not succeed in making any significant contribution to missionary thinking and has, in fact, led to some confusion’ (1989:126). I agree. Although its theme was ‘Your will be done: Mission in Christ’s way’, nothing was said of Jesus’ ministry to his fellow Jews, nor of the ways in which his oral ministry sifted and divided their ranks. Nothing was said of the ways in which a believing remnant in Israel surfaced and was trained by his precept and example, in anticipation of the launching at Pentecost of its worldwide mission. Admittedly, Bosch joined the many evangelicals at San Antonio in agreeing that this CWME gathering marked ‘the beginning of the turn of the tide in the ecumenical movement’ (p. 134). The delegates appeared largely willing to turn from an almost total preoccupation with a reductionist, politicized and relational theology to one that was more biblical.
What was significant to me was the witness of a Messianic Jew, Susan Perlman. She challenged Eugene Stockwell, the CWME director. His response to the question: ‘Is Jesus the only way?’ endorsed Pauline Webb’s agnosticism: ‘Yes, no, and I don’t know’. He buttressed this by bluntly placing the charge of ‘arrogance and intolerance’ on those who claimed otherwise. The Perlman response was pointed:
There is nothing as arrogant as agnosticism because the agnostic is not merely saying: ‘I don’t know,’ He or she is also implying, ‘Neither can you know,’ and that is far more arrogant than the statement, ‘Christ is the only way’, (1990:12)
What made this and her extended reply significant was the fact that Susan Perlman represents a growing voice within worldwide evangelicalism that is pursuing a distinct identity that is separate—for biblical and cultural reasons—from all forms of Gentile Christianity. Until very recently this voice has not been particularly heard. The dominant motif of Lausanne I (1974) was ‘Let the earth hear His voice’. Although this theme reflected the universal concern of OT prophets, nothing was incorporated into its ‘Lausanne Covenant’ intimating that the church sprang from Jewish roots or was guided in its worship and mission by a Bible written by Jews. The few Jews present at Lausanne drafted an excellent statement to this effect for inclusion in the covenant. It was rejected.
But these Jewish believers were not daunted. By 1980 they had organized themselves into just about the most effective sub-group to come out of the Lausanne movement. Their Lausanne Consultation on Jewish Evangelism soon took on international dimensions replete with a journal (21 issues to date), all sorts of regional and worldwide gatherings, and a vigour that makes lesser Gentile mortals like myself marvel in disbelief. Even so, they continued to be largely ignored by Gentile evangelicals—that is, until 1989,
Between Lausanne I and II these Jews had clearly-defined goals. First, their mission agencies had to gain churchly recognition. In 1948 when the WCC was formed, it was agreed: ‘The proclamation of the gospel to Israel stands out as an absolute obligation from which the Church must not try to escape’. However, by the early 1960s this commitment had eroded so badly that evangelizing Jews was increasingly regarded as ‘in bad taste’, if not altogether illegitimate (Jocz, 1966). Missions to the Jews were accused of ‘engaging in subterfuge and dishonesty’. The charge was that they were mixing ‘religious symbols in ways which distort their essential meaning’ (Long Island Council of Churches, 1977).
Well, after much deliberation these Jewish missions began applying to evangelical inter-mission agencies for membership. They exposed themselves to the review of their organizational structure, ethos, theological commitment, and legitimacy in terms of missionary obedience. One by one they were accepted. Those who now denigrate the proclamation of the gospel to the Jews by Messianic Jews as deceptive, cultic, non-Christian and manipulative are judging the whole Christian mission as contrary to Scripture and hence displeasing to Jesus Christ. Even the CWME/WCC took note. As a result Susan Perlman, the associate executive director of a significant type of Jewish evangelism and Jewish witness—‘Jews for Jesus’—became the LCWE observer at San Antonio.
Second, these Messianic Jews then sought theological acceptance by evangelicals. After much consultation they persuaded the World Evangelical Fellowship and the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization to sponsor jointly what in my judgment was the most significant evangelical gathering in 1989. A small group of representative theologians from Europe, Asia, Africa and North America gathered at the Willowbank retreat centre in Bermuda to draft a comprehensive statement on the gospel and the Jewish people. I had the privilege of being present. All participants presented papers and at the conclusion, under the leadership of Vernon Grounds and James I. Packer, a comprehensive ‘Willowbank Declaration’ was produced. Following an extended preamble, this document discusses biblically: the essence of the gospel and the church; God’s purpose for the Jewish people; Jewish evangelism; and Jewish-Christian relations (27 separate articles). This is a most significant statement.
Third, a few months later Lausanne II was convened in Manila. The Jewish contingent was determined to gain further acceptance. At first, the rough draft of its ‘Manila Manifesto’ contained no reference to the Jewish people or to their eschatological significance. Strangely, even two plenary addresses on Romans 9–11 did not deal with the apostle Paul’s approach to the Jewish people in the eternal purpose of God. This was strange, because the theme of Lausanne II was ‘Proclaim Christ until He comes’. This produced a howl and a protest that did not subside until a public apology was made and the dominant concern of the Willowbank Declaration was fully incorporated in the Manila Manifesto.
It is sometimes held that in virtue of God’s covenant with Abraham, Jewish people do not need to acknowledge Jesus as their Messiah. We affirm that they need him as much as anyone else, that it would be a form of anti-Semitism, as well as being disloyal to Christ, to depart from the New Testament pattern of taking the gospel to ‘the Jew first …’. We therefore reject the thesis that Jews have their own covenant which renders faith in Jesus unnecessary.
By this statement Lausanne II made it possible for evangelicals to begin to endorse the worldwide Messianic Jewish movement. During the past twenty years congregations of Messianic Jews have been appearing wherever there are concentrations of Jewish people. There are about thirty in Israel and over 150 in North America. Their numbers are growing.
For years, whenever Jewish people have believed in Jesus Christ the Jewish community has hoped that they would quietly assimilate into Gentile churches. All of us know Jewish Christians. Many are lay persons, but there are Jewish pastors, theologians, evangelists and missionaries within Gentile Christianity. But they have made little impact on world Jewry. In contrast, practically all Jews today are aware of the emergence of these vocal Messianic Jewish congregations. They area growing concern to the leaders of rabbinic Judaism. Indeed, nothing provokes their indignation more than the claim that Messianic Jews represent a believing and valid remnant within Jewry. The rabbis’ growing literature is unrelenting in its hostility toward these Jewish congregations that openly confess Jesus as Messiah and Lord and thereby seek to be a ‘light to the nations’, that the salvation of God ‘might reach to the end of the earth’ (Is. 49:6).
This gives Messianic Jews a unique responsibility today. Not only do they represent the historic continuity of the Jewish people in the redemptive purpose of God, but by their public and corporate confession they are deliberately caught up in the destiny of their people. They courageously reject the rabbinic tradition about the crucifixion of Jesus and accept the witness of Scripture instead. They challenge the currently popular ‘Two Covenant Theology’ that Jews are saved differently from Gentiles. They proclaim the universality of human sinfulness and lostness, the uniqueness of the incarnation and the essentiality of the cross if any person is to be saved.
To the Gentile churches Messianic Jews are a reminder that God is still the God of Israel, and he will be faithful to the promises and covenant he made with them. They are also a rebuke to the compromises the churches continually make with the world. They challenge its nominality, its easy believism, and its baptizing, marrying and burying the unconverted in the name of Jesus. This follows because Messianic Jews came to faith not by birth but by decision. They are a reminder that neither synagogues nor churches can take themselves for granted. If historic Israel failed despite her privileges, so can the churches fail. Indeed, Messianic Jews are a sign of the utter spiritual need of the human race and the unsearchable riches of God’s grace.
David J. Bosch, ‘Your Will be Done? Critical Reflections on San Antonio’, Missionalia Vol. 17 No. 2, August 1989, pp. 126–138.
Susan Perlman, ‘An Evangelical Perspective on the San Antonio Conference’, International Review of MissionVol. LXXIX No. 313, January 1990, pp. 6–16.
1 See further Lambeth—a view from the Two-Thirds World by Vinay Samuel and Chris Sugden (SPCK, 1988).
2 Reports and reflections on this conference by Ron Sider and the present author appear in TransformationVol. 7 No. 2 (July 1990).
1 Cf. Donald Gavran (ed.), The Conciliar-Evangelical Debate: The Crucial Documents, 1964–1976 (South Pasadena, 1977); Peter Beyerhaus, Krise und Neuaufbruth der Weltmission (Bad Liebenzell, 1987).
2 Vinay Samuel/Albrecht Hauser (edd.), Proclaiming Christ in Christ’s Way. Studies in Integral Evangelism(Oxford, 1989).
3 Cf. Vinay Samuel/Chris Sugden, ‘Ecumenical, evangelical’, One World (Oct. 1989), pp. 9–11.
4 Two very different observations are to be recorded here: in San Antonio, the question was whether, and if so how, the Holy Spirit is free from the proclaimed word and therefore becomes active as redemptor in other religions without direct reference to the person of Jesus of Nazareth; on the other hand, whether and how he is present and at work in revolutionary processes as a creative power. At the next plenary assembly of the WCC, in Canberra 1991, which will have as a subject ‘Come, Holy Spirit’, these pneumatological questions are going to move into the centre of ecumenical discussion.
In a very different way, this subject was present in Manila. Here, the relationship of evangelicals and charismatics was dealt with. Because of the Pentecostal/charismatic movement’s claim to be the decisive force for the renewal of Christianity as a whole and for its eschatological missionary empowerment, it nearly came to an open quarrel at the conference. The pragmatic easing of the conflict in Manila (cf. Manifesto para. 5) pointed out even more clearly the necessity to do further reflections on pneumatology as a part of mission theology.
5 An amazing consensus between the papers of San Antonio and Manila consists in the view of the parish as the supporter of mission. A particular emphasis was laid in Manila on the necessity of the laity committing themselves to mission.
6 Bishop Lesslie Newbigin again asked in San Antonīo: ‘How can the West be converted?’ (San Antonio Report, pp. 162–166). In Manila this subject was taken up in a brilliant lecture by Os Guinness (Lausanne II, pp. 283–288).
7 For example, Alan Neely and James A Scherer make an appeal for more intense co-operation between the ecumenical and evangelical mission movements (‘San Antonio and Manila 1989: “Like Ships in the Night”?’, Missiology 18:2, April 1989, pp. 139–148).
8 Cf. the ecumenical consultation on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the historical Third World mission conference at Tambaram in 1938 (‘Tambaram Revisited’, IRM 78, p. 307 (July 1988). The results of the first Tambaram conference were thereby thoroughly revised with the intention of an upgrading of dialogue. The current president of the CWME, Christopher Duraisingh, has also given his understanding of dialogue and mission there (see pp. 398–411).
9 In the background of this political mission theology stand the studies and socio-revolutionary actions of the Urban-Rural Mission (cf. the description of URM mission theology in the preparatory brochure for the San Antonio conference). Even some members of the CWME’s central committee afterwards disassociated themselves from the statements in the report of section II.
10 Cf. the contributions of the Social-Concern Track by Vinay Samuel, Chris Sugden and Valdir Steuernagel in Transformation 7:1 (Jan./March 1990).
11 Cf. Bruce Nicholls (ed.), In Word and Deed (Exeter, 1985).
12 San Antonio Report, pp. 191–194.
13 ‘Weltmission nach San Antonio und Manila: Frankfurter Stellungnahme des Europäischen Bekenntniskonvents (6–8 Mârz 1990) in Frankfurt’, diakrisis 11:2 (June 1990), p. 4.