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The Founding of the World Council of Churches

Editor's Note: This article was written a decade ago for the 50th anniversary of the World Council of Churches by the late Rev. Marlin VanElderen (Reformed Church in America), then director of publishing for the WCC. VanElderen was a prolific writer and editor who played a major role in preserving and publishing the history of the WCC and the worldwide ecumenical movement.

By Marlin Van Elderen

Founded in Amsterdam on 23 August 1948 by representatives from 147 churches, the World Council of Churches turns 50 this year.

As delegates from its member churches prepare to mark this jubilee in December at the WCC's eighth assembly in Harare, Zimbabwe, what events and developments during the Council's first five decades have shaped its life?

Why was the WCC formed?

The WCC's constitution describes it as "a fellowship of churches".

Over the centuries, the separate existence of these divided churches has led to mutual suspicion, tension and sometimes even violent conflict. Most of the time they have gone their own way, isolated from and ignorant of each other.

The conviction grew in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that this disunity contradicts the historic Christian confession that the church is one and diminishes the credibility of Christian witness in a divided world.

The World Council of Churches was formed to call the churches to make visible in the world the unity of his followers for which Jesus prayed (John 17:21).

No super-church

The WCC is not a "super-church". It has no authority over its member churches. Rather, it provides them a space to take counsel together, to support each other in difficult times, to join forces on common concerns and so grow together towards unity.

The broad lines of the WCC's agenda are set by assemblies of delegates from all member churches, which meet every seven years.

While each assembly has seen more churches represented than the previous one - there are now 330 - the more significant growth has come in the diversity of member churches. In 1948, two-thirds of them were headquartered in Europe and North America; today, two-thirds come from Africa, Asia, the Caribbean and Latin America, the Middle East and the Pacific.


The Council's third assembly in New Delhi in 1961 offered two important symbols of this increasing diversity:

  • It received into membership four Orthodox churches from Eastern and Central Europe, including the Russian Orthodox (now the largest member church). Several Orthodox churches already belonged to the WCC; indeed, the first official church proposal to form a body like the WCC had come from the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople in 1920. But the decision of these other Orthodox churches to join the WCC confirmed its intention to be more than a Protestant fellowship and to overcome the political divisions of the Cold War.

  • New Delhi also attested to the broadening of the fellowship by welcoming a large number of churches from the South. The increasing presence of churches from parts of the world where Christianity is growing most rapidly has inevitably affected the WCC's agenda.

While the largest church in the world, the Roman Catholic Church, kept its distance from the WCC in the early years, the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) made a clear commitment to seek unity with "separated brothers and sisters".

In the years after the Uppsala assembly (1968), many people even hoped the Catholic Church might become a WCC member. After long discussions, this did not happen. But the WCC and the Catholic Church do work closely together in many areas, especially through official Catholic membership of the WCC's Faith and Order commission.

Most of the Council's founding churches came from the major historic traditions of the Protestant Reformation - Anglican, Lutheran, Methodist, Reformed and the like. But some churches from newer Christian traditions have also joined. Among those to become members in New Delhi were two Pentecostal churches in Chile. The first to join of several independent churches in Africa (churches not originating in Western missions) was the five-million-member Kimbanguist Church (Democratic Republic of Congo), in 1969.

Keeping the vision alive

The Council has brought together the vision of three earlier movements for church unity, which focused on (1) overcoming divisions in the churches' missionary work, (2) examining their doctrinal differences (Faith and Order) and (3) working together for a just and peaceful society (Life and Work).

Much of the early dynamism came from conferences, organizations and informal gatherings of youth and students, whose enthusiasm for breaking down ancient barriers was often a spur to more cautious church leaders.

Major global meetings in these three areas have been milestones of the WCC's first 50 years. They have been accompanied by numerous studies drawing on the experience and wisdom of churches worldwide.

Mission conferences in Mexico City (1963), Bangkok (1973), Melbourne (1980), San Antonio (1989) and Salvador de Bahia (1996) called churches to overcome the idea of mission as a one-way movement from "Christian" to "non-Christian" countries, to take up the challenges of living in community with people of other faiths, to link their verbal proclamation of the gospel with engagement in the struggles of communities against oppression, poverty and hunger, to recognize and affirm the differences in how Christians express and live out the gospel in different cultures.

Life and Work
A key event in the Life and Work tradition was the Council's 1966 World Conference on Church and Society in Geneva.

Much of its agenda was taken up by the WCC's fourth assembly in Uppsala (1968), which responded to the revolutionary climate of the 1960s through commitments to an active - sometimes controversial - engagement in social, economic and political issues which marked the Council over the succeeding decades.

Of all those engagements - in development, education and health care, in human rights, in the struggles of women, in work for disarmament and peace - it was no doubt the Programme to Combat Racism which had the highest profile.

PCR's focus on legally-entrenched racism in Southern Africa proved most controversial when it made symbolic grants to liberation movements - including the Patriotic Front in Zimbabwe, SWAPO in Namibia and the African National Congress in South Africa - that were engaged in armed struggle against white-minority regimes.

The controversy often overshadowed the credibility this involvement earned the Council and its member churches among oppressed people in many places.

While the struggle against racism focused on issues of justice and human rights, it was also part of a growing recognition of the need for churches to be inclusive communities.

An expression of this concern has been the WCC's consistent emphasis on the role of women in church and society (though the question of the ordination of women continues to divide member churches).

Even before the 1948 Amsterdam assembly, the WCC commissioned an international survey of the status of women in churches. In the 1970s and 1980s, a further study on the Community of Women and Men in the Church drew unprecedented local participation. And the Ecumenical Decade of Churches in Solidarity with Women, which began at Easter 1988, will climax with an international festival, also in Harare, just before this year's WCC assembly.

The churches in the world

Cold War
Much of the controversy around the Council over its first four decades related to the Cold War. The Amsterdam assembly's critique of capitalism and communism alike elicited negative coverage from both The Wall Street Journal and Pravda.

A 1950 WCC statement supporting UN intervention in Korea led Chinese member churches to withdraw from involvement in the Council until 1991. And superpower rivalry often lay behind criticisms of the WCC's outspoken support of the hopes and plans of the newly independent countries from which a growing number of its member churches came.

Meanwhile, increasing participation in the WCC of church leaders from Eastern and Central European socialist countries led to charges that the Council was unconcerned about the persecution of "underground" Christians in the Soviet Union. Indeed, critics accused the WCC of supporting communism.

Many disputed the WCC's policy of relating officially to those churches in communist countries whose leaders were allowed some freedom for contacts and travel abroad, with the consequence that the Council's public stance often looked unbalanced sharply critical of the West, silent or at best muted in criticizing the East.

Others would argue that, for all its limits, this policy gave oppressed churches an opening to the outside that eventually helped to bring about the collapse of totalitarian governments.

Neither social action nor controversy was unknown to the Council when the storms over PCR broke out in the 1970s and 1980s.

From the beginning the Council has insisted on holding together the search for the unity of the church with the quest for the renewal of humankind. And, as a worldwide organization, it has a significant role in international affairs.

Even before its official founding, the WCC's Geneva office was a central point. Through it, churches divided by the war maintained contact and aided people fleeing Nazi persecution. Just after the war, the WCC coordinated international church involvement in European resettlement and reconstruction. Subsequently the Council played a major role in interchurch aid, and each year channeled millions of dollars to respond to disasters and to support development programs in every part of the world.


NCC News contact:  Philip E. Jenks, 212-870-2228,

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