For over a year I’ve been fielding questions, having conversations and receiving…ehem, interesting emails over a post called “The Silence of Paul On Evangelism.” I’ve been called a heretic and I’ve received an amazing amount of notes of gratitude. I expected the criticism but not the gratitude. And honestly, I’m thankful for both.
But I think it’s time to say more. I know it is unthinkable to wait as long as I have to say more in a world like our own. Everything so immediate. But the weight of the subject has kept me back from saying much more. But I need to say more and maybe…hopefully close the discussion. Eventually
So I wanted to offer some thoughts that will hopefully clarify further, provoke some more thought and get us on the journey of loving God and neighbor.
A couple things before we begin: First, please read all of these. Especially if you find yourself confused or angry. Second, I ask that you stop and think before you respond. I do not ask you to agree with me so much as think deeply.
With that, let’s begin.
1. There is no command after Pentecost for believers to evangelize. This is a fact. Paul does not command evangelism in his letters to the churches. Peter doesn’t do it. John doesn’t do it. In the letters to the churches, the command is just not there. This is not an argument for anything. It’s just not there. I know there are some passages which come close and there are examples. But close is not the same. And examples are not commands. There are commands to pastors and vocational missionaries to evangelize but not to ordinary believers.
2. The above statement should not cause you alarm if you love evangelism. If you think it is dangerous for me to point this out, your beef is with reality. With God himself. You are alarmed that someone is pointing to something the Holy Spirit did. Not Matt Redmond. Not anyone, save God. The truth sets us free because it is entirely in step with the character of Jesus. Embrace it and look to it for warmth in the midst of a cold world that denies the power of truth.
3. No one gets reprimanded for not evangelizing in the Scriptures. There are no rebukes. No one is made to feel they have erred or sinned. No one is guilted into doing it more. No tweetable statements making those who have not evangelized today (or lately) feel like they have neglected their duty. There is nothing of the sort. This is in stark contrast where the majority of pastors across the evangelical landscape lean heavy upon those in the pew to be about the business of evangelism. And yet, there is no example for them to do so.
4. The lack of commands in the letters to the churches must be meaningful. If there were many commands we would point to them often. Those who are passionate about evangelism would wield them with ferocity against those who questioned the wisdom of evangelism. If you deny any meaning to the silence, you cannot ask with any seriousness for us to pay attention to the noise.
5. I think evangelism MUST have some place in the Christian life. I just do not think it is the thing. I do not think it is the sign of faith. In other words we have no justification for questioning the salvation of a person who is not engaged in evangelism. But evangelism to some degree may be beyond a command. Why do I say this? We must speak of the reality around us, within us, beyond us and out in front of us. But primarily because it is reality. To call this evangelism always is to reduce it to something smaller than what it is.
6. The guilt poured upon those who have no desire nor inclination to do cold evangelism is wrong. I do not think we can justify it biblically. We have no cause to guilt someone into a practice which most unbelievers have no desire to be involved with. This is not a blanket condemnation of cold evangelism. But I do not think it needs to be reigned in.
7. Evangelism seems to be the trump card for the evangelical church. This is insane. Think about it. A guy can be a complete jerk, lack any generosity, have a mess of a home-life but if he is known as a soul-winner, nothing can be said against him. For some reason we have exalted a practice the ordinary believer is not commanded to pursue. And we have done this while ignoring the prevailing horizontal ethic of the New Testament: Love. That is what we are called to over and over and will be distinguished by.
8. There has to be a happy medium between those who make evangelism the most important thing and those who would make it nothing. I’ve no tolerance for either position. Both are skewed to the personality. One is a bully pulpit and one is a coward’s castle. I do not know that this happy medium can be plotted on a graph or made into a plan of action. But I do assume if we continue to love God and love our neighbor, believing the gospel of grace in Christ and seek to manifest the fruit of the Spirit, we will see people converted.
9. C.S. Lewis said, “You can’t get second things by putting them first; you can get second things only by putting first things first.” And I think this wisdom can be applied to our present subject. I think if we seek after what is explicit – love and all else commanded (did you know we are commanded to live quiet lives more times than we are commanded to share our faith in Paul’s letters?) – we will see what we want to see happen. I think we will see people who cannot help but talk about reality. But as it is, all of reality is filtered through a grid where all information, experience, knowledge and need must pass through the non-commanded command of evangelism.
10. I often wonder if our lack of trust is betrayed by our feeling we must always be talking about something Paul never really talked about… much less commanded. We have constructed a narrative which says you do not trust God if you are not always encouraging and engaging in evangelism. But I wonder if such activity is clouding our ability to see that we really do not trust him. Stop. I know what you are thinking. But I am not a hyper-Calvinist. I believe the pastor should call unbelievers to belief. I believe there are times neighbors should do the same. But I wonder if we are trying to get ahead of God. God’s means just may not be pre-packaged formulas given by spiritual spammers to real people with real beating hearts and real problems and real dreams and real failures. They are often more kind and loving than we are. Maybe we should trust God when he says to love them – by doing so I assume we will be seeking the kingdom and then maybe, just maybe all else will be added. Including some conversions.
Conclusion: I am pro-evangelism. However, I do not think it is a central part of Christian ethics. I think our current teaching on evangelism is out of proportion to the teaching contained in the Scriptures and this leads to misplaced guilt and ends up being a hindrance to the spread of the glory of God instead of a profusion.
What do you think? Why do you think we see no commands in the letters to the churches and yet are so quick to command people to evangelize? How can seeing the lack of something help us do something better?