The R.E.S. and the World Council—No, No, No … Yes?

About a year ago the Standard Bearer commented on a report concerning membership in the World Council of Churches which will be coming before the Reformed Ecumenical Synod in Chicago in 1984. This comment was by way of a review of a Study Report entitled “Report to RES Chicago 1984 on Ecumenical Relations.” The problem with which this report deals is the problem of dual membership in the RES and the WCC, concretely the problem of membership of the Reformed Churches of the Netherlands (GKN) in both the World Council and the Reformed Ecumenical Synod. For many years the RES has faced this problem without resolving it, being fearful of losing one of its largest member churches, the GKN. The report in question was supposed to resolve the problem finally. And the resolution of the problem is urgent because there are churches which have already left the RES because of it and because there is the threat of more churches leaving the RES. The RES Nimes decided “That the Synod determine that a final decision whether or not member churches of the RES may also be members of the WCC, must be made by the RES 1984 and not delayed beyond that meeting.” To this end, a Study Committee was appointed; and this committee includes in its report ten recommendations. These recommendations essentially maintain a position which the RES has long held, namely, that membership in the World Council of Churches is principally wrong. To that extent we agree with the report. At the same time, however, the Report waffles when it comes to the concrete question of the GKN’s membership, in the World Council and proposes the following:

9. That the RES, while reaffirming its advice against WCC membership, decides not to terminate the RES membership of those churches now holding WCC membership on that ground alone. 

10. That the RBS once again call upon the RES churches holding membership in the WCC to reconsider that membership in the light of the above recommendations and the entire report of the Study Committee, and whatever their action be on that question, urge them to clearly give evidence that they are authentically Reformed both in faith and practice (Constitution III, 1 and V, 2).

Concerning these recommendations we pointed out (Nov. 1, 1982 issue) that they do not constitute the “final” stand which RES Nimes called for, but that they leave the concrete issue of dual membership in the RES and the WCC unresolved, and therefore, in effect—if this is indeed a “final” decision—tolerate dual membership. 

Now, however, there are signs of a shift with respect to the WCC. 

As most of you undoubtedly know, this past summer the Sixth Assembly of the Word Council of Churches met in Vancouver, British Columbia. At this assembly there were as many as eight Christian Reformed observers present. These men did not all represent the CRC officially as visitors and official observers. Two of them were denominational representatives, and others were present either as individuals or as representatives of various organizations within the CRC or in behalf of the CRC press. Among them was A. James Heynen, who reported extensively in The Banner. Among them was also Dr. Paul Schrotenboer, general secretary of the Reformed Ecumenical Synod. The latter joined in a caucus of other evangelicals present as observer-visitors in various capacities, and with that caucus joined in a very favorable open letter concerning the WCC. The Banner (Sept. 12, ’83, p. 18) reports as follows in this connection:

During Week One some of the evangelicals got together. Dr. Paul Schrotenboer, executive secretary of the Reformed Ecumenical Synod, was one of those who organized the meeting. During the course of their discussion the group decided to write an open letter. But before a draft could be adopted, three men (Peter Beyerhaus, Germany; Arthur Johnston, USA; and Myung Yuk Kim, Korea) walked out. They had insisted on an attack against the WCC which the others refused to join. 

In the end, the trio of critics created their own document claiming that “the WCC is in danger of becoming a mouthpiece of false prophecy.” 

Meanwhile, Schrotenboer and others sounded a very different note. They wrote an open letter in which they claimed to have seen “signs of growth and renewal” at this Assembly. The letter stopped just short of a call for evangelicals to get aboard the WCC bandwagon. The letter decried “the distortions in the popular evangelical understanding” of the Council and its programs. The punchline: “Hence, we feel pressed to declare publicly our determination to be more actively involved in all efforts seeking the unity and renewal of the church.” 

Schrotenboer later admitted he “wished [the letter] were a little less laudatory, a little more critical.” But he added: “I had no trouble signing it.” Neither did the CRC’s official observer, Calvin Seminary professor Henry Zwaanstra, who signed the letter because “it pretty well reflects my thinking.” 

By August 10, when the Assembly adjourned, the letter drafted by Schrotenboer and others had netted several hundred signatures. Orlando Costas pointed to the growing list of signees and said of the “other letter” (the one drafted by Beyerhaus and friends), “They don’t speak for evangelicals. They represent nothing more than that they came to a meeting and walked out.”

This report by The Banner is confirmed and strengthened by a report in Nederlands Dagbladcarried by Clarion (The Canadian Reformed Magazine) in its October 21 issue (p. 442):

In an interview with Nederlands Dagblad (August 10, 1983), Dr. P. Schrotenboer, secretary-general of the Reformed Ecumenical Synod (RBS), gave a very positive assessment of the current course of the World Council of Churches (WCC), evident at the last Assembly at Vancouver, BC. He signed the declaration of the so-called “radical evangelicals” who see a place for themselves within the structures of the World Council. Schrotenboer said that past criticism on the WCC (e.g. that the WCC is only concerned with social developments and is not interested in confessional and theological matters) no longer is warranted. He cited as proof the report of the WCC on Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry (BEM Report]. “Also, the Vancouver Assembly had much more attention for mission than previous assemblies. The Biblical witness is more strongly felt here. These are things which must give us joy,” said Schrotenboer. 

Schrotenboer admitted that the theology of the WCC is still based “‘too much on experience and not enough on the Scriptures” but nevertheless felt that the declaration of the “radical evangelicals” was timely. 

Asked if his position would have consequences for the matter of dual membership within the RES, Schrotenboer answered, “It’s too early to tell. I don’t want to say that dual membership in the WCC and RES will now become less problematic. But you know that a brochure of the RES on this issue states that dual membership as such is not unacceptable.” 

There were also eight observers from the Christian Reformed Church at the Vancouver Assembly. Schrotenboer stated, “They do have criticism, but also much appreciation for the Assembly. Only one of the eight (observers) will present a (negative) minority report, although also in the report of the seven others no position will be taken about possible membership (of the CRC in the WCC). The Synod must decide on this.” 

Dr. Schrotenboer retained definite reservations about the WCC. “The only thing is that I—together with other evangelicals—see positive developments at this Assembly. And then I say: in such a World Council I will try to work together, strengthening the good that I see.”

Now Dr. Schrotenboer may say that “a brochure of the RES on this issue states that dual membership as such is not unacceptable.” The fact of the matter is, however, that his very favorable assessment of the WCC, even to the extent of saying, “in such a World Council I will try to work together, strengthening the good that I see,” is an altogether different position from that taken by the Study Report referred to in the beginning of this editorial. It is true, of course, that the Study Report waffles when it comes to the concrete question of the GKN’s dual membership, thereby spoiling the report. Nevertheless, as to the issue itself, the Report is certainly opposed to the WCC and offers an evaluation of the WCC which is quite different from Dr. Schrotenboer’s. 

I assume that as an official observer of the RES Dr. Schrotenboer will be reporting his evaluation of the WCC-Vancouver to RES Chicago in 1984. If he reports there as he is reported to say in the quotations just made, it seems to me that the RES will have to choose between its Study Committee and its General Secretary. Further, if the RES believes its General Secretary, it seems to me that it will follow his leadership and “try to work together in such a World Council.” That, of course, will mean the end of the RES. Furthermore, it will prove that the GKN were right all along in cooperating with the WCC—though perhaps a bit ahead of the rest of the RES. And in that case, the RES, when it bows out, should do so with apologies to the GKN for having condemned the latter’s position all these years. 

Meanwhile, when I read other reports concerning the WCC-Vancouver, reports which are less favorable than those which I found in The Banner and Calvinist Contact, I begin to wonder if an attempt is being made to sell the World Council to both the RES and the CRC. In my opinion, the statement by that minority of evangelicals headed by Peter Beyerhaus, for example, furnishes much food for thought—very much—and is far more realistic than the statement of the so-called radical evangelicals.