Critics of the “Two Structures” Theory Express Their Objections (1st of 5)

With all these smart and well-known critics, maybe I should close my laptop and go back to whittling soap bars into the shape of ducks.

Ralph D. Winter theorized that there are “Two Structures of God’s Redemptive Mission”:

1) What we normally call churches (congregations of faithful Christians and their administrative structures)

2) Missionary bands (such as Paul’s missionary band).

Both structures form a single living cell and relate to one another to make what we call Christianity. Were there only one structure, Christianity would be damaged, as history cautions.

The Holy Spirit brought both structures into existence at the beginning of the Christian era. The book of Acts and Paul’s letters tell the story of how the missionary bands established the first Christian congregations. Missionaries established a church in Antioch. Paul and Barnabas made this church their home, but their mission to establish churches in “the regions beyond” meant they were traveling much of the time. In summary, the Holy Spirit brought into existence two kinds of structures, one stable (such as the Antioch church) and the other mobile (Paul and Barnabas’ missionary teams).

But critics express the opinion that the New Testament validates only churches/congregations and their administrative structures. These critics include Roland Allen,[1] Harvie Conn,[2] Orlando Costas,[3] George W. Peters,[4] Paul A. Beals,[5] J. H. Bavinck,[6] J. Eckhard Schnabel[7] Bruce Camp [8] and Mark Dever. We will let them speak for themselves in the next several blog posts. They are very smart. Maybe they will persuade reader to agree with them. Maybe the reader will agree with them when they say, “If only the church were rightly organized we would not need the mission agencies.” If Christianity is only churches as we normally think of churches, then I predict a coming mission ice age, one like I wrote about here.

I will try to heal the breach that has opened between church administrators and mission agencies. Repair this breach! Send ten times as many missionaries to “the regions beyond! If you can think of another cause as exciting, you will have to tell me, because I cannot.

Repair the breach by studying the Bible. Paul and Peter repaired the breach when they met in Jerusalem and reached an agreement, recognizing two structures, one administrated by the church where it already exists, the other administrated by the mission leaders who are working to establish churches in the regions beyond. Paul and Peter shook hands at their meeting in Jerusalem. We wrote about it here. There is good ground for believing in a biblical basis for the Two Structures theory, as we wrote about here.

Repair the breach by studying history. Christianity advanced to “the regions beyond” by means of independent missionary teams. Before there are churches, among unreached peoples, missionary teams must go first. Your church may share its building with a Spanish speaking congregation or a Korean speaking congregation. This is a blessing, but this is not the same as establishing congregations among, say, Afghan refugees who arrived in your city in 2021, or the Somali refugees who arrived 20 years ago, or the Muslim or Hindu students attending the nearby university. Afghans are unreached peoples, as are Somalis and Muslim and Hindu university students. The church is totally unable to establish churches among these unreached peoples. That is why the Holy Spirit sends missionary teams where there are no churches. The church is a lighthouse and its light extends to all who turn to it. But a missionary team carries flint in their backpacks to go “where people live in darkness.” Before there is a lighthouses, there are missionaries striking the flint in the dark. Read about Lighthouse and Flint here. Mission agencies exist prior to churches. The Holy Spirit sends missionaries ahead. Eugene Teselle wrote that “before there is a ‘local’ ministry in the churches, there is an ‘itinerant’ ministry by which churches are founded and by which they are edified in an ongoing way . . . Mission has an original authority in the Christian church.” [9]

Missionary teams established churches in the book of Acts. Paul and his missionary band established churches in, for example, Lystra, Derbe and Philippi. Prisca and Aquila established a church in Rome and Epaphras established a church in Colossae. Before there were churches in Lystra and Derbe and Colossae there were missionary teams. Someday there will be churches among Afghanis in your city and in their homeland. When that glorious day appears, ask, “How did this miracle happen?” The answer is the same for the Afghans as it was for the Irish or the Christians in Lystra and Derbe: The Holy Spirit sent missionary teams (with flint in their backpacks!) to establish Afghan churches and appoint elders.

Unfortunately, Roman Christians have imitated the first Jewish believers, who spread the good news, “but only to the Jews” (Acts 11:19). This was a catastrophic failure of our Lord’s great commission. But what about Christians today? Ninety-nine percent of all Christian mission is simply spreading the good news “only to other Christians.” The Bibles says this is “too small a thing. I will make you a light to the Gentiles, that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth (Isaiah 26:6).

74% of Christian missionaries work in Christian churches overseas

Spreading the good news only to other Christians is mission that churches can do. If this is the totality of mission, we will continue to congratulate ourselves on doing mission, without asking, “Are we spreading the good news to unreached peoples, or to reached peoples? More about that here. It will take a special missionary effort to expand Christianity to unreached peoples. That is the special work of the Holy Spirit, setting apart some Christians to live their lives among strangers. In a non-Christian country, such as India or any of the 40 Muslim countries, missionary teams are the obvious forms of Christian advance. In America the church will not establish churches among unreached Muslims and Hindus who have moved into our cities. This is the special work of independent missionaries.

We study the Bible to understand the two structures of God’s redemptive mission, to see if this theory is really there. But sadly, something hardened in the hearts of church leaders in the second century of the church. Bishops began to see themselves as champions of church order and defenders of correct doctrine, as if these were the sum of duties of the shepherds of the church. You can read this in the six letters of Ignatius. By the third and especially by the fourth centuries church leaders concentrated all their efforts on arguing theology, dismissing one another from membership, and endlessly battling for peace, unity and purity of the church. Blincoe: If the Holy Spirit is not sending missionaries, it the so-called church a true church? Church history became the history of Christianity in the Roman Empire, which meant they neglected the mission to “the regions beyond.” one prominent Christian, the poet Prudentius, actually wrote, “Romans and barbarians are as distinct from one another as are four-footed beasts from human beings.” [10]. Is it any wonder that non-Romans showed little interest in becoming Christians?

Critics say that the local congregation is God’s embassy to the world. Uh-oh. That is what Luther believed. Calvin too. A mission ice age descended on the Protestant churches right at the beginning of the Reformation. At last, when William Carey wrote an instruction booklet on how to assemble mission agencies, the ice age came to an end, as we wrote about here. But enough reminders of what I have written. Here is what critics say:

  • George W. Peters: “It must be stated, however, that they [mission societies] are not of Biblical origin, for they are not divine institutions of the same order as churches[11] . . . mission societies are a historical abnormality.”[12]
  • Roland Allen said as much in a chapter called “Missionary Organizations” when he maintained that the Early Church was itself a mission agency.[13] “The organization of missionary societies,” Allen wrote, “was permitted for the hardness of our hearts, because we had lost the power to appreciate and to use the divine organization of the Church in its simplicity for the purpose for which it was first created.”[14]
  • Orlando Costas asserts that the success of “nonchurch” structures—his term for independent mission agencies—is God’s judgment on the church and a sign of the church’s failure to be the church.[15]

In the next several blogs we will consider the objections to Ralph D. Winter’s theory, “Two Structures of God’s Redemptive Mission.”

Next: Critics of the “Two Structures” Theory–J. Eckhard Schnabel’s Objection Considered

Previous: “In this Corner . . . ” Two Reformed Theologians Express Differing Opinions on the Great Commission and the Validity of Mission Agencies.


[1] Roland Allen, The Spontaneous Expansion of the Church and the Causes Which Hinder It (London: World Dominion Press, 1927).

[2] Harvie M. Conn, Theological Perspectives on Church Growth (Nutley, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1976), 122.

[3] Orlando E. Costas, The Church and Its Mission: A Shattering Critique from the Third World (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 1974), 159-67.

[4] George W. Peters, A Biblical Theology of Missions (Chicago,: Moody Press, 1972), 226.

[5] Paul A. Beals, A People for His Name: A Church Based Missions Strategy, Rev. ed. (Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 1985), 111-36.

[6] Johan Herman Bavinck, An Introduction to the Science of Missions (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1960), 60.

[7] Eckhard J. Schnabel, Early Christian Mission, 2 vols. (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2004); Paul, the Missionary: Realities, Strategies and Methods (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2008).

[8] Bruce Camp, “A Theological Examination of the Two-Structure Theory,” Missiology 21, no. 2 (1995). And “Scripturally Considered, the Local Church Has Primary Responsibility for World Evangelization,” in School of Intercultural Studies (La Mirada: Biola University, 1992).

[9] Eugene TeSelle, “Church and Parachurch: Christian Freedom, Ecclesiastical Order, and the Problem of Voluntary Organizations (Unpublished),” (Nashville: Vanderbilt University, 1994). This essay was originally prepared for a research project on “the church and the groups,” initiated and conducted by Eugene TeSelle, Professor of Systematic Theology in the Divinity School, Vanderbilt University; the consultation at which this essay and the essay by Darrell L. Guder, referenced in the next paragraph, were presented and discussed took place at Vanderbilt in September 1994.

[10] R. A. Fletcher, The Barbarian Conversion: From Paganism to Christianity, 1st American ed. (New York: H. Holt and Co., 1998) p. 390

[11] Peters, A Biblical Theology of Missions, 229.

[12] Ibid., 214.

[13] Allen, The Spontaneous Expansion of the Church and the Causes Which Hinder It, 97.

[14] Ibid., 161.

[15] Costas, The Church and Its Mission: A Shattering Critique from the Third World, 168. On page 162 Costas is critical of Ralph D. Winter, “The Planting of Younger Missions,” in Christian/Mission Tensions Today, ed. C. Peter Wagner (Grand Rapids: Moody Press, 1972).