Academic journal article International Review of Mission

Evangelism, Still the Enduring Test or Our Ecumenical-And Missionary Calling *

Academic journal article International Review of Mission

Evangelism, Still the Enduring Test or Our Ecumenical-And Missionary Calling *

Article excerpt

Evangelism allows us to check the genuineness of our ecumenical calling, according to the well-known words of Philip Potter, former general secretary of the World Council of Churches (WCC). (1) By evangelism I mean the proclamation of the good news accompanied by an invitation to turn away from false absolutes (whether religious or not) and to turn to the living God, to follow Jesus Christ as one's only Saviour and Lord, to join the community of his church and to live a life under the prompting of the Holy Spirit and taking the ethics of the kingdom of God as one's guide. In any act of sharing the gospel, issues arise concerning the content of the faith, the person and place of Christ in trinitarian theology, the sacraments, ecclesiology, one's understanding of salvation, the relation between Christianity and other religions or worldviews, and personal and social morality. In other words, evangelism provides, as it were, a condensed version of the main issues that the churches might meet on their journey towards unity. Depending on the extent to which the churches recognize one another, they will respond in varying ways to a question that is inspired by the famous dictum of the third World Conference on Faith and Order meeting in Lund, Sweden, in 1952, that became known as the Lund principle, and which suggests the churches should act together in all matters except those in which deep differences of conviction compel them to act separately. The question that arises is, 'Is evangelism part of what the churches can and should do together by allowing each individual to become a member of that church community where their faith can grow within their context and culture, and their God-given gifts can be used, or, is evangelism one of those things that the churches cannot in conscience do together?' You need to take time to think before replying.

In the same way, evangelism also enables us to check the genuineness of our missionary calling. I think it important to make this addition to the well-known words so that we can break out of a certain missiological impasse. The tendency to reduce mission to involvement in the field of social work, accompanied by acts of worship and programmes of Christian education, is still dominant in many traditional churches. Evangelism as "the mission of the Church to those outside her life" (2) is not yet sufficiently at the centre of their concerns, even though some progress is to be observed. (3) For myself, I do not see how it is possible to claim that the church is participating in God's mission if sharing the good news with those outside the walls of the church is ruled out. I am thus inclined to regard what a church or a theologian says about evangelism as the test of whether they have a genuinely holistic attitude towards the mission of the church.

As a missiologist, I am compelled to make a distinction between evangelism and proselytism (4). Within the wee, we define proselytism as "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'." (5)

Why should we attempt to make this distinction? Firstly, because the ecumenical movement has arisen out of an awareness of the counter-testimony that is given by divisions in mission, and out of the quest for a common witness. (6) Secondly, the issue of proselytism has also been with the ecumenical movement from the beginning, and more particularly since the 1920 Encyclical of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. (7) Finally, the New Testament itself encourages us to make this distinction. Immediately after he had received the power of the Spirit, Jesus was subjected to the temptation to conceive his mission in terms suggested by Satan. He refused. We are thus driven by history and by scripture to make this distinction, however difficult it may be. …

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