You just can’t get away from the fact that the way Evangelism is being promoted, as a calling for believers and the church, is riddled with unfounded statements, errors and contradictions.
For example, the Evangelism Report prepared by the Congress on Evangelism says in one place that evangelism is “mission” through the “preaching of the Gospel by voice and print to a Christianity that has become alienated” from the Gospel. But later it says that if the church remains “inward focussed” the people in society around it will remain pagans and be “more the object of mission than of evangelism”. So, first evangelism is said to be mission; later it’s different to mission. And in other places the Report says evangelism equates to church reformation.
That lack of clarity is also evident when on the one hand evangelism is said to focus on those who know the Gospel but have left the church while on the other hand it is said to focus on pagans, to those who don’t know the Gospel. And then there is the confusion about underlying principles, methods of doing the work, aims, etc. The result is an array of unprovable claims that are presented as Scriptural principles.
All in all, there is great confusion and vagueness about evangelism. And then, of course, there are the assumptions about evangelism being our mandate.
Take for example the first assumption that God calls the congregation to preach God’s Word to society around it. Now, as pointed out in an earlier instalment, there are proponents of evangelism who concede that there is no direct Scriptural basis for such evangelism. But they will say, we are called to do this because if we don’t, we are leaving the world to itself.
If you ask: who then is called to do evangelism—all Christians? The church? Christian associations? — you get confused responses. The Report recognises the difficulties but maintains that it is a calling. It says: however just, and necessary, and however much this work is commanded, working out the details is extremely difficult.
Such a call simply cannot be found, either directly or indirectly, in Scripture.
“It must proceed from the church”
A second assumption is that evangelization must proceed from the church. Not only are all believers “called by the Lord” to engage in evangelism, says the Report, but also the office-bearers – ministers, elders and deacons – have such a calling.
But hasn’t the task of office bearers been clearly explained in God’s Word? And isn’t that task clearly limited to work within the congregation? How can we say, then, that the church must do evangelism?
And then we meet further problems because the churches engaging in evangelism follow differing courses of action. And while nobody seems to know what the relation is to be between the consistory and the members in this work, they continue to develop rules and regulations about the work and stimulate people to become involved together on the assumption that somehow they are commanded to do so.
The Evangelism Report says the church must stimulate the work and give leadership in preparing the members to engage in evangelism. Ministers who “have a heart for the work” should be appointed to give impetus to the work. Again, the Report gives lots of directives but without explaining where these directives have their origin. That need not surprise us: there simply is no Scriptural basis for such evangelism.
The Report goes a step further by saying that not only the local churches but also the major assemblies must get involved. Here again there is no Scriptural clarity given, and this vagueness leads to more confusion. The one church engages in evangelism while another does not see it as its task. Even evangelism congresses disagree about whether church assemblies should initiate the work. While some churches and classes don’t feel called, others have already appointed ministers to stimulate the work.
And so a theory of evangelism is developed that leads to confusion, and obligations are placed on believers and consistories which neither can fulfil. The believer can’t fulfil his evangelism obligations without sacrificing parts of his calling as Christian; the minister can’t without doing all sorts of things that rob him of his work in the congregation entrusted in his care.
Nevertheless, both believers and minister are led to feel conscience-bound to do a task which they cannot fulfil and which neither God’s Word, nor the Confessions, nor the Form for Ordination direct them to do.
“The ordinary believer and the Consistory and the Minister of the Word, all conscientious in their belief that they have to engage in evangelism, experience a sense of distress, of being set up for a task which they cannot fulfil, and for which they cannot find a clear directive in God’s Word, nor in our Confessional Standards, nor in our Ordinations Forms. No wonder they have this sense of distress: it’s based on an unhealthy theory and a product of human thoughts. Hence it must lead to unhealthy practice, a confusion and contradiction of abilities, rights, duties, interests and work, which detract from the work on the truly Scriptural calling of Christians towards the world…
And so the Reformed Churches and church members, Consistories and office bearers are burdened down with a responsibility and calling which cannot be clearly defined, nor is even partly feasible, and which presses down both on spiritual and ecclesiastical life.”
The results are damaging. People’s theoretical errors have practical consequences for what happens in the street. The distribution of tracts and literature, especially about the Bible; the Sunday schools; the other forms of evangelism—they are generally done in a way which isn’t appropriate.
As for street preaching: it tends to be Methodist in its approach and is not without doctrinal errors. And we understand why. Street preaching ignores the fact that the Lord Christ entrusted the Gospel to apostles, evangelists, shepherds and teachers. Preaching is an office. It used to be seen that way; yet now, slowly but surely, that belief has worn thin. Today anyone who feels like preaching goes and does it. But it is simply presumptuous to do so, born out of ignorance and unawareness of the high demands required in preaching.
That is as much the case when ministers go street preaching as when members of the congregation or other Christians go street preaching. The minister’s task is not to proclaim God’s Word on the streets, but in the church.
“And no one, who is going to preach on the streets, can say, God has called me to do this. For Christ has tied the calling to preach the Gospel to his congregation, and the offices instituted by Him have their area of work in the midst of the church. And if anyone persists in saying that evangelism is a divine calling, does he know the boundaries? Are all the ministers of the Word of God, along with all the church members, called to evangelise? And if not, who are the people truly called to this work by the Lord, and how has that calling come to them? It must be evident that street preaching is not a calling from the Lord but simply a private undertaking. Hence no one can be admonished for not doing it. No-one can accuse another: ‘You are not heeding your God-given calling.’ And if street preaching is not reflective of the official character of Gospel preaching, it is a matter of personal ambition and that’s not what our Saviour gave us the Gospel for.”
Street preaching robs the Gospel of its unique character: instead of the authoritative Word of God it becomes the street preacher’s message of personal conviction. Those proclaiming the Gospel on the street cannot say: “In the name of the Lord I say to you”. They simply talk with the people, just as one can about any other matter.
Efforts to adjust the proclamation so that it sounds more like the preaching in church only makes things worse. The fact is that street preachers are not really preachers and street sermons are not really sermons. That’s because preaching must flow from a God-given calling thereto and not be presented as a personal conviction.
Street preaching makes the Gospel message debatable because the listeners feel they have a right to a different view than the man who stands there reasoning with them from God’s Word. That’s wrong. In effect the preachers wrench the Gospel out of the sphere in which it belongs and bring it down to the level of any other view proclaimed in the public arena. This robs the Gospel of its holy character. Moreover, such preachers can’t comfort the people in the street like the minister can speak words of comfort in the church.
The end doesn’t justify the means
There are proponents of evangelism who recognise that there is no God-given command for evangelism but seek to justify it on the basis that it does produce results, however minimal. There are the occasional converts. That, apparently, makes it a worthy cause.
Now I don’t deny that there may well be people brought to the right way through evangelism, though the number is very small. Moreover, we often observe how the faith of ‘converts’ soon evaporates. And concerted efforts to present fruits on the work as proof of the benefits of evangelism are often very subjective.
But even if people do come to the faith, that doesn’t validate evangelism. The end does not justify the means. To draw an analogy: no-one will deny that in the Roman Catholic church there are believers who will be saved. And in the Salvation Army there may be those who are saved. Yet no-one will say we’ve got to become Roman Catholic or a member of the Salvos because some believers there will likely be saved. When the Lord has shown us the “more excellent” way, must we then choose the way of less light?
“When God’s Word clearly teaches us how our Saviour wants his believers to live in the midst of the world, must we then add something to that? Must we, in addition to keeping God’s commandments, add commands to evangelise and thereby impose burdens which we barely touch ourselves and which cannot be carried out?
Certainly not! The drive to promote evangelism theories will have damaging, very damaging, consequences for the reformed life…”
And those damages results can be seen. Evangelism devalues our understanding of the character of the Kingdom of God, of the way in which it is coming and of the way in which we must promote it. Evangelism is continually promoted as if the coming of God’s Kingdom is determined by the souls that are saved. In the process, the proponents lose sight of the universal significance of God’s Kingdom and the all-embracing requirements of that Kingdom for all areas of life.
The result is that people live more and more with the thought that only those who are engaged in evangelism are really promoting the coming of God’s Kingdom. One can give lots of examples to show this view is prevalent. Time and again we read that “people who would like to serve the cause of God’s Kingdom” can do so by supporting evangelism.
(final instalment next time)
Reference: Ds K J Kapteyn to Zwolle, Evangelisatie der Gereformeerden en Gereformeerde Evangelisatie, 1923.