Three weeks ago, as we set out from Holland on the Heritage Tour, a document was presented in Geneva which, given what we would observe on the tour, can truly be called remarkable and historic.
While our pilgrimage focused on those creative minorities faithful to the teachings and example of Jesus through the centuries, we were inevitably confronted with atrocities inflicted by one branch of Christendom on another, and on those of other faiths.
So, to learn that Catholics, Protestants and Evangelicals had drafted a common document about the Gospel and Christian mission–for the first time ever in history–is to be reminded of the remarkable and historic days in which we live.
For most of us, theological documents seem boring and irrelevant for daily life. But it’s worth pausing to realise what last month’s presentation signaled.
The three bodies who presented the document at the WCC headquarters in Geneva, after a five-year process, represent the vast majority of the world’s Christians: the Vatican, the World Council of Churches (WCC) and the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA).
Two representatives of the WEA were Dr Geoff Tunnicliffe (with whom I shared an apartment during a leaders conference in New Zealand earlier this year) and Dr Thomas Schirrmacher (speaker and session chairman at HOPE.II).
Writing to his evangelical constituency, Dr Tunnicliffe (on the right in the photo next to the Vatican and WCC reps) admits that the document did not say ’anything new’: “After all, it states what many would consider to be obvious to the core of Christian mission. And yet, it has never been said before in this way! At least not so clearly and not within the context of collaboration between three Christian families of faith that jointly represent about 90% of all the Christians on the planet. This is a powerful document!”
Gruesome tortures and executions by ‘Christians‘ of those who believed they were following God’s Word, in places we recently visited–like Amsterdam, Deventer, Prague, Zurich and Bern–have become perhaps unthinkable in the Europe we now know.
Yet increasing interreligious tension in the world today, including violence and loss of human life, is cited as background for the document:
‘Christians too are sometimes involved in these conflicts, whether voluntarily or involuntarily, either as those who are persecuted or as those participating in violence. ‘
Called Christian Witness in a Multi-Religious World: Recommendations for Conduct, the document opens as follows:
Mission belongs to the very being of the church. Proclaiming the word of God and witnessing to the world is essential for every Christian. At the same time, it is necessary to do so according to gospel principles, with full respect and love for all human beings.
The document then lays out biblical foundations for mission, asserting that Jesus Christ is the example for Christians in witnessing to others. If we engage in inappropriate methods of exercising mission by resorting to deception and coercive means, the document warns, we betray the gospel and may cause suffering to others. While it is our responsibility to witness to Christ, the document reminds us that conversion is ultimately the work of the Holy Spirit.
A second section offers 12 principles for witnessing in a manner consistent with the Gospel. These include: • imitating Jesus Christ; • living out Christian virtues of integrity, compassion and humility; • acting justly, loving tenderly and serving unconditionally; • rejecting violence; • offering respect to all; • standing for religious liberty; and more.
A final section contains six recommendations to Christians, churches, mission organisations and agencies: 1. to study the document; 2. to build respect and trust with people of all religions; 3. to strengthen religious identity and faith while at the same time deepening knowledge and understanding of different religions; 4. to advocate justice and respect for the common good; 5. to call on governments and representatives to ensure religious freedom for all people; and 6. to pray for the well-being of neighbours.
If Christians everywhere would seriously reflect on this document, our world could become a different place.
Till next week,
(For full text of document, see www.worldevangelicals.org)