Ralph D. Winter's Warfare Missiology
Compiled from Ralph Winter's writings by Beth Snodderly
I once stated my understanding to Ralph Winter that the over-arching vision within the projects of the Frontier Mission Fellowship is to see all unreached peoples reached with the gospel and the kingdom to come among them. In an address to his staff he asked: What is missing in this statement? Then he went on to explain what he meant.
I clearly recall the situation over 30 years ago as I labored mightily to explain the concept of unreached peoples to the global conference in Switzerland. It was not such a difficult concept, but it was different. It was new. It was not something already in peoples’ minds. It was hard for them to accept the concept and know what to do about it.
Why are the Unreached Not Reached?
Today, more than a quarter of a century after our founding, I am trying to explain another different and new concept that needs to be understood and adopted by the whole world of missions. This concept looks at the root problem: why are the unreached in this condition of spiritual darkness?
Conflict with Evil
All my life I have assumed that the big tension is between human beings and God. Since Adam fell out with God, his entire lineage has been estranged and needs reconciliation through the blood of Christ. But the larger picture is that the biggest tension is not between humans and God but between vicious, hideous plotting evil and God, and humans were created to be on God’s side in that conflict with evil.
“The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8).
I think we need to speak of four levels of strategy and purpose, whether in reaching the unreached or in evangelizing within our own culture:
Level 1: Getting people “saved”
Level 2: Winning them to the Lordship of Christ and into His family
Level 3: Glorifying God
Level 4: Fighting “the works of the devil” as a means of glorifying God, that is, understanding the lordship of Christ as involving us in an all-out war against evil, disease, corruption, a war in which we can expect suffering, hardship and death.
Confusion about Evil Being from God or Not
A major obstacle in reclaiming God’s glory is that much of the evil in this world is not known to be evil, but merely “the way things are,” as if God created things that way. Furthermore, where there is confusion about whether evil is from God or not, our power in evangelism and missions is greatly weakened.
An example of our confusion about what is evil and what is not is how we view the pervasive violence and suffering in nature. Unlike Luther and Calvin, we now know that nature includes all of the invading viruses, bacteria, and parasites.
Many shrug their shoulders and say that’s the way God created it. The violence at both the microbiological and visible levels in nature is accepted as being God’s will.
Yet in the very first chapter of the Bible both the animal life and humans mentioned there are clearly described as non-carnivorous, meaning they don’t kill each other (Genesis 1:29). In the future, that will also be the case when “the wolf will live with the lamb, … the infant will play near the hole of the cobra and the young child put his hand into the viper’s nest. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” (Isaiah 11:8, 9).
Violence in Nature is Not God’s Plan
The lack of an explanation for pervasive violence keeps thousands of intelligent people away from faith. If we are to glorify God, is it essential to free Him from the accusation that He, not Satan, is the author of evil? A great deal of evil in this world is blamed on God. How attractive is our invitation to people to return to and yield to their Father in heaven if they continue to believe he is the one who contrives for most everyone to die in suffering? Unless Satan is in the picture and we are known to be fighting his deadly works, we are allowing God’s glory to be marred and torn down.
To understand how we have come to the place of attributing violence in nature to God, it is necessary to go back to Genesis 1. If I can help people clear up a longstanding misunderstanding of the first chapter of the Bible, I hope they will be able to see that once we are saved, our mission is to participate all-out in an onslaught against Satan and his works, not just lie back and await heaven.
Problems with Some Interpretations of Genesis 1:1, 2
All my life until recently I have assumed, along with most casual readers of Genesis in English, that Genesis 1:1 refers to the creation of the universe, and this would then have been fairly recently. Meanwhile, however, during my lifetime thousands of intelligent observers have been studying the earth and have continued to dig up bones of huge violent creatures that seem to have lived a very long time ago. Even in my teens my Scofield Reference Bible had taken this apparent age of the earth into account by concluding that there was a gap between Genesis 1:1 and 1:2. Today, however, that “gap” theory is seldom mentioned. There are problems with believing that when God created the universe He began with a situation that could be called “destroyed and desolate” (Genesis 1:2, Hebrew: tohu wabohu).
More often people have gone to “long days.” They have concluded that the six days of creation were longer than 24 hours, perhaps millions of years. However, for me the chief problem in inserting all of the old earth into the long days of Genesis One is that most of these old bones we have been digging up are bones of shockingly vicious and life-destroying creatures. If they were what were being created in those elongated days, then, why would Genesis One repeatedly say, “and God saw that it was good”? Or why would we read at the end of the chapter that neither man nor beast is carnivorous but is plant eating?
The problem in interpretation here becomes so severe that in recent years many have decided to simply deny that there is any great age to all the millions of old bones that have been dug up. To proponents of the “Young Earth” theory, the bones only look old, and things like the Grand Canyon did not take many years to form, but were formed almost overnight as a result of a global flood.
However the “Young Earth” concept is the laughing stock of the entire secular world simply because evidence is growing stronger every day that the old bones we have dug up really are old. What I am suggesting here actually accepts the events of Genesis 1 and 24 hour days of (re)creation as being only 6,000 years ago—as well as the “old earth” before Genesis 1:1. But notice, whether the Earth is both old and young or either old or young, if one interpretation is presented as the only possible meaning of the Bible, and turns out to be wrong, then the world will label the Bible wrong rather than the interpretation. This happened with Calvin and Luther who thought the Bible taught that the earth is the center of the universe, and scientists have claimed the Bible is wrong ever since.
God Inspired Humans to Write within Their Cultural Context
Thousands of intelligent investigators all over the world, Christian and non-Christian, have concluded that the earth is old, not just six thousand years old. If they are right the question arises, “Does that indicate that the Bible is wrong?” We surely don’t believe the Bible was dictated by God, as has been alleged for the Muslims’ Qur’an and the Mormons’ Book of Mormon. We believe our Bible was written by human men inspired by God to write for human understanding in their time and place. That is why it behooves us to understand Bible times if we want to really understand the Bible and do it justice.
It is very likely that at the time the book of Genesis came into being people did not know they were living on a round ball hanging in space. When they said, in Isaiah 49:6, “to the ends of the earth” they were talking about their own known world. When they talked about “the whole world” they were talking about the world they knew, not about the entire planet. When they said the flood covered the world they were not talking about the entire planet. The ark thus contained all the animals in that area of the world to be destroyed, but not all of the other animals in the world, and certainly not dinosaurs 100 feet long weighing many tons.
Implications for Mission
Now the reason this issue is important to me and to a better understanding of the Christian mission is simple. If in a vastly earlier period of time before Genesis 1:1, Satan turned against God and distorted God’s good creation into the incredible suffering and violence we still see all throughout nature, if Satan has from that time been the perverter of microbes into deadly germs such that all forms of life suffer from microbiological attack—if all this occurred before Genesis 1:1—then the events of Genesis chapter one may well display the relatively recent recreation of plant-eating animals and humans in their original God-designed form, and can be seen as a new beachhead intended to assist in the defeat of Satan and the restoration of all creation.
However, Genesis explains that almost immediately thereafter, Satan (who already had a long crime record) also penetrated Eden and brought down the newly created humans and the new beginning of undistorted animal life. Ever since, humans and animals have been born genetically perverted along with all the rest of nature. As a result, the new forms of life created in God’s image in Genesis 1 are victims of Satan and now have dire need themselves to be saved before they can work effectively with God in the defeat of Satan.
The Turning Point in the Battle between Good and Evil
The Cross was then the turning point in the battle against Satan. The Bible says, “The Son of God appeared for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8). Jesus had a job to do; he dealt a definitive blow against Satan, but the war isn’t over yet. Jesus said, “as the Father sent me, so send I you.” The immense tragedy is that the entire Christian world has been significantly duped by Satan, and has only vaguely understood this larger mission. The war against evil and against things that tear down our understanding of God is still going on. All over the earth people are dying prematurely in suffering and pain due to an onslaught from the microbiological world which we are only beginning to understand and which no one has understood theologically. It is not God that is inflicting the casualties but the enemy. Let’s not be confused about that and inactive in that war!
Join the Battle!
Gregory Boyd has said, “To follow Jesus is to do battle with the ever-present prince of darkness.” (Boyd 1997, 280) It is not a coincidence that the unreached areas of the world where the Bible has had the least influence overlap with those areas where there is the most suffering, disease, war and poverty (Myers 1996): the works of the devil. A medical missionary to India from 1939–1969 wrote in his journal, “this kingdom of disease, death, ignorance, prejudice, fear, malnutrition and abject poverty is most surely a kingdom which ought to be overthrown by the Kingdom of our God.” (Rees 2003) The Kingdom began striking back when God gave the Great Commission to Abraham in Genesis 12:3. As Abraham’s children, we have inherited the family responsibility of God’s concerns and purposes which are to become our concerns and purposes. It is not to seek high pay or perks, but the war that must be won! Our lives and careers need to yield to that reality.
Boyd, Gregory A. 1997. God at War: The Bible and Spiritual Conflict. Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity Press.
Myers, Bryant L. 1996. The New Context of World Mission. Monrovia, CA: MARC.
Rees, D. Ben, ed. 2003.Vehicles of Grace and Hope: Welsh Missionaries in India 1800–1970. Pasadena: William Carey Library