Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Silence of Paul On Evangelism, Part 2: Passages Which May or May Not Be About Evangelism

One of the more reasonable responses I have received as a result of my post, The Silence of Paul On Evangelism has been the many verses and biblical passages people have either hit me with me or kindly asked my opinion on. So I thought it would be helpful to put all of them and my responses to them all in one place. My hope is to impress upon you the seriousness with which I take these concerns and the seriousness with which I look into the Scriptures...unless we are talking about the Song of Solomon...because I am prone to giggle when reading it.

Matthew 28:19-20

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold I am with you always, to the end of the age.

This is the biggie. This is the passage to trump all passages. It is after all the "Great Commission." Indeed it is the only commission. It is sort of repeated in Luke and while it is in Mark, the earliest Manuscripts do not include it so it was most likely added later and not original. In Acts 1:8, we have something similar with more specific geography added; Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth.

There are a lot of different views on the "Great Commission" and how it is to be interpreted. There is no need to get into those. Mainly because I think it requires a painful stretching of the passage to walk away from reading it thinking you need to accost the unwitting unbeliever with his need to repent and believe as he walks along the beach with his dog. In fact, throughout church history - actually up until a couple hundred years ago - this passage was one of ecclesiology more than missiology. It was seen as more about the church than it was about missions or evangelism. Think about it. Making disciples by baptizing and teaching them has always been in the context of communal church life, that is until post-enlightenment individualism. To use this passage as the trump card for us being required to practice what is nowadays called "personal evangelism" is running roughshod over the text with the heavy weight of prior assumptions.

However, I am happy to agree that some kind of evangelism must be in view here. But I would suggest this is in the context of people joining a church - a community of faith where they would be baptized and taught.

My great question, which many have already told me they did not appreciate is this, "Why is such a great commission never repeated in the teaching of the Apostles to the churches? I mean, if it is great...?

Romans 10:13 - 15

For "everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved." How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent?...

This is one of the more popular passages sent to me in response to my assertion that Paul has not commanded the lay person to evangelize. Let me say two things in response.

First, there is no command here. Soooo, this actually proves my point and in no wise refutes it.

Second, there does seem to be a description of the need for people to hear the gospel. I agree with this wholeheartedly. However, this is a description of a vocational preacher/missionary being sent out to preach the gospel. It's really pretty simple to see this is vocational ministry being described here and not personal evangelism. To assert the need for personal evangelism based on this text would do violence to the text and Paul's subject in chapters 9 - 11.

Let me say clearly how much I love this text. I love it as one who loves the preaching of the gospel and one who preaches the gospel. Please do not assume otherwise based on my assertion that this is not a passage about personal evangelism.

1 Thessalonians 1:6-8

And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you received the word in much affliction, with the joy of the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia. For not only has the word of the Lord sounded forth from you in Macedonia and Achaia, but your faith in God has gone forth everywhere, so that we need not say anything.

Is this a passage about the evangelistic efforts of the Thessalonians? Maybe. But we would be hard-pressed to say for certain this is in view. In the context, it hard to not see that their faith in the midst of affliction is famous to some degree. Paul has heard a "report" (v.9) about how their faith has affected them. This is pretty clear. Beyond that we can say two things for certain.

First, again there is no command here. Perhaps there is an example of evangelism here but there is no command. Outside of a command, we should not be commanding evangelism as law because of an example of someone else doing it. This would the height of legalism.

Second, certainly their is an evangelistic quality about this passage. The Thessalonian believers' faith was extraordinary enough for others to take notice. This might be a clue as to what we should possibly be doing and how we should be living...a life of peculiar faith in the gospel.

Ephesians 4:11

And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry.

This one is pretty easy. God has given the church - the saints - various kinds of people. One of those people is an evangelist - someone who proclaims the gospel. Now I am going to go out on a limb here and say, we need to possibly question what this means. In other words, have we fashioned this title, 'evangelist' after the image of evangelists over the past 200 years? Has the influence of Revivalism dictated the way we read this? I wonder. Regardless, we do not have a command and we have only particular kind of person named, those who are set aside to proclaim the gospel.

Eph. 4:15

Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him, who is the head, into Christ..."

The preceding verses and those which follow make it clear this passage is about Christians, those who are part of the "whole body" (v.16) growing in their faith and part of growth is speaking the truth into each other's lives and doing so in love. Again, no command here to evangelize.

Eph. 4:25

Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak truth with his neighbor, for we are members of one another.

This verse is the best (worst?) example of not reading a passage in context. Those who sent this one to me obviously had "let each one of you speak truth with his neighbor" in view. "Aha! Here we have at the least an encouragement to speak the truth about Jesus to those people closest to us!" No so fast, out-of-context-verse-quoting man. This is a passage about not lying to each other and specifically to those who are "members" of the body of Christ most likely (3:6; 5:30).

1 Corinthians 1:21

For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did know God through his wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe.

I had at least two people send me this one. Two things:

First, this is clearly a passage about Paul's apostleship and his defense of his ministry which was being derided by false teachers. No one argues with this. This is not about your need or my need to evangelize. This is about Paul, first and foremost.

Second, we can learn something about preaching here. Preaching. let me say it again. PREACHING. This has always been about the perceived folly of preaching the gospel and never about the need for personal evangelism.

2 Corinthians 5:11

Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade others, But what we are is known to God, and I hope it is known also to your conscience.

This again is Paul defending his apostleship against the false allegations of the 'super apostles' who would have the church at Corinth disregard Paul's gospel. Also, this is an example again of a vocational minister of the gospel talking and not telling others to evangelize. Do I sound like a broken record yet?

2 Cor. 5:20

Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.

Ummm, how do I say this. I know! By repeating all I have said before.

This is not a command for anyone to evangelize.

Paul is an Apostle and therefore a vocational minister of the gospel.

Paul is defending his ministry.

Sorry for the sarcasm.

1 Peter 2:9

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.

This in fact may be the best verse for those who would disagree with me. While there is not a command here - which must be admitted - there is the force of one here for certain. It is very possible that Peter has in view here something evangelistic when he uses the word 'proclaim.' If someone wanted some justification for ignoring me, this may be the verse to help them.

But there is also the possibility of seeing more here. There is nothing of persuasion or calling for decisions here. In fact, the idea of unbelievers being converted does come till later in verse 12. The idea there is that believers would live a certain way with the hope that "Gentiles.... may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation." This seems the most natural place for Peter, an Apostle and one who has certainly practiced evangelism to a great extent - for him to tell them who to evangelize and how. But he doesn't. He says proclaim to no one in particular and live honorable lives among Gentiles.

We need to keep in mind no modern-day writer on evangelism would ever be so vague as to leave us in the sinful position of wishing the Holy Spirit would have given Peter a little more inspiration here.

The crazy thing is that Peter goes on and talks about how everyone is supposed to live among unbelievers and no talk like evangelism is alluded to at all. You would almost expect it but it is not there.

Also, it is telling that we generally translate ξαγγέλλω as 'proclaim.' We are used to hearing proclaim all the time in the NT. And it is usually about telling others about the gospel, usually through preaching. However, the greek word we have here is a different one. It is only used in the Greek NT once. Now what does it mean? Well, it means 'proclaim', 'show forth', 'declare,' and 'publish.' OK, sounds good. But is this not what we do every time we gather together, when we pray together, when we talk of what God has for us and been for us in times of trouble.

So either this rules out evangelism or it gives us a different (bigger) vision of what it might be.

Or it may not be about evangelism at all. Regardless, we would be hard-pressed to make this the trump card in calling people to actively pursue what we call "personal evangelism."

2 Timothy 4:5

As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.

In this passage we have a clear command for a person to evangelize. Finally. And yet, Paul makes it clear this command is for Timothy as a minister/pastor. He starts by saying, "as for you" and finishes with "fulfill your ministry." Without a doubt this command is reserved for Timothy here. In two letters, Paul gets very specific about what Timothy ought to teach his people. And Paul, when he discusses the need for the work of evangelism to be done, he reserves his command for Timothy. This should tell us something. Consistently people have suggested to me that evangelism would have just been assumed by the Apostles and the believers in the churches they started and ministered to with their letters. I have one question...

If evangelism was assumed, why did Paul command Timothy to "do the work of an evangelist"?

Was Timothy more likely than the average church-goer to forget to do it? Was he more timid than everyone else? Did Paul assume everyone else would evangelize their neighborhood and young Timothy would neglect these things? If we answer 'yes', why was he pastoring these people if he was forgetful to the point of needing a direct command when it was just taken for granted that everyone else would be doing this? Paul commanding Timothy to do the work of an evangelist should kill the argument of evangelism being an assumption understood by everyone who received a letter.

This is my second post on evangelism and let me reiterate something which has been lost on a number of people. I am not against evangelism. Do I need to say it again? I am not against evangelism. What I am wanting is to answer the question, "Why does Paul and no other Apostle command evangelism by the church-goer?" It's a fair question if only because it is based on something that is true - there is no command following the "great commission" by an Apostle in the New Testament.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

The Silence of Paul On Evangelism

I've been mulling over this post for awhile. The consternation, confusion and conflagration of angry comments which might result have made me wonder at the wisdom of it. Well, I decided to go ahead. The subject is too important. And I can only imagine that while it may anger some, there are plenty of people like myself who will find some freedom here.

Ok. Here it goes.

A few weeks ago I heard someone say something to the effect of, "You cannot/shouldn't consider yourself a Christian if you are not sharing your faith/practicing evangelism." And it really got me to thinking. Something felt wrong about it. But I couldn't put my finger on it.

On one level this sounded right. It accorded with almost all I had ever heard growing up in the midst of evangelicalism. So it sounded right or at least familiar. But something about the statement just 'felt' really wrong. It felt wrong as a fact. (Like saying the capital of Alabama is Birmingham.) And it felt wrong morally. (You should look down on everyone who does not live in Birmingham.)

So I quickly went through Paul's letters to the churches in my mind as much as I could. Could I think of a place where he commands the members of these churches to share the gospel - to tell unbelievers about the gospel? I was pretty shocked to not be able to think of any place where he does anything like this.

Nothing was said, of course. But I filed it away in the front of my mental filing cabinet. My mental filing cabinet is grey, if you must know. Nixon administration grey.

Over the next few days I looked into the Epistles. Really, I thought I would find something. I mean, all the importance we place on evangelism and the urgency we show in preaching and teaching and writing on it, should show up in Paul, right? RIGHT?

I found nothing. Zilch. Nada. Zip.

Paul never commands the ordinary believers who belong to the churches to evangelize. There is no call for sharing your faith. There is no call for witnessing. He never even encourages it. And he never rebukes them for not doing it. He tell them to stay away from orgies and practice kindness and to live quiet lives but no commands to evangelize are present.

Paul describes his own desire to do so and he defends his apostolic ministry of doing so and he commands Timothy to do the work of an evangelist. He also tells us there are such things as "evangelists" in Ephesians 4. But he never talks as if the carpenter, the shepherd, the soldier, the fisherman or the wife of any of these is called to evangelize.

I know, I know...there is the 'great commission' given by Jesus. In only 2 of the 4 Gospels. Never repeated again. By Paul. Or anyone else ever in the Scriptures. Why is it called 'great' again? I mean everything Jesus has said and commanded is technically speaking 'great.' But I mean, if it is so absolutely 'great', why is it never repeated by Paul or John or Peter or James or Jude. Before you get upset with me, the designation 'great commission' did not come from on high. Jesus did not call it 'great', someone else did.

Stop. Right now there are 2 kinds of people reading this? The freaked out and the ticked off.

Let me address the freaked out first...You doing OK? Stop. Take a breath. What? Of course you can quit EE. Hm? Yes, I was a little freaked out also. No, you do not have to tweet about this, you will lose a lot of followers.

OK, all who are angry...What have I said to make you angry? I have not said, "You should not tell other people about what Jesus has done for us." Have I? At least not yet...just kidding. You really need to calm down. All I have done is point out an indisputable fact.

Let me say it again. It is an indisputable fact that there is no command by any of the Apostles in their letters to the churches to evangelize. You may not like this fact. You might assume nefarious reasons behind my pointing this fact out. But you cannot deny the fact while there are many varied commands in the NT for the ordinary believer, there is no command to evangelize.

"So what?" you might ask? Here are my initial thoughts:

1) The way we talk about evangelism is certainly out of proportion to the way Paul or anyone else in the NT talked about it. We act as if it is the litmus test of being a Christian. If it was - if personal evangelism as we know it - was a litmus test for being a believer in the gospel, ummm, wouldn't Paul have admonished his people to do it? We talk about it as if it is the THE THING for Christians to do while on earth. "Sure, we are glorify God and all that but the best way to do it is to tell every living breathing soul who just wants a quiet flight to the ATL." Maybe it is not.

2) We have got to quit guilting and bullying people into doing cold evangelism. It feels weird and wrong and inconsiderate to almost everyone. There are a few who feel comfortable walking up to strangers and talking to them about Jesus but they are the exception. They are not more spiritual, they are just the exception. Maybe the reason why they are the exception and the reason why so many do not like walking up to strangers simply to talk to them about their sinfulness and need for salvation is because - wait for it - we have not been asked to do such a thing. Perhaps it is not part of the Spirit-led DNA. Regardless, beating up on people for their not evangelizing enough is totally out of sync with the NT.

3) It may be that our present philosophy of evangelism stands in direct opposition to the explicit, repeated and unwavering command to love people. In other words we are terrible at loving one another, our enemies and even our own family members. I know it. You know it. And God knows it. If we actually loved people -wives, husbands, children, minorities, democrats, republicans, lefties, ugly people, the obese and the socially awkward - perhaps, just perhaps you would never have to walk up to someone and tell them about Jesus. They would walk up to you. And then you could simply explain why you want to be a loving person. "Hey man, you asked!"

4) We tend to think the greatest thing we can do with the gospel of grace we have in Jesus is tell people about it. Why is that? Paul seems to think the greatest thing we can do with the gospel is believe it. Believe it in the midst of tragedy. Believe in the midst of beautiful Spring days when all is right with the world. Believe it on your death bed. Believe it when your sin is huge. Believe it when your heart is hurting. Believe it. Hang onto it. Never let go of it. Believe no matter what, if you are in Christ, you are loved beyond all comprehension. You cannot sin yourself out of his love and grace and mercy. You are loved, you who believe the gospel. Persevere in your belief. You are saved unto life everlasting because of what Christ has done. This cannot be undone. Believe the gospel. Believe.

5) There is no folly in assuming the NT writers and those whose records are recorded there really wanted people to hear the gospel and believe it. This is a safe assumption. However, we need to think deeply on why they do not talk about evangelism the way we typically do in Western Christianity. Do we assume we care more than Paul about evangelism? Peter? John? We should probably think long and hard about all of this. I know I need to. Our being so out of step with the tone and content of the Scriptures might actually be to the detriment of others believing the gospel of grace in Jesus Christ.

All of these are thoughts which have been around for some time in at least seed form. The study I have been doing over the past few weeks however has emboldened me to at least talk about my doubts. To say I am sure of myself here would be untrue. I am not thinking and writing entirely in confidence. The one thing I am sure of is the need to think deep and hard about all that is in and not in the Scriptures. And I am pretty sure there is the need for freedom to ask hard questions and be taken seriously in asking them.

One last thing. I was not enjoying thinking about this by myself. So I sent a note to some pastor friends and asked what they thought. One friend (who will remain nameless) told me about an article called Wretched Urgency by Michael Spencer. It was the first thing I had ever read of the sort. And it was the first thing confirming I was decidedly not crazy...or if I was, I was crazy along with Spencer. And I'm fine with that.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

3 Reasons To Love Legalism

1. Legalism gives you the illusion of control. You can control your status before God simply by doing certain acts of righteousness and not doing others. It is like some crazy point system that you can keep up with so you can be absolutely sure when your head hits the pillow - after 3 hours of prayer, no TV and walking around town looking for little old ladies to help across the street - that you are in fact OK before God. Phew.

2. Legalism controls others. This is especially helpful for those who teach and are in ministry. Whereas a relentless message of assurance for believers and good news for unbelievers tends to free people to do God only knows what once they leave the meeting/service/retreat/camp; Legalism binds them to the law for their acceptance before a perfectly holy God who would never let such vile sinners (like those sitting before you) into his gloriously holy presence. Did I mention that He is holy - Holy, Holy Holy - and you are not?

3. Legalism helps you look awesome before others. Because you are working hard to be acceptable before God - and who does not like a hard worker as opposed to a person who simply rests in the finished work of Someone Else. It sounds oh so self-deprecating and humble. Who can resist?

What are some other reasons to love Legalism?

Friday, April 02, 2010

The God of the Mundane: Part 4 , Is Any Christian Life Easy?

In October of '96 I had a fairly serious car-wreck. The difference of a few inches not only kept me alive but if my face had hit the windshield only slightly to one side or the other, I might not have the ability to see. If I close my eyes I can remember getting out of the car I had just paid off and looking down to see the warm blood streaming off my face onto my brown hiking boots. I remember sitting down quickly.

It would take months...years really to know the varied ways this event affected me. There were the obvious results of zeal to wear a seatbelt, the buying of a new car and the fact that when I looked in the mirror, I had a face that was only vaguely familiar to me. To this day, if I am blinded by the sun while driving, I panic.

But it took much longer to deal with the emotional trauma of being close to death and wearing bandages and knowing people are looking at the scars scattered over my face. Just a few years ago, I reached up to scratch my forehead and the eyes of the person I was talking with widened. The cause revealed itself; I could feel the blood trickle down my forehead caused by glass making an untimely exit. Glass from the windshield of an '87 Honda Civic is still residing just below the surface as I type.

Sometimes I wonder if we really understand how sinful our sin is. Sure, we get the fact our sin is all out rebellion against the Sovereign God of the Universe. We know we have virtually stuck a fist in the face of the Father, called him an SOB and then asked for the keys so we can leave home. We are even well aware of what it cost to deal with our sin problem...the killing of the Son. But I am sure we are for the most part practically ignorant of the extent of our sin and its moment by moment effects.

To some degree, this is part of the grace we enjoy. We are apt to acknowledge how good it is when others cannot see those dark and dusty corners of our heart. But it is also a gracious thing to be shielded from the unfathomable depth of deadly treachery residing right inside of us. I, for one, am glad of this. The truth would overwhelm us, perhaps no less than the purity of the Father's glory revealed in all its splendor. We can't handle it.

However, we should still try to know ourselves enough to recognize that even on our best days, we are shot through with this thing called 'sin.' Shot. Through. Total depravity? Sure, whatever you want to call it. We are dealing with something that is not flat. Our sin problem has contours we will never even know. We will for the rest of our earthly lives be thoroughly ignorant of our sinfulness. There are probably outworkings of our sinfulness, particular to our culture, we have not even been able to recognize yet. And there are some sins we will never even get a handle on. We may make progress but even that will be tough; definitely a lifelong project. But it is of the utmost importance to simply know that every facet of our lives has been compromised by rebellion.

I'm of the opinion our ignorance of this and the particular way this truth manifests itself in our own life is why we cannot see the "God of the mundane." Beholding the God of martyred missionaries is easy. Discerning the God of the ascetic who has refused all temporal comforts is a piece of cake. But perceiving the God of those whose days are marked by scraping up mac & cheese off the kitchen floor is remarkably hard. The prevailing view of spirituality leaves us with ten-thousand moments void of the glorious God. He is present when we do something like pray, read our Bible, sing worship songs, give away our stuff and go overseas. But he is strikingly absent when we are doing mundane paperwork in God-forsaken cubicles of lifeless grey.

We have forgotten if we ever knew Philo's words, "Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle." Maybe we have not forgotten to be kind, but do we forget everyone is fighting a hard battle.

If we did but know that even when we are doing paperwork and cleaning up the mac & cheese off the linoleum the reality of our own sin vying for control, we would not be so apt to think these mundane exercises are small in the spiritual stratosphere. All those mundane moments - the seconds turning into minutes, snowballing into hours between all the so-called spiritual exercises are really infinite moments occupied by not only our blackened hearts but the Spirit of God working out what is pleasing to the Father. And some want to call the Christian life easy.

At the moment, my family and I live just outside of a town called Mountain Brook. The place is idyllic. Full of natural beauty and that of the constructed sort, there are not many who do not dream of living off Euclid so you can walk to La Paz or the local Thai restaurant in Crestline Village. It is truly a beautiful place full of beautiful people. But we forget our theology if we think living as a Christian is easy in such a place. The very sin which courses through my soul-veins is present there. For me to think it is more potent there betrays jealousy. For me to think life is just easy there betrays cosmic foolishness. Every house sees disease and the pain of disfigurement even though maybe only a degree removed. Every house has a marriage that must be maintained. Or had one. Every street knows failure and tragedy and no one is exempt from the demands of death. Money may stay the inevitable for a time but no keep can hold against the onslaught of that destiny which we all must reckon with.

I write none of this to excuse the wealth of others. I'e so little wealth to excuse, that charge would fall flat if leveled. My point is if we knew how difficult the Christian life, we would certainly not suppose that another life, with more spiritual parts to it, would be well...more spiritual. We would see the gravity of living out our belief on our street, in our stores, among our friends, before our servers at restaurants and wherever we play. We think there are places where faith and spirituality and Christianity is easy. Some places may be harder...maybe. But easy? I just don't think we know ourselves or the world around us very well if we think so.