Monday, August 9, 2010

A Review of Ecumenical Babel:Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness

From a Presbyterian Perspective -a Review of:

Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church’s Social Witness

By Jordan J. Ballor

Christian’s Library Press 139 p.

Several months ago I began reading a new biography about Dietrich Bonhoeffer.[1] At the same time I read, researched and did some minor posting on the newly formed World Communion of Reformed Churches and their Accra Confession.[2]The two subjects, Bonhoeffer and WCRC’s Accra Confession, merged in my mind producing several questions. Bonhoeffer was active in the ecumenical movement of his day and suffered through some spiritual/political adversities produced by their faulty conceptions of the Church. So a major question, for me, was how would Bonhoeffer react to today’s Ecumenical movement? What would he have to say to the movement today?

When Jordan J. Ballor of
Action Institute offered me his book, Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church’s Social Witness, with a chance to review it, he handed me a gift of clarity. Ballor looks at the three largest ecumenical organizations through the eyes of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945), one of the leaders and martyrs of the Confessing Church of Nazi Germany, Paul Ramsey (1913-1988), a professor who taught “religion and ethics at Princeton University,” and Ernest W. Lefever (1919-1987), also an ethicist and theologian who according to Ballor “founded the Ethics and Public Policy Center (EEPC) in 1989.” The three organizations are the World Council of Churches (WCC), the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) and, the already mentioned, World Communion of Reformed Churches (WCRC).

Ballor shapes his analysis around documents important to each organization. For the LWF he looks at “A Call to Participate in Transforming Economic Globalization.” This paper came out of the 2003 LWF Assembly. For the WCC, Ballor considers the “Report of the Public Issues Committees.” The report was, according to Ballor, adopted at the “Ninth General Assembly in 2006.” But of greatest interest to me and hopefully other members of the Presbyterian Church (USA) is Ballor’s analysis of the WCRC and their Accra Confession. I write this because we have just voted to encourage our Presbyterian Seminaries and congregations to study the Accra Confession.[3]

Each of the scholars Ballor uses as he looks at the three organizations and their documents bring questions to the issues. Ballor quotes Bonhoeffer:

“Is the ecumenical movement, in its visible representation, a church? Or, to put it the other way round: Has the real ecumenicity of the church as witnessed in the New Testament found visible and appropriate expression in the ecumenical organization?” (6-7)[4]

Of Ramsey, Ballor writes, “In Ramsey’s analysis, the ecumenical movement has largely abandoned the proper work of the institutional church and engaged in a program of political and social activism. Where Bonhoeffer had asked whether it was the authority of the church ‘with which the ecumenical movement speaks and acts,” Ramsey asks whether or not the ecumenical movement ‘speaks for the church.’”[5]

Ballor explains that Ramsey felt the ecumenical movement of his day was speaking about political and social issues from a secular/cultural position and yet attempting to speak with the authority of the Church. He quotes Ramsey:

“The Church becomes a secular ‘sect’ in its ecumenical ethics set over against the world as it is, instead of becoming truly a Christian sect concerned to nurture a distinctive ethos set over against an acculturated Christianity or against a culture that is no longer Christendom.”[6] (12)
Lefever worked within the ecumenical movement and, as Ballor points out, wrote two books critical of the movement. He was concerned with the ecumenical movement’s “embrace” of liberation theology and because of it their “Marxist interpretation of history and strategy for change.”[7] Lefever’s questions are, “For whom does the WCC speak? Does it speak and act for the member churches? Or, does it speak and act only for itself? To whom does the Council speak? Does it speak only to the individual Christians, or also to governments and to the world?”

Directing his attention to the movement’s documents that are mainly focused on economics slanted toward a Marxist point of view, Ballor explores the answers to the above questions. But here I will turn to Ballor’s chapter on the WCRC and the Accra Confession.

Ballor gives the history of the development of the Confession. He lists all of the concerns carried in the body of the confession, such as the “increasing concentration of wealth in the hands of few” and “the pursuit of ‘resource-driven wars.’” He also quotes the Confession’s sole candidate for perpetrator of economic and ecological disasters. Ballor writes, “Tracing the origins of these troubling realities, the Accra Confession identifies these effects as ‘directly related to the development of neoliberal economic globalization.’”

After carefully quoting the definitions that the writers of Accra use in defining “neoliberal economic globalization,” Ballor then turns to what could be called the theological section of the Confession. He explains and quotes its contradictory message that it is not a classical confession and yet its text insists that it be treated as one. Ballor writes:

“Even though the Accra Confession cannot be understood as ‘a classical doctrinal confession,’ it does identify itself as addressing a situation in which the confession either for or against Christ and his church must be made. Thus, the Accra Confession reflects a status confessionis, a situation in which such a confession is called for, as ‘the integrity of our faith is at stake if we remain silent or refuse to act in the face of the current system of neoliberal economic globalization’ (art. 16).” (58)

Ballor’s analysis of Accra includes answers to the three scholars’ questions. Bonhoeffer’s question about speaking with the authority of a church is answered by the confession with affirmation, and yet something is amiss. As Ballor states:

“…the Accra Confession does not merely call for ‘active response’ but also explicitly draws lines of orthodoxy and orthopraxis between those who affirm the specific positions articulated by the confession and those who do not.” (60) Yet it is the positions the authors of the confession take that still leave the question about authority unsettled.

And here Ballor turns to Ramsey who would undoubtedly point out that authority is missing because the position taken in the Confession evolves from a one-sided economic ideology and not from the Church’s need to, “nurture a distinctive ethos set over against an acculturated Christianity or against a culture that is no longer Christendom.” In addition Ballor applies Ramsey’s views that a political/ethical pronouncement by the ecumenical movement must be based on broad principles that do not override the right of debate within the Church. (64)To take an ideological economic position and make it determinative of one’s faithfulness is the misuse of authority.

Ballor goes on to write of several ways that the Accra Confession is not truly a confession. He uses Bonhoeffer’s thoughts that a confession must be a living confession, which means it must confess ‘for its Lord and against his enemies.’ (63) He also turns to Bonhoeffer’s insistence that to be authentic a confession must be true. Using a critique of the Accra Confession by a South African economist, Stan Du Plessis, Ballor shows how Accra ‘falters’ with its most basic facts concerning the cause of the world’s economic problems.[8] A Confession must include a confession of sin, which Accra does, but as Ballor puts it even this causes disunity. And that is because the sin confessed is tied to an economic viewpoint that many Christians cannot, and will not confess as sin. (66)

Finally an important point that Ballor speaks to is how the movement evolves along side an evolving liberation theology. He does this in the context of writing about the Marxist’s economic outlook of the ecumenical movement. Ballor writes:

“More recently, however, the ecumenical movement has left a simple economism behind. It has followed the trajectory of liberation theology itself, which first emphasized a basically economistic or materialistic anthropology but in subsequent development has articulated all manner of liberation theologies, including environmental, ethnic, sexual, and gender revolutions.” (66)

Ballor goes on to show how this allows Accra to connect “economic injustice” with “ecological destruction.” However, In the PCUSA, many insisting on the use of this document, will pull all of the above issues into the wording of the Accra Confession.

Ballor’s last chapter offers ways the ecumenical movement could be reformed. He focuses on a biblical and personal reform that centers in the life of the Church. He also focuses on the wealth that God gives to be used by his people. He asks that peripheral issues be left open for debate. Ballor writes:

“Economic and political opinions should not be turned into articles of faith. Indeed there must be room for bad economic and political opinions in our confession. There are limits, of course, and these primarily arise when some alien influence or idea, a worldly ideology, takes the place of biblical confession and becomes an all compassing world-and -life view, a would be competitor of Christianity.” (119)

While, Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church’s Social Witness, is a small book, it is dense, filled with clear thinking, biblical and confessional concern and a multitude of resources. Ballor has provided members of the mainline Churches with valuable material. Members of the PCUSA, who long for an ecumenical movement that speaks as a Church to and with its members, rather then in an authoritative manner for its members, will find a possible way forward in this book. The orthodox members of mainline churches who long for an ecumenical movement that confesses for Christ and against his enemies will also find relief in this book.

[1] Bonhoeffer, Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas.
[2] See,
How many confessions is the PC (U.S.A.)'s 219th General Assembly voting on? & The World Communion of Reformed Churches: A new religious organization with worldly intentions?
[3] See item 08-08 on
pc-biz. This whole item should be carefully read by all concerned Presbyterian Church (USA) members.
[4] Ballor’s note, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “The Confessing Church and the Ecumenical Movement” found in Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Witness to Jesus Christ, 330.
[5] Ballor’s reference for this thought is, Paul Ramsey, Who Speaks for the Church? A Critique of the 1966 Geneva Conference on Church and Society (Nashville: Abingdon Press 1967).
[6] Quote from, Ibid, 55.
[7] Ballor is quoting here from: Ernest W. Lefever, Amsterdam to Nairobi: The World Council of Churches and the Third World (Washington, D.C.: Ethics and Public Policy Center, 1979).
[8] The paper is, Stan Du Plessis, “How can you be a Christian and an economist? The Meaning of the Accra Declaration for today,” Stellenbosch Economic Working Papers (February 2010), 1-14.


John McNeese said...

The Accra Confession provides a good critique of the current international  economic system.  A detailed analysis (384 pages) can be found in Joseph E. Stiglitz's book, "Making Globalization Work. "  Stiglitz teaches at Columbia and received a Nobel Prize in Economics.

Reducing this document to a Marxist analysis is absurd.  The free market system won. The question for us, especially as first world Christians,  is how decisions made by us in this free market system affect the poor in this world? Being able to purchase cheap clothing and other consumer goods, are we responsible for working condition that produced these goods? Do we bear any responsibility for our disproportionate use of the world's natural resources? Do we bear any responsibility for the actions of the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Trade Organization which we and our first world allies control, for the crushing debt load of third world countries?

The Accra Confession says YES! So do I. It matters not at all to me whether this document rises to the status of a "Confession." it is worthy of dicusion in our congregations.

Ballor is wrong we he describes the economic and political as peripheral issues. They are the core of scripture.

John McNeese              

Viola Larson said...

Ballor isn't saying that economic and political issues are only peripheral, but he is saying that economic and political opinions are peripheral.

Whether people starve or not is a life and death issue. How we address the need is different. The answers given in the Accra confession are all one sided and focused only on a term that is badly defined and not used except by those who are ideologically slanted towards liberation theology which is informed by Marxists economics.

ZZMike said...

"it is worthy of dicussion in our congregations."

Discussion, perhaps, but to elevate it to Confessional status is absurd. Elevating Belhar is almost as absurd. They add nothing to the theology of the many confessions we already have.

"The free market system won."
It isn't a matter of "might makes right". It's a matter of what works (ours) and what doesn't (socialism, Marxism, Communism, &c. &c.).

"Do we bear any responsibility for the actions of the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Trade Organization which we and our first world allies control, for the crushing debt load of third world countries?"

I don't - any more than I take responsibility for slavery in the U.S., or the Mongol invasions of the 13th Century.

"The Accra Confession says YES!"

Of course it does. The current paradigm is that of making us feel guilty for everything. Global Warming: we're supposed to feel guilty about that. Poverty in Africa? We're supposed to feel guilty about that. Never mind decades of corrupt governments who skim off the top 90% of aid that anybody gives their countries.

The Catholic Church got mired down in "liberation theology" some decades back, in South America, and made a wreck of both the Church and the countries.

Mike Zorn
Santa Ana CA