How the International Missionary Council
lived up to its founding principle
by John Drury
One of the founding principles of the International Missionary Council was to avoid discussions regarding doctrinal or ecclesiastical issues. Did the International Missionary Council live up to this principle? Was it a principle worth living up to? After a brief account of the principle’s intention, I will note how the conferences at Oxford, Jerusalem, and Tambaram adhered and yet deviated from this principle. Finally, I will note some of the merits and deficiencies of such a principle.
I. The Founding Principle
Though this principle is not in its constitution, the founding meeting of the International Missionary Council at Lake Mohonk in 1921 resolved that it would not issue a statement “on any matter involving an ecclesiastical or doctrinal question, on which the members of the Council or bodies constituting the Council may differ among themselves” (Hogg 204). This principle was a continuation of the spirit at Edinburgh in 1910 (Hogg 112). The implicit belief was that doctrinal issues divide, while practical missiological issues unite. This principle allowed for greater cooperation between groups who otherwise disagree on a whole host of matters.
It is important to note the institutional intention behind this agreement. The Faith and Order Movement was just getting under way, and it was important to establish boundaries between its work and the International Missionary Council (Hogg 205). Certainly theological issues would arise, but these matters were to not be the central focus of the council. In the same way, the principle ensures that theological agreement among the participants in the Faith and Order Movement is not a prerequisite for practical unity on the mission field.
After its inception at Lake Mohonk, the first major meeting of the International Missionary Council was at Oxford in 1923. The 1920’s were a time of serious theological division. One can point to the fundamentalist-modernist debates in the United States as just one example. By adhering to this principle, the Oxford conference was able to show that their are many areas of unity that remain untouched by the fiery debates of its time. Most of these areas of unity were practical, such as “negotiations with governments, the securing of religious liberty, efforts against the evils of narcotics, statistics and surveys, and problems of education (Hogg 217). It seems as though practical unity can thrive even in the face of doctrinal differences.
However, the Council as it met at Oxford was aware that the true basis of unity was deeply theological. They confessed Christ as Savior and Lord, and felt the common obligation to spread his Gospel to the whole world. They regarded even the greatest of doctrinal differences as not hindering the deeper unity found in the Holy Spirit. This kind of judgment about unity displaces doctrine as central to unity and therefore makes an implicit theological statement. Oxford at this point deviates from the founding principle, for “despite this bar, the Council obviously had a strong theological undergirding and existed because of a common theological core among its member” (217). Once this theological core is called into question, the International Missionary Council’s supposed deeper unity will crack and they will be forced into explicit doctrinal discussion.
To a certain extent, this is what happened at Jerusalem in 1928. Rufus Jones dropped a bombshell on the International Missionary Council with his assessment of the problem of secularism and world religions. He identified secularism as a likened unto the great world religions. Jones’ missional strategy was to adapt the Christian message to the secular world. In a sense, the question of secularism was not a doctrinal difference but rather a problem facing the missional activity of the church. The Jerusalem Conference was therefore able to tackle the issue from a strategic angle. Would it chose Jones’ “syncretistic approach” or a more classical approach, such as Robert Speer’s?
However, Jerusalem could not answer this question without violating the International Missionary Council’s founding principle, for the challenge of world religions and secularism is a deeply doctrinal and theological matter. The practical questions will invariably be answered on the basis of theological affirmations. Hence, William Temple drafted The Christian Message, which the conference adopted. Temple affirmed the social concerns of Jones, yet centered the message on Jesus Christ (cf. Hogg 248). Such a Christocentric turn is thoroughly doctrinal and subject to disagreement. So, once again, the International Missionary Council deviated from its own founding principle.
At Tambaram in 1938, the International Missionary began to focus on the church. The conference began to define the church as an instrument of God. This sort of an emphasis was theological, but not divisive in any sense. Missionaries do need to think of themselves in the context of a well-defined church. This is a thoroughly practical matter, despite its theological form.
The problem of the relation of this better-defined church to other definite world religions seized upon the conference at Tambaram by means of the Kraemer debate. Kraemer represented the position of “discontinuity” between divine revelation and human religion (Hogg 295). Unlike the consensus surrounding renewed emphasis on the church, there was intense disagreement over Kraemer’s proposals. He critiqued on both theological and historical grounds the position that Jesus is the capstone of world religions. Hogg notes that most were attracted to Kraemer’s position, but there was little agreement regarding its radical substance (295). The Kraemer debate confirms again that the International Missionary Council could not avoid theological differences.
With the early history of the International Missionary Council in view, we can attempt to evaluate its attempt to avoid doctrinal discussions. The first merit of this principle is the pragmatic unity it fosters. It sends the signal to world Christians that they do not have to sort out their doctrinal differences before they can cooperate in missionary endeavor. The basic missionary obligation seems self-evident enough that we can gather together to discuss its execution without going into to all the classic debates. This pragmatic unity can be seen throughout the history of the International Missionary Council and its accomplishments.
The second merit I wish to point out is that this principle helps the International Missionary Council conferences to by-pass adiaphora--the things that do not matter. Although some doctrinal differences are serious, many are not significant enough to hold back cooperation and unity. Many doctrinal differences arise from varied cultural contexts of the Christian denominations and have only subsequently been defended theologically. The founding principle of the International Missionary Council sees beyond these differences to more fundamental issues.
Despite these merits, there are serious problems with the principle. The first is its deficient understanding of unity. The practical unity it fosters is good as far as it goes. But practice is not the ultimate basis for unity. A list of shared practices is not what defines us as Christians. It is the confession of Christ that makes us “Christian.” This confession is the ground and the content of mission. We must admit that some doctrinal differences go to the root of how and why we confess Christ. So the unity of our common mission must at some point turn us to doctrinal issues.
This leads us to the second problem with the principle: it is an abstraction. It is as nice thought, but it neither theoretically nor practically possible. We see that the International Missionary Council was unable to follow it. I would contend that it could not have. Theology and doctrine are at the core of how to do mission. These matters will necessarily arise, and we can see that they did.
The principle really ended up serving as a bait to attract those who wish to avoid doctrinal arguments. For this it can be commended. But there its function reaches its limit, for any missionary conference that does not think through its theology does not deserve to bare the name. Unintended good did come from this principle, however, for it turned the inevitable theological discussions away from peripheral matters to core questions of the Christian confession. So the founding principle has its place, but cannot and should not be followed.
Hogg, William Richey. Ecumenical Foundations. New York: Harper Brothers, 1952.