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Latin American Voices Address the Global Church

Do not let institutions become more important than people,’ cautions Ruth Padilla DeBorst at Cape Town 2010 Congress.

CAPE TOWN, SOUTH AFRICA, 22 October 2010 –Theologian Ruth Padilla DeBorst of Costa Rica urged some 4,200 theologians, pastors and Christian leaders gathered in Cape Town this week from 198 countries not to allow ‘denominational and institutional preoccupations to become more important than people.’ She also warned against placing undue confidence ‘in nations, military or economic power, big-church budgets, or successful business ventures.’

Speaking to what is reported to be the most diverse gathering of Christians in the history of the Church, Ruth Padilla DeBorst set out a vision calling for the Church to function as ‘welcoming communities that tear down the walls of self defence, security, and prosperity that our greed, pride and prejudice have built.’ She defined this new formation of welcoming community as Pax Christi, which, in her words, is ‘a community brought together by God’s reconciling will, in Christ, and sent into the world by the power of God’s Spirit to incarnate God’s good purposes for the entire cosmos.’

The official title for the eight-day, invitation-only event, is Cape Town 2010, The Third Congress on World Evangelization. The first Congress was held in Lausanne, Switzerland, in 1974 and convened by Dr Billy Graham. The second followed in Manila in 1989.

Locating the 2010 Congress in South Africa is significant for a number of reasons. Since the first Congress, Christianity has ceased to be a ‘Western’ religion. In 2010 approximately 60 percent of all Christians live in Asia, Africa and Latin America. By 2025, it is predicated that 70 percent of Christians will live in the Global South.

Roughly 50 percent of those attending the Cape Town Congress are from Africa and Asia. In this regard, these diverse contingents, along with others from the Global South, are participating on ‘home turf.’ This new reality expressed at the Cape Town Congress conveys its own message to the world.

South Africa’s move from Apartheid has served as a backdrop to Ruth Padilla DeBorst’s words. The personal story of this 48-year-old Christian theologian and mother of six adds particular poignancy to her message. On 18 September 1997 she witnessed the murder of her husband, Neal Eldrenkamp, in the outskirts of Quito, Ecuador. Thieves approached to steal their family car and Neal handed over his keys. As he stood with his son Jonathan in his arms, the armed men suddenly delivered several rounds with one bullet directly entering his heart. He died instantly, with Ruth watching, while still seated in the car with their young daughter Luana.

Ruth Padilla DeBorst is one of only six international speakers chosen to deliver a Bible exposition on the Congress theme ‘God in Christ reconciling the world to himself.’ In her address, Ruth declared that ‘Jesus Christ himself is our peace.’

Seated among the audience was her 78-year-old father, Dr René Padilla, an Ecuadorian theologian and pastor who lived and worked in Argentina for many years. René Padilla delivered a keynote address at the first Lausanne Congress in 1974. An article appearing in the 5 August 1974 issue of TIME magazine referred to his message as ‘one of the most provocative speeches of the Congress. According to TIME, Padilla ‘assailed the sort of easy Christianity the US has often exported.’ Padilla, ahead of his time in ‘74, argued ‘A gospel that leaves untouched our life in the world … is not the Christian gospel, but cultural Christianity adjusted to the mood of the day.’

When asked about the messages emanating from the Cape Town 2010, Dr Padilla said ‘I am thankful that we can now talk openly about the social dimension of the gospel.’ Referring to the relationship of evangelism and social responsibility, Padilla recalled the analogy once given by his longtime friend, British theologian and churchman John Stott. Aged 89 and a lifelong bird watcher, John Stott advocates that proclamation of the gospel and the social dimension of the gospel go together like ‘two wings of a bird.’

René Padilla remarked that the level of disquiet he received in 1974 was rather intense. Given the climate of Cape Town 2010, it would appear that things have clearly changed.

While taking part in a panel focusing on Latin America, René Padilla articulated three priorities facing evangelicalism in particular, and the Church as a whole. At the top of the list is what the senior statesman calls ‘true discipleship, modelled after the original disciples of Christ.’ His other concerns, seen as interrelated and of equal importance, are globalization, which he claims breeds an unjust economic system, and the stewardship of God’s creation.

Describing what it is like to see his daughter address the Congress, Dr Padilla said ‘proud’ is not the right word, ‘I am just thankful to God for what he has done in her life.’ He added that ‘Ruth’s mother is the one to be credited for much of Ruth’s passion to live out the gospel in the here and now.’ Dr Padilla’s wife passed away in November of 2009.

Ruth Padilla DeBorst is General Secretary of the Latin America Theological Fellowship. It might be said her words represent something of a corrective tone for various expressions of the Church in Latin America - and elsewhere - which now promote a theology of prosperity and material wealth. There are 24 multiplex sessions and some 160 dialogue groups functioning as part Cape Town 2010. They explore a range of issues like prosperity theology, globalization, creation care and Christian interaction with people of other faiths and traditions.

On the final day of the Congress, The Cape Town Commitment will be launched. Work on this statement of belief has been ongoing for several months leading up to the event. Its call to action is being formed out of the Congress discussions. The Commitment stands in the historic line of The Lausanne Covenant (1974), widely regarded as one of the most significant documents in recent Church history.

According to Congress organizers, ‘The Cape Town Commitment is not intended to replace The Lausanne Covenant, which remains a classic creed from the past providing clarity and direction for today and tomorrow.’

 The Cape Town Congress concludes on Sunday, 24 October. For more on the Congress and to listen to Ruth Padilla DeBorst’s address log onto www.lausanne.org

William E. Jefferson