The World Evangelical Alliance officially handed over its top leadership position to Bishop Thomas Schirrmacher on Saturday, with the new secretary-general and CEO of the global organization of evangelical churches detailing what it means to be evangelical.
Speaking from a studio near the city of Bonn in western Germany for a 90-minute live-streamed event to honor the leadership handover, the 60-year-old Schirrmacher listed in his speech essential beliefs that hold the otherwise diverse movement of over 600 million evangelicals together.
“We believe in the Resurrection of Jesus and we believe in Pentecost where the Holy Spirit filled the believers, the members of the Church,” said Schirrmacher, who studied theology in Switzerland and the United States but now lives in Germany.
Some may say these events “did not happen” or do not need to have happened in real history, he continued. But “we [as evangelicals] stand for the historicity of our faith. Jesus did receive new life from His Father, the Holy Spirit did fall on the believers,” he underlined.
He also suggested that evangelicals “do not believe in this because we think of it as something confessional [or] something specific [only] we believe in.”
“Rather,” he explained, “we think it’s the DNA of Christianity, that we owe everything to what Jesus did and what the Holy Spirit does.”
Schirrmacher, the founder of the Martin Bucer European Theological Seminary and Research Institutes, which has campuses throughout Europe, was unanimously affirmed as the WEA’s next secretary-general by the WEA International Council last October. He will replace Bishop Efraim Tendero, who served for decades as head of the Philippine Council of Evangelical Churches.
In his speech, Schirrmacher described the Bible as the “confession of the Church” that stands above everything and everyone. He pointed out that the very idea of a paper document — rather than a person — having ultimate authority originated in the Old Testament, where the Torah was regarded as higher than even the king.
“We are proud to have a Paper Pope because the Paper Pope assures that none of us, including me, are above the Word of God,” he said. “We all submit to the Word of God; no one is above it.”
Schirrmacher said this foundational principle and conviction also allows a diversity of traditions — from Calvinist Reformed to Pentecostal and Charismatic — to unite in one movement.
Evangelicalism also essentially put emphasis on missions and sharing of the Gospel message, he added, quoting the opening line of the 2011 joint document on “Christian Witness in a Multi-Religious World” produced by the WEA, the Roman Catholic Church and the World Council of Churches.
Schirrmacher had been serving as the WEA’s associate secretary-general for theological concerns and chair of WEA’s Theological Commission. He also served as the network’s ambassador for human rights. He is also president of the International Council of the International Society for Human Rights.
He said that “all churches agree now that mission is the very being of the church.” However, some Christian traditions may not be putting it into practice as much as evangelicals often do.
The WEA leader said religious freedom and concern for persecuted believers have been integral to the evangelical movement from the very beginning.
“In 1846, the World Evangelical Alliance was the first-ever large religious body speaking up for religious freedom,” he explained. “And that meant speaking up against state churches and against Christian nationalism.”
Religious freedom, Schirrmacher clarified, is not simply a political principle. He said it is integral to the understanding of God’s love and His desire to be in a relationship with the humans He created.
“God Himself wants to be loved, wants us to trust Him, wants our life,” he said. “He does not want us to pray to Him because we are forced or because someone paid us or somebody cheated us. He wants our very trust, our very heart and our very love. And love is something that cannot be forced.”
Schirrmacher concluded that the WEA is a movement that strives for unity within evangelicalism, but stressed that “if we want to bring the Anglicans, the Pentecostals, the Reformed, the Salvation Army, all those groups in our midst together, we can only do it around the DNA of Christianity.”
“And we are open to any other church outside of our movement to join us in those points of the DNA, and so we hope that wherever possible to extend our vision to many other churches in this world,” he stated.
Ending his speech, Schirrmacher requested prayers from evangelical leaders who joined the online event from every region of the world, representing the nine regional and 140 national Evangelical Alliances that make up the WEA.
“I am privileged to serve the World Evangelical Alliance. I know all of us are sinners. We are under the one Holy Scripture, which defines when we fail in what we do. And so I am deeply convinced that it is only the prayer of millions — and the prayer of close friends who might know me more closely — that makes it possible to take over a task which is too big just for one human being,” he said.
Outgoing Secretary-General Tendero said he and Schirrmacher partnered together through the WEA Senior Leadership Team for several years.
“I saw in him the charisma, competence and capacity that is matched by the character, conviction and calling from God that are needed for such a global task,” Tendero said. “I have full confidence that he will lead the WEA as empowered by the Holy Spirit in advancing the Good news of the Lord Jesus Christ to all nations, and effecting personal, family and community transformation for the glory of God.”