This week’s Acton Commentary from Jordan Ballor:

Unity or Unanimity at Reformed Council?

By Jordan Ballor

Global Christianity comes to Grand Rapids, Mich., this weekend in the form of the Uniting General Council of the World Communion of Reformed Churches (WCRC). Thousands of delegates, exhibitors, and volunteers will gather on the campus of Calvin College to mark the union of two Reformed ecumenical groups, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches (WARC) and the Reformed Ecumenical Council (REC). This new global ecumenical body will include 227 denominations in 108 nations worldwide, with over 80 million Christians of broadly Reformed, Congregational, and Presbyterian membership.

But the proceedings over the next two weeks will go far beyond mere celebration and praise at the joining of these various groups. The future course of the newly formed WCRC will be set at this first council, and all signs point to an institution defined by a narrow set of advocacy items rather than a Gospel-oriented vision. As WARC president Clifton Kirkpatrick has said, “A true test of the value of our impending union will be how it enhances and strengthens our commitment to economic and ecological justice.”

The basis for the WCRC’s exploration of justice is a document called the Accra Confession, named for the last general council of WARC, held in Accra, Ghana in 2004, which produced the text in response to a perceived crisis of the Christian faith. In the words of the Accra Confession, the crisis calls for “a decision of faith commitment,” specifically focused on condemning “the development of neoliberal economic globalization.” At the core of this “faith commitment” is a perspective that views the developing world as victimized at the hands of a vast conspiratorial network of developed nations, multinational corporations, and global financial institutions. The primary villain in this “neoliberal empire” is the United States, cast as the leader of “the coming together of economic, cultural, political and military power that constitutes a system of domination led by powerful nations to protect and defend their own interests.”

The South African economist Stan du Plessis has criticized the Accra Confession for this perspective, one that in his view “substitutes a narrow ideology for a critical understanding of modern economies.” And so the problem with the Accra Confession is not just that it takes sides on questions of economic prudence and policy, although this is something that institutional churches should always be wary of. As the great Princeton ethicist Paul Ramsey wrote in 1967, “The specific solution of urgent problems is the work of political prudence and worldly wisdom. In this there is room for legitimate disagreement among Christians and among other people as well in the public domain–which disagreement ought to be welcomed and not led one way toward specific conclusions.”

The compounding problem with the Accra Confession is that it takes the wrong side, the side that embraces an essentially neo-Marxist narrative of Third World alienation and victimization, and seeks “justice” in the form of retribution against First World villains. Far from promoting the kind of unity that is at the core of ecumenical efforts, this kind of rhetorical and ideological confessionalism drives apart those who ought to be joining together. It pits the rich against the poor, north against south, east against west, inserting the divisive language of economic class into the definition of the Christian church.

Wholesale rejection of globalization should not be made into an article of the Christian faith. But this is precisely what the Accra Confession does. And if the World Communion of Reformed Churches adopts the Accra Confession or its underlying economic worldview in the coming weeks, it will be undermining its own stated commitment to “unite Christians for common witness and service to the world.”

  • Roger McKinney

    If you read about the birth of liberty in the Dutch Republic of the 17th century, you’ll find that Calvinists were the chief opponents of liberty. Calvin allowed no market freedom in Geneva and succeeded Calvinists have usually followed his lead. Weber never bothered to understand this history. In the Dutch Republic, the “Erasmian” Christians opposed the Calvinists and insisted on freedom. Fortunately, the Erasmian Christians traded control over religion for freedom in the marketplace. So it’s no wonder that modern Calvinists hate freedom as much as their forefathers did.