The World Council of Churches – It’s Growth, Basis, and Objectives

From the point of view of a historical observer the idea and the growth of the World Council of Churches might be considered under the aspect of a historical necessity. Two motives, two trends which should be sharply distinguished from each other, lead in the same direction from the beginning of the days of the great Reformation. There is an evangelical, biblical, Christ-believing trend always yearning for the fulfillment of the prayer of Christ: “That they all may be one” (John 17:21); and there is a humanistic, unbiblical, all-embracing trend always yearning for the fulfillment of the cry of Beethoven’s ninth symphony: “Seid umschlungen, millionen.”*


The first trend found expression in the famous answer of Calvin to the invitation of Archbishop Cranmer for the founding of a kind of Protestant Ecumenical Council: “As to myself, if I should be thought of any use, I would not, if need be, object to crossing ten seas for such a purpose.”

And the second trend was immediately to be found with Castellio and the Arminians, who wanted to be tolerated and to tolerate.

In the course of time both trends struggled for the mastery.

The 18th century shows a very strong reaction against the religious battles with sword and pen of a foregoing period, culminating in the great Toleration which sometimes tried to combine the extremes. For example, in 1795 ministers of the Reformed Church in Holland danced around the tree of liberty in the name of the three virtues of the French Revolution; but two years later in the same country a kind of interdenominational church was founded in the city of Delft with the name: Christo Sacrum, of which Reformed persons, Lutherans, Arminians, and even Roman Catholics could be members.

However, the tide turned in the several revivals and awakenings of the beginning of the 19th century, the results of which were disputes on doctrinal issues, separations, and a new appreciation of the old doctrinal standards of the church.

Several Evangelical associations were founded; the works of the Reformers were edited; a new Lutheranism and a new Calvinism arose; Roman Catholicism expressed itself most learnedly in the dogma of papal infallibility.

Nevertheless, also in this century the humanistic ecumenical trend got the upper hand. Liberalism, or modernism, which tried to frame a gospel in harmony with the modern human mind, was introduced at almost all European universities and claimed thousands as its victims. The keen observer and philosopher, William James, spoke in 1902 of “the advance and victory of liberalism in Christianity during the past fifty years” and he continued: “We have now whole congregations whose preachers, far from magnifying our consciousness of sin, seem devoted rather to making little of it. They ignore or even deny eternal punishment, and insist on the dignity rather than on the depravity of man. They look at the continual preoccupation of the old-fashioned Christian with the salvation of his soul as something sickly and reprehensible rather than admirable” (Varieties of Religious Experience, Mentor-edition, p. 85). Two years earlier the great German scholar Harnack had denied the absoluteness of Christianity, and the liberals in various churches found expressions of the Spirit of God everywhere and in the most different forms.

But also the Evangelical trend remained alive, not the least through the mighty support of the missions which planted Christianity in all the world; however, they were not, generally speaking, in favor of transmitting the Western denominational differences into areas of the younger churches.

It is small wonder that in the first half of the 20th century, as a result of these many factors, a movement arose which tried to combine as many churches as possible on a. broad and apparently evangelical basis; a movement without doctrinal precision and of a very comprehensive character.


The several stages in the development of this movement are well-known and already recorded in the books on church history. Two bodies, the World Conference on Faith and Order and the Universal Christian Council for Life and Work, were the parents of the World Council of Churches. The first of these organized international conferences at Lausanne in 1927 and at Edinburgh in 1937; the principal meetings of the second one were held at Stockholm in 1925 and at Oxford in 1937. Although many differences came to light, the will to be united prevailed, and in 1938 representatives of several bodies came together in Utrecht and drafted a constitution for the World Council of Churches. World War II delayed the execution of the plans which were made, but as soon as possible thereafter the delegates of several churches came together in Amsterdam, where, in 1948, this Council was officially instituted. More than a hundred churches became members. “They included almost all the major Protestant bodies of the Continent of Europe and the British Isles, the majority of those of the Americas and Australasia, and most of the larger ‘younger churches’ of Asia and Africa. It also embraced several of the Orthodox and Old Catholic Churches. Close working ties were established with the International Missionary Council and the two bodies were officially described as ‘in association with’ each other” (Kenneth Scott Latourette, A History of Christianity, p. 1379).


I referred above to an apparently evangelical basis.

This basis was formulated in the following manner: “The World Council of Churches is a fellowship of Churches which accept our Lord Jesus Christ as God and Saviour.” In an Explanatory Memorandum these words were interpreted as follows: “As its brevity shows, the basis is an affirmation of the Christian faith of the participating churches, and not a creedal test to judge churches or persons. It is an affirmation of the Incarnation and the Atonement. The Council desires to be a fellowship of those churches which accept these truths. But it does not concern itself with the manner in which the churches interpret them. It will therefore be the responsibility of each particular church to decide whether it can collaborate on this basis” (The World Council of Churches. Its Process of Formation, p. 182).

As a result of the relativism embodied in this Explanatory Memorandum, the churches and persons who joined the W.C.C. were not only of a very different, but also often of an antagonistic theological hue. There were evangelicals and liberals; there were orthodox and neo-orthodox members; there was a right wing and a left wing.

But the door stood wide open. The latitude in this explanation of the basis seemed to exclude almost nobody and to include almost all sorts and conditions of men and churches.



And this situation remained the same after the Conference of this year in New Delhi. At that Conference an altered form of the basis was adopted, in these words: “The World Council of Churches is a fellowship of Churches which confess the Lord Jesus Christ as God and Saviour, according to the Scriptures, and therefore seek to fulfill their common calling to the glory of the one God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” Although this addition met with some sharp opposition, it is not to be expected that anyone of the member-churches will withdraw, since the freedom of interpretation remains and most liberals are very accommodating in their use of theological language. The conclusion of Carl Henry seems to be only too true: “While the move from the older liberal emphasis on theo-centrism to trinitarianism is widely hailed as an evangelical victory, the fact remains that Christocentrism has also sheltered liberal theories, and that the Delhi affirmations are not inconsistent with grossly objectionable views both of divine trinity and scriptural authority” (Christianity Today, Dec. 22, 1961).

At the New Delhi Conference 149 churches had sent delegates, and four additional Orthodox Churches were admitted (Russian, Rumanian, Bulgarian, and Polish Orthodox), representing about 70 million members. The next ecumenical target seems to be now the inclusion of the Roman Catholic Church, whose observers were present at New Delhi. It is, of course, very doubtful if the Church of Rome will ever become a member; the old proverb that all roads lead to Rome seems to be more applicable. But at any rate the time of the Protestant domination of the W.C.C. seems to be passing; and the Russian delegate Nikodim immediately exploited the situation by delivering a speech on the promotion of world-peace, following in the footsteps of the famous Czech, Hromadka.


What are the objectives pursued by the World Council? Article 3 of its Constitution speaks of the functions of this Council, which are the following:

1. To carryon the work of the two world movements for Faith and Order and for Life and Work.

2. To facilitate common action by the Churches.

3. To promote cooperation in study.

4. To promote the growth of ecumenical consciousness in the members of all churches.

5. To establish relations with denominational federations of world-wide scope and with other ecumenical movements.

6. To call world conferences on specific subjects as occasion may require, such conferences being empowered to publish their own findings.

All these functions are the “neutral” framework of the work of the W.C.C. They seem to speak only of several kinds of common action, but all of them have a common background of a supposed unity of faith and of the desired objective of a future visible union of churches.


That supposed unity of faith was already expressed in the message of Edinburgh in these words: “We are one in faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the incarnate Word of God. We are one in communion with Him, the Head of the Church, the King of kings and the Lord of lords.” The moderate words of the official statement of Amsterdam express the same idea: “The Council desires to serve the churches, which are its constituent members, as an instrument whereby they may bear witness to their common allegiance to Jesus Christ, and cooperate in matters requiring united action.”

That common allegiance to Jesus Christ must, of course, find expression in a common celebration of the Lord’s Supper, and although such a supper-table has not yet been officially established, it was quite in harmony with the idea of the W.C.C. that in New Delhi: a large-scale Communion service was arranged by the Anglican Church of India, Pakistan, Burma, and Ceylon, open to all baptized communicant members of the several churches. The Eastern Orthodox Churches raised objections against such a service because of their dogmatic construction of the idea of the Church, but even a spokesman of this group declared that delegates of his church would be present to support the ecumenical movement.

But this supposed unity of faith is a fiction.

The Reformed Ecumenical Synod of Edinburgh, 1953, rightly declared: “The World Council represents itself as a community of faith, but it is actually not this, for Churches of basically divergent positions are comprised in the World Council of Churches.”

One of the delegates at New Delhi, Dr. Joseph Sittler of Chicago, refused to declare unambiguously that salvation is impossible outside Jesus Christ (Christianity Today, Dec. 22, 1961, p. 3). The familiar words of the Heidelberg Catechism on the right use of the keys of the kingdom of heaven are still true that the use of the sacraments should be forbidden to those who under the Christian name maintain unchristian doctrines or practices.

But there are several members of the great ecumenical meetings who maintain unchristian doctrines but are invited to an open Communion table. Again, the familiar words of the Church Order of Dort are still hue: “Churches whose usages differ from ours merely in non-essentials shall not be rejected” (art. 85). But these words imply the rejection of those churches which differ from us in essentials, and in their Commentary on the Church Order Van DeBen and Monsma rightly declare: “Under present day circumstances full-fledged acknowledgment is not even accorded to all Reformed and Presbyterian Churches inasmuch as some of these bodies have neglected the exercise of discipline and have tolerated false doctrine” (p. 345).

As most of the larger churches of our time have done concerning their own membership, the W.C.C. tries to embrace as many members as possible by permitting essentially different interpretations of its doctrinal basis; but the result is not a renewal or reformation of the Church, but rather a perpetuation of its defects and aberrations. This is inevitable since the basis of the movement is not a real unity of faith but an artificially hidden disunity.

The idea of the unity of faith naturally fosters the desire for a future visible union of all churches, This, in my opinion, is one of the great objectives of the movement. I know that often this ideal of a super-Church has been rejected by ecumenical leaders, sometimes even with indignation. I also believe in the sincerity of those who formulated article 4 of the Constitution of the W.C.C.: “The World Council shall not legislate for the Churches; nor shall it act for them in any manner as indicated above or may hereafter believed by the constituent churches.”

Nevertheless, we hold that the movement is bound to develop in the direction of the establishment of one, visible, world-wide Church, directed by a team of skilled churchmen.

Dr. Carl Henry pointed to this Achilles’ heel of the W.C.C. when he remarked on the meeting at New Delhi: “Ambiguity remained as to whether the W.C.C. expresses the world-wide Christian judgment of its members, or whether it determines that judgment. On the one hand, it is stressed that W.C.C. cannot legislate for member churches, but is merely an instrument for expressing their common witness and service, the Assembly (in which all member churches are represented) being viewed as their main voice. Yet the Central Committee often speaks out between assemblies on many issues, sometimes so provocatively that members have withdrawn from W.C.C.” (Christianity Today, Dec. 22, 1961, p. 24).

The well-known Bishop Stephen C. Neill speaks of “the vision of the world-wide Church,” which must be based on the Bible as the Word of God. He immediately adds: “This does not mean that it should be committed to any doctrine of biblical literalism.” Among the characteristics which he indicates of that coming united Church he mentions “some means by which the authority of the whole Church may find expression.” He is convinced that such an authority as is now exercised in the Roman Church by the See of Rome will never be acceptable to many of the churches which now constitute the body of the W.C.C. He continues: “Just how that authority could find expression remains a perplexity,” and then he points in the direction of the great Councils of the early, undivided Church (The Coming of Age of Christianity, London, 1950, pp. 165, 166).

In so far as the decisions of those Councils often were forced upon the churches by the strong arm of the State, the hint is not a felicitous one; but the words of this associate general secretary of the W.C.C. are not lacking in clarity. They stress the point that the great objective of the W.C.C. is the coming of the united world-wide Church of the future; in the quoted work, in which several of the prominent ecumenical leaders cooperated, the time of the realization of that objective is set for about the year 2000.

It must be acknowledged that something of this ecumenical idealism appeals to the heart of every Christian who takes seriously the words of tho apostle: “One Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all and in you all” (Eph. 4:5, 6). But this same apostle speaks in the same letter of the sword of the Spirit which is the Word of God (Eph. 6:17), Without that unblemished sword the battle will not be won and, when in the way to unity the truth is lost, the unity will be as a house built upon the sand; it will be the kind of unity that was found at the tower of Babel.

We should not forget that Scripture requires the unity of all true believers, and that the same Word of God requires separation from all unbelievers. “If any one cometh unto you, and bringeth not this teaching, receive him not into your house, and give him no greeting; for he that giveth him greeting partaketh in his evil works” (II John:10, 11).

The Belgic Confession therefore rightly stresses “the duty of all believers, according to the Word of God, to separate themselves from all those who do not belong to the Church” (art. 28).

We should stress true ecumcnicity, as far and as broad as possible.

But the way to unity cannot be found outside of the way of truth. We believe that the Son of God gathers the holy catholic Church, “by His Spirit and Word, in the unity of the true faith” (Heid. Catechism, Lord’s Day 21).