The God-Appointed Agent of Evangelism
R. B. Kuiper
Beyond dispute, the Christian church is the God-appointed agent of evangelism. However, when making that statement, one does well to define the term church. In this context, it has two references, which, although inseparable, are properly distinguished from each other. The church, both as an organization, operating through its special offices, and as an organism of believers, each of whom holds a general or universal office, is the God-ordained agent of evangelism.
The Church as an Organization
Not all churches have the same degree of organization. Some ordain officers; others have no such practice. Nor do all churches recognize the same number of offices. Yet, unavoidably, every church has a measure of organization. And Scripture requires that. It was the invariable custom of the missionary Paul to organize groups of believers as churches. In Asia Minor, he and Barnabas ordained elders in every church (Acts 14:23). The Bible teaches plainly that evangelism is a task of the organized church.
The apostles, to whom the church's Head gave the missionary command, were the foundation of the New Testament organized church. When Peter, as spokesman of the Twelve, had confessed Jesus to be the Christ, the Son of the living God, the Lord said: "I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church" (Matt. 16:18). The "rock" of which he spoke was neither Peter as an individual nor merely his confession, but the confessing Peter as representative of the apostles. And the "church" of which he spoke was an organization, as appears from the fact that he went on to assign to the apostles "the keys of the kingdom of heaven" (Matt. 16:19; 18:18), thus authorizing them to lay down the conditions for membership in his church. It is evident that both historically and doctrinally the apostles were the foundation of the organized New Testament church. To change the metaphor, the apostles were that church in embryo. It follows that, when Christ charged his apostles to make disciples of all the nations, he gave that command to them and to the organized church of succeeding times.
Pentecost is not the birthday of the Christian church. The church came into being in the Garden of Eden. Yet, some truly great changes came over the church when the Holy Spirit was poured out upon it. One of those changes was the transition from nationalism to universalism. Another change, closely related to that one, was the separation of church and state. In the old dispensation, church and state, although not identical, were intimately allied. Israel was a theocracy, one might say a church-state. When the church became universal, it had to be severed from the Jewish state. Just that occurred. And that is a way of saying that at Pentecost the church acquired its own distinct organization. It is not amiss to assert that, although Pentecost does not mark the birthday of the Christian church as such, it does mark the birthday of the New Testament organization of the church. It was the church in that sense which was empowered by the Holy Spirit to witness for Christ "in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth" (Acts 1:8).
There was an organized church at Antioch in Syria. It was commanded by the Holy Spirit: "Separate me Barnabas and Saul for the work whereunto I have called them." The church obeyed. Significantly, it is said that Barnabas and Saul were sent out as missionaries by both the church and the Holy Spirit: "When they had fasted and prayed, and laid their hands on them, they sent them away. So they, being sent forth by the Holy Ghost, departed" (Acts 13:2–4). In short, Saul and Barnabas were ordained divinely and ecclesiastically as missionaries.
The foregoing evidence is incontrovertible. That the church as an organization is a God-appointed agent of evangelism must be recorded as an established fact. Hence its officers must engage in evangelism, ordain missionaries, and send forth laborers into the harvest. However, it does not follow that only its officers are to be active in evangelism. Under their auspices, guidance, and control, church members generally are in duty bound to bring the gospel to the unsaved.
Something must here be said concerning the scriptural usage of the term evangelist. It occurs just three times in the New Testament. In Acts 21:8, Philip is called "the evangelist." Ephesians 4:11 reads: "And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers." In 2 Timothy 4:5, Paul admonished his spiritual son: "Do the work of an evangelist." In the light of these passages, certain conclusions appear warranted.
The evangelist did not hold a fourth permanent office in the apostolic church in addition to the three offices of ruling elder, teaching elder, and deacon. Evidently the name evangelist was sometimes given to men who served as itinerant preachers. Having preached the gospel in one place, they would soon move on to another. In quick succession, Philip was led by the Spirit to preach at Samaria, on the road from Jerusalem to Gaza, and in Azotus (Acts 8:5, 26, 40). Thus the evangelist, on departing from a given locality, would make room for a pastor-teacher. That may be one reason why pastor-teachers are named immediately after evangelists in Ephesians 4:11.
The fact that in Ephesians 4:11 the function of evangelists is wedged in between the temporary function of apostles and prophets and the permanent function of pastor-teachers gives rise to the question whether evangelists were intended to serve only the apostolic church or were meant for the church of succeeding ages as well. The answer is not difficult to find. The evangelists exercised extraordinary authority, closely akin to that of the apostles. They could authoritatively appoint elders (Titus 1:5) and as individuals exercise discipline (Titus 3:10). Evidently the evangelists received special authority from the apostles, with whom they were intimately associated. It could be said that they were deputy apostles. And that can only mean that their position in the church, like the apostolic office, was a temporary one.
Whether the term evangelist may not be employed by the church today is quite another matter. True, at present the church no longer has evangelists in the specific and special sense which was in vogue in the apostolic church. But that is not a compelling reason for the avoidance of the name. Those ordained preachers, for example, who are sent out by the organized church to bring the gospel particularly to the unsaved may well be thus named. And, as will be shown presently, it is proper to assert that in a sense every believer is in sacred duty bound to be an evangelist. But this subject is of relatively minor importance. A decidedly major matter remains to be considered.
Ever since the sixteenth-century Reformation, Protestantism has taught that three marks distinguish the true church from a false church. They are the sound preaching of the Word of God, the administration of the sacraments according to Christ's precepts, and the faithful exercise of ecclesiastical discipline. In view of the unqualified demand of the Word of God that the church engage in evangelism, the question arises whether a fourth mark should not be added, namely, the evangelizing of the unsaved. That matter deserves serious consideration. It may well be questioned whether there is a church anywhere which completely neglects evangelism. But if there is such a church, it is manifestly denying itself. To use a somewhat trite expression, evangelism belongs, not merely to the well-being of a church, but to its very being. Evangelism is of the essence of the true church. Yet, this is not to say that a fourth mark must be added to the traditional three. Rather, evangelism should be subsumed under the first and foremost mark. Sound preaching is preaching of the unadulterated Word of God, to be sure, but also of the whole Word. The church which utterly fails to evangelize the unsaved can not be said to be proclaiming the whole counsel of God. Evangelism is part and parcel of sound preaching.
Another matter of considerable moment must be named. Paul enjoined the evangelist Timothy: "The things that thou hast heard of me among many witnesses, the same commit thou to faithful men, who shall be able to teach others also" (2 Tim. 2:2). One implication is that the church must make provision for training preachers, particularly such as have in mind the devoting of their entire life to the presentation of the gospel to the lost. Here numerous churches are at fault. Almost every denomination has its theological school or schools for the training of ministers. The curriculum of many of these seminaries is designed mainly, almost exclusively even, to prepare men for service as pastors of established churches. Far more attention should be paid to the specific preparation of evangelists.
The Church as an Organism
The organized church is divinely instituted. God himself is its founder. Did not the Son of God declare: "Upon this rock I will build my church" (Matt. 16:18)? For that reason, men should scrupulously beware of depriving it of its prerogatives. It has no more precious prerogative than that of evangelizing the world.
And yet, it does not follow that all evangelistic effort must be under the direct and complete control of the church as an organization. The church has another aspect. In addition to being an organization, it is also an organism. As an organization, it operates through its officers; as an organism, it operates through its individual members.
God has instituted special offices in his church. But Scripture also teaches a universal office in which all believers participate. Every believer holds the threefold office of prophet, priest, and king. That truth is stated succinctly in 1 Peter 2:9, "Ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvellous light." The church is a royalty of priests, a priesthood of kings. And it is the duty of every priest and king to proclaim the excellencies of his Savior. That is his function as prophet.
The story of Eldad and Medad, told in Numbers 11, is as instructive as it is interesting. Moses alone could not bear the burden of judging the children of Israel as they journeyed through the desert. At God's command, seventy elders were appointed to assist him. At a set time, they were gathered at the tabernacle, the Spirit of God came upon them, and they prophesied. Eldad and Medad, however, although of the seventy, remained in the camp. Surprisingly, the Spirit came upon them also and they, too, prophesied. A young man ran and told Moses of this apparent irregularity. Moses' zealous servant, Joshua, the son of Nun, exclaimed: "My lord Moses, forbid them." What did Moses do? Did he rebuke Eldad and Medad? He did nothing of the kind. Instead, he said: "Would God that all the Lord's people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit upon them!" (vs. 29). That was a prophetic wish. Centuries later, the prophet Joel foretold the granting of that wish. God spoke through him: "It shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh; and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, your young men shall see visions: and also upon the servants and upon the handmaids in those days will I pour out my spirit" (Joel 2:28–29). That prophecy was fulfilled at Pentecost, when not only the apostles, but all the members of the Jerusalem church, were with one accord in one place and "they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance" (Acts 2:1, 4). It has been said correctly that Pentecost spells the universal prophethood of believers. It can just as well be said that the outpouring of the Holy Spirit rendered every member of the church an evangelist. So it was at Pentecost, and so it remains today. Every single believer is a God-ordained agent of evangelism.
And so the believer witnesses for Christ to his neighbors, to those at whose side he works in the shop or store or office, to his fellow students and his teachers, to those over whom he has authority, and to those who exercise authority over him. He invites his unchurched neighbors to worship services in his church, gathers their children in his home for the telling of Bible stories, and makes Christian tracts available in public places. He distributes Bibles to homes, hotels, and motels. In short, he sows the seed of the gospel wherever he can and casts the bread of the evangel on many waters. And for the doing of all that he does not ask to be specifically authorized by the officers of his church. Christ, his Lord, has authorized him. Yet, he does not do it independently of the church. He does it as a member of Christ's body, the church.
What the believer may do as an individual he may also do in collaboration with other believers. Voluntary groups or associations of Christians may translate, publish, and distribute the Scriptures, convey the gospel by the production and dissemination of Christian literature, and in various and sundry ways spread the good news of salvation where it is not known.
To draw a sharp line of demarcation between the evangelistic activity of the church as an organization and evangelism as properly carried on by the church as an organism has sometimes been attempted, but never with unqualified success. Prominent evangelical theologians have come to the conclusion that it is neither necessary nor possible. And yet, at least one stipulation must be made. Inasmuch as the organized church was instituted by God and must engage in evangelism, and voluntary associations of Christians, however legitimate and well intended, are of human origin and may engage in evangelism, the latter must never supplant the former as an agent of evangelism.
In these days, when, generally speaking, the organized church is not held in high esteem as it should be, not even by its own members, that warning is far from superfluous. It is not at all unusual for missions and evangelistic campaigns to be conducted by boards or committees which are independent of ecclesiastical control. Ordinarily that should not be done. Such associations have been known to send out ordained evangelists and even to ordain evangelists. Under normal conditions, such practices must be judged to be quite out of order. Activities of that kind are clearly a prerogative of the organized church.
Whether conditions in a church may not become so abnormal as to justify the aforenamed proceduresthat is another matter. When the Church of England neglected missions, many of its members banded themselves together in mission societies. They undertook what the church ought to have done, but failed to do. When, about the middle of the nineteenth century, the established church of the Netherlands succumbed to theological liberalism, some of its members founded an organization for the conduct of orthodox missions, and that organization felt constrained to resort to the ordination of truly evangelical missionaries. When, in the first third of the twentieth century, the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America fell under the spell of modernism, faithful men and women brought into being the Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions. Those were radical measures, necessitated, however, by existing emergencies, and praiseworthy, truly heroic. And yet, they must be recognized as exceptions to the rule. Before such steps are taken, everything possible should be done to persuade the organized church to perform its duty and to perform it well. And when subsequently there comes into being an organized church which is able and willing to conduct truly Christian evangelism, such measures should be discontinued.
Both the church as an organization and the church as an organism are God-ordained agents of evangelism. They may not clash with each other, for they are two aspects of the one body of Christ. Harmoniously they should labor for the hastening of the day when all nations whom he has made shall come and worship before the Lord and shall glorify his name (Ps. 86:9).
This article is reprinted from God-Centered Evangelism (slightly edited). The author taught practical theology at Westminster Theological Seminary from 1933 to 1952. He quotes the KJV. Reprinted from New Horizons, May 2003.