DISCUSSION ON ISSUES
The participants agreed among themselves to discuss two major topics: Pentecostals and Ecumenism, and Proselytism and Evangelism.
(Summary of discussion)
"For many of us Pentecostals, the term "ecumenical" means the conversation is over. This beautiful biblical term has become so jaded to us". This statement prompted a participant from a WCC member church to suggest that it might be better to use the word "koinonia". But although Pentecostals have been speaking of koinonia for years they would hesitate to accept it as a concept for the discussion on unity, precisely because it was the WCC who introduced it in this sense. When the Pentecostal churches in Chile joined the WCC ecumenism was a dirty word and it remained so for a long time. But rather than changing the word these churches choose to use it and to teach its true biblical meaning.
A pentecostal participant referred to the four levels of ecumenism as suggested by Professor Robert Handy, an American Baptist church historian and professor emeritus at Union Theological Seminary in New York:
Many Pentecostals would be interested in fellowship and cooperation with the WCC and other church bodies, even if they stop short of actual membership. Black Pentecostals in the United States have been involved in 'racial ecumenism,' for example through the Council of Negro Churches and the Congress of National Black Churches. But there is a fear of crossing over that line, from black ecumenism into white, European ecumenism. A member of the Church of God in Christ had suggested that the church seek observer status at WCC meetings, a category of relationship that WCC staff said the Council was actively considering.
Seen in the context of Handy's four levels of ecumenism the Assemblies of God has had a long and hidden history of cooperation with the WCC and other ecumenical bodies, a member of this denomination said. In 1920, the Assemblies of God was a member of the North American Conference on Foreign Mission, which became the missionary arm of the U.S. National Council of Churches. Some Assemblies of God executives served on the board of Church World Service which facilitated the attainment of visas for Pentecostals and enabled them to resettle in the United States during and after the Second World War. Most Pentecostals would also be willing to cooperate with ecumenical bodies on issues where there is substantial agreement, as for example the Religious Alliance Against Pornography. There could be other issues ... but not unity. "We're not interested at all. Fellowship emerges out of cooperation."
Yet cooperation and dialogue between Pentecostal and ecumenical groups have not always been easy. Pentecostals who serve on WCC commissions may be told by their superiors that they can attend meetings if they can justify their presence in terms of dialogue so long as they don't do anything that will promote the ecumenical movement. "Sometimes it's difficult to separate those two things".
"But this is God's problem," the same participant added later. "God has called some of us to work on it. God is full of surprises and it could happen in my lifetime. Some of us are praying for Christian unity every day."
Another pentecostal member of the group wondered aloud what World Council of Churches members thought of Pentecostals. "What is the WCC's impression of us?". WCC staff replied that there was far more openness toward Pentecostals and Evangelicals now than some years back and that it was important to keep working on this. One of the questions from WCC perspective was the apparent lack of corporate witness of the Pentecostal church as a body. "You are excellent in terms of personal witness. What seems to be missing is the calling of the church to be present in the world and to witness to kingdom values". This is very important to the WCC because according to its very Basis it is calling the churches together for this purpose. The accusation that this is merely 'social gospel' comes too easily and too quickly.
The discussion concluded on a note of hope for the future and for future leaders. Referring to the Young Adults programme of the WCC member churches in the USA a young participant asked what the role could be of youth and young adults within the Pentecostal movement. In reply a Pentecostal college professor told about his Seminary which was opening up its students to the ecumenical movement. "I think younger people are our best hope," another Assemblies of God college professor said. "We need to wait 10, 15 years . . . but I think it will happen. It will take prayer and patience and commitment to the process. This consultation has given me hope for the future. When I go back I will be changed".
(Summary of discussion)
"Who gave you the authority to violate my space? I understand you love me and want to see Jesus Christ brought into my life. Quite frankly, he is in my life. It reeks of a paternalism that I want nothing to do with." Despina Prassas
"If someone is having a hard time and you give them a little bit of your faith story, is that proselytism? If someone is hurting and you talk to them about what Jesus means to you, is that proselytism? It's not Pentecostals stealing Orthodox. It's just people talking to people." Anthea Butler
Few topics that came before the consultation were debated more heatedly than the issue of proselytism. Orthodox participants testified of a long history of being oppressed by hostile governments and majority religions, or of being the targets of aggressive evangelism, often at the hands of Pentecostal Christians. But Pentecostal participants also talked of being the brunt of antagonistic majorities and spoke of the urgency they felt to convert lost persons to the faith before it is too late.
A US Pentecostal pointed out that discussions on proselytism in World Council of Churches meetings have suffered from the fact that the "accused proselytizers" - often Pentecostals - are often not invited. There is a need to include people at the table who are normally not there. The charged need to face their accusers. People who have left their mainline churches to join Pentecostal churches need to face their accusers as well. Pentecostals, after all, believe they have good reason to be forceful evangelists. They have a view that is heavily informed by their eschatology. "Time is short. Jesus is coming soon. The second thing that compels us is the Great Commission: going out into the highways and byways, compelling people to come in."
"If we believe in hell and that non-Christians are going there," noted an Assemblies of God pastor, "then evangelism becomes more and more important."Pentecostal participants conceded that this sense of emergency is more typical of Pentecostals than other church traditions. Pentecostals do not understand how some christians can live 20 years next to someone and never talk about their faith. They cannot do that. For them it looks like these christian friends are presuming on God's grace. Even if the pentecostal knows that ultimately it all depends on grace he is not likely to sit passively when there are opportunities for witness. It is true that Pentecostals violate people's space all the time and they believe that sometimes people's space needs to be violated.
An Orthodox participant said she found that assertion disturbing. "Why does my space need to be violated?" she asked. "How close I am to God is not your business. That's between me and my God." The Orthodox style of witness, she said, does not intrusively confront individuals. The orthodox model of holiness is the holiness of the person. We believe one holy person can convert tens of thousands, not by what they say but by what they do, like Mother Teresa. To members of an historic church who fought against communism and maintained their Orthodox faith it is an insult to hear other christians say they have Jesus in their heart and the orthodox don't.
Pentecostals acknowledged that people need to show more sensitivity to each other. Yet we all need to be held accountable in our lives and that applies to Pentecostals as well as to everyone else. We get the authority from Jesus who told us to go into all the world and make disciples. If we do not see the fruits that someone is a disciple of Jesus we have to ask questions.
A pentecostal seminary professor and member of the Church of God in Christ remarked that Christianity came to Russia because a Tsar ordered everyone to become Christian. The Tsar invaded everyone's private space. The religion of the prince was the religion of the people and whoever did not accept that had to move.
He also noted that Pentecostalism was a revival movement bound to be aggressive in its witness. "Everyone is called to revival, not just the sinner. In witnessing to people, you're also trying to find out how close Christians are to God. Invitations to salvation are unconnected to invitations to church membership."
Even so, Orthodox members of the group continued to express concerns about that assertive style of witness. When people change from one church to another, asked the Bishop of the Mar Thoma Syrian Church, is it on the basis of faith or is it on the basis of coercion?
Another pentecostal participant told of his experience visiting an Orthodox church in Eastern Europe and learning how much it had suffered and what a price it had paid for its commitment to the gospel. But then, he said, the Orthodox turned around and violently persecuted the Pentecostals in that same country. From orthodox side it was acknowledged that these situations had occurred. But this did not reflect the attitude of all the Orthodox. The Orthodox mindset is that they have been there for a thousand years. As a beleagured group they are suspicious of foreign elements. It is not a logical response but an emotional reaction.
It was observed that Pentecostals also have an experience of being harassed but they may not think of that as something they have in common with the Orthodox. If both groups were to develop a sense of empathy they would discover how much they had in common. "We have never learned how to lift one another up. As long as some of us feel strong and others feel weak, we will never come to the table."
One of the Pentecostal seminary professors drew the attention to a very different form of proselytism. In his experience Pentecostal faculty members and students in "mainline" theological seminaries were often under pressure from their liberal colleagues to give up their pentecostal convictions if they wanted to pursue an academic career. Citing a WCC document on proselytism which had been shared with the group he said that when it talks of "....making unjust and uncharitable references to other churches' beliefs and practices and even ridiculing them, comparing religious communities by emphasizing the weaknesses of some and the comparative strengths of others..." this applied to American mainline seminaries. Pentecostals face a dilemma when they seek higher theological education. The places where they can get the best academic training are also the most dangerous and destructive of their life and spirituality. "When you're in the midst of institutions that should be an embodiment of ecumenism, and you hear professors demean and insult your theological tradition, it makes you wonder what ecumenism is all about".
The World Council of Churches was challenged to take up the question of proselytism at the level of the academic institutions, by professors who sit on WCC commissions but are totally blind as to how they oppress others.
In conclusion, a WCC staff member said that this discussion had highlighted three important points:
a) If the discussion of proselytism is to continue and be constructive, every effort to has to be made to widen the circle, making sure there is a place around the table for all. There can be no fruitful discussion unless the "accused proselytizers" are there.
b) We have to find ways of working together to set a common agenda for the discussion.
c) We would serve the cause if we were able to move beyond the discussion of proselytism and engage in a discussion of our common understanding of mission and evangelism and the role of the church.