Edinburgh 2010

(April/May 2010 – Volume 16, Issue 2)

Those knowledgeable of current church history and missiology in particular are probably familiar with Edinburgh 1910.  It was considered to be the greatest missionary conference to that date and subsequently has proven to be the most influential.  In honor of its centennial, four major conferences are planned for 2010, having been in development since 2005[1] (along with many smaller venues), all connected with and under the umbrella of Edinburgh 2010.  The first will be in Tokyo, May 11-15.  Edinburgh is next up on June 2-6, followed by Cape Town, October 16-25 and finally Boston, November 4-7.  Each conference is somewhat independent, with different rosters of speakers, papers and agendas; however they are working in cooperation and will be sharing their research and attempting to set directives and initiatives for future world outreach.

Edinburgh 1910

It is significant for our analysis of these conferences to look back to the original Edinburgh Conference and determine why so much excitement is being generated over what happened 100 years ago.  In 1910 conference leaders John R. Mott and J. H. Oldham brought together 1200 delegates representing missionary endeavors from most of the major denominations in existence at the time. While the majority of the delegates were from Western countries, a unique feature of Edinburgh 1910 was that for the first time non-Western church leaders were involved in a major missionary conference.  There were also several female delegate representatives, although they stayed low-key. 

In an effort to gain as wide a range of participation as possible and to deal broadly with pressing issues, Mott and Oldham made two overlapping monumental decisions.  They would limit the agenda to missionary policy, training and strategy and they would neither allow for discussion of theological issues nor require signing of any doctrinal statement. Given the major theological unrest of that era these seem to be astounding choices, but they were apparently made to avoid division and to promote united outreach with the gospel.  Another vital point of interest was that while no delegates from Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox traditions were invited it was nevertheless decided to avoid discussions concerning missions in Roman Catholic and Orthodox saturated parts of the world.  These resolutions were based on the misguided belief that all involved were evangelical and therefore doctrinal agreement was assumed.

Unfortunately, Mott and Oldham had just paved the way for the ecumenical movement of the twentieth century.  Directly emerging from Edinburgh 1910 would be the formation of the World Council of Churches in 1948.  Long time professor at Trinity University, David J. Hesselgrave quotes one leading authority as saying that Edinburgh 1910 was “the starting-point of the modern ecumenical movement in all of its forms.”[2]  The ecumenical movement has resulted in widespread compromise as mission organizations, denominations and individual Christian leaders have chosen to lay down their doctrinal distinctions in order to secure some form of outward union and conformity with almost anyone claiming the name of Christ.

It is unlikely that the leaders of the original Edinburgh Conference intended such consequences for most held solid doctrinal positions. Nor could the infringement of liberalism upon evangelicalism be blamed on Edinburgh since the roots of theological liberalism preceded Edinburgh by decades. As a matter of fact, the liberal/fundamentalist battle was raging by 1910 as was evident by the publication, between 1910 and 1914, of a series of booklets entitled, “The Fundamentals.”  Battle lines were being drawn around the cardinal doctrines of the faith by this time and champions from both sides had marched to the front lines.  Within a couple of decades the two sides would go their separate ways.  The liberals would claim most of the major denominations and the majority of Christian institutions, schools and organizations and spread their gospel of social betterment for the planet.  The conservatives, known at first as fundamentalists, would separate from their former alignments and affiliations and create their own denominations, schools, organizations and missions.  In time the fundamentalists would split over the issue of separation.  Those retaining the name fundamentalists would cling to both their conservative doctrinal positions and their separatist stance, at times to a fault.  Those labeling themselves as neo-evangelicals, or new evangelicals, would attempt to maintain strong doctrine but would reject separatism, attempting as much as possible to cooperate with those of other theological persuasions, often resulting in compromise.

What Edinburgh 1910 added to the mix was to lay a pattern for ecumenical style conferences dedicated to functions and purposes with little consideration for doctrinal agreement.  As Hessegrave notes, “From the time of Edinburgh the modern ecumenical movement has been characterized more by organizational togetherness than by theological consensus.”[3]   For example, when the World Council of Churches (WCC) formed in 1948 their sole statement of faith was that one “confess the Lord Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.”  This statement is so broad as to allow virtually all professing Christianized denominations and even cults to affirm it.  Not only would the WCC eventually materialize from Edinburgh but a number of other unhappy outcomes would as well.  Hessegrave identifies several including:

  • An indecisiveness as to the nature and meaning of the Christian mission.  What is it exactly that the church has been commissioned to do?  To this day debate rages over this question.
  • The allowance for “contextualized theologies” which opened the door for aberrant teachings such as “Liberation Theology.”
  • The virtual abandonment of missions on the part of mainline Protestant denominations in America .  At the beginning of the twentieth century eighty percent of North American missionaries were from mainline churches; by the end of the century only six percent were.[4]  

Given the legacy of Edinburgh 1910, it seems strange that evangelicals worldwide are gearing up to celebrate its centennial.  People may choose to remember a tragic event, such as the invasion of Pearl Harbor, but they do not celebrate it.   That members of the World Council of Churches reverence this conference does not surprise us since it opened the door for a new kind of ecumenism that became the trademark of the WCC.  But that the evangelical community is similarly impressed should give us pause.  That they want to join the WCC in furthering the impact of Edinburgh 1910 should be a wake up call to the state of the conservative church today.  Of course things are not so black and white on the surface.  Let’s take a look.

Edinburgh 2010

While several missionary conferences planned for 2010 honor the original Edinburgh, the stated aim, according to its official website, is to “deepen and strengthen its prophetic vision of worldwide, multi-cultural Christian unity – a unity marked by shared passion to spread the Good News of Jesus Christ.”[5]  This is a lofty goal but a legitimate question needing to be addressed is the content of Edinburgh 2010’s “Good News,” especially in light of the wide doctrinal variants among its participants.  At the 1910 event the attendees were largely from the major mainline denominations.  The leadership assumed, perhaps wrongly, that all involved held to an evangelical understanding of doctrine, including the gospel.  This was surely a naïve assumption, especially in light of the in-roads liberal theology was achieving at that time within most of the denominations.  By contrast the leadership of Edinburgh 2010 seems to be dismissing doctrinal issues with barely a concern. They state, “Whereas 1910 was confined to mainline Protestantism, the participants in 2010 are drawn from the  whole range of Christian traditions and confessions, including Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Pentecostal and Independent churches, and show a better gender and age balance.”[6]

Given that many within this “range of Christian traditions and confessions” hold to different understandings of the gospel message, one has to wonder what Good News will ultimately be spread.  This is no small matter when we read the following statement expressing the intended outcome of the Conference:

A key conversation on mission will be initiated with mission leaders, from the older mission movements of the North and the new mission movements from the South and East, with dialogues held among representatives of different Christian traditions, [and] networks will be mobilized and alliances formed so as to develop greater strategic collaboration and greater synergy in fulfilling the mission mandate.[7]

Dialogues, alliances, strategic collaboration and greater synergy (between the traditions) in order to fulfill the “mission mandate” is the desired outcome of the Edinburgh 2010. All of this is quite disturbing given that the “mission mandate” (especially the content of the gospel message) has been left undefined yet increased ecumenical alliances and synergy are being formed (among those who disagree on the mandate and its content) to fulfill said mandate.  

In order to accomplish these lofty goals numerous events throughout the world are on the drawing board.  Twenty-three events, in addition to the big four for to which I will give more detail below, are scheduled for 2010 according to Edinburgh’s official site.[8] The descriptions given for these projects strongly emphasize ecumenism throughout.  Two other smaller but connected conferences of particular interest include:

The Conference on World Christianity in Liverpool, England : “Christian Unity in Mission and Service.”  Apparently describing their own conference, the leaders state, “The churches in Liverpool have tried to continue their ecumenical witness.  The Anglican and the Roman Churches have created several examples of living ecumenism… This conference will involve not only Christian missiologists and theologians, but scholars from Christian and non-Christian backgrounds, and it will be organized in close collaboration with the organizers of the Edinburgh 2010.” [9]

The 44th International Ecumenical Seminar held in Strasbourg, France :“ Mission and Ecumenism in the Global Village, 100 Years after the Conference of Edinburgh.” Its website states: “The year 2010 marks the centenary of the ecumenical movement, which began, significantly, at the World Missionary Conference in Edinburgh.  Concerned the disputes from missionaries’ homelands were being imported to new soil and damaging the credibility of the gospel there, the first efforts to repair unity among Protestants had a distinctive evangelical and missionary purpose.”  One of the main topics at this conference will be, “Is justice or evangelization the main content of mission today?”[10]

From these descriptions, and many others, it is not hard to see that the year 2010 is being dedicated to both widening of the ecumenical net and broadening the understanding of the gospel.  This should not be surprising since the members of the Edinburgh 2010 General Council include leaders from the Seventh Day Adventists, Roman Catholicism, the Anglican Communion, the World Methodist Council and the World Council of Churches. [11]

It is of significance that the final big event, the Boston Student Conference sponsored by the Boston Theological Institute and dominated by Roman Catholic institutions, has been chosen to wrap up the events by “offering a summation and analysis of the previous Edinburgh Conferences.”[12] This will surely result in Boston having considerable sway and influence over the Edinburgh 2010 process going forward.

Since each of the conferences will have a somewhat distinctive flavor perhaps a short word or two on the four primary conferences would be instructive:

Tokyo: While local churches are invited to the evening “celebrations” during the day “it will be a very serious ‘consultation’ of mission executives and mission leaders – because, as in 1910, all participants will be delegates chosen and sent by mission agencies, no one will be invited as an individual.”[13]  Tokyo may be more charismatic in nature than the others as is evident by some of its plenary speakers including David Cho, pastor of the world’s largest church (fully entrenched in Word of Faith theology),[14]Yoido Full Gospel Church in South Korea, and Minoru Okuyama pastor and organizer of Nippon Revival Association, a fellowship for charismatic and Pentecostal Japanese church leaders.

Edinburgh: This conference is apparently the brainchild of the World Council of Churches on World Mission and Evangelism and is described on its website as a “common experience of wider ecumenism.”  Further the WCC states, “The WCC will play a leading role in the organization of a celebrative and widely owned mission conference in June 2010 in Edinburgh, in coordination with partners in the ecumenical movement, within and outside the WCC’s fellowship.”[15]  There will be significant presence of Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches at Edinburgh.

Cape Town: The Cape Town Conference will be in conjunction with The Third Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization and is considered the most conservative of the main conferences.  It features six keynote speakers (each apparently preaching a message from the book of Ephesians) from six world regions, with John Piper representing North America. Boston University doctoral student and General Secretary of the Latin American Theological Fellowship Ruth Padilla DeBorst is one of two women expositors,[16]   4000 leaders from 200 countries have been invited and special criteria have been established to “include men and women from a broad spectrum of nationalities, ethnicities, ages, occupations and denominational affiliations.”[17]

Boston: Boston Theological Institute will develop the theme “The Changing Contours of World Mission and Christianity” and has for its goal to “discern a vision for what might constitute mission in the twenty-first century.”[18] Boston Theological Institute is an association of nine theological schools and seminaries in the Boston area including three Roman Catholic schools and one Orthodox and strong connections with the World Council of Churches.  As at Cape Town, Ruth Padilla DeBorst will be a keynote speaker as will two Roman Catholic leaders: Yale Divinity School professor Lamin Sannah, President of the Catholic Theological Society of America Peter Phan, and emergent front man Brian McLaren.

United Methodist:  The United Methodist denomination is also planning a major conference to coincide with Edinburgh 2010 in Nashville, Tennessee from October 15-17.  This conference is entitled, “Rethink Mission: Reflection and Action from Edinburgh 1910-2010: Mission Engagement Past, Present, and Future.”[19]  Keynote speaker is Dana Robert and “the program design will include scope for interdenominational and ecumenical discussions drawing on the rich resources of the Edinburgh 2010 missionary conference.  Participants of the official Edinburgh 2010 conference will lead off the sessions and selected study themes will be highlighted during three days together.”[20]


It is important to understand that while the four primary Edinburgh 2010 conferences are somewhat different in agendas and constituencies, the organizers of all four met in the winter of 2008 in Boston “to compare notes and to pledge cooperation.  All four meetings are part of a process of reflection and activism that will likely continue beyond 2010… the organizers have expressed a commitment to work together and will send representative to each other meetings.”[21] All include women who will preach including United Methodist Church professor Dana Robert at both Edinburgh and Boston, and Ruth Padilla DeBorst at Cape Town and Boston. In addition the conferences have committed themselves to appoint women as half of all delegates. [22]

Each conference will be discussing and creating papers on unique but overlapping themes related to world missions.  In one way or the other, however, the definition of the gospel itself is on the table.  For example at the Edinburgh conference one of the themes is “mission spirituality and authentic discipleship” which will attempt to “articulate a motivation and dynamic for mission that is rooted in the kingdom of God.” To be addressed is “what shape does Christian mission take when it has the kingdom of God as its ultimate horizon?”[23]  Given that the emergent/emerging church movement centers its understanding of the faith and the church on the kingdom of God, it is vitally important to see what definition is given to the kingdom.  The trend recently within not only the emergent church but much of evangelicalism is to adopt the mainline denominational understanding of the kingdom as spreading the social gospel rather than the gospel of reconciliation and redemption in Christ.

This is further evident at Cape Town as it will address what its organizers consider the six global issues of our day under the banner, “The whole church taking the whole gospel to the whole world.”  While this makes for a snappy vision statement almost every word is fraught with potential danger.  Given the high emphasis on ecumenical unity at all the Edinburgh conferences, it appears that the “whole church” includes virtually all branches and traditions within Christendom including Roman Catholic and Orthodox as well as mainline denominations. The “whole gospel” will be defined by what is meant by the “whole world.”  According to the Lausanne website the whole world means “becoming empowered by the Holy Spirit to alleviate world suffering brought about by economic injustice, disease, environment and poverty.”[24]  The “whole gospel” ostensibly means not only the good news that Jesus Christ has provided through His blood the means by which sinners can be made right with God, but also addresses the social injustices found in our world today.  Boston will be discussing these same themes with the final of the eight themes being, “‘Saving the World: relating to secular ways of dealing with human need.”[25]  Chet Plimpton of New Tribes Mission has pointed out in a paper written for NTM that “Saving the World” is based on implementing The Millennium Development Goals that have been defined by the United Nations, including: eliminating extreme poverty and hunger, reducing child mortality, promoting gender equality, universal primary education, improving maternal health, combating HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases, and ensuring environmental sustainability.[26]

David Hesselgrave, in his excellent article for Southwestern Journal of Theology entitled, “Will We Correct the Edinburgh Error? Future Mission in Historical Perspective,” writes about efforts by fundamentalists and evangelicals to correct the error of Edinburgh 1910.  Much could be said about these attempts and the various paths that they have led Christ’s people in relationship to evangelism and missions, but for our purposes he identifies three tensions that are still being wrestled with today; tensions perhaps which Edinburgh 2010 desires to address in a definite manner:[27]

1) The place of cooperative evangelism. 

“Does the preaching of a biblical gospel justify cooperation with liberal clerics, who do not subscribe to the historic creeds of the church?”[28]  The inclusive position championed by Billy Graham and Lausanne I is surely the majority position today although there are many who would challenge this understanding on biblical grounds.  In more recent times groupings such as “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” have attempted to greatly minimize differences between evangelicals and Roman Catholics.  ECT has essentially declared both traditions as representative of biblical Christianity, brothers in Christ and proclaimers of the same gospel.  Some evangelicals have even “been re-thinking the Reformation doctrine of justification by faith and even questioning the need for the Reformation.”[29]

2) The nature of biblical authority and the importance of evangelical theology.

As was mentioned earlier, since Edinburgh 1910 doctrine and biblical authority have played a diminishing role, being replaced by strategy and vision in missiology.  What is believed has become secondary to methodologies. This has led, however, to a thinning out and watering down of the uniqueness of the gospel and the mandate of the Great Commission.  But what does it matter that we have great unity and polished techniques if our message is not the life changing Good News of “the faith once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3).

Hesselgrave writes, “There has been a decided shift among scholars away from inerrancy and in the direction of infallibility, with attendant changes in the way the Bible is translated, interpreted and communicated.”[30]

3) Socio-political concerns as related to the mission of the church.

It is here that the battle rages most hotly at this moment.  In 1974 Lausanne I addressed this issue at which John R. W. Stott “pronounced [a] shift in the direction of increased socio-political concern on the part of a sizeable segment of evangelicals,” but it left the issue to be resolved later.  Other conferences have since considered this matter but none has brought closure.[31]

Brian McLaren and the emergents have offered what he terms missional — “a generous third way,” between the conservative “personal Savior” gospel and liberal version of it.[32]  Historically however, the church has never been able to keep the “Social Gospel” and the Gospel of Redemption in balance for long, with the “Social Gospel” ultimately gaining prominence.  It is not insignificant that all of the conference organizers are already showing their hand, explicitly recognizing the social agenda as of equal importance with, or perhaps part of, the Great Commission.


Hesselgrave agrees with his friend Donald McGavran, who I might add did not always see clearly the biblical role of the church, who wrote, “What is needed in America and indeed around the world is a society of missiology that says quite frankly that the purpose of missiology is to carry out the Great Commission.  Anything other than that may be a good thing to do, but it is not missiology.”[33]

These men are correct.  If we are to rectify the Edinburgh error, rather than continue to expand on that error, we must return to the foundation of solid doctrine and pay careful attention to our commission given by Christ.  We must determine to do God’s work God’s way. What does Scripture have to say about the three major tensions that Edinburgh is seeking to address?

Cooperative evangelism?

While not on the subject of evangelism still we might learn a principle from an account facing the returning Jewish exiles in the book of Ezra:

Now when the enemies of Judah and Benjamin heard that the people of the exile were building a temple to the Lord God of Israel, they approached Zerubbabel and the heads of fathers’ households, and said to them, “Let us build with you, for we, like you, seek your God; and we have been sacrificing to him since the days of Esarhaddon king of Assyria, who brought us up here.”  But Zerubbabel and Jeshua, and the rest of the heads of the fathers’ households of Israel said to them, “You have nothing in common with us in building a house to our God; but we ourselves will build together to the Lord God of Israel, as King Cyrus, the king of Persia has commanded us” (Ezra 4:1-3).

Quite frankly we have nothing in common with those who preach another gospel.  Attempts at ecumenical unity with those who reject the cardinal doctrines of the faith do nothing to fulfill the Great Commission but go miles toward ingraining compromise within the people of God.  Big ecumenical conferences of the Edinburgh variety have the appearance of doing great things for God but serve more to weaken the church than to disciple the nations.

The nature of biblical authority and the importance of evangelical theology.

While lip service will be given to Scripture and theology, only Cape Town is adhering to a statement of faith and that is seriously compromised by everything from some of its plenary speakers to its organizers to its invited delegates. It is impossible to see as credible any adherence to the authority of Scripture and the prominence of theology when there is vast disagreement over the meaning of the gospel, the inspiration of the Bible and even the most basic and non-negotiable doctrines of the faith.

Socio-political concerns as related to the mission of the church.

Recently all branches of Christendom have placed on par the so-called Cultural Mandate with the Great Commission.  The Cultural Mandate carries the implication that as caretakers of the earth, mankind, including Christians, has been authorized by God to solve the socio-political problems facing the world.  With this presupposition the evangelical church is increasingly seeing the gospel as two-pronged – proclaim the good news of redemption in Christ and the good news that working together we can solve the injustices prevalent all over the globe.  Without denial of our role as stewards of God’s creation, the Cultural Mandate (once referred to as the Social Gospel) confuses the mission given to us by Christ and dilutes the resources to do what only the church has been called to do – tell people how they can be reconciled to God through Jesus Christ.

Much like Edinburgh 1910, the multiple conferences honoring its centennial have the potential to powerfully affect the church of Christ in general, and missions in particular, for years to come.  It will be of great importance for Christian leaders to pay attention to what will ultimately spring out of Edinburgh 2010 so that we can intelligently interact with the statements, papers and positions which will be forthcoming.


[1] www.gbgm-umc.org/global_news/full_article.cfm?articleid=5620.

[2] David J. Hesselgrave, “Will We Correct the Edinburgh Error? Future Mission in Historical Perspective” Southwestern Journal of Theology, Vol. 49 #2, Spring 2007, p. 122.

[3] Ibid. p. 123.

[4] Ibid. pp. 124-126.

[5] www.edinburgh2010.org/en/about-edinburgh-2010.html.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] www.edinburgh2010.org/en/events/other2010projects.html.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] www.edinburgh2010.org/en/about-edinburgh-2010/governance/general-council.html.

[12] www.edinburgh2010.org/en/events/other2010projects.html.

[13] www.bu.edu/cgcm/2010-celebrationsw/tokyo-2010/.

[14] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Yonggi_Cho.

[15] www.orthodoxherald.com/2010/02/03/wcc-edinburgh-2010-conference-in-june/.

[16] www.lausanne.org/news-releases/speakers-named-for-cape-town-2010.html.

[17] www.bu.edu/cgcm/2010-celebrations/cape-town-2010/.

[18] www.bu.edu/cgcm/2010-celebrations/2010-boston/.

[19] www.gbgm-umc.org/global_news/full_article.cfm?articleid=5620.

[20] www.bu.edu/cgcm/2010-celebrations/united-methodist-church/.

[21] www.bu.edu/cgcm/2010-celbrations/.

[22] www.gbgm-umc.org/global_news/full_article.cfm?articleid=5620.

[23] www.edinburgh2010.org/en/study-themes.

[24] www.lausanne.org/cape-town-2010/faq-programme.

[25] www.2010boston.org/about.

[26] www.2010boston.org/antioch-agenda.

[27] Hesselgrave, pp. 129-134.

[28] Ibid., p. 129.

[29] Ibid., p. 131.

[30] Ibid., p. 132.

[31] Ibid., p. 131.

[32] Brian McLaren, A Generous Orthodoxy ( Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004), p. 105.

[33] Hesselgrave, p. 136.


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