Do all believers have a task to evangelise?

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What’s the difference between mission and evangelism? Mission is said to be “the official proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ by ordained servants to people who do not know or have become estranged from the gospel”. Evangelism has been defined as “sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ by individual believers with their neighbours through personal interaction”. Both involve an attempt to spread[i] the gospel to others. Since “the word ‘evangel’ simply means ‘gospel’, ‘to evangelise’ means ‘to preach the gospel’ and ‘evangelist’ refers to one who preaches the gospel”[ii] we can conclude that the word evangelism and the word mission, according to Scripture, basically mean the same. Both relate to preaching the gospel to those who live in the darkness. Why then is evangelism said to be the task of everyone while to be a missionary requires theological training, a calling and ordination? The answer is that while mission is a mandate that is clearly based on Scripture,[iii] there is no Scriptural basis for evangelism in the modern sense that it is every Christian’s task to spread the gospel to others.

To be sure, many attempts have been made to find a Scriptural basis for the claim that it is everyone’s task to share the gospel. Reference is often made to such Bible texts as our need to ‘be a light’. Jesus says, “You are the light of the world… let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works…” (Matt 5:14,16). And in the same way Paul writes: “Do all things without complaining and disputing… in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation among whom you shine as lights in the world” (Phil. 2:14,15). Dr Grosheide, however, dismisses these texts as a basis for evangelism. The church, he says, is something great by the grace of God and these texts show that she must reflect that more and more through the demeaner, the honest, upright, godly walk of life of her members. It is not a matter of deliberately going out to others, but more and more to be, to reflect and to remain a shining light.[iv]

Other texts often used with regards to evangelism are such texts as “Whoever acknowledges me before men, I will also acknowledge him before my Father in heaven” (Matt 10:32), “Let your speech always be with grace, seasoned with salt, that you may know how to answer each one” (Col. 4:5-6), “proclaim the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light” (1 Peter 2:9), and “always be ready to give a defence to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you, with meekness and fear” (1 Peter 3:15).

The problem is that these texts (and the many others used to ‘prove’ that we must all evangelise) don’t say or imply that it is the task of ‘the people in the pew’ to spread the gospel or share the gospel with others. The context of each of these Bible texts relate to a godly walk of life. In Matt 10:32 acknowledging Christ is quite different than sharing the gospel message. For example, we acknowledge Christ when we walk to church in our Sunday best, when we propose to our neighbour that she comes to church, when we lead a godly life by keeping God’s law, and when we tell a neighbour that a seriously ill loved one is at peace because she knows that she is going to heaven. Similarly, Colossians 4:5,6 is not a command to ‘share the gospel’ but an emphasis on an honest, sober, godly walk of life. Christians were often slandered and the best antidote to slander is to be blameless in walk and talk.

Likewise, the two oft-quoted texts from 1 Peter cannot be used to justify evangelism. 1 Peter 2:9, speaks of us as a royal priesthood proclaiming the “praises of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light”. This is something we do each Sunday in church and when we sing psalms at home or elsewhere. Mendel Retief says that the Greek word in 1 Peter 2: 9 which is translated “praises” should rather be translated “virtues”. We must “show forth the virtues” of God by abstaining from fleshly lusts and by having our conduct honourable so that God may be glorified when they observe our good works (verses 11 and 12). [v] It’s a text that focuses on our behaviour and not on a common task to spread the gospel to others.

As for 1 Peter 3:15, about always being ready to give a defence when being asked to give a reason for the hope that is in you, the context makes clear that this verse is not at all speaking about evangelism. Verse 14 says: “But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you are blessed. And do not be afraid of their threats, nor be troubled”. Then follows verse 15: “But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts, and always be ready to give a defence to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you, with meekness and fear…” When a believer is persecuted for the sake of righteousness, and someone would ask him why he is willing to endure such suffering, he should be willing to make known the reason, namely, the living hope that we have through faith in Christ. Here the goal is not the conversion of the one who asks the question, but rather “that when they defame you as evildoers, those who revile your good conduct in Christ may be ashamed” (verse 16). The text does not speak about evangelism at all.[vi]

There are more texts used in attempts to justify evangelism as an obligation for us all to spread the gospel; but a careful analysis of them shows they cannot be used to prove that all believers have a task to spread, share, or declare the gospel of Christ. On the contrary, Scripture, the confessions and the church order show that spreading the gospel is to be done by those prepared, called and ordained to that task. It’s the ministers of the Word who are “called by God” and ordained to speak, preach, proclaim the Word of God. When they speak, they do so with divine authority. Moreover, they are directly under the oversight of their consistory.

Of course, this does not mean that believers don’t have a task in the public sphere. No one will dispute that we all have a task to confess Christ (LD 12) and live in a way God may use to win others for Christ (LD 32). That is a task difficult enough because it means speaking up for the truth and the cause of Christ, showing our true colours as Christians, exposing wrong actions or teachings on the basis of God’s Word, resisting our sworn enemies (LD 12 & 52), showing which side we’re on in the antithesis God placed between the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent (Gen. 3:15) and fighting the good fight of faith (Eph. 6:10-20). In order to equip us for this, God gives us preachers and the weekly preaching in church.

But confessing Christ in that way is something different than sharing the gospel in order to bring others to the faith. Such spreading of the gospel is in effect proclaiming the gospel, a task given to those called to do it. God has tied faith to the preaching. “… it pleased God through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe” (1 Cor. 1: 21). The apostle Peter also says that we receive the new birth/regeneration through the preaching of the gospel (1 Peter 1: 23, 25).

Our confessions speak in the same way. In Lord’s Day 25 we confess: “Since then faith alone makes us share in Christ and all His benefits, where does this faith come from? From the Holy Spirit who works it in our hearts by the preaching of the gospel and strengthens it by the use of the sacraments.” That’s not to say that our godly walk of life can’t be the catalyst for bringing people to Christ (LD 32) but it’s the preaching that works the faith whereby converts share in Christ and His blessings.

We find the same in Lord’s Day 31: “What are the keys of the kingdom of heaven? The preaching of the holy gospel and church discipline. By these two the kingdom of heaven is opened to believers and closed to unbelievers”.

The Canons of Dort (ch. 1 art. 3) say: “So that men may be brought to faith, God mercifully sends heralds of this most joyful message to whom He will and when He wills.   By their ministry men are called to repentance and to faith in Christ crucified.  For how are they to believe in Him of whom they have not heard?   And how are they to hear without a preacher? And how can men preach unless they are sent?” We note the emphasis on faith coming through the preaching by those who have been sent, by those who have a ministry – the ministers of the Word. Not through a common evangelism task given to all church members to spread or share the gospel.

If this is the way in which men are to “be brought to faith” (Canons of Dort), and also the way in which we are to be kept in the faith, then it is clear why the Synod of Dort in 1619 did not add an article to the church order to organise and equip all believers for evangelism.   The fact is that evangelism had already been organised by the Synod of Dort when it spoke about the office of the minister of God’s Word! The Church Order of Dort knows of no other organised evangelism in or by the church than that which is done by ordained ministers and missionaries.[vii]

Modern evangelism as “the task of each believer”, to “share the gospel with unbelievers”, and in general to “reach out to the world” in various ways, is foreign to Scripture and therefore instrumental in causing confusion about the calling of each believer. It gives faithful church members guilt feelings because they’re not ‘out there sharing the gospel’. Moreover, when the ‘people in the pew’ take it upon themselves to ‘share the gospel’ the gospel easily becomes falsified as the message is ‘adjusted’ to make it more palatable to the hearers. As church we already have organised evangelism: it’s the preaching of the gospel both in the church and on the mission field. And for this task the church ordains, and holds responsible, only those whom the Lord has called to this special office.[viii]  

So, must we confess Christ (LD 12)? Yes, indeed, in our walk and talk as we live according to God’s commandments, as the quoted texts show! But evangelism – sharing or spreading the gospel with the aim of converting others? No, that has not been demonstrated to be the duty of all believers. Indeed, Scripture and confessions show that this is for those called and equipped for that task.

We need not doubt that those who introduce evangelism into the church of our Lord Jesus Christ, and who promote it as an obligation for all believers, do so with the best of intentions. However, while the purpose may seem ever so noble, we must be governed by God’s Word in all we do. As Greijdanus says: “With respect to the church and its life and actions we must never consider what we would like to see, or what would seem the wisest or best course of action to us, or what would please us the most. Rather we should simply ask what the Lord’s will is, and what He says about any point or any matter, upholding what He has ordained.”[ix] And since there is no Scriptural evidence that God directs the church members to go out spreading the gospel, let’s beware of the error of seeking to serve the Lord in our own way.

 

[i] Evangelistiek, 1982, p. 8. See also Ds K J Kapteyn to Zwolle, Evangelisatie der Gereformeerden en Gereformeerde Evangelisatie, 1923 summarised in https://defenceofthetruth.com/en/2018/09/rev-k-j-kapteyn-on-evangelism-1/.

[ii] Clarion, Vol. 32, p. 11.

[iii] The risen Christ told His disciples (and through them the church’s ordained missionaries): “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit…” (Matt 28:19)

[iv] Dr Grosheide, “kerk en Evangelisate”, De Heraut – voor de gereformeerde kerken in Nederland, 1922, no 2319, 02-07-1922

[v] Mendel Retief, Modern Evangelism (unpublished 70-page booklet), Kelmscott W. Australia, 2011, p. 26.

[vi] Ibid, p. 28.

[vii] Retief, pp. 20, 21.

[viii] Ibid, p. 21.

[ix] S Greijdanus in J de Jong (ed) Bound Yet Free: Readings in Reformed Church Polity, Premier, Winnipeg, 2006, p. 15.