There has been much debate on evangelism over the past months. In the October 2020 edition of the Contender, the article Rethinking Evangelism appeared. It incited a letter to the editor in the December edition. Following this, I wrote an article entitled Evangelism: the task of every Christian? which appeared in the February 2021 edition. At around the same time, a three-part series on evangelism appeared in the Una Sancta. In March this year, Rev W Bredenhof published two articles on his blog in which he argued that evangelism, as we have it today, is what the Reformed have always been teaching (based on LD 12). At the end of May, two more articles appeared on Evangelism, one in the Contender and one in the Una Sancta.
Two things struck me that came back repeatedly. The first was the reference to Acts 8:4, where it says, “those who were scattered went everywhere preaching the word.” The second reference, though not as frequent, was to our office of being prophets, priests, and kings (LD 12, Q&A 32). I will not repeat what I said in my previous article (you can also find it here: https://defenceofthetruth.com/2021/02/evangelism-the-task-of-every-christian/). But first, I want to give a brief overview of the history of modern evangelism, and secondly, look at the two abovementioned ‘proofs’.
Evangelism, as per its usage in Scripture, is the preaching of God’s Word by His ministers. What I am going to call ‘modern evangelism’ is a relatively new concept in which the task of evangelism has been added to the Christian’s daily task, stating that every believer is called by God to evangelise or to preach the gospel. For some, the word ‘evangelism’ has lost its Scriptural meaning and applies to any form of sharing the gospel with unbelievers (like a casual conversation). This kind of sharing the gospel is undoubtedly part of the believer’s everyday life, but it is not evangelism.
For the sake of clarity, I will distinguish between ‘evangelism’ and ‘modern evangelism’. I will reserve the word ‘evangelism’ for the official preaching of God’s Word. The contemporary concept of evangelism, where every believer is seen as some kind of missionary who must proclaim the gospel, I will call ‘modern evangelism’.
Evangelism started taking on a new character in the early 1900s when the definition became: preaching to wayward covenant people. Yet, at this time, there was still no speaking of it as the task of each believer. Later, the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands (Synod of Utrecht 1923) decided that evangelism was the task of both the consistories and their congregations. In an effort to make it more Reformed, they introduced evangelism committees, thereby turning it into an ecclesiastically governed mission.
Especially from the 1960s onwards, modern evangelism became exponentially popular around the world. In the preface to his book Evangelism Explosion, James Kennedy wrote:
“There is something new in the life of the Christian Church today! It is the ‘Evangelism Explosion’ […] About the year 1960 a number of different groups and movements arose spontaneously in various parts of the world, all having the same vision: the mobilizing and equipping of the vast lay army of the church to do the work of ministry. It seems that after centuries of clergy-orientated ministry the Holy Spirit is finally breaking through our man-made molds to create the type of church that He meant should exist from the beginning, and which did exist for the first three centuries of this ear of our Lord.”
J.I. Packer also championed this new idea. He wrote:
“Christ’s command means that we all should be devoting all our resources of ingenuity and enterprise to the task of making the gospel known in every possible way to every possible person […] ‘Ye are the light of the world…’ says the Lord. He who does not devote himself to evangelism in every way that he can is not, therefore, playing the part of a good and faithful servant of Jesus Christ.”
That has become the most popular view among evangelicals. At any rate, modern evangelism undeniably has a short history. When Dr J. Douma taught evangelism as a subject at Kampen, he wrote a book entitled Evangelistiek. In it, he writes:
“The subject of evangelism is a recent branch of science. That is to be expected because evangelism itself has a fairly recent history” (my translation of the Dutch).
To say that, in the Reformed tradition, evangelism has always been viewed as the task of every believer is not true. What’s more, when we look up any of the popular evangelism ‘proof texts’ in the older commentaries such as John Calvin’s and Matthew Henry’s, it is clear that they were not even thinking about (modern) evangelism when explaining these texts.
The Bible is a closed canon. There is only one faith, “which was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). Any new teaching contrary to Scripture is false. The fact that modern evangelism is new does not in itself prove that it contradicts the Bible, but it should ring alarm bells. How is it possible that for the first two millennia after Christ, the church members were all oblivious to their ‘main mission’?
Acts 8:4 seems to have convinced a lot of people that evangelism is the task of every Christian. The text is this:
“Therefore those who were scattered went everywhere preaching the word.”
Of course, we need to include the context. Verse 1 says,
“Now Saul was consenting to his death. At that time a great persecution arose against the church which was at Jerusalem; and they were all scattered throughout Judea and Samaria, except the apostles.”
In its footnote on “they were all scattered,” the Staten Vertaling says, “This is primarily understood to be speaking of the teachers who were beside the apostles in Jerusalem as is evident from the end of the verse and verse 4 and 5” (my translation of the Dutch – the Staten Vertaling is the Dutch translation of the Bible commissioned by the Synod of Dort 1618/1619).
There are three reasons why the phrase “they were all scattered” do not refer to all the believers.
In the first place, it is followed up by the phrase, “except the apostles”. It would have been ridiculous if the whole congregation fled while the apostles stayed in Jerusalem without a flock to shepherd. The “all” refers to the preachers and teachers who were labouring beside the apostles in Jerusalem. One of them, Stephen, was put to death, and so all of them fled except the apostles who (presumably) had a special mandate to stay in Jerusalem longer (Acts 1:8). That is the most reasonable way to explain the phrase “except the apostles”.
Secondly, verse 4 says that they preached. The word ‘preached’ can also be translated as ‘evangelised’, but there is no substantial difference between these two words and Scripture reserves both for the special offices. Since Scripture is clear that no one can preach unless God has ordained him, those who “were scattered” must refer to preachers (Romans 10:14-15).
From other places in the book of Acts, we can conclude that many such evangelists and preachers arose from Jerusalem after Pentecost. Acts 11:19 tells us that the same men mentioned in Acts 8:4 travelled to Antioch too. Acts 11:27 speaks of men who came from Jerusalem to Antioch (presumably the same men from Acts 8:4 and 11:19) and calls them “prophets”. Acts 13:1 again mentions “prophets and teachers” at Antioch.
If we ever stumble across a text that is unclear in itself, it is a fundamental principle of Reformed exegesis to interpret it in the light of other clear texts. In this instance, we interpret the (arguably) ambiguous text in the light of the rest of Scripture which is abundantly clear that only those whom God has called can preach.
Thirdly, the next verse (Acts 8:5) gives us an example of how “those who were scattered went everywhere preaching the word.” “Then Philip went down to the city of Samaria and preached Christ to them.” Philip was one of the seven deacons chosen in Acts 6:5, but in Acts 21:8, he is called “Philip the evangelist”. He preached and also performed miracles and administered the sacraments (Acts 8: 5, 6, 38). Quite clearly, Philip was later called to be an evangelist. In his commentary on Acts 21:8, John Calvin argues that his deaconship ceased or else he would have forsaken his calling in Jerusalem by going to Samaria.
“Those who were scattered” refers to all the preachers and teachers except the apostles. It cannot be used as an example where every believer went out and evangelised. Nowhere in Scripture is every Christian charged with the proclamation of the gospel, nor do we find examples of ‘ordinary’ believers evangelising (i.e., preaching) in the Bible. Texts such as Matthew 28:19-20, Acts 1:8 are mandates given explicitly to the apostles, not all Jesus’ disciples.
“And no man takes this honour to himself…” (Hebrews 5:4)
In Lord’s Day 12, question 32 asks,
“Why are you called a Christian?” We confess, in the reply, “Because I am a member of Christ by faith and thus share in his anointing, so that I may as prophet confess his name, as priest present myself a living sacrifice of thankfulness to him, and as king fight with a free and good conscience against sin and the devil in this life, and hereafter reign with him eternally over all creatures.”
Our office of prophet has led some to conclude that we are all tasked with the proclamation of the gospel. The Catechism does not demand such a reading, however. The prophetic office of every believer is limited and should not be confused with the particular office of prophet or teacher.
Firstly, the word ‘confess’ is not the same as ‘preach’. The Bible verses listed in Lord’s Day 12 under the confession that we are prophets who “confess His name” are Matthew 10:32, Romans 10:9-10, and Hebrews 13:15. None of these verses mandates the ordinary believer to preach the gospel. To confess God’s name is to acknowledge Him openly. It is the opposite of denying Him. When we boldly live out our Christian life, and when we unashamedly speak of Christ when the opportunities arise, we are confessing His name.
Secondly, it is also helpful to draw a comparison between our office of prophet and our offices of kings and priest. We are all kings, but we don’t all reign here on earth – it will have an eschatological fulfilment. We are not all kings and queens, politicians and presidents, and it would be wrong of us to act as if we were.
Old Testament Israel was also called a “kingdom of priests” (Ex 19:6). And yet, not all Israelites were permitted to enter into the holiest or offer incense.
In Numbers 16, we read how Korah, Dathan, and Abiram tried to usurp the special office of priest. They wanted to offer incense before the LORD, which only the ordained priests were permitted to do.
They said to Moses:
“You take too much upon yourselves, for all the congregation is holy, every one of them, and the LORD is among them. Why then do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the LORD?” (Numbers 16:3).
“Hear now you sons of Levi: Is it a small thing to you that the God of Israel has separated you from the congregation of Israel, to bring you near to Himself, to do the work of the tabernacle of the LORD, and to stand before the congregation to serve them; and He has brought you near to Himself, you and all your brethren, the sons of Levi, with you? And are you seeking the priesthood also? Therefore you and all your company are gathered together against the LORD. And what is Aaron that you complain against him?” (Numbers 16:8-11).
God punished Korah, Dathan, and Abiram severely for their rebellion:
“Now it came to pass, as he finished speaking all these words, that the ground split apart under them, and the earth swallowed them up, with their households and all the men with Korah, with all their goods. So they and all those with them went down alive into the pit; the earth closed over them and they perished from among the assembly. Then all Israel who were around them fled at their cry, for they said, “Lest the earth swallow us up also!” (Numbers 16:31-34).
Numbers 16 should serve as a warning to us all (1 Corinthians 10:11). We are indeed all holy saints. But is it a small thing that God has separated us to himself, to be a holy nation, His own special people? Is it a small thing that we share in Christ’s anointing and are deemed worthy to be called Christians? And are we now seeking the office of preacher, too, even if God hasn’t ordained us?
In Lord’s Day 12, the Catechism refutes the error of the Roman Catholics who failed to see the ordinary believer as spiritual and degraded the ordinary believers to laity. But the Catechism’s intention was never to blur the distinction between the office of all believers and the special office of minister of the Word. It is very careful in its formulation of question and answer 32. We do not exercise our office of prophet, priest, and king in precisely the same way as those ordained to the special offices.
No doubt, the supporters of modern evangelism have the best of intentions. But however good and loving modern evangelism may seem, Scripture does not mandate every believer to become an evangelist. We need to be careful not to try to serve the Lord in our own, man-made ways but should be guided by the explicit instruction in Scripture as God’s will for our lives.
When we live a godly life, the opportunities to speak to our neighbours will come. God’s Word will spread. He will always provide for ministers and missionaries who will go out to all the nations. We do not have to take matters into our own hands.
- Douma, J., 1982. Evangelistiek. Kampen: Van den Berg.
- Kennedy, D. J., 1970. Evangelism Explosion. 7 ed. Wheaton, Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers.
- Packer, J., 1961. Evangelism & the Sovereignty of God. Illinois: InterVarsity Press.
- Evangelistiek, pg. 11: “De evangelistiek is een jonge tak van wetenschap. Dat ligt voor de hand, omdat de evangelisatie zelf een vrij korte geschiedenis heeft.”
- Staten Vertaling: “Dit wordt voornamelijk verstaan van de leeraars, die te Jeruzalem benevens de apostolen waren, gelijk zulks afgenomen kan worden uit het einde van dit vs., en het 4 en 5 navolgende vs.”
- This article was also published in Contender (the FRCA Youth Magazine), June 2021.