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Towards common witness

Received by the Central Committee and commended to churches for study and action, it is a summary of the most recent debates on common witness and proselytism. Contains the references to the earlier studies on common witness

19 September 1997

A call to adopt responsible relationships in mission and to renounce proselytism 

PREFACE

Within the ecumenical movement and the World Council of Churches the concern for common witness and the unity of the churches has always been a priority, and proselytism has been recognized as a scandal and counterwitness. Ecumenical statements have repeatedly expressed the need for the clearer practice of responsible relationships in mission, a sharper commitment to witness in unity and renunciation of all forms of proselytism. Yet during these almost 50 years of ecumenical fellowship in the WCC, proselytism has continued to be a painful reality in the life of the churches.

The issue of proselytism is again being raised as a major factor dividing the churches and a threat to the ecumenical movement itself. In the face of such a complex situation, the Central Committee in Moscow, 1989, requested the former Commission on World Mission and Evangelism to "take up this issue [of proselytism] for further study and action, examining also the existing statements for up-dating if necessary". A similar request was made by the Fifth World Conference on Faith and Order (Santiago de Compostela, 1993), which asked for a "new and broader study of mission, evangelism and proselytism".

The present document, which has been elaborated by Programme Unit II, is in response to these requests. In order to reflect accurately on current realities and find appropriate ways forward, the Unit embarked on a broad consultative study process. Mission agencies, churches, missiologists and theologians, local congregations and monastic orders in different parts of the world participated by correspondence. Furthermore a series of consultations was organized: "Towards Responsible Relationships in Mission" (Chambésy, 1993); an Orthodox consultation on "Mission and Proselytism" (Sergiev Possad, Russia, 1995); "Called to Common Witness" (Manila, 1995); and "Common Witness" (Bossey, 1996). Special efforts were made to bring together in dialogue the "proselytizers" and "proselytized" and to involve not only WCC member churches but members of the evangelical, Pentecostal and charismatic constituencies. Documents and statements on this issue from churches and other organizations have been carefully studied and analyzed and their insights incorporated in the present statement. Permanent contact has been maintained with the Joint Working Group in a spirit of mutual cooperation and sharing. Its study document, "The Challenge of Proselytism and the Calling to Common Witness" (1995), was one of the basic texts used in the elaboration of this statement. The Unit II study, however, was undertaken with much broader participation, and emphasizes the missiological and pastoral implications of proselytism in the life of local churches on the way towards common witness and Christian unity. An earlier draft of this statement was used as a resource paper at the Conference on World Mission and Evangelism in Salvador, Brazil (1996).

This statement is presented in the conviction that it is both timely and important for churches in all parts of the world. Its genesis also reflects the spirit of the WCC's "Common Understanding and Vision" document, in that it has provided space for wider participation in ecumenical discussions.  

INTRODUCTION

Dramatic develoments in different parts of the world in recent years have compelled the ecumenical family to re-examine issues related to common witness and proselytism in greater depth. For the WCC the situation is made even more urgent by the fact that complaints of proselytistic activities are being made against some of its own member churches as well as churches and groups outside its fellowship.

Among present-day realities damaging the relationships between churches in different parts of the world and thus requiring the urgent attention of the ecumenical family are:

  • competitive missionary activities, especially in Central and Eastern Europe, Africa, Asia and Latin America, carried out independently by foreign missionary groups, churches and individuals, often directed at people already belonging and committed to one of the churches in those countries, and often leading to the establishment of parallel ecclesial structures;
  • the re-emergence of tensions between the Orthodox and the Roman Catholic Church concerning the Eastern Rite Catholic churches;2 
  • a sharp increase in the number of new mission agencies based in the South working independently in other parts of the world, often without contact with the churches in those countries;
  • growing frustration among churches, especially in the South, whose members are being lured to other churches by offers of humanitarian aid;
  • the humanitarian work done among immigrants, poor, lonely and uprooted people in big cities intended to influence them to change their denominational allegiance;
  • the growth of religious fundamentalism and intolerance;
  • the growing impact of sects and new religious movements in many parts of the world;
  • the discrediting of established minority Christian churches in multifaith communities.

The aims of this statement are: (1) to make churches and Christians aware of the bitter reality of proselytism today; (2) to call those involved in proselytism to recognize its disastrous effects on church unity, relationships among Christians and the credibility of the gospel and, therefore, to renounce it; and (3) to encourage the churches and mission agencies to avoid all forms of competition in mission and to commit themselves anew to witness in unity. 

A. CHRISTIAN WITNESS AND RELIGIOUS FREEDOM

1. The mission imperative

Christian mission is primarily and ultimately God's mission - the missio Dei. It is centred in the loving and eternal purpose of the triune God for humankind and all of creation, revealed in Jesus Christ. Central to God's mission is the life-giving presence of the Holy Spirit, who continues the mission of Christ through the church and remains the source of its missionary dynamism. The WCC Canberra assembly (1991) described a vision of mission in unity: "A reconciled humanity and renewed creation (cf. Eph. 1:9-10) is the goal of the mission of the church. The vision of God uniting all things in Christ is the driving force of its life and sharing."3

As the body of Christ, constituted, sustained and energized by the life-giving presence of the Holy Spirit, the church is missionary by nature. It proclaims that in Jesus Christ the incarnate Word, who died and rose from the dead, salvation is offered to all as God's gift of love, mercy and liberation.

Participating in God's mission is an imperative for all Christians and all churches, not only for particular individuals or specialized groups. It is an inner compulsion, rooted in the profound demands of Christ's love, to invite others to share in the fullness of life Jesus came to bring (cf. John 10:10).

Mission in Christ's way is holistic, for the whole person and the totality of life are inseparable in God's plan of salvation accomplished in Jesus Christ. It is local - "the primary responsibility for mission, where there is a local church, is with that church in its own place". 4 It is also universal, that is, to all peoples, beyond all frontiers of race, caste, gender, culture, nation to "the ends of the earth" in every sense (cf. Acts 1:8; Mark 16:15; Luke 24:47).

2. Common witness: mission in unity

Numerous WCC documents have recalled the intrinsic relation between the credibility of the mission of the church in the world and the unity among Christians - underscored in the prayer of Jesus "that they all may be one... so that the world may believe" (John 17:21) and historically realized among the apostles in Jerusalem already on the day of Pentecost. Common witness is "the witness that the churches, even while separated, bear together, especially through joint efforts, by manifesting whatever divine gifts of truth and life they already share and experience in common".5 It may be thought of as "a eucharistic vision of life' which gives thanks for what God has done, is doing, and will do for the salvation of the world through acts of joyous self-offering".6

Despite the many barriers which keep the churches apart, the WCC member churches have been able to recognize a certain degree of ecclesial communion among themselves, imperfect though that may yet be. Confessing "the Lord Jesus Christ as God and Saviour according to the scriptures", they seek through the WCC to "fulfil together their common calling to the glory of one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit".7 On this basis, other grounds for common witness to the whole world can be affirmed together. Mutual recognition of baptism (as expressed in the WCC's "Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry" text) is the foundation for Christian unity and common witness.

Authentic common witness presupposes respect and understanding for other traditions and confessions. What should be emphasized is that which is common and can be done together, rather than the barriers which separate. Even when apparently irreconcilable differences remain on certain issues, the truth should be spoken in love (Eph. 4:15), for the building up of the church (Eph. 4:12), rather than for giving prominence to one's position over against that of others. There is more that unites the churches than separates them. These unifying elements should be looked for in building up witness in unity.

3. Mission in the context of religious freedom

God's truth and love are given freely and call for a free response. Free will is one of the major gifts with which God has entrusted humans. God does not force anyone to accept God's revelation and does not save anyone by force. On the basis of this notion, the International Missionary Council and the World Council of Churches (in process of formation) developed a definition of religious freedom as a fundamental human right. This definition was adopted by the WCC First Assembly in Amsterdam (1948), and at the suggestion of the WCC's Commission of the Churches on International Affairs it was subsequently incorporated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: "Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right includes the freedom to change his/her religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others, in public or in private, to manifest his/her religion or belief, in teaching, practice, worship and observance." The same principle is to be applied in mission work.

The WCC Fifth Assembly (1975) reaffirmed the centrality of religious liberty, stating that "the right to religious freedom has been and continues to be a major concern of member churches and the WCC. However this right should never be seen as belonging exclusively to the church... This right is inseparable from other fundamental human rights. No religious community should plead for its own religious liberty without active respect and reverence for the faith and basic rights of others. Religious liberty should never be used to claim privileges. For the church this right is essential so that it can fulfil its responsibilities which arise out of the Christian faith. Central to these responsibilities is the obligation to serve the whole community."8 One's own freedom must always respect, affirm and promote the freedom of others; it must not contravene the golden rule: "In everything do to others as you would have them do to you" (Matt. 7:12).  

II. PROSELYTISM - A COUNTERWITNESS

While the word "proselyte" was originally used to designate a person who became a member of the Jewish community by believing in Yahweh and respecting the Law of Moses, and subsequently, in early Christian times, for a person of another faith who converted to Christianity, proselytism in later centuries took on a negative connotation due to changes in the content, motivation, spirit and methods of "evangelism".

"Proselytism" is now used to mean the encouragement of Christians who belong to a church to change their denominational allegiance, through ways and means that "contradict the spirit of Christian love, violate the freedom of the human person and diminish trust in the Christian witness of the church".9

Proselytism is "the corruption of witness".10 On the surface, proselytism may appear as genuine and enthusiastic missionary activity; and some people involved in it are genuinely committed Christians who believe that they are doing mission in Christ's way. It is the aim, spirit and methodology of this activity which make it proselytism.

Some of the characteristics which clearly distinguish proselytism from authentic Christian witness are:

  • Unfair criticism or caricaturing of the doctrines, beliefs and practices of another church without attempting to understand or enter into dialogue on those issues. Some who venerate icons are accused of worshipping idols; others are ridiculed for alleged idolatry towards Mary and the saints or denounced for praying for the dead.
  • Presenting one's church or confession as "the true church" and its teachings as "the right faith" and the only way to salvation, rejecting baptism in other churches as invalid and persuading people to be rebaptized.
  • Portraying one's own church as having high moral and spiritual status over against the perceived weaknesses and problems of other churches.
    d) Taking advantage of and using unfaithfully the problems which may arise in another church for winning new members for one's own church.
  • Offering humanitarian aid or educational opportunities as an inducement to join another church.
  • Using political, economic, cultural and ethnic pressure or historical arguments to win others to one's own church.
  • Taking advantage of lack of education or Christian instruction which makes people vulnerable to changing their church allegiance.
  • Using physical violence or moral and psychological pressure to induce people to change their church affiliation. This includes the use of media techniques profiling a particular church in a way that excludes, disparages or stigmatizes its adherents, harassment through repeated house calls, material and spiritual threats, and insistence on the "superior" way to salvation offered by a particular church.
  • Exploiting people's loneliness, illness, distress or even disillusionment with their own church in order to "convert" them.

Common witness is constructive: it enriches, challenges, strengthens and builds up solid Christian relationships and fellowship. Through word and deed, it makes the gospel relevant to the contemporary world. Proselytism is a perversion of authentic Christian witness and thus a counterwitness. It does not build up but destroys. It brings about tensions, scandal and division, and is thus a destabilizing factor for the witness of the church of Christ in the world. It is always a wounding of koinonia, creating not fellowship but antagonistic parties.

Nevertheless, it must be acknowledged that some people may move from one church to another out of true and genuine conviction, without any proselytistic pressure or manipulation, as a free decision in response to their experience of the life and witness of another church.

The churches must continually assess their own internal life to see whether some of the reasons people change church allegiance may lie with the churches themselves.  

III. GUIDELINES FOR RESPONSIBLE RELATIONSHIPS IN MISSION

A. Issues for further study and reflection

  • Growth towards responsible relationships in mission which promote genuine Christian common witness and avoid proselytism will require further dialogue, reflection and study in a number of important ecclesiological, theological and other areas:
  • historical and social factors, including (1) diversity of experience among different churches, (2) unawareness or different understandings of the history of one's own church and other churches, leading to wounded memories, and (3) dissimilar perspectives and perceptions among majority and minority churches in contexts where a single church has come to be identified with a given nation, people or culture;
  • different and even contradictory understandings of the content of Christian faith - regarding worship, sacraments and the teaching authority of the church - and of the limits of legitimate diversity in these areas;
  • different understandings of the nature of an individual's church membership and Christian commitment, particularly reflected in the use of expressions conveying value judgments (such as "nominal", "committed", "true" or "born-again Christian", "unchurched", "evangelization" and "re-evangelization"), which are often a source of tension among the churches, leading to accusations of proselytism;
  • different understandings of the aim of mission, leading to differences in ethos and style of mission, particularly around those concepts of "church growth" and "church expansion" which seem to give priority to the number of "converts" and thus seem to encourage mission among those who are already members of a Christian church;
  • different understandings of the universality of mission, particularly around the validity of the early Christian principle of "canonical territory", according to which the local church already present in any place is primarily responsible for the Christian life of the people there and no other Christian individual, group or church may act or establish ecclesial structures without consulting and cooperating with the local church.

2. The way forward: practical proposals

Despite the problems still to be overcome, ecumenical reflection and experience in the last few decades have demonstrated that reconciliation and mutual understanding are possible and that witness in unity can become a reality on an even greater scale.

As new contexts call for new initiatives in proclaiming the gospel in unity, churches in partnership in mission commit themselves to:

  • deepened understanding of what it means to be church in today's world, and acceptance and celebration of their inter-relatedness in the one body of Christ (cf. 1 Cor. 12:12);
  • deepened conviction that it is God's mission in which the churches share as God's co-workers, not their own;
  • efforts to come to a greater common understanding and vision of their missionary role in contemporary society;
  • reaching out together in Christ's way to new frontiers of mission - listening, accompanying, walking with, resourcing, receiving from one another;
  • renewed determination to manifest together "the one hope of [their] calling" (Eph. 4:4) in order to share more fully in the divine plan of salvation for the reconciliation and gathering up of all peoples and all things in Christ (cf. Eph. 1:9-10).

Because the way to evangelizing in ecumenical fellowship and partnership is still long, churches in partnership in mission must:

  • repent of past failures and reflect more self-critically on their ways of relating to one another and their methods of evangelizing, in order to overcome anything in their theological or doctrinal expressions or missionary policies and strategies which shows lack of love, understanding and trust of other churches;
  • renounce all forms of denominational competition and rivalry and the temptation to proselytize members of other Christian traditions as contrary to Jesus' prayer for the unity of his disciples (John 17:21);
  • avoid establishing parallel ecclesial structures, but rather stimulate, help and cooperate with the existing local churches in their evangelistic work in society at large as well as in relation to their own people, especially so-called nominal members;
  • condemn any manipulation of humanitarian assistance to individual Christians or churches to induce people into changing their denominational allegiance or to further the missionary goals of one church at the expense of another;
  • learn to "speak the truth in love" to one another when they consider others to be proselytizing or engaging in dishonest practices in evangelism.

This Christian fellowship and partnership will not be possible unless Christians and churches:

  • listen to one another in genuine dialogue aimed at overcoming ignorance, prejudices or misunderstandings, understanding their differences in the perspective of Christian unity and avoiding unjust accusations, polemics, disparagement and rejection;
  • ensure greater sharing of information and accountability in mission at all levels, including prior discussion before launching programmes for evangelism;
  • encourage, strengthen and complement one another in missionary activity in an ecumenical spirit, including prior consultation with the church in an area to see what are the possibilities of missionary collaboration and witness in unity;
  • demonstrate willingness to learn from others - for example, from their dynamism, enthusiasm and joy in mission, their sense of community, their rejoicing in the Spirit, their spirituality;
  • make greater efforts for inner renewal in their own traditions and cultural contexts.

CONCLUSION

With the Salvador world mission conference, "we decry the practice of those who carry out their endeavours in mission and evangelism in ways which destroy the unity of the body of Christ, human dignity and the very lives and cultures of those being evangelized'; we call on them to confess their participation in and to renounce proselytism".11

Called to one hope, we commit ourselves to our common call to mission and to work towards mission in unity. We actively seek a new era of "mission in Christ's way" at the dawn

As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me (John 17:20-23).

RECOMMENDATIONS

In addition to commending the document "Towards Common Witness" to the churches for their reflection and action, Central Committee approved the following recommendations to facilitate the implementation of the document:

1. That the churches and related agencies:
a) make greater efforts to educate their own faithful in local congregations, Sunday schools, training centres and seminaries to respect and love members of other churches as sisters and brothers in Christ;
b) actively promote knowledge of the heritages and contributions of other churches that, despite differences, confess the same Jesus Christ as God and Saviour, worship the same triune God and are engaged in the same witness in the world;
c) promote efforts towards reconciliation by addressing historical wounds and bitter memories; d) initiate (with the assistance of the WCC when necessary) encounter and dialogue at the local, national ad regional levels with those engaging in mission work that is perceived as proselytism, in order to help them understand their motivations, make them aware of the negative impact of their activities, and promote responsible relationships in mission;
e) seek opportunities for working together with other churches on pastoral and social issues that affect local communities and countries as a whole, and be open to authentic cooperation with others in addressing the needs of the people being served;
f) together renounce proselytism as a denial of authentic witness and an obstruction to the unity of the church, and urge support for common witness, unity and understanding among the churches proclaiming the gospel;
g) continue to pray together for Christian unity, allowing God's Spirit to lead the churches into fuller truth and faithfulness.

2. That the World Council of Churches:
a) strengthen its emphasis on ecumenical formation using all resources of its education sector, in view of the growing trend towards confessionalism and confessional rivalries;
b) undertake a study on ecclesiology and mission, since many of the points of tension and division in relation to common witness stem from conflicting understandings in these areas.

Although it is recognized that the main responsibility for implementing the "Towards Common Witness" document lies with the churches, the WCC should play a facilitating role in stimulating the dialogue within and among the churches.


NOTES

1. In fact, concern about proselytism as an ecumenical issue antedates the establishment of the WCC. The 1920 Encyclical of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, which proposed the foundation of a "koinonia" of churches, asked for the cessation of proselytizing activities. In the preliminary Faith and Order and Life and Work meetings which took place in the same year the issue of proselytism was again raised. Since the very establishment of the WCC the issue of proselytism has been identified as one of the hindrances to Christian unity. As early as 1954, the Central Committee in Evanston decided that in view of difficulties which were affecting relationships between WCC member churches, a commission should be appointed to study further the issue of proselytism and religious liberty. After a number of years of labourious study, a statement on "Christian Witness, Proselytism and Religious Liberty in the Setting of the World Council of Churches", drafted by the commission and revised twice by the Central Committee (1956 and 1960) , was received by the WCC Third Assembly (New Delhi , 1961).

Issues of proselytism and common witness have also been on the agenda of the Joint Working Group between the Roman Catholic Church and the World Council of Churches, which has elaborated three important study documents: "Common Witness and Proselytism" (1970); "Common Witness" (1982); and "The Challenge of Proselytism and the Calling to Common Witness" (1996).

Furthermore, many documents and declarations on the issue of common witness and proselytism have been produced recently by local and international bilateral dialogues between churches. Studies have also been done by the Conference of European Churches and the Middle East Council of Churches.

2. The Eastern Rite Catholic churches originated in those groups of former Orthodox who entered into full communion with the Roman Catholic Church around the bishop of Rome, while retaining various Eastern liturgical and canonical traditions inherited from their mother churches.

3. Signs of the Spirit- Official Report of the Seventh Assembly, ed. Michael Kinnamon, Geneva, WCC Publications, 1991, p.100.

4. Called to One Hope - The Gospel in Diverse Cultures, ed. Christopher Duraisingh, Geneva, WCC Publications, 1997.

5. Thomas Stransky, "Common Witness", in Dictionary of the Ecumenical Movement, Geneva, WCC Publications, 1991, p.197.

6. On the Way to Fuller Koinonia - Official Report of the Fifth World Conference on Faith and Order, Santiago de Compostela, 1993, ed. Thomas F. Best and Günther Gassmann, Geneva, WCC Publications, 1994, p.254.

7. WCC "Basis", from "Constitution and Rules of the World Council of Churches".

8. Cf. Breaking Barriers, The Official Report of the Fifth Assembly of the World Council of Churches, Nairobi, ed. David M. Paton, Grand Rapids, Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1976, p.106. Cf. also the report of the Orthodox Consultation on "Mission and Proselytism", Sergiev Possad, Russia, 1995.

9. Cf. report of the Sergiev Possad consultation on "Mission and Proselytism".

10. "Revised Report on Christian Witness, Proselytism and Religious Liberty in the Setting of the World Council of Churches'", in Minutes and Reports of the Central Committee of the World Council of Churches, St Andrews, Scotland, August 1960, Geneva, WCC, 1960, p.214.