Ralph D. Winter Addresses Three Christian Problems: Unity, Renewal, and Mission. Part 2

Ralph D. Winter wrote on the topic “Three Church Problems: Unity, Renewal and Mission.” Winter introduced the topic in this way:

As a fairly narrow Presbyterian seminary student, one of the first shocks the writer experienced was to encounter Baptist Kenneth Scott Latourette’s statement that, for all intents and purposes, the early band of highly evangelistic Methodist circuit riders adhered to characteristically Roman Catholic vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. This disturbing thought germinated and, along with other broadening influ­ences, eventually wreaked havoc with my typically Protestant limitations.[1]

Winter then writes:

It was the beginning of an intellectual pilgrimage in which the writer would eventually come to see the emergence of the Protestant mission society as a parallel to the Roman Catholic order, despite the fact that it is viewed as a major, yet somehow “foreign,” structure within the Protestant stream of history. He would come to see the Protestant mission society as unintentionally and, unfortunately, the basis of a veritable “schism” not often confronted and analyzed structurally, an internal strain in Protestantism between church and parachurch organizations which profoundly frustrates the contemporary tasks of renewal and unity as well as mission.

Winter theorized that these problems could be addressed if Protestants took advantage of the superior organizational relationship between congregations and voluntary (parachurch) societies operating in the Roman Catholic tradition. Protestants, in their favor, restored the doctrine of justification by faith; yet all is not well; the biblical commands for Christian renewal, unity and mission are almost out of reach for Protestant churches. This problem is “not often confronted or analyzed structurally,” Ralph D. Winter wrote.

Who is Ralph D. Winter?  He studied engineering at Cal Tech in Pasadena, then theology at Princeton and Fuller seminaries. He earned a PhD in linguistics from Cornell University, then lived as a missionary for ten years in Guatemala. Invited by Donald McGavran to join the faculty in the Fuller Seminary School of World Mission, Winter taught missions history for ten years. In 1976 he and his wife Roberta founded the US Center for World Mission in Pasadena. I was Winter’s doctoral student in the PhD program at William Carey International University.

Winter analyzed the three problems structurally, giving credit to the “enviable synthesis” achieved in the Roman Catholic tradition. Catholic bishops govern Catholic congregations, but there is a second kind of Catholic organization that men and women can join. It was this second kind of organization—the communities of men or women who pledge to one another to live a Christian life—that has enabled the Catholic church to rather effectively address the biblical mandates of Christian renewal, unity and mission.

Wesleyan Bands of Men and Women. Ralph D. Winter points admiringly to the example of “Wesleyan bands of men and women” as a starting place for Protestants who want to resolve to live a Christian life with like-minded people. The reader can find out more about the Wesleyan bands of men and women from an online article by Robert Hargitai here. Hargitai writes:

At the heart of the (50-year) revival accompanying the life of John Wesley and transforming England as a whole there were groups of different kinds developed by him for varying purposes. Wesley’s followers, who were nicknamed “Methodists” because of these and other methods, belonged to the Church of England at the time (until Wesley’s death), and usually attended its worship services. Wesley arranged them in societies that roughly corresponded to our churches and were mainly places for (practical) Bible teaching. But Wesley knew that this is not enough, we have to go down to the level of deeds (it is often the primary level of learning), or even deeper if possible. Therefore, every member of the societies was, at the same time, a member of a “class” of 10 to 12 people. These classes were mixed as to age, spiritual maturity, gender, marital and social status. Those who wanted to walk more closely with God formed “bands” of 4 to 6 members of the same sex and status as well as mentoring pairs and spiritual twins. Most of the work was done in these small discipleship groups, the members of which were accountable one to another about their lives and sins, prayed for each other and encouraged one another to love, good works and holiness, avoiding theological disputes. They examined the teachings of the Bible in light of their personal experience, while new leaders were born and equipped for ministry. Each kind of group met at least once a week. Their meetings were characterised by an atmosphere of trust, confidence, and encouragement, especially in the case of the smaller groups. Wesley learned these methods from his parents (primarily his mother), and these groups functioned without considerable modifications from the early 1740s until about 50 years after his death. (As far as I know, nowhere are they used today, not even at places where they are said to be.) When George Whitefield grew old, he allegedly regretted that he had not used these methods, so most of the fruit of his labours had been lost.[2]

The Wesleyan bands of men and women show us how Christian renewal might be more than a wistful aspiration in our day. (Other Protestant examples will follow in the next blogs.) Christians need to feel the inspiration of the Holy Spirit to form themselves into new bands of men and women in our day. Christian renewal, unity and mission languish for lack of communities of men and women pledging themselves to one another to live a Christian life.


[1] Protestant Mission Societies and the ‘Other Protestant Schism’.” In American Denominational Organization Pasadena: William Carey Library, 1980.

[2] Robert Hargitai’s history of the Wesleyan bands of men and women. http://www.hivo.hu/wcsoport_e.html