Missio Dei: A Journal of Missional Theology and Praxis 9, no. 1 (Winter–Spring 2018)

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Roland Allen’s Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s or Ours? [1912]

Linda Whitmer

Allen, Roland. Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s or Ours? American ed. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1962.

Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s or Ours? was first published over one hundred years ago, in 1912 (and a second edition in 1927), by Roland Allen (1868–1947). Since that time, authors have written volumes about methods of appropriate and “right” ways of accomplishing mission. The conversation was important then and continues to be argued and controversial today. Few scholars or ministers leave behind such an outstanding, persistent legacy, and Allen’s influence has only grown over the decades. While controversial at the time of its writing, the “rediscovery” of his work in the 1940s occasioned his greatest contribution to modern mission.

Allen grew into ministry during a time of both awakening and questioning in the Church of England and also among the newer evangelical movement. This was the time influenced by the expansive practices of John Wesley and the questioning practices of Charles Darwin. Allen’s mother, Priscilla, was the daughter of a Vicar of Awre in Gloucestershire and is said to have been a woman of strong evangelical conviction. Allen was orphaned at an early age but obtained an education at St. John’s College, Oxford, and at the (Anglo-Catholic) Leeds Clergy Training School. While at St. John’s College, he was near the Pusey house, a center for Tractarian research and study. In spite of his close relationship with R. E. Brightman and his future work with Thomas Cochrane and Sidney Clark of the Survey Application Trust and World Dominion, he continued to have difficulty with the Evangelical approach to the Bible. He held a high view of sacraments, which were a feature in Allen’s writings.

In 1892 he was ordained a deacon, and the following year he became a priest in the Church of England. As a priest in the Church of England, he served as a missionary in China with the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (SPG) in its North China Mission from 1895–1903. Later, while preparing to lead a new seminary in Peking (Bejing), Allen was trapped, along with other foreigners, in the Boxer Rebellion of 1900 until he was rescued by foreign troops, which he wrote about in The Siege of the Peking Legations (1901). Having returned to England on furlough, he married Mary B. Tarleton. With his wife and child, he returned to China, expecting a longer ministry. However, he soon became ill, and he and his family had to be sent home. Back in England, Allen took a parish where he served until 1907 when he resigned in protest. He objected to the church’s requirement that he baptize children whose parents were not practicing church members. He also objected to the practice of providing a Christian burial service for those who had not claimed Christ during their lives. During his tenure in China, he enabled the church there to exercise discipline among their own members, but in England the practice was completely different. Having officially resigned, which meant resigning his livelihood, Allen served on a volunteer basis and supported himself and his family by his writing and lecturing until his death in Kenya in 1947.

Allen was a missiologist long before the term was popularized. He was radical for his time, as well as radically shaped by his experiences in life, ministry, and education.

When Allen’s book was first published, it had little impact on the current missions community. However, in the 1960s, when the revised edition was released, it made a lasting impression on many. By stressing such things as finances and oversight, authority and discipline, his readers were challenged to examine their own agencies and missions.

The author methodically examines the nature of Paul’s mission strategy between AD 47 and AD 57 in particular. Allen asserts that as Paul worked through the four provinces of Galatia, Macedonia, Achaia, and Asia, he was satisfied with the work he had accomplished and that the missionary work he had intended to do was complete. In 2 Tim 4:6–8 (NIV), Paul says to Timothy, “It will soon be time for me to leave this life. I have fought a good fight. I have finished the work I was to do. I have kept the faith. There is a crown which comes from being right with God. The Lord, the One Who will judge, will give it to me on that great day when He comes again. I will not be the only one to receive a crown. All those who love to think of His coming and are looking for Him will receive one also.” Paul knew, of course, that there was much more work to do. Allen emphasizes, however, that we can surmise from the text that Paul saw his work as completed and was smoothing the way for those who would follow him. Paul seems to hope that his successors will be truly successful and not overshadowed by work that he has done. Allen spends much time in his text examining Paul’s role in inspiring and enabling the local church to be themselves without the oversight of outside supervisors.

The book is divided into five parts. In Part 1, Allen examines the context and conditions Paul faced. Many have previously argued that Paul’s success was due to advantages of birth, education, call, and his relationships to his hearers (4). Allen rebuts this argument eagerly by pointing out that Paul was not the only one using the method that he was using—establishing churches, empowering the local church, depending upon the Holy Spirit, and relying on local authority within the church. His disciples were also ministering in the same way with success. Allen continues to assert that Allen’s contemporary missionaries should have had a tremendous advantage over Paul in the printing press and the availability of the whole New Testament in many languages, where Paul had only the Old Testament in Greek. “It is only because he was a supreme example of the spirit, and power with which it can be used, that we can properly call the method St. Paul’s” (4). The argument that Paul had an advantage over contemporary missionaries does not hold up under scrutiny.

Chapter 3 addresses the assumption that the existence of a particular class of people to which Paul might have special appeal made a difference in his success. Allen asserts that although Paul’s pattern was to preach first in the local synagogue, then in homes of people of good reputation (23), “the majority of St. Paul’s converts were of the lower commercial and working classes, labourers, freed-men, and slaves; but that he himself did not deliberately aim at any class” (24).

Chapter 4 examines whether Paul’s converts had special advantage due to the fact that they were influenced by the Roman Empire. Allen’s conclusion was that they most certainly did not, due to slavery, the games, the temples, and the magicians, and all the spiritual evil connected therein (37). Paul’s converts were not advantaged and were born into a time when they were not better, and in some aspects were much worse off than Allen’s contemporary China and India (26). The impossibility of arguing that Paul’s converts were easily converted because of their class is clearly important to Allen.

Part 2 examines the miracles, finance, and the substance of Paul’s preaching. “Miracles are recorded of St. Paul in five towns in the four provinces” (41). Chapter 5 looks into the miracles connected with Paul’s work and determines that Paul did not use miracles to “induce people to receive teaching” (42). He also did not use miracles to convert people by working a miracle on them (43). Rather, miracles were used to gather crowds, comfort those who already believed, and to provide evidence of Divine confirmation of his message. “St. Paul’s miracles illustrated the doctrine of release, of salvation” (46). Allen concludes that it was not the miracles that mattered but rather the empowering Spirit of God who also provides contemporary missionaries with “powers sufficient to illustrate in act the character of our religion, its salvation and its love, if only we will use our powers to reveal the Spirit” (48).

Finance is the focus of chapter 6. Allen tackles a continually testy topic in addressing finances and examining how St. Paul and his contemporaries approached the matter. Allen asserts that (1) Paul did not seek financial help for himself; (2) that he took no financial help to those to whom he preached; and that (3) he did not administer local church funds (49). Allen addresses the concern that securing property can provoke local opposition; it can load missionaries with secular affairs; it can cause a misrepresentation regarding the missionary’s purpose for being in the area. “All men everywhere judge the inward spirit by the external form, and are attracted or repelled by it” (55). Bringing in materials from outside paupers the local people and makes it extremely difficult for the local people to succeed in the footsteps of the foreign missionary. Christianity is not an institution but a principle of life (55).

Chapter 7 details Paul’s preaching, which (1) appealed to the past from which this truth arises, (2) was a statement of facts of Jesus’s life, death, burial, and resurrection, (3) clearly answered the objections of the wisest minds of Paul’s listeners, (4) appealed to the spiritual needs and to the need for comfort and peace, (5) issued a grave warning that the rejection of God’s message comes with dire consequences (63). Allen was concerned that preaching in his time had lost much of the stern doctrine seen in Paul’s messages (70).

Part 3 approaches the training of converts. Allen asks, “How far was St. Paul’s success due to the teaching which he gave to his converts? And how far was his success due to his method of preparing his converts for Baptism and ordination?” (79). Chapter 8 characterizes Paul’s teachings as clearly providing facts concerning the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and having given converts the rudiments, they would, filled with the missionary zeal of the spirit of Christ, begin to “bring back lost souls to the Father” (93). Allen asserts that with this firmly in place, Paul would move on, expecting the churches to be self-propagating (94).

Chapter 9 explores the institutionalized acceptance and lengthy training of candidates for baptism. This was a heartfelt concern for Allen, since the topic was central to his resignation from formal priesthood in his earlier ministry.

Part 4 examines Paul’s practices in the area of established churches. Chapter 10 asks the question, “How far was St. Paul’s success due to his manner of exercising authority and discipline?” (109). Chapter 11 asks how he succeeded in maintaining unity. Allen notes that Paul’s exercise of discipline and authority is extraordinarily restrained. His typical approach was to appeal to logic and persuasive approaches, presenting facts and differentiating between his own view and that of the Lord. Allen asserts that Paul depended greatly upon the Holy Spirit’s role in the church’s application of his teaching. Allen recognizes the brilliance of this approach in that it requires the church to undertake responsibility for itself, noting “infants can only be taught truly by exercising their infantile faculties. Dependence does not train for independence. . . . St. Paul looked at his converts as they were by grace” (125).

Allen asserts that Paul did not preserve unity by transplanting rules from a central church in Judea, nor did he set up a central administrative authority over all churches. He declined to establish “a priori tests” of orthodoxy, and he refused to allow the universal application of precedents (131–33). Instead, he taught unity by taking it for granted and used his position as intermediary between Jew and Greek. He maintained unity by initiating and encouraging mutual acts of charity and encouraged constant communication (134–35). Paul allowed for learning and growing in the setting in which the fledgling church found itself.

Conclusions are offered in part 5. In chapter 12, Allen focuses on a sincere critique of the modern missions of his day. He observes three disquieting issues: (1) “everywhere Christianity is still exotic” (141) instead of being a natural and accepted part of the local community; (2) “everywhere our missions are dependent” (141), looking to foreigners rather than soundly existing on their own, and (3) “everywhere we see the same types” of foreign dependent churches (142) rather than seeing the church grown into a mature and self-descriptive independent community. Allen encourages, as a solution, two practices that he sees as underlying all of Paul’s practices: (1) that he was a preacher of the gospel, not of law, and (2) that he must retire from his converts in order to give a place for Christ. The spirit in which he was able to do this was the Spirit of faith. (148). When we believe in the Spirit, we teach our converts to believe. The Spirit will not disappoint. As our converts believe in the Spirit, they will be able to face all difficulties and dangers. “They will justify our faith” (150).

Chapter 13 sets out five clear applications of what Allen calls “rules of practice” (151). According to Allen, the key to successfully using the Pauline method is “the trust which begets trustworthiness” (152). Therefore, missionaries should always prepare for their own departure without setting up strict rights of succession, by working within the community of believers, allowing them to govern such things as finances, baptism, appointment of ministers and discipline within the congregation itself. Allen also asserts that operations of the congregations should be left increasingly in the hands of the believing community by extended travels and absences of the missionary. Since Allen ministered from a Church of England context, he was concerned about the absence of sacramental rites that the missionary’s absence would entail but considered the maturation of the church to be worth the cost.

Throughout his book, Allen points out unashamedly the contrast between the missionary methods he saw in his own day and those he found in St. Paul’s ministry. Allen was determined to present Paul’s principles and apply them to contemporary issues. He believed in the work of the Spirit and trusted the Spirit to succeed in all settings, to lead, to transform, and to grow the body of believers. Chapter 14 offers a final argument in the form of a narrative of two missionaries, one following modern methods, the other following St. Paul’s methods.

Allen himself acknowledged his critics’ two main points of contention: (1) “the gulf between us and the people to whom we go is deeper and wider than that between St. Paul and those to whom he preached”; and (2) “he could rely upon converts from the synagogue to preserve his churches from dangers only too plain to us” (vii). Allen pointed out that his critics clearly thought that what was possible for St. Paul was impossible for contemporary missionaries. While it is true that Allen’s writings had little impact on the mission agencies of his day, “his influence has been felt widely because of the way the fledgling Pentecostal missions movement adopted key Allen ideas.”1 His radical demand that nonprofessional believers be encouraged to take the worship of God, Eucharistic practices, and discipline out of the institution of the formal church and into their everyday lives and to express that ministry in local terms was an investment in trust, both of the people within the new church and of the Holy Spirit.

By his examination of St. Paul’s work, Allen sought to help missionaries break out of relationships of dependency.2 Regarding both finances and education, Allen paved the way for leadership of the local church to rise from the midst of the laity without depending upon foreign direction. “Once colonialism ended in the mid-twentieth century, one might assume that the principles espoused and explained by . . . Allen would become standard procedure. . . . In spite of lip service to their ideals, mission practice has lagged behind.”3 Wilbert Shenk attributed this to “the Anglo-American bent toward pragmatism and disdain for theory. In other words, this reflects a cultural trait that values action over reflection.”4

The handing over of church authority and responsibilities were radical ideas during Allen’s time. His pioneering thought has contributed to the trend not only of contextualizing in theology and church life but also in many other areas of ministry. One of those trends is partnering across the cultural and global boundaries of churches and mission organizations. It is no longer acceptable for foreigners to decide what is appropriate for the local church and hand it the answers. Nor is it fully acceptable to leave new Christians to develop their own church in their own way. Partnership of the magnitude we are currently seeing is only possible with today’s trends and technology.

Kenneth Scott Latourette famously dubbed the nineteenth century “the Great Century of Missions.” The twentieth century ended up being “the Great Century of Ecumenism” (or, if one were to be negative, “the Great Reversal” or “the Great Century of Secularism”). But the twenty-first century is shaping up to become known as “the Great Century of World Christianity” or “the Great Century of Partnership,” as Christianity has regained its status as a truly global religion with Two-Thirds World churches exploding in number (quantity) and developing in maturity (quality). This is why the four selfs are needed: self-propagating and self-sustaining contribute to their quantity; self-governing and self-theologizing are necessary for their quality.5

Churches and agencies can partner across cultural and political boundaries to uplift the church in a way that allows for each to speak into the expectations and needs of the whole. Expectations, including language, discipline, conflict resolution, finances, decision-making, mutual accountability, and theological distinctives can be discovered and shared in partnerships that edify the whole.

Allen’s contribution to current missiological theory may extend more from the fact that he was not a systematic theologian but a prophetic and inspiring scholar. Direct application of his suggested practices for new mission efforts, so clearly outlined in this book, have been few and far between, but his influence can be measured by the critical examination of best mission practices and careful attention to dependency issues seen so commonly in mission agency applications today. Allen’s simple and effective comparison and contrasting of his contemporaries’ practices lays the foundational methodology for today’s effective globalization of Christ’s church, inspiring both independent thinking and cooperation across boundaries.

Linda F. Whitmer, PhD, is the Dean of the School of Intercultural Studies at Johnson University, Knoxville, TN, and 2018 President of the Association of Professors of Mission. She earned a BS in Biblical Studies from Kentucky Christian University, an MA in New Testament Exegetical Studies from Johnson University, and an MA and PhD in Intercultural Studies from Fuller Theological Seminary. Linda served as a missionary in Zimbabwe from 1981–2002 and continues to volunteer with Pioneer Bible Translators and other organizations.

1 Wilbert R. Shenk, Changing Frontiers of Mission, American Society of Missiology 28 (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1999), 111.

2 See, e.g., Stephen Corbett and Brian Fikkert, When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor . . . and Yourself, 2nd ed. (Chicago: Moody, 2014), as an example of current trends in approaching dependency.

3 Robert Reese, Roots and Remedies of the Dependency Syndrome in World Missions (Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 2010), 35.

4 Shenk, 35.

5 Allen Yeh, Polycentric Missiology: Twenty-First-Century Mission from Everywhere to Everywhere (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2016), 216.