What Happens When Apostles Disagree?

by David J. Hesselgrave

A comparison of the missiology of four men—Donald A. McGavran, Carl F. H. Henry, John R. W. Stott, and Ralph D. Winter.

First-century apostles faced troubled times within as well as without their churches. The very first missionary conference had to do with a divisive theological issue—the true nature of the Christian gospel (Acts 15:1-29). A short time later there was a contentious rift between the kindly Barnabas and the younger Paul over missionary strategy (Acts 15:36-41). Somewhat later, Paul openly censured the Apostle Peter in the church of Antioch for conduct unbecoming a Christian (Gal. 2:11-14). In spite of—and because of—controversies such as these, mission of the early Church moved forward. The Church today no longer has apostles in the more restricted sense of the word. I am using the word in the broader sense of “missionary”—in the sense in which Barnabas was an apostle, and in the even broader sense in which two theologians whose commitment has resulted in almost incalculable contributions to the missionary cause might be thought of as apostolic. It is my observation that, although times have changed considerably, human personality has not changed. Today’s “apostles” sometimes disagree among themselves at any given time and even within themselves with the passing of time.

In this essay, I will deal with four men—two missiologists and two theologians—who have made outstanding contributions to missionary theory and practice in the past century. My reasons for selecting them will be obvious. My reason for selecting their often conflicting proposals is perhaps somewhat less so. But that will be dealt with in the conclusion below.

Donald Anderson McGavran
As a mission strategist, Dr. Donald McGavran was one of the premier missionary missiologists of the twentieth century. Originally, he went to India as an educational missionary.  After becoming acquainted with Methodist Bishop Waskom Pickett and his studies on mass Christian movements in India, McGavran’s thinking changed. He became known as the “Father of Church Growth.” Then, after painful disappointments with a lack of concern for the “two billion” (unreached peoples) on the part of ecumenists (see Petersen and Petersen 2000, 110) and certain proposals inimical to “Great Commission Mission” on the part of evangelicals, his thinking underwent further change.

A refined commitment to the “high view of scripture.” In 1974, McGavran dispelled some lingering doubts about his view of scripture when he wrote that the words of the Bible are “the words of men, but also the words of God.” He also insisted that this high view of scripture has profound and practical missiological implications. First, it means that biblical understandings are not limited by the understandings of the ancient times in which they were written. Second, it means that

intelligent discussion of cultures and Christianity must be accompanied by a clear statement of whether or not the speakers believe in the inspiration and authority of the scriptures….[and also] Their doctrines of revelation and inspiration must be stated before their pronouncements can be evaluated.” (McGavran 1974, 52)

A restricted view of the nature of biblical mission as having to do with evangelism and church growth. From the time of his later ministry in India, McGavran’s commitment was to “Great Commission Mission”—to “finding, feeding, and folding lost sheep.” Sub-orthodox theology is the enemy of this kind of mission, but it is not its only enemy. A view of mission that is too broad is also its enemy. Accordingly, in his monograph “Missions Face a Lion” (McGavran 1988b), McGavran speaks of two very different streams or groups of missionaries: one that holds that Christian mission consists of discipling men and women in segment after segment, caste after caste, class after class of society; a second that holds that mission is helping men and women of all religions and all segments of society to live better lives. McGavran then asks whether the Great Commission is primarily evangelism or efforts to “improve human existense" (McGavran 1988b, 5). His own answer is unequivocal and unambiguous—mission is primarily evangelism.

A renewed commitment to the indispensable linkage between sound theology and authentic missiology. Ultimately, McGavran became convinced that the only theology that will sustain Great Commission Mission is a theology that takes very seriously biblical teachings having to do with the lostness of humanity, the uniqueness of Christ, the necessity of conversion, the “perfecting” of the saints, and the establishment of churches that are truly Christian. With that in mind, he proposed that “evangelical professors of missions need to establish a nationwide organization called openly and courageously “The American Society of Christian Missiology” (McGavran 1988a). The Evangelical Missiological Society was the result, and apart from McGavran’s urging and support, it may never have come into being.

Carl F. H. Henry
Dr. Carl Henry was principally a Bible scholar and theologian, not a missiologist. But he had a deep and abiding interest in Christian missions and world evangelization that found expression in a variety of ways, including his writings. Early on in his ministry, Henry authored The Uneasy Conscience of Fundamentalism, a clarion call for social concern on the part of evangelicals (Henry 1947). He never wavered on the need for social concern, but with the passing of time, he became increasingly concerned that evangelicals were gradually losing their grip on divine revelation and, as a result, both their influence in secular society and their commitment to world evangelization.

Local churches as the present loci of the Kingdom of God. Just a year before he chaired the Berlin Congress on Evangelism (1966), Henry published The God Who Shows Himself, in which he addressed certain crucial mission themes. For example, far from affirming that God is carrying out “kingdom mission” in society in a way—and perhaps to a degree—that he is not carrying it out in his Church, Henry wrote that “the closest approximation of the Kingdom of God today is the Church, the body of regenerate believers that owns the crucified and risen Redeemer as its head” (Henry 1965, 88). According to Henry, the church’s mission is to evangelize the world. The Church’s problem is that many of its own members are unregenerate, and most others are not taking the Great Commission seriously (Henry 1965, 102).

Paganism in Western cultures and churches. In Henry’s Twilight of a Great Civilization, he used the kind of terminology and writing style calculated to impact lay believers and unbelievers alike. He spoke of the arrival of “new barbarians” who equate success with material goods, sex, and status, rather than with the values of the Sermon on the Mount. He spoke of these “new barbarians” as being present not only in secular society, but in the Church itself. He even spoke concerning the relapse of the Church into a kind of “paganism” where the truth of God, the authority of scripture, and the power of redemption have been lost. And he accused the Church of being preoccupied with the changing of social structures when it ought to be burdened for the evangelization of the world.         

A plea to recover “Christian belief.” Most revealing of the mind and heart of Henry during his declining years was Toward a Recovery of Christian Belief: The Rutherford Lectures, a series of lectures originally given in 1989 at Rutherford House, a research and publishing center in Edinburgh, Scotland (Henry 1990). From Henry’s perspective, Christian scholars have all-too-often retained Christian principles only piecemeal, and in so doing have sacrificed basic Christian doctrines to the point where neo-paganism routinely leaves its mark on Western learning. Two things are now needed: “a resurgence of interest in systematic theology and a growing awareness of the need for more theological depth, including clear and credible doctrinal directives” (Henry 1990, xi). Henry envisions little hope for a society that attempts to build civilization on godless foundations—or for a church that attempts to fulfill its mission on any basis other than the word of God.

John R. W. Stott
Dr. John Stott has generally been considered to be pretty much in step with American evangelical missionary thinking. Samuel Escobar, however, categorizes his missiology as being “post-imperial” and in doing so clearly seems to be setting Stott’s missiology apart from much of North American missiology (Escobar 1991, 328). Perhaps so. But I rather think that in more recent years North American mission thinking itself has been changing and may not now be significantly different from that of John Stott in certain critical areas. However that may be, Stott does espouse inerrancy (Edwards and Stott 1988, 102) and actually devotes more attention to exegetical concerns than do many of his American contemporaries.

“Holism”—a revised understanding of the Great Commission. Following the World Congress on Evangelization in Lausanne (1974), Stott announced that he had changed his mind concerning Christian mission in general and the Great Commission in particular. Previously, like a majority of evangelicals, he had believed Matthew 28:16-20 to be the most crucial statement of the Great Commission. Subsequently, he had come to believe John 20:21 (“As the Father has sent me, so send I you”) to be the most crucial statement and that, by using the words “as” and “so,” Christ deliberately made his mission the model for our mission. This means that, as it was with Christ when he was on earth, so it is with us today that social (or socio-political) service is a more or less co-equal partner with evangelism in biblical mission. As further elaborated in Christian Mission in the Modern World, Stott’s holism preserves a “certain priority” for evangelism and is to that degree “prioritistic” (Stott 1975, 23-35).  

“Conditional immortality”—a revised understanding of judgment and hell. When and how Stott came to believe as he does about certain end-time events that intimately relate to Christian mission is not at all clear. At any rate, in his dialogue with David Edwards in the late 1980s he stated his belief that New Testament passages concerning hell are not to be understood literally, but rather symbolically as banishment from the presence of God. He then proceeded to make a case for “conditional immortality,” according to which eternal life is given to penitential believers only and, therefore, only believers are immortal. He rightly insisted that this is not annihilation as such, but cessation of existence (Edwards and Stott 1988, 315ff). Nevertheless, conditional immortality raises serious questions that must be pondered by both theologians and missiologists.

“Apologetic agnosticism”—revised thinking concerning still other “hard teachings” in biblical missiology. The phrase is mine. In using it, I mean that Stott takes a more or less “soft” approach to certain questions emanating from without as well as within our missions: namely, the state of the unevangelized and the millennium question. Concerning the fate of the unevangelized, Stott describes his position as “agnostic but hopeful” (Edwards and Stott 1988, 20-29).

Again, although he speaks with great clarity concerning the kingdom implications of premillennial, amillennial, and postmillennial eschatologies, he does not speak with the same kind of precision when it comes to articulating his personal position (Edwards and Stott 1988, 306-312). This approach to hard questions is not without a certain appeal and many will allow for it. Whether or not the Bible itself will allow for it is another question.  

Ralph D. Winter
Few missiologists are gifted with the versatility and creativity of mind possessed by Dr. Ralph D. Winter. His contributions to missionary thought and effort have been nothing short of phenomenal. All of us are in his debt, and I more than most. It was in that frame of mind that I welcomed an invitation from Winter to participate in a small consultation to be held October 23-24, 2006, in Techny, Illinois, to consider a “crucially deeper understanding of God’s will in this world” (Winter 2006a).

An earlier view of the Great Commission and the mission of the Church. Winter is well known for his long-time advocacy of what McGavran called “Great Commission Mission.” That view was reflected in The Twenty-Five Unbelievable Years 1945-1969; expressed in his plea to “reach the unreached” at Lausanne in 1974; and occasioned a leading role in the World Evangelization by A.D. 2000 and Beyond movement. In 1998, he had expressed it in the following words:

The future of the world hinges on what we make of this word “mission.” Yet at this moment it is almost universally misunderstood—in both liberal and conservative circles. About the only people who still think of mission as having to do with preaching the gospel where Christ is not named, with being a testimony to the very last tribe and nation and tongue on this earth, are the often confused people in the pew. (Winter 1998, italics his)

The evolution to a radically different view of Christian mission. Less than a decade after those words were penned, invitees at Techny were encouraged to study and evaluate Winter’s “radically new interpretation of the Lord’s Prayer and the Great Commission” (Winter 2006b). How did it come about? Only Winter knows. But the facts that his gifted first wife Roberta and WCIU board chairman and friend Kenneth Mulholland both had succumbed to multiple myeloma—and that Winter himself had contracted both that disease and also Lymes Disease—must have been factors. More than that, over time Winter had come to believe that the twentieth-century missionary enterprise witnessed two reductionisms of an earlier, more robust, socially involved evangelicalism. One was liberalism. The other was the church-centered, other-worldly gospel of saving souls that was propagated by the evangelical Bible school and missionary movements. Winter became convinced that a gospel and mission such as that is not sufficient in the globalized and educated world of this twenty-first century.

The essence of Winter’s new “kingdom mission.” No abbreviated explanation of Winter’s sophisticated and comprehensive new view of the nature of Christian mission could do it justice. It follows the entire storyline of scripture from Genesis to Revelation, but with less than usual emphasis on the mission and message of the Apostle Paul. At its heart is the cosmic struggle between a wholly good Creator God and a powerful, but wholly evil Satan. As revealed in the petition of the Lord’s Prayer, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth,” our mission is a kingdom mission focused on this world. The Christian mission requires that we meet basic human needs for education, food, water, medicine, justice, and peace. As is evident in the Apostle John’s assertion that Jesus was sent to “destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8), our mission is to continue his earthly mission by undertaking the kind of organized research and enterprises that combat evil in all its forms—violence, injustice, poverty, environmental exploitation, drug-trafficking, and disease—even efforts aimed at the restoration of vicious animals to their original non-carnivorous state, and especially efforts aimed at the eradication of disease-bearing microbes. In this way, Christians extend God’s rule in the world, participate in the transformation of society, render the Christian gospel believable, and make world evangelization possible. All of this is to the ultimate glory of our good and gracious Creator and Redeemer God.

Certain caveats are in order here. More recently, Winter indicated that he should not have used the words “radically new” in his Techny invitation. He also gave up the idea of a “Fourth Era” superseding previous eras of modern missions (Winter 2008), including the Third Era, which aimed to complete the Great Commission by reaching unreached people everywhere.  Again, although our war against evil clarifies God’s glory, it does not complete it. Winter did not assume that human effort will abolish evil, only that “the gates of hell will not prevail against it.” Completion of the kingdom awaits the return of Christ. It is he who will “wipe away all tears from their eyes.”

After nailing his theses to the door in Wittenberg, Martin Luther was warned that discussion and disputation could be expected. Reportedly, Luther’s reply was, “That’s what I had hoped. Out of discussion comes truth” (Barr 1950, 116). First-century apostles did not only debate with unbelievers on Mars Hill and in the school of Tyrannus, they sometimes discussed and even disputed with each other. Obviously, twentieth and twenty-first-century “apostles” have not always agreed with each other, either. All of that is to be expected. Truth as revealed by the Holy Spirit is absolute. Truth as contemplated by humankind is relative. The important point to be made here is that out of discussion (if not disagreement) comes truth. The outstanding missiologists/theologians whom we have considered in this essay are sometimes at odds with each other when it comes to such basic mission issues as the kind of authority resident in the Bible, the relationship between Church and kingdom, the relevance of the Second Coming to mission, the fate of the unevangelized and unbelievers, and even the very nature of the Christian mission itself. We do them an injustice when we do not take them with sufficient seriousness to place their proposals on the agendas of our mission enclaves. We do fellow members of the Body of Christ a disservice when we do not encourage them to exercise their calling, priesthood, and gifts in open discussion of these ideas. Most important of all, we dishonor our Lord when we do not collectively bring notions and ideas so crucial to Christian mission first to the throne of God for grace and then to the word of God for affirmation or correction.

Someone says, “Why risk dissension and discord by engaging in discussion and debate?  We probably won’t agree anyway!” Perhaps not. But if not, there is still tremendous value in the discipline of measuring our human conjectures by the standard of divine revelation! Anyway, when and where was it decided that the unity for which Jesus prayed and the world waits is first a unity of love and only secondarily a unity of truth? Jesus prayed to the Father,

Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be sanctified in truth. (John 17:17-19)

Truth and love belong together. If the objective is not truth, the motivation is not love.

Barr, Gladys H. 1950. Monk in Armour. Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon-Cokesbury.

Edwards, David L. and John Stott. 1988. Evangelical Essentials: A Liberal-Evangelical Dialogue. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity.

Escobar, Samuel. 1991. “Evangelical Theology in Latin America: The Development of a Missiological Christology.” Missiology: An International Review 19(3): 315-329.

Henry, Carl F. H. 1947. The Uneasy Conscience of Fundamentalism. Grand Rapids, Mich.:  Eerdmans.

_______. 1965. The God Who Shows Himself. Waco, Tex.: Word.

_______. 1988. Twilight of a Great Civilization. Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway.

_______. 1990. Toward a Recovery of Christian Belief: The Rutherford Lectures. Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway.

McGavran, Donald A. 1974. The Clash Between Christianity and Culture. Washington, D. C.:  Canon.

_______. 1988a.  Personal letter to David J. Hesselgrave. April 7.

_______. 1988b. “Missions Face a Lion.” Manuscript in the possession of David J. Hesselgrave. A version of this manuscript was published as “Missions Face a Lion” in Missiology: An International Review 17(3): 335-356.

Petersen, William J. and Randy Petersen. 2000. 100 Christian Books that Changed the Century. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books (Fleming Revell).

Stott, John R. W. 1975. Christian Mission in the Modern World: What the Church Should Be Doing Now. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity.

Winter, Ralph D. 1970. The Twenty-Five Unbelievable Years 1945-1969. Pasadena, Calif.: William Carey.

_______. 1998. “The Meaning of ‘Mission’: Understanding this Term Is Crucial to Completion of the Missionary Task.” Mission Frontiers Bulletin 20:33-34.

_______. 2006a. “Introduction.” October 23.

_______. 2006b. Personal letter of invitation from Ralph D. Winter to David J. Hesselgrave, August 26.

_______. 2008. “Seven Men, Four Eras.” Lecture delivered at the U.S. Center for World Mission, March 11.


David J. Hesselgrave is professor emeritus of mission at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois. He is co-founder (with Donald A. McGavran) of the Evangelical Missiological Society. Most recent among his published books is Paradigms in Conflict: 10 Key Questions in Christian Missions Today (Kregel, 2005).

EMQ, Vol. 46, No. 2, pp. 190-197. Copyright  © 2010 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS).  All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS. 

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