A Problem so Intractable that a Solution Has Never Been Offered (3rd of 3). Ralph D. Winter Proposes a Way to Recovery.

Dr. Ralph D. Winter suggested that first century Christians borrowed their two kinds of structures–congregations and missionary bands–from first century Jewish organizations—synagogues and havurot. Winter further suggests that the Roman Catholic pair of structures—diocese and monastic orders—is close to what is “really there” in the New Testament church. The Protestant experience, on the other hand, has, from its beginning, depended on one structure—the congregation—to carry out the mission of the church. Immediately, at the beginning of the Reformation three problems sprang up.

 First, a catastrophic mission ice age descended on the Protestant church.

Second, a great number of breaches opened between the leaders of the Reformation. We have to concede that unity is not one of the top five values of the Protestant movement. But before, say, “Oh well, not much we can do about this now,” let me bring to mind that our Lord Jesus Christ, while his disciples were still with him, prayed they might be one. “I ask not only on behalf of these but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one.” Dear readers, unity (without conformity) is not an impossible dream, and we do err in our obedience to Jesus our Lord if we feel no grief in this matter.

The third problem became apparent after two or three generations: there were a lot of nominal Christians sitting in the churches. This the Reformers did not foresee. How would true Christians find one another and edify each other? How would the church keep true to “the faith once for all delivered to the saints.”?

Summary. Resolving to live by these three ideals—unity, renewal and mission—is “the intractable problem” that has hobbled the Protestant movement since it began. “By cutting off the orders,” wrote Dr. Winter, “the Protestants gave up arms and legs and virtually putting unity, renewal and mission out of reach.” Winter offers a solution “within reach,” that is a new appreciation for the two structures of God’s redemptive mission. Winter writes:

William Carey’s Discovery. Thus, it was very important when an unlikely village schoolmaster-preacher-cobbler fought his way out of this impasse and bequeathed to succeeding Protestant Christendom what was, in effect, the reinvention of the Catholic-originated “wheel.” I refer to the brilliant and awesomely determined young man named William Carey. It may someday be acknowledged that his tightly reasoned essay, An Enquiry into the Obligation of Christians to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathens, has been the most influential, single piece of literature in the worldwide expansion of Protestantism since the Reformers. Over the next twenty-five years a number of agencies formed in imitation of Carey’s Baptist Mission Society. Protestants suddenly sprouted the organizational arms and legs that were not only to carry them around the world in the extension of their fiath, but also potentially to rebuild and renew their home traditions from within.

Healing the Breach. The Reformation—that well-known schism between the Romanized and the Northern European, non-Romanized populations—was both inevitable and in some senses beneficial. In any case, Protestants unwittingly created another and even more significant internal “schism” deriving from and resulting in a truncated view of the church. This schism was the result insofar as the Reformers conceived of an overall church structure getting along nicely without any voluntary sub-communities. Protestant foreign mission societies finally surfaced, and there are by now more than 600 in North America. [1] Church administrations in America have somehow not yet fully resolved their relationship to such structures. This leaves us with a Protestantism plagued on the one hand by denominations and churches that won’t maintain their vitality, and on the other hand by associations that, if rejected by the denominations, are no longer accountable to them. Thus, for Protestants certain important principles seem to emerge:

1. There must be renewed commitment to Church that acknowledges both the incompleteness and yet the authenticity of each denomination or local church as part of the una sancta.

2. At the same time, there must be recognition of the very real dependence of the modalities upon the sodalities. The family based, mainly genetically perpetuated structures called congregations or denominations (modalities) need to work with and appreciate the more selective, second commitment, purposive voluntary structures of fellowship and service (sodalities). Perhaps if the sodalities were more accountable to the modalities, they would not tend to be ignored or fought against.

3. Equally, there must be a reciprocal renewal of respect and responsibility toward the denominational traditions on the part of the voluntary societies. This means that the Protestant order-like enterprises, especially which are not related to any denomination, must be willing to reinforce the benefit-of-the-doubt structures (congregations and denominations) which all too often they now abide with subconscious condescension. Moreover, staff membership in such a Protestant “order,” be it Navigators or Wycliffe Bible Translators, should not obscure that person’s relationship to his/her own denominational affiliation. Indeed, there is, for example, nothing preventing those staff members of the Navigators who are simultaneously members of a, say, Presbyterian denomination from drawing a dotted line around themselves and their work and sending a formal annual report of what could be called “the Presbyterian Navigators Fellowship” to the Presbyterian General Assembly.

4. Finally, Protestants must accept the example of the Roman Catholic graduate level preparation programs (“priestly formation”) for the leadership of both arms of the Catholic tradition—diocese and order. This means that the voluntary societies must come to terms with what has become the near-universal standard of a graduate theological seminary education as basic for a good proportion of their leaders. This pattern of education not only has considerable intrinsic value but, as it is adopted more extensively by the para-church agencies, will expand the foundation upon which respect and communication between church and order can be built. At the same time, the seminaries must modify both their course structure and their very perspective of the history of the Christian movement in order that the role of the Protestant orders may emerge and gain proper visibility in academic currency. END

[1] Blincoe: According to the editors of the North American Missions Handbook, there are about 1200 North American-based foreign mission societies in 2020.