Posts tagged with: World Communion of Reformed Churches

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Tuesday, January 11, 2011

It is sometimes remarked in response to my treatment of the Accra Confession of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches (WARC) and now World Communion of Reformed Churches (WCRC) in my book Ecumenical Babel that the Accra document is not really a confession at all. It says itself, after all, that it is a confession, but “not meaning a classical doctrinal confession, because the World Alliance of Reformed Churches cannot make such a confession, but to show the necessity and urgency of an active response to the challenges of our time and the call of Debrecen.”

Rather than being a confession in some technical ecclesiastical sense, then, it is better understood as a declaration, or even still a “conversation,” as it was dubbed by a commenter at one of my talks on the Accra Confession. My response to this is that I am in favor of a discussion, a dialogue, and a conversation about the Reformed faith, economics, and globalization, but if you actually read the Accra Confession, it is a document that shuts down conversation rather than fostering it. It draws lines between faithfulness and unfaithfulness, just as any Christian confession does. Having already determined the rightness or wrongness of particular views, it forces one to take sides. There’s little room for authentic “conversation” in that kind of a rhetorical context.

Indeed, I would say the dominant interpretive context of the Accra Confession within ecumenical circles is precisely as a confession, “to respond in a confessional manner, that is, to take a faith stance regarding current global economic injustices and ecological destruction.” In his article, “The Historical Context of the Accra Confession,” Averell Rust exemplifies this perspective perfectly. Rust traces the background of the process toward the Accra Confession, dubbed the processus confessionis, and contends, “The debate on whether the ‘integrity of our faith is at stake’ has moved beyond an ethical discussion to a theological one. It proceeded to the call for a status confessionis/processus confessionis.” It is essential to note that the Debrecen call to which the Accra Confession explicitly links itself was a call for WARC churches “to work towards the formulation of a confession of their beliefs about economic life which would express justice in the whole household of God and reflect priority for the poor and support an ecologically sustainable future.”

It is worth exploring conference proceedings published in vol. 65, issue no. 1 of Hervormde Teologiese Studies (2009), which generally reflect a similar assessment. A notable exception is Hans-Wilfried Haase’s “Theological Remarks on the Accra Confession,” which criticizes the confession on a number of salient points. He concludes that the rhetorical stance of the document “becomes a problem, however, when some possible actions take on the quality of a confession and people who, for various reasons cannot agree with those actions, are then excluded from the confession.” Or as I have claimed, a particular wholesale rejection of economic globalization should not become an article of the Reformed faith.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Rev. Daniel Meeter, pastor in the Reformed Church of America (RCA), writing in the Reformed journal Perspectives, “Observations on the World Communion of Reformed Churches”:

My participation at Johannesburg is the reason I was an observer at the General Council, and why I was assigned to the General Council’s committee on Accra (though there were many other committees and a host of workshops that interested me, from worship to theology to inter-faith dialogue). Our committee was huge: sixty people or so. We eventually divided into table groups, and I was a pinchhit table leader. My table included Taiwanese, Chinese, Filipinos, and Indonesians. Our tables were charged to come up with a variety of responses to Accra, such as actions and outcomes or further work on its content and theology. Our responses were recorded and two delegates were appointed to consolidate them into a report to the plenary. I had to leave before the report was made, so I look forward to reading the minutes of when they come out.

One of the table groups reported that a key outcome was that the main concern of the WCRC in general should be “social justice.” The reporter was from a church that had belonged to WARC. This worries me. It suggests to me that this WARC delegate was not talking to REC delegates. It also worries me because I suspect the view that the main concern of the WCRC should be “social justice” is more widely held. Here is my second observation: this is going to be a problem for the WCRC. I hope the executive committee can direct a more holistic kind of ecumenism for the WCRC. (Would there was a Hungarian on the committee.)

I don’t mean to be flippant, but “social justice” is the main concern of civil government, not the church. This is an example of the politicization of Christian witness on both left and right which James Davison Hunter analyzes in his new book, To Change The World (Oxford, 2010). It is certainly true that on such issues the church is responsible to be prophetic in speech and active in demonstrating a just and wholesome life in real and even institutional ways, but to consider this the main concern of a church body is to miss the main concern of a church body. Unfortunately, this is not rare among the churches of the WCRC, the most Protestant and secularized of the world ecumenical groups, and with the weakest common ecclesiology.

I want to be clear that I think it’s right for the WCRC to be focused on the Accra issues (while the Anglican Communion is preoccupied with the sexuality of its bishops). I believe that justice in the economy and the earth is the great issue of our time, and critical to the church’s credibility. But it seems to me that the Reformed tradition can do better than “social justice”–to the actual benefit of social justice. It seems to me that the main concern of the WCRC is the Lordship of Jesus Christ, or in classic terms, the Sovereignty of God, or in gospel terms, the Kingdom of God or the Reign of God. As the Belhar says, “Jesus is Lord,” and this makes all the difference for justice in the world and in the human race. Making some version of the Kingdom of God the main concern of the WCRC will also provide a place for such other concerns as worship, doctrine, ecumenical dialogue, and inter-faith dialogue. Otherwise, the WCRC will have no right to consider itself a “communion” instead of just a big religious NGO.

As they said, read the whole thing. And for an engagement of the Accra Confession and the WCRC within the broader ecumenical context, see my book released earlier this year, Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church’s Social Witness.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Wednesday, December 8, 2010

My friend John Armstrong examines “How Market Economies Really Work.” Armstrong concludes, “The gospel makes people free and teaches them to be virtuous. This is what is inherently Christian and no economic system can thrive long-term without them.”

He cites a piece by Stellenbosch University economist Stan du Plessis, “How Can You be a Christian and an Economist? The Meaning of the Accra Declaration for Today.” The du Plessis piece was of great help to me in writing the third chapter of my book, Ecumenical Babel, in which I examine the argument of the Accra Confession.

And we were able to distribute hundreds of Accra Confession study kits at last summer’s Uniting General Council of the World Communion of Reformed Churches. These kits included a copy of du Plessis’ paper, and you can download a PDF yourself here.

A delegate at last week’s Uniting General Council of the World Communion of Reformed Churches held at Calvin College urged the newly formed group to consider moving its headquarters out of the Ecumenical Centre in Geneva. Citing the costs associated with travel to and from the Swiss city, as well as those incurred during visits to the headquarters, Rev. Wesley Granberg-Michaelson, general secretary of the Reformed Church in America, asked the WCRC to move its offices to the global south.

This would be a show of solidarity as well as of acknowledgment of the shifting movement of the center of global Christianity to the southern Hemisphere. According to ENI, Granberg-Michaelson “questioned how the Reformed grouping could talk of promoting global justice, when it had its headquarters in a place of ‘significant economic privilege.’”

There’s a lot going on in this call, and more than I can comment on here. But I will say that I think this is a move that ought to be considered, but not primarily for the reasons Granberg-Michaelson raises (although there are some valid concerns there as well).

In my recent book, Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church’s Social Witness, I argue that one of the distinctive features of the ecumenical movement over the last two decades or so is what I call the ecumenical-industrial complex, “in which the ecumenical movement is promoted, through the media and political engagement, as an end in itself rather than as a church in service to others.”

Anything that can serve to mitigate some of the group think that goes on in the Ecumenical Centre in Geneva is something to be applauded, I think.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Monday, June 21, 2010

Last week’s Acton Commentary, “Unity or Unanimity at Reformed Council?” was picked up by a number of news outlets, including the Detroit News and the Holland Sentinel. The latter paper published a response to the piece by Jeffrey Japinga, “Intersection of economics and faith is valid subject for church council.”

I think Japinga misreads me, and in doing so (perhaps unintentionally) ends up agreeing with me. He thinks that I oppose the Accra Confession because “what it says disagrees with the conclusions of the Acton Institute.” I do disagree with the Confession on those grounds, to be sure. But that Accra and Acton conflict on economic questions is really the least of my concern in opposing the Accra Confession.

My greatest problem with the Accra Confession is that it proposes to make its own position a matter of confessional integrity. When Japinga compares the confession to the Acton Institute’s core principles, for instance, he’s making a number of category mistakes. The Acton Institute is a nonprofit educational and research organization, a think tank. The World Communion of Reformed Churches purports to be a global institutional representation of the Christian church.

Can you see the difference? It is the job of organizations like Acton to engage in debates in the public square about political policy, prudential and particular concerns, in this case economic. This isn’t the primary task of the institutional church, however.

What I really want at the WCRC is the “kind of open, healthy discussion” Japinga celebrates. I don’t really desire to expel what I consider to be the voices of liberation theology and neo-Marxist ideology from the WCRC. That’s not in danger of happening any time soon and my book, Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church’s Social Witness, describes some of the reasons why.

My real concern is to see that voices that view globalization as having good aspects as well as bad, as the Accra Confession most certainly does not, are not excluded from the Reformed ecumenical discussion. I believe the adoption of the Accra statement as a confessional standard would do just that and serve to silence dissent and undermine intellectual diversity. It would turn an economic ideology (one that also happens to be false) into an article of the Reformed ecumenical faith.

As Ernest W. Lefever writes, “Taking sides and not taking sides both have moral and political pitfalls. But supporting the wrong side is the worst of all options.”

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.”