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Volume 14, Issue 6: Presbyterion

Guilt-Free Evangelism

Douglas Wilson

It is important to begin with important qualifiers. Jesus Christ told His apostles to preach the gospel to every creature (Mk. 16:15). The marching orders of the Christian Church are found in the Great Commission, which requires the Church to disciple the nations, baptizing them and teaching them obedience to everything Christ required, which would of course include this last command (Mt. 28:18_20). The Great Commission is therefore self-perpetuating. The duty of world evangelism is therefore an obligation that rests upon the Church in each generation. So much is obvious to every careful reader of the New Testament.

But if we compare a classical Protestant approach to this task with that of modern evangelicalism, we begin to differ on our shared commitment to this central principle. The differences between us become apparent at the practical level—what tactics should be employed in this effort? We agree that the gospel must be taken to the world, that the gospel must be preached "to every creature." But in contemporary evangelicalism there is a widespread assumption that this must be done by the following means: each individual Christian must acknowledge that his personal walk with God rests upon certain foundation stones—and they include obvious things like prayer and Bible-reading, but also some not-so-obvious things like "witnessing daily."
Average Christians, as they are first discipled, are routinely taught that being a faithful Christian means telling someone about Christ every day. And of course, as young people are taught the pattern (this usually happens in college), some who are naturally gifted and outgoing do very well. They take to it. But others, and their number is great, have no desire at all to go up and down the hallways of the dormitories, knocking on doors, and asking people to take a spiritual survey. But it is their spiritual duty, or so they have been taught, and so they sweat bullets and do it anyway.
After they graduate, they enter another phase of their lives, one where there is a lot less free time and where witnessing opportunities are not so abundant. With a strange mixture of gratitude and guilt, they stop telling people about Jesus every day. The guilt is stirred up occasionally by a missions speaker at church, but they make their peace with that guilt.
This compromise means the evangelistic zeal of the entire Church has been wounded. This is not because one individual has stopped sharing his faith daily, but rather because he was forced into sharing it in the first place on false pretences. This produces a bad reaction, and evangelism loses importance.
Of course, every Christian should be prepared to answer questions when non-believers ask them. We should (all of us) know what we believe and why. We should (all of us) live in a manner that provokes the occasional question about how we believe. Peter is explicit on this point. "But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts: and be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear" (1 Pet. 3:15).
But the work of an evangelist, which Paul exhorts Timothy to keep after, is demanding work (2 Tim. 4:5). A man should no more appoint himself to this task than to other callings in the church. Jesus Christ ascended into heaven and gave gifts to men—apostles, prophets, evangelists, and pastor/teachers (Eph. 4:11). If we were to adopt this approach in the other offices, the result would be chaos.
This giftedness bestowed by Christ is important and reveals His authority. Not everyone is gifted in this way. Is everyone a teacher? No. Is everyone an evangelist? No. To insist that everyone share his faith daily in verbal, propositional form is to directly contradict what Paul taught us about the nature of body life. Not everyone in the body of Christ has the same function.
This is not to deny the centrality of the evangelistic mission to the life of the Church. But say a man is going to a concert hall to play the piano—we should not consider him a failure if his kidneys are unable to play anything. They support him in what he is doing, but they do not do anything musical themselves. Without those kidneys, he would be off in a hospital, nowhere near a piano. But the kidneys still can't play. Attempts to make them try are attempts that will necessarily harm the man's ability to play.
When David's men pursued the Amalekites who had sacked Ziklag, some of his troops were unable to keep up the pursuit, and so they stayed behind with the baggage. After the battle, certain churlish men with David wanted to withhold their portion of the spoil from them. But David say no, and made it an ordinance in Israel that they were all "in it together" (1 Sam. 30:24). The supply officer in the Pentagon, the cook on the submarine, the infantryman in the front lines—are in it together, as each does his part. But suppose we made this rule: every cook has to fire at least one round at the enemy daily.
The task of evangelism is assigned to the Church. Many Christians are not gifted evangelistically. Such men should do an honest day's work, say, as an auto mechanic, be the best mechanic in town, attend church faithfully (assuming a faithful church that is engaged in the work of evangelism), and tithe to the work of the church. What shall we say about such men? We should say that they are evangelical men, whether or not they say a word. But if they excell in their vocational work to the glory of God, the chances are good that they will have to answer the kind of question Peter mentions.

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