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Reply to R. Fowler White's "Critique and Alternative"

T. David Gordon

I was gratified that Dr. White took notice of my thoughts in my recent article, "Evangelistic Responsibility."[1] Dr. White is one of the most judicious reasoners in my communion, and one of the most knowledgeable in the Bible. We each contributed to a volume assessing the so-called "Auburn Theology," where we shared similar concerns. I suppose it is not inappropriate to indicate that Dr. White served for a number of years at the Knox Theological Seminary associated with D. James Kennedy's church in Florida. The late Dr. Kennedy was well-known for his Evangelism Explosion program, a program that embraced the view that I have attempted to refute. Dr. White's critique of my position is simultaneously, in some sense, a defense of his ministerial colleague and a critique of my view, and ought to be both respected and suspected as such. Ordained Servant cannot continue this discussion interminably, but I am delighted that the discussion is taking place at all. In my original essay, and in Dr. White's reply, we have both reasoned from the Scriptures as our primary authority, which I regard as entirely appropriate. I do note, however, that the Westminster Standards nowhere regard evangelism as a universal duty, even though they do regard some other, non-ethical matters as universal.[2] In response to Dr. White's thoughtful comments, I would like to make one clarification before making two or three comments about where our differences probably reside.

I begin by suggesting that for something to be a duty there must be some biblical ground for that duty. That is, my view (that evangelism is not a universal responsibility) obliges no one. My view tells no one to do anything. But the alternative view, that evangelism is an obligation upon every believer, does oblige all believing people. Therefore, the alternative view has the burden of proof. To oblige others to do something requires positive biblical warrant, and not merely question-begging. Dr. White refers to my comments about 2 Corinthians 5:18ff, for instance, and says, "Gordon's challenge here is reasonable but incomplete. To identify the "we/us" of this passage as only a part of the company of the reconciled and not the whole of it, we need more evidence." Just the opposite. Those who argue that, in the epistle where Paul mounts his lengthiest defense of his own ministry we are to take his "us/we" not as ministerial (Paul and those who labored with him) are the ones who have the burden of proof. They, not I, "need more evidence" to persuade others that something is every believer's duty simply because Paul candidly said that it was his duty. Further, the evidence here is substantial. In chapters 4 and 5 of 2 Corinthians, there are sixty-four uses of the first person plural pronoun, the vast majority of which rather plainly refer to the ministry of Paul and his co-laborers, which he is defending before the Corinthians, e.g.:

4:1-2 Therefore, having this ministry by the mercy of God, we do not lose heart. But we have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God's word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone's conscience in the sight of God.

4:7-8 But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair ...

4:16 So we do not lose heart ...

5:6 So we are always of good courage.

5:11 Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade others ...

20 Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us.

Even more compelling evidence from these chapters is the fact that this first person plural pronoun often appears in combination with the second person pronoun, as Paul contrasts himself with the Corinthians, plainly excluding the Corinthians from the "we/us":

4:12 So death is at work in us, but life in you.

4:13-15 and so we also speak, knowing that he who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and bring us with you into his presence. For it is all for your sake,

5:11-12 But what we are is known to God, and I hope it is known also to your conscience. We are not commending ourselves to you again but giving you cause to boast about us, so that you may be able to answer those who boast about outward appearance

5:13 For if we are beside ourselves, it is for God; if we are in our right mind, it is for you.

5: 20 Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.

To Dr. White's challenge: "To identify the 'we/us' of this passage as only a part of the company of the reconciled and not the whole of it, we need more evidence" (emphases mine), I think we have plenty of evidence in the passages above that the "we" is different from the "you." The "we" in the passages above is plainly not "we all, including you Corinthians," but rather "we ministers, and not you Corinthians." Note that even when 2 Corinthians 4:14 refers to the eschaton, the two parties are kept distinct: "will raise us also with Jesus and bring us with you into his presence." Even when talking about a common Christian reality in the life to come, Paul is intent on distinguishing the ministerial "us" from the general believing "you."

As popular as the universal view of evangelistic responsibility has become recently, it does not enjoy "squatter's rights" for that reason. If no positive warrant can be found for my view, that does not injure my view, because my view obliges no one. But the alternative view, precisely because it does oblige others, must establish itself by sound biblical reasoning.

Foundational to my understanding of "gifts" in the relevant passage(s) is that the "gift"-language is used interchangeably with "function"-language: "Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord, and there are varieties of working, but it is the same God who inspires them all in every one" (1 Cor. 12:47).[3] That is, Paul does not use "gift" as we do; to designate some competence or ability, as in "she is a gifted musician," or "he has the gift of gab." Rather, he perceives consecrated Christian service as Christ's gift to his bride, the church: "And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers..." (Eph. 4:11). He calls these differing functions "gifts" because they are the gifts of the ascended Christ to his militant church. Thus, Paul does not distinguish function, working, and gift; they are the same. A non-functioning gift is no gift from Christ at all; until believers, constrained by his love and empowered by his Spirit, actually do something, they are not a "gift" to Christ's church. So, when Dr. White raises the question: "In fact, should activities done by those with gifts ever be done by those without gifts?" my reply is that the question is nonsensical. For me, if an activity (in this case, evangelism) is done, and if that thing edifies or builds the church, then it is a gift.[4]

So, it isn't quite the case that I teach that "responsibility is a consequence of gift and calling." Some responsibilities derive also from positive biblical command, such as "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." Others may derive from our being created in the image of God; and still others may derive from God's providence, if it places us in a situation where we can aid and assist those who are needy. My point in citing the Pauline passages about gifts was merely to make the general point that Paul teaches that we have diverse gifts, diverse functions, diverse workings. Therefore, if there is some gift/function/working that is universal (not diverse), yet is not moral (deriving from divine command or the divine image), such a gift/function/working would be and is contrary to Paul's most commonly-repeated statement that, in fact, we do not all have the same functions. If everyone is to perform the function of evangelism, there must be some clear teaching somewhere, because Paul plainly says otherwise that we do not have the same functions.

So, let me now turn to Dr. White's comments about church leaders "as instructors and examples." Church leaders are indeed instructors and examples; but they are moral and ethical examples, not examples of particular forms of service. Paul said: "Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ." (1 Cor. 11:1; cf. also 1 Cor. 4:16; 1 Thess. 1:6; 3:7, 9). But Paul did not imitate every function Christ performed: Paul did not walk on water; he did not die on a cross for sinners; he did not feed the five thousand; he was not baptized by John in the wilderness; he did not overturn tables in the Temple. Paul did imitate Christ's love of God and love of neighbor. Similarly, the Corinthians should imitate Paul by imitating those two things (love of God and neighbor) that Paul imitated in Christ. Saints are also called to follow the example of the faith of the officers in the church: "Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith" (Heb. 13:7). Dr. White says, "Gordon poses but does not answer the question of whether and how Timothy would be an example to Christians generally." Here's my answer: Timothy is to be an example and model of Christian ethical behavior and faith, but not necessarily an example of what functions are to be performed in the church's overall ministry. A pastor instructs his flock regarding Christian duty, but he also baptizes and administers the Lord's Supper. He is not an example to the flock of how to baptize, or how to administer the Lord's Supper (Dr. White concedes this point). His function, in those specifics, is distinctive to his calling. His distinctive gift/function/working in those examples is to administer Christ's sacraments. Similarly, he preaches and teaches, but he is not an example for his flock of how they should preach and teach. So I conclude that the universal view (and I have difficulty distinguishing Dr. White's view from it) must have some biblical warrant for stating that evangelism is the duty of the flock, other than the alleged warrant that pastors evangelize and they are examples to the flock. If being an example means that the flock must do anything/everything the pastor does, the flock must administer the sacraments, read or preach the Word of God to the congregation, and perform weddings and funerals.

Dr. White and I differ also in our translation of Ephesians 4:12. As I argued many (too many!) years ago, Ephesians 4:12 does not teach that the duty of the gifted ones is to "equip" the saints to do anything.[5] The saints have many duties, of course, but Ephesians 4:12, properly translated, does not teach anything about ministers "equipping" saints to do anything. The translations that suggest so face three extremely difficult exegetical problems, all three of which must align to come to this conclusion. The three difficulties are these:

1) That the three purpose clauses, so obviously parallel in their grammatical structure, have different implied subjects (thereby disrupting the parallel);

2) That καταρτισμὸν (katartismon) is translated "equip" here;

3) That ἔργον διακονίας (ergon diakonias) refers not to acts of service, in the general sense, but to the overall "Christian ministry."

I won't repeat here the arguments I made in JETS in 1994, but, to summarize, in all three points, the "equipping-the-saints" translation faces significant hurdles, hurdles that do not exist for translations such as the Authorized Version, which says: "And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ." Dr. White and I could engage in a lengthy conversation about this passage alone, but space prohibits this here.

A number of Dr. White's points strike me, from my point of view, as question-begging, especially since the issue in question is another individual's duty. That is, to argue that another believer has a duty to do something, one would think it would be necessary to demonstrate not merely that a given text could be construed in such a way, but that it ought to be construed that way, because no other construal is as good. That is, if a duty were based on a text that were capable of more than one construal by the admitted standards of exegesis we all embrace, that text would not be an adequate ground for obliging others (though it would be an adequate ground for obliging those who construed it that way). Dr. White says, for example, "Texts such as Colossians 3:16 and Hebrews 5:12 can be plausibly read as establishing a responsibility to teach that is broader than the teaching office. Should we, then, distinguish a general responsibility from an official responsibility?"[6] Well, if the texts can be plausibly read in such a fashion, they can also be plausibly read in other fashions, especially in light of James's warning: "Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness" (Jas. 3:1). And, while I concede that not every function in the church is official (much teaching takes place outside of the teaching office); I still look for a text related to evangelism that requires it as a general duty. It is not enough to oblige others by this reasoning: Some functions (teaching) that are official in the church are plausibly read in some texts as general duties; therefore the specific function of evangelism is also a general duty.

That simply does not follow. We might as well say that because baptizing is an official function of officers in the church, there is also a general/universal obligation upon all believers to baptize. Precisely at issue is the very question of whether the specific function of evangelizing (not the specific function of teaching or baptizing) is a general duty of Christians universally. Since we both concede that some official functions (teaching) may have more-general application and that other official functions (baptism) do not have more-general application, neither of us can draw any inferences regarding another function (evangelism) without some biblical ground.

Dr. White raises interesting and important points about martyrs, and about 1 Peter 3:14-15, and they are closely related (each involves the persecution of non-officers in the church). A martyr, by definition, is a "witness." But a witness is not necessarily an evangelist. "Witness," in both Greek and English, is a term that designates one's solemn public testimony when required to give it.[7] We are sometimes called to be witnesses in civil trials or in ecclesiastical trials, for example. In the first century, if a Roman official asked a person if he were a follower of Christ, it was indeed his duty to say that he was such a follower. This is the same situation as 1 Peter 3:14-15: "Have no fear of them (the persecutors), nor be troubled, but in your hearts regard Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you ..." Of course, if someone "asks you" why you are willing to suffer their persecution, you solemnly and publicly testify that Christ has power to resurrect you even if your tormentors take your life. On this point, Dr. White and I again heartily agree. We agree that we have a universal duty to not deny Christ but to confess him when called to do so. But this is not evangelism; it may have evangelistic consequences, but it isn't evangelism.

I am gratified that Dr. White has honored his late ministerial colleague by continuing to promote what Dr. Kennedy promoted. I am also delighted that he took the time to interact with my reasoning, conceding some points while graciously disputing others. And, because he is such a judicious reasoner, I found here as always material that stimulated my own thinking, material that will undoubtedly contribute to more-nuanced discussions in the future. But I found nothing that bore the burden of proof. Many evangelical churches have placed a positive moral duty (with its attendant sense of guilt and shame for failure) on believers without adequate biblical warrant.

At some deep level, I think some who profess to disagree with me actually agree with me, and here's why I think so. If a person failed, let us say, to attend church, we would begin disciplinary proceedings against him, on the ground that he had failed to perform a duty mandated in Holy Scriptures. But has anyone anywhere ever been disciplined by any church for failing to evangelize? Well, I think we should fish or cut bait. If we regard it as a duty, we should discipline those who do not fulfill their duty. And if we do not discipline them, I believe we should stop telling them it is their duty.

Endnotes

[1] Ordained Servant Online (June-July 2009), http://www.opc.org/os.html?article_id=155.

[2] Larger Catechism 156, for instance, raises the question of whether all are permitted to read the Scriptures publicly, in worship, and replies: "Although all are not to be permitted to read the Word publicly to the congregation, yet all sorts of people are bound to read it apart by themselves, and with their families." Note, then, that in addition to our common moral duties, as articulated in the Larger Catechism's exposition of the Decalogue, Westminster sometimes refers to other religious duties, such as Bible-reading. But the standards nowhere say that "all sorts of people are bound to evangelize."

[3] "For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us" (Rom. 12:4-6). Here also, "gifts" are spoken of as "function." For Paul, a "gift" is not an innate capacity to do something; it is an operative work, the actual doing of something. If it does not "function," it is not a gift. And Paul's general point is clear: All do not perform the same functions: "Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret? But earnestly desire the higher gifts" (1 Cor. 12:29-31).

[4] Much more work needs to be done here, because I recognize that almost everyone but myself understands "gift" in Paul's letters as an innate capacity; and I probably should write an essay at some point devoted exclusively to proving the contrary, that Paul uses "gift" with Christ as the understood giver, the church as the understood recipient, and the gift itself to refer to some edifying function or working that someone actually does.

[5] " 'Equipping' Ministry in Ephesians 4?" Journal for the Evangelical Theological Society 37, no. 1 (March 1994): 69-78.

[6] I note here also that Dr. White selects his language carefully, and uses the word "general" rather than the word "universal." Even if we judged that a given function was "general," or "broader than the teaching office," this would not be the same as "universal," which admits of no exceptions. While instruction, in the informal sense of discussing the Christian religion, may be general, in the sense that many believers do it; it is not a universal duty, in the sense that we would begin disciplinary processes against people who merely listened to such conversations but did not participate verbally in them.

[7] Alison A. Trites, The New Testament Concept of Witness. Society for New Testament Studies Monograph Series (Cambridge: University Press, 2004).

T. David Gordon is a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America serving as professor of religion and Greek at Grove City College, Grove City, Pennsylvania. Ordained Servant Online, March 2010.

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