WCC Consultation on Faith, Healing and Mission
hosted by the Church of Pentecost, Ghana
Achimota, Accra, December 4 - 8, 2002
"We all believe in the reality of divine healing and that it is part of the proclamation of the gospel and the mission of the church". Prof. Dr John Christopher Thomas from Cleveland, USA, and well-known Pentecostal biblical scholar, reported this on behalf of his working group at a recent consultation on Faith, healing and mission. Organised by the World Council of Churches' Mission and Evangelism Team and prepared in cooperation with Pentecostal and charismatic theologians, the consultation took place at the Ghana Institute for Management and Public Administration (GIMPA) in Achimota, Accra, from December 4 to 8, 2002. The 31 full-time participants came from 12 countries in five regions, reaching from Jamaica to Korea and from Germany to South Africa. They represented churches and denominations as varied as e.g. Pentecostal, Charismatic, Baptist, Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Presbyterian, Lutheran and Episcopal. A bit less than half of the participants came from WCC member churches, mostly linked to its Commission on World Mission and Evangelism. The Church of Pentecost, which is not a member of the WCC, did most of the local preparatory and coordinating work for the consultation. Rev. Dr Michael Kwabena Ntumy, the chairman of the Church of Pentecost, offered a dinner in honour of the participants.
One of the major aims of the consultation was to deepen a dialogue on faith and healing as essential elements of the church's mission between theologians and missiologists linked to the conciliar ecumenical movement and scholars or practitioners coming from the Pentecostal and charismatic tradition. Much time was spent listening to and discussing on the basis of personal experiences of healing and case studies of exorcism and divine healing. Prof. Dr Chris Gnanakan from Bangalore, India, reported on his work on the spiritual-social ministry of a charismatic "wounded healer" of India, named Dhinakaran. Rev. Dr Canon Mark Pearson from the USA shared experiences of healing in a traditional Anglican congregation and in the multidisciplinary "New Creation Healing Center", in which he works. On Friday morning December 6, visits were made to healing centers, and groups from the consultation participated in deliverance services around Accra. In the afternoon, three Ghanaian faith healers came to the meeting to share their experiences. Dr Opoku Onyinah, principal of the Bible College of the Church of Pentecost, and president of the local preparatory committee, presented a systematic approach of "witchdemonology", which, as he said, describes the "beliefs and practices of 'deliverance ministry' in Africa and is a synthesis of the practices and beliefs of African witchcraft and Western Christian concepts of demonology and exorcism". The Bible studies on James 5: 13-18 were led by Prof. Dr Keith Warrington, Pentecostal New Testament scholar from Wales.
The meeting did not aim at consensus statements. However, it seems possible to discern some common convictions out of the discussions. Healing, which is more than curing, comes from God, who works through various means. This includes instant healing or deliverance from evil spirits, as well as medical service or long-term pastoral accompaniment, reconciliation and the healing of memories.
Prayer for healing is an essential part of mission. While some churches need to rediscover this collective ministry of each congregation, others must be encouraged to move more clearly towards a multi-disciplinary approach to healing that takes the whole person seriously, body, soul and mind. Rev. Leonard Soku, a healer and evangelist, the founder of Radiant Life Christian Centre, who visited the consultation one afternoon, expressed it as follows in his own words: " I call upon the church to encourage both medication and divine healing. We work with medical doctors who refer cases to our miracle services and I also recommend medical cases to them".
Healing must not be understood only in individualistic terms, but reaches out to the social, economic realms and in its full sense includes the well-being of the creation. One of the groups formulated it as follows:" The healing ministry of the church encompasses both prayer for individuals for healing as well as its prophetic ministry in confronting unjust social and political structures which are often causes of individual suffering."
It was also clear to the participants that cure is not always resulting from prayer as people might wish. "Healing is a journey into perfection of the final hope, but this perfection is not always fully realized in the present," said one of the group reports. This is perhaps best signified by people having the charism to heal while remaining themselves sick and wounded. Healing depends on God's sovereign will.
"Many unethical manipulations and practices are taking place in the name of faith healing with many so called men of God masquerading as prophets and healers and riding on the emotions and ignorance of the people profiting from their ailments and agonies!" That statement was not issued by the WCC nor by the All Africa Conference of Churches, also represented at the consultation. It is not taken from the welcoming address by the Christian Council of Ghana. It is quoted from the fraternal greetings brought by the general secretary of the Ghana Pentecostal Council (GPC), expressing the wish that the consultation might contribute to "bring sanity into the phenomena of faith healing". This shows that difficult questions were debated openly between, but also within, the traditions represented.
Do spirits or demons really exist or are they only a metaphor for explaining suffering, possession and sickness? Are the causes of poverty, oppression and illness to be found mainly in socio-political and economic structures? In the world of spiritual forces? In both? These were hotly debated questions, and the participants realised how much their approach and their answers depended on each one's spiritual and political experience as well as faith convictions and cultural background. In his reflections on the consultation, Dr. Dietrich Werner from the German Northelbian Center for World Mission mentioned this challenge: "We have listened to important renewal processes and vibrant spiritualities which led to the charismatisation of many of the historical churches around in this region. At the same time in our group we listened to experiences that there is little or no interest of some churches in issues of industrial mission, of unemployment or environmental degradation (..) All churches are faced with the task of joining their hands both in facing individual illness, weakness and spiritual needs as well as addressing the structural problems in the socio-political realm of society."
Much more work and dialogue is also needed on the question whether all healing, also in traditional religions or in new religious movements, comes from God. Responses to that question would differ between theologians linked to the WCC and those pertaining to the charismatic movement. But even among Pentecostals the response would not exactly be the same in India and in South Africa.
A step in a process
Dialogues between the ecumenical movement and Pentecostals did not start with this consultation. In 1952, one of the main Pentecostal leaders, David du Plessis, participated in the world mission conference organised by the International Missionary Council in Willingen, Germany. During the last fifty years, there have been numerous contacts, consultations and dialogues. Since 1999 exists an official "Joint Consultative Group" between the WCC and Pentecostals, which had its third meeting in Korea in November. The Achimota consultation is part of a process addressing more specifically the contemporary relevance of the healing ministry of the church as essential part of a renewed understanding of mission, a process which started in 2000 and will hopefully feed into the next Conference on World Mission and Evangelism of the WCC, planned for 2005.
The participants at the Achimota consultation hope that similar consultations will be planned in Asia and Latin America. They made concrete proposals for the communication of case studies and the sharing of experiences and reflections on faith, healing and mission.
The consultation was planned and prepared by an international group consisting of Prof. Dr Allan Anderson, University of Birmingham, UK, Prof. Dr Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, Fuller Theological Seminary, USA, Rev. Claudia Währisch-Oblau, United Evangelical Mission, Germany, Prof. Dr Opoku Onyinah, Pentecost Bible College, Ghana and Rev. Jacques Matthey, Mission and Evangelism Team, WCC.