The epitome of ecumenism today is the World Council of Churches (W.C.C.). The ecumenical movement and the W.C.C. movement are often considered synonymous. Even the W.C.C. movement appears to have been in part the motive for Pope John XXIII convoking the Second Vatican Council.
Each church denomination faces a problem with respect to the W.C.C.; to join or not to join. Our churches, of course, do not confront that problem—the W.C.C. will not even consider receiving us as members since we number much less than the 10,000 minimum necessary for full membership in that body. Yet, though the question for us as churches is rather academic; we ought to know about the W.C.C. not only, but also what it represents, and what membership in such an organization implies.
At the top-center of the page is the symbol of the W.C.C. You will find it printed on all recent literature of the W.C.C., and likely the symbol will become more well-known in coming years. Concerning it, W.A. Visser ‘t Hooft, general secretary of the W.C.C., wrote:
In the early years of the Christian Era the Church of Christ was often represented as a ship with a mast in the form of a cross. It is likely that this symbol has its origin in the Gospel stories concerning the calling of Galilean fishermen as disciples and concerning the stilling of the storm on the lake of Galilee.
This symbol is particularly appropriate for the W.C.C. At Amsterdam the member churches pledged to stay together. They recognized that they were engaged on a common journey. This is a perilous journey, for these early years of the World Council’s life coincide with one of the very worst storms in human history. The passengers of the ship are of many races, nations and denominations and find it hard to understand each other. The crew is inexperienced, for this is a new adventure in which established precedents are of little use. But above them and in the midst there is the mast: the Cross. When they all look up to the cross they are made one, for their common Lord and Savior Jesus Christ gathers them together. The nearer they come to Him, the nearer they come to each other.
. . . The churches in their togetherness form the Oikoumene, that is, the fellowship of the Churches of Christ, which is worldwide and which seeks to serve all men everywhere. “Oikoumene” is the old Greek word which refers to the universality of the Church with its many races, nations and tongues and to the universality of its mission as it seeks to penetrate into all corners of the world and into all realms of life.
There are moments and there will be many more when the passengers on the ecumenical ship cry out: “Save Lord. We are perishing.” But if they have complete confidence in their captain they will discover that “even winds and sea obey him.”¹
The History of the World Council of Churches
A brief history of the W.C.C. would be beneficial for an understanding of the organization. Although it was not until 1948 at Amsterdam that the W.C.C. was formally established, its roots go back to 1910. At that date, in Edinburgh, Scotland, a great world missionary conference was held. At that meeting, the need for unity in the mission endeavor was emphasized. Two movements grew out of that meeting in Scotland: theInternational Missionary Council, organized in 1921 to coordinate and assist missionary work throughout the world; and the Faith and Order Movement, organized in 1927, which had as its purpose to study those things which divide as well as those things which tend to unite Christians. A third movement for Life and Work, which had its first world conference in 1925 in Stockholm, Sweden, determined to stimulate Christian action in society.
The two last mentioned organizations associated in 1938 to form a provisional committee of the World Council of Churches. This is considered by the churchmen of this day to mark one of the most important events in the history of the church:
May 12, 1938, is a great date in Christian history, . . . . On the very . . . day, eighty leaders of Christendom, representative of all the great communions save Rome, completed plans for an organization, which in the Providence of God, might do what diplomats and. politicians had failed to accomplish—hold the world together through the Church of Christ. Without a single dissenting voice, they adopted a provisional constitution and plan of organization for a World Council of Churches. These delegates represented 130 branches of the Church Universal.²
Because of the Second World War, the Provisional Committee of the W.C.C. could not schedule a first world assembly until the end of August in 1948. There were 92 denominations in 33 countries who had voted to join the new organization. The theme chosen for this first world assembly was: “Man’s Disorder and God’s Design.” By the time the meeting began, 147 different church bodies had assembled in Amsterdam—the place of the first assembly. On Sunday afternoon in the Netherlands, the representatives gathered in the historic Nieuwe Kerk.
As was fitting, they gathered for praise and prayer—praise to God for having led them to that hour, prayer that his will might be done through them and so his kingdom come on earth in greater measure.
. . . The worship began with the singing, to the familiar tune of “Old 100th,” of the French hymn by de Beze (1519-1605)—”Vous qui sur la terre habitez.” Those who could, used the original tongue.’ Others sang in English, “All people that on earth do dwell” or in German, “Nun jauchzt Herren all Welt.” The fact that different languages were used did not spoil the harmony in the hymns, for music is a universal I language.
A minister of the Dutch Reformed Church called the Assembly to worship and penitence. The Archbishop of Canterbury led in prayer. The Holy Scriptures were read in French and Swedish. . . .
There could have been but one choice for: the first speaker of the Assembly . . . John R. Mott (who) incarnated the ecumenical movement. . . .
The service ended with the benediction according to the Greek rite. . . .³
So went the united church service before the official decision to declare the W.C.C. constituted. Then, at about 10:30 a.m. Netherlands time, August 23, 1948, the resolution was formally adopted “. . . that the formation of the World Council of Churches be declared to be and hereby is completed.”
Within the scope of these articles, it is impossible to treat the material which was introduced at that first assembly of the W.C.C., or the material which appeared later at the two following assemblies. I do hope to call attention, though, to some decisions which must influence our position over against the W.C.C.
A second world assembly of the W.C.C. was held in the summer of 1954 at Evanston, Illinois. The theme for this assembly was, “Christ the Hope of the World.” Concerning this assembly, the host pastor wrote:
One could not have shared in the total life of the. Assembly of the W.C.C. in Evanston without knowing that the night of disunion is giving way to the dawn of union among the churches. It is almost too good to be true, isn’t it? But it is true. What happened then is related to complete union as the first fingers: of dawn light are related to the full light of the noonday sun . . . .
Representatives of 163 Christian churches: claiming over 70,000,000 members came to Evanston prepared to do two things: (1) to affirm an incredible fact to the world, (2) to set an even more incredible task for the churches like ours and churchmen like us.
This is the fact they affirmed to the world: We aye united. They were not content to breathe a wistful, prayerful hope, “We ought to be united.” They stepped squarely into the center of the stage of Christian; history in our time and said, “We are united.”4
In 1961 the third assembly of the W.C.C. was held in New Delhi, India. At that time the International Missionary Council (see above) was integrated with the W.C.C. Also, the constitutional basis of the W.C.C. was modified (to which I hope to call your attention later).
How the World Council Works
The governing body of the W.C.C. is the Assembly which, according to the constitution, is to meet normally every five years. Seats in the Assembly are given to member churches with “due regard being given to such factors as numerical size, adequate confessional representation and adequate geographical distribution.”5 The number of seats varies from Assembly to Assembly. It is this body which determines policy and program for the W.C.C. This Assembly elects six Presidents who function as a unit until the meeting of the following Assembly.
Between regular meetings of Assemblies (an interval of five or six years), there is a 100-member Central Committee, chosen by the Assembly, and meeting annually to handle the business of the W.C.C. There is also an Executive Committee with 14 regular members, appointed by the Central Committee, meeting semi-annually, which carries out the policies of the Central Committee.
Presently, the W.C.C. has a permanent staff of approximately 200 persons working at its headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. In addition, there are regional headquarters located in various countries (in this country this is at 475 Riverside Drive, New York 27, New York).
Membership of the W.C.C.
Concerning membership in the W.C.C., article II of the Constitution states:
Those churches shall be eligible for membership in the World Council of Churches which express their agreement with the Basis upon which the Council is founded and satisfy such criteria as the Assembly or the Central Committee may prescribe. Election to membership shall be by a two-thirds vote of the member churches represented at the Assembly, each member church having one vote. Any application for membership between meetings of the Assembly may be considered by the Central Committee; if the application is supported by a two-thirds majority of the members of the Committee present and voting, this action shall be communicated to .the churches that are members. of the W.C.C., and unless objection is received from more than one-third of the member churches within six months the applicant shall be declared elected.
At present there are 201 denominations represented in the W.C.C. “The 201 constituent member Churches of the Council fall into the following categories or ‘families’: Anglican(Episcopalian), Assyrian, Baptist, Brethren, Congregational, Coptic, Disciples, Eastern Orthodox, Evangelical, Friends, Jacobite, Lutheran, Mennonite, Methodist, Moravian, Old Catholic, Presbyterian and Reformed, Remonstrant, and Salvation Army.”6 In our own country, the Christian Reformed Church is not member of the W.C.C. (though there are strong advocates for membership in their midst), but the Reformed Church in America is. Several other “Reformed” denominations throughout the world are also members of the W.C.C. In following articles, I want to point out why membership in this organization is incompatible with the confession of the true Church of Jesus Christ.
¹ From a leaflet published by the Friends of the World Council of Churches, Inc.
² Paul Griswold Macy, If It Be or God, Bethany Press, p. 59
³ ibid., pp. 102-104
4 Harold A. Bosley, What Did the World Council Say to You? Abigdon Press, p. 25
5 Constitution and Rules of the World Council of Churches
6 From a leaflet published by the Friends of the W.C.C., Inc.