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.







12 comments:

Jared said...

I (think I) share with you a disinterest in what Michael Spencer calls "wretched urgency," but I also think 2 Corinthians 5 in context is a pretty strong case for all Christians to be active carriers of the gospel to the lost. When Paul talks about being reconciled to Christ and therefore becoming entrusted with the message of reconciliation and being given the ministry of reconciliation, he uses words like "if anyone is in Christ" and "the world," so I do not believe the "we" and "us" in that passage is limited to apostles or elders.

The context is larger. If anyone is in Christ (5:17), he is a new creation. God reconciled "us" to himself, making us carriers of the reconciling gospel, ambassadors for Christ.

If we're gonna say Paul's only talking about elders or apostles there, we gotta do some ninja slicing in the passage there. And of course then do we take the great promise of imputation in 5:21 away from the "average Christian" too?

Just my 2 cents.

Matt Redmond said...

Jared,

I like Ninjas. But I don't think it takes ninja slicing to say the, "we persuade others" phrase is in the context of his defense of Apostolic ministry. The whole section of this letter deals with that subject. Sure, while defending his apostleship and gospel he may say things that apply to every believer but not everything must or can. In the next verse he says,"we are not commending ourselves to you again..." Obviously he is talking about his specific ministry. And certainly his ministry involved evangelism.

Again, I like ninjas. ;)

Jared said...

I think it does involve slicing when you get to the end of the chapter, in the passage in question. He is appealing to what God has done for everyone in Christ. It's big picture gospel stuff. But if your reading is correct, it requires the gospel-recipient "us" to be everyone but the gospel-carrying "us" to be just Paul and his fellow ministers. That's what I mean by slicing. It seems one connected piece to me.

God saves us and gives us the ministry of reconciliation.

I like ninjas too. :-)

Matt Redmond said...

jared,

I just took a shower...where I think the clearest. Actually I am OK with the slicing. There has to be some or he is not making much sense. Of course, Paul's experience would have overlap into the normal everyday life and certainly the life of every pastor (which is where almost all sermons and commentators go with this passage). I have no problem with this, he was a christian and we are also. But if we say the "we" in verse 11 includes those he is writing to, then we are slicing it up from verse 12. Either way, some slicing is required.

Chris said...

Hopefully I'm not reading too much, or too little into your posts, and defenses and rebuttals of Scripture that you've posted, but it seems to me that your real issue isn't "evangelism" in general, but maybe in how we talk about it.

Would you agree that evangelism ought not be something we "do" but a way in which we live? It seems to me the example from Scripture as regards evangelism is that it isn't necessarily a command of something we should do, at least as we have been taught in church over the years, with all of its clever methodology...but there is a distinct example, and a strong exaltation to live in such a way that others may be drawn to Christ, through your example. Thinking in particular right now of 1 Peter 2:9-11 as well as 3:15...

Would you say I am at least getting closer to what you are trying to say?

Matt Redmond said...

Chris,

You are certainly onto something. Stay tuned...

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rachel said...

Gentleislam,

I hope I can speak for everyone when I say that we all forgive you for your comment.

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D. Carl Funk said...

Matt, I want to thank you for taking up the question of Evangelism in Biblical context. I too have wondered about the relative silence of the Epistles on the subject apart from Apostolic Ministry while a myriad of other exhortations seem to more necessary. Likewise, I wonder about the current emphasis on putting on the armor of God in Eph. 6. It is the last on Paul's list of important things that believers are told to do in that particular Epistle. . . relational items within the Body(Love,unity of Spirit, purity of language) and household relationships are to be secured first and more importantly (I would argue), before self-conscious attention to appropriating the armor. The emphasis these days seems to be often times reversed.