Formation of World Council of Churches

Dan Graves, MSL

Formation of World Council of Churches

The church is the body of Christ. One body. As Nicea's authoritative creed puts it, "We believe in...one holy catholic and apostolic church." The true church is invisible, Christ alone knows who belongs to him. Yet most Christians are appalled that the visible church should be fragmented, each fragment attacking the others.

Almost from the inception of the Reformation with its breakup of the Western church, men have striven to restore unity, some by sword, some by reason and goodwill. Martin Bucer worked to iron out divisions within Protestantism; Liebnitz tried to gather an international conference to discuss reunification of Lutherans and Catholics; Hugo Grotius cried like a voice in the wilderness not only for international law but reconciliation. Count Zinzendorf founded a successful experiment at Herrnhut, where a diverse group of believers was welded together into a unity of great spiritual force known as the Moravians. We cannot list all.

In more modern times John R. Mott organized the 1910 International Missionary Conference, held in Edinburgh. Well attended, this conference fostered other movements. Out of it sprang the International Missionary Council in 1921. Bishop Charles Brent of the United States returned from Edinburgh fired up to create the World Conference of Faith and Order which was finally brought into being in 1927 at Lausanne. Brent wanted to confront doctrinal issues head on. With a vision of Christendom united for rebuilding the world that had been ravaged by World War I, Archbishop Nathan Söderblom of Uppsala spearheaded a drive to bring Christians to Stockholm in 1925 for a Life and Work conference.

The World Conference of Faith and Order proposed creating a World Council of Churches. A 1937 meeting of Life and Faith agreed to explore joining this movement. At Utrecht in 1938 the two movements united and set up a preliminary headquarters in Geneva. Roman Catholics and Russian Orthodox refused involvement, the Russians saying, "Orthodox Christians must regard the Holy Orthodox Catholic Church as the true Church of Christ, one and unique." For the Orthodox or Catholics it seemed that to join was equivalent to saying that all "churches" are equal. Some regional Orthodox, however, did send delegates and observers to these various meetings. The World Council of Churches planned to hold its first conference shortly, but World War II intervened.

Not until this day, August 22, 1948 was the plan fulfilled. Then the World Council of Churches was born in Amsterdam. The International Missionary Council merged with the WCC a few years later. Later the Roman Catholic Church changed its stance and sent observers as well as holding its own ecumenical council. Third world nations became increasingly involved.

The World Council is still a relatively young organization. Some see it as a sign of God's healing divided churches. Other denominations, pointing out that it has been frequently manipulated for political purposes, oppose the Council and write it off as apostate.

Bibliography:

  1. Eerdman's Handbook to the History of Christianity. Editor Tim Dowley. Berkhamsted, Herts, England: Lion Publishing, 1977.
  2. Rouse, Ruth. A History of the Ecumenical Movement, edited by Ruth Rouse and Stephen Charles Neill. Vol. 2, without edition statement, edited by Harold E. Fey and published on behalf of the Committee on Ecumenical History, Geneva. Philadelphia, Westminster Press, 1967 - 70.
  3. Ware, Timothy. The Orthodox Church. Hammondsworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin Press, 1964.
  4. World Topic Year Book 1959.

Last updated April, 2007.

  • Editors' Picks

    Why the Church Must Start Talking about Domestic Violence
    Why the Church Must Start Talking about Domestic Violence
  • Don't Think of Church as Your Own Spiritual Power Bar
    Don't Think of Church as Your Own Spiritual Power Bar
  • So You Think Theology Is Impractical?
    So You Think Theology Is Impractical?