“The chief agents in the expansion of Christianity appear not to have been those who made it a profession or a major part of their occupation, but men and women who earned their livelihood in some purely secular manner and spoke of their faith to those whom they met in this natural fashion.” So concludes Yale church historian Kenneth Scott Latourette.1 But such lay-evangelism has little Scriptural warrant in the minds of some Christian leaders today.
Not long ago I posted the question “Do the Reformed Confessions Affirm the Duty of Evangelistic and Missionary Outreach?” on the Puritan Board website. A few respondents seemed irritated that I raised such a question. (After all, didn’t the 17th century confessions get it all right!) Most were courteous but expressed satisfaction with the scattered references to “the ministry of,” “the preaching of,” and “the administration of” the Word, which refer mainly to the clergy’s preaching-teaching responsibility.2 One pastor summed up the prevailing opinion well:
I believe most of us are all settled on the role of the preacher in declaring the gospel. I doubt many on the PB will argue against missionaries proclaiming the gospel. But how about the individual pew sitter? Is there a biblical mandate for them to witness or share the gospel? Is one needed? If I am honest to scripture, I have to admit that I cannot find one inference that commands individuals to preach the gospel.3
Similarly, R. Scott Clark, Professor of Church History and Historical Theology at Westminster Seminary in California, asserts, “There’s not a lot of evidence in the NT that unordained Christians did much ‘evangelism.’ This is the Achilles’ Heel of modern, populist, democratic, egalitarian evangelicalism.”4 Such thinking even finds support among some NT scholars. W. Paul Bowers offers the following assessment of the NT data vis-à-vis lay-evangelism:
The most the evidence indicates is that these churches were to facilitate accessions to their community by an attractive behaviour and by a responsiveness to inquiries. But an energetic, aggressive, mobile missionary outreach of the sort prosecuted by Paul himself is not described, expected, or enjoined for his churches.5
John P. Dickson agrees and avers, “The proclamation of the gospel never appears as even a minor duty of Paul’s converts.”6 If what these men allege is true, it would appear that countless laypeople through the centuries either have gone “beyond the call of duty” or have assumed a prerogative that does not belong to them. If the latter, we may at least rejoice that God overruled their “evil” for good.
I’d like to contest the claim that the NT says nothing about lay-evangelism. But we’ll need to define terms first. Terminology like “layman,” “laypeople,” and “laity” is commonly used to distinguish the “ordinary” church member from the clergy, i.e., the bishop, pastor, or elder.7 The Greek verb εὐαγγελίζω/εὐαγγελίζομαι (“to evangelize”) simply means, “to communicate good news concerning something.” The noun εὐαγγέλιον (“gospel”) denotes the content of that communication.8 In Hellenistic and OT usage, the terminology could refer to the good news of a personal blessing experienced (Ps. 40:9; Jer. 20:15) but more frequently depicted the announcement of some political or military victory (1 Sam. 31:9; 2 Sam. 4:10; 18:19-20, 26, 31; 1 Kings 1:42; 2 Chron. 10:9;). The OT writers also employed the verb to describe those who celebrate the good news of Yahweh’s past deliverances or announce His future victories (Ps. 68:11; Isa. 40:9; 60:6; 61:1; Nah. 2:1). Most notable is the usage of εὐαγγελίζομαι in the Septuagint translation of Isaiah 52:7 to portend God’s coming salvation:
How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him
Who brings good news (εὐαγγελιζομένου),
Who publishes peace,
Who brings good news (εὐαγγελιζόμενος) of happiness,
Who publishes salvation,
Who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.”
Not surprisingly, the NT writers employ this terminology for the preaching of the good news of God’s climactic work of redemption through the person and work of Jesus Christ. Early in the synoptic Gospels, we read of Jesus “proclaiming the gospel” (Matt. 4:23; Mark 1:14; Luke 4:43; 8:1; 9:6).9 The gospel message and its announcement feature prominently in the Book of Acts (5:42; 8:4, 12, 25, 35, 40; 10:36; 11:20; 13:32; 14:7, 15, 21; 15:7, 35; 16:10; 17:18; 20:24) and most frequently in the Pauline writings.10 In his first epistle, Peter uses the noun once (4:17) and the verb thrice (1:12, 25; 4:6). The author of Hebrews employs the verb twice (4:2, 6). Neither noun nor verb appears in the epistles of James or Jude. Though the verb appears twice and the noun once in the Revelation (10:7; 14:6), the apostle John never uses the terminology in his Gospel or his three epistles. The “evangelism” lacuna in John’s Gospel is intriguing. “It would be a mistake, however,” cautions Ulrich Becker, “to assume that because certain NT writings do not use the vb. or the noun, the thought expressed by them is therefore completely lacking.”11 As it turns out, John’s preferred terminology for communicating the gospel is the Greek verb μαρτυρέω (“to bear witness”).12 A perusal of the NT corpora uncovers a variety of communication-verbs used to depict the work of evangelism,13 a point often overlooked when assessing the question of whether laypeople may evangelize.
What then is meant by “lay-evangelism”? Lay-evangelism is the communication of the good news about the person and work of Jesus Christ by non-ordained Christians.
Some NT Passages Supporting Lay-evangelism
The NT evidence for lay-evangelism is not as sparse as some suggest. Due to space constraints, however, we’ll have to limit our survey to a few key texts. Other studies provide a more detailed and exhaustive analysis of the NT data.14
Acts 6:7; 8:1-4; 11:19-21
Without question apostolic preaching features prominently in the Book of Acts. There are, however, a few references to the participation of non-clergy in evangelism. In Acts 6:7, for example, we read, “And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.” The preceding reference to the apostles’ “to the ministry of the word” (6:4) might incline the reader to credit the gospel’s spread to the apostles’ preaching. The subsequent context urges otherwise. There we find Stephen, one of the seven proto-deacons (Acts 6:1-3, 5-6), preaching the gospel (6:8-10; 7:2-53). Stephen’s bold witness for Christ provokes the Jews’ animosity, and he becomes a martyr (”witness”) in the fullest sense of that word (8:54-60).
The ensuing persecution results in the dispersion of the disciples in Jerusalem, both men and women, excepting the apostles (8:1-3). The outcome of the dispersion is underscored in 8:4: “Therefore those who were scattered went everywhere preaching the word [εὐαγγελιζόμενοι τὸν λόγον].”15 John Gill identifies those scattered and preaching as “the seventy disciples and other ministers of the word in an effort to restrict this evangelistic activity to ordained men.16 We’re inclined, however, to agree with J. A. Alexander’s interpretation:
The inspired writer, having paused to tell us what became of Stephen and Saul, now resumes his narrative of the dispersion, not by repeating what he said in v. 1, but by advancing a step further. As he there said that all (except the twelve) were scattered, he now says that all who were thus scattered preached the word. Some would infer from this, that none but preachers were expelled; but it is far more natural to understand the verse as referring, not to preaching in the technical or formal sense, but to that joyful and spontaneous diffusion of the truth, which is permitted and required of all believers, whether lay or clerical, ordained or unordained (emphasis added).17
The subsequent context supports Alexander’s reading. Once again, Luke provides us with a sample of the kind of evangelism he has in view. Philip, like Stephen, had been ordained to serve tables (Acts 6:1-3, 5-6) in contrast with an official appointment to “the ministry of the word” (6:4). Nevertheless, Philip went to Samaria and “proclaimed to them the Christ [ἐκήρυσσεν αὐτοῖς τὸν Χριστόν]” (8:5), resulting in many conversions (8:6-8). Later, the Spirit prompts him to go to Gaza where Philip preaches the gospel to an Ethiopian eunuch (8:26-40). In these contexts, Philip’s activity is depicted three times with the Greek verb “to evangelize” (8:12, 35, 40). It was probably in light of Philip’s gifts and success in evangelism that he was later promoted to the more official function of “evangelist” (Acts 21:8).
So the Book of Acts doesn’t confine the task of evangelism to the clergy. To be sure, greater attention is given to those whose deeds were most notable (Stephen and Philip). But these exceptionally gifted men were only samples of a more widespread activity on the part of ordinary disciples to proclaim the good news about Jesus. Dennis Johnson captures well the significance of the evangelistic dispersion when he remarks,
As the Lord in Isaiah summoned the people to be his witnesses, so now all believers, empowered by the Spirit, can speak the word of God boldly (Acts 4:31). In fact, the first step in the gospel’s spread to the earth’s ends are taken not by apostles, but by other Christians, who are scattered by persecution as the apostles remain in Jerusalem (8:1)” (emphasis added).18
So “scattered disciples,” of which Stephen and Philip were a part, proclaimed the gospel (εὐαγγελίζομαι) though they were neither apostles nor clergy.
I Corinthians 4:16; 11:1
In Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth, we find two of the apostle’s famous “imitation” texts. “I urge you, then,” he says in 4:16, “be imitators of me.” He repeats the injunction again in 11:1: “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.” Read in isolation these directives are somewhat ambiguous. Imitate Paul in what? The context, of course, must answer that question.
The first passage is nestled in a context where Paul contrasts his humility and faithfulness, in the face of rejection and persecution, with the “Christian” triumphalism (akin to the “health, wealth and prosperity gospel” of our day) to which some in the Corinthian church were falling prey (4:8-13). Paul urges the Corinthians to reject such triumphalism and, instead, imitate him (4:17). What precisely does Paul expect the Corinthians to “imitate”? A cursory reading might suggest that Paul is simply enjoining a self-sacrificing lifestyle that perseveres in the face of difficulty and opposition. One must probe a deeper, though, and inquire what it was about Paul’s life that occasioned hardship and persecution. It wasn’t merely a moral lifestyle. He and the other apostles had become “fools for Christ’s sake” and “the scum of the world” on account of their public attachment to and communication of the gospel. Robert Plummer grasps the implication for the Corinthians:
If the Corinthians are to imitate Paul by enduring suffering, mocking and persecution, it is not “suffering for suffering’s sake.” For the Corinthians, as for the apostles, their open adherence to and proclamation of the “foolishness of the cross” will result in the world’s disapproval and opposition (emphasis added).19
The import of 11:1 is much the same. The paragraph break in most modern English Bibles rightly places 11:1 at the end of an extended section in which Paul addresses the question of things indifferent and the need for those with a strong (informed) conscience to accommodate their behavior in order not to offend those with a weak conscience (chs. 8-10). Paul sets himself forth as the paradigm of such accommodation (8:13; 9:1-27; 10:33). Once again, a cursory reading might lead to the conclusion that Paul’s simply enjoining such attitudes as unselfishness, deference, and love for one’s neighbor. But the Pauline lifestyle the Corinthians are to imitate is not an end in itself but a means to a end. Paul brings this end into sharp focus in 9:19-22 and 10:32-33. He accommodates his lifestyle (not his message) to his audience in order to “win” (κερδαίνω; vv. 19, 20 [2x], 21, 22) or to “save” (σώζω; v. 22) sinners. Of course, Paul wasn’t winning people merely through accommodation. He accommodated to them so that his communication of the gospel might bear more fruit: “Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved” (1 Cor. 10:31-33; emphasis added). The point is not simply that the Corinthians are to live in a way that doesn’t cause others to stumble and perish. The point is, rather, that the Corinthians are to imitate Paul and Jesus (11:1), both of whom employed an unselfish, deferring lifestyle as a means to a greater end— namely, evangelism.
Ephesians 6:15, 17
In Matthew 16:18, Jesus responds to Peter’s affirmation of Jesus’s messiahship with the programmatic statement: “I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” The reader shouldn’t miss Jesus’s mixed metaphor—the church is like a building project and like a military operation. One should also note that neither metaphor conveys a passive or defensive posture. Both metaphors, on the contrary, denote the ideas of growth, advance, completion, and victory.
It’s likely Paul had Jesus’s dual metaphor in view when he wrote to the Ephesians. The letter focuses largely on Christ’s church in this present evil age, and it employs the building and the military metaphor throughout. Consider, for example, 4:7-16. After explaining that “grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift” (4:7), Paul tells us that these grace-gifts are spoils of Christ’s military victory over the kingdom of darkness (4:8-10) and describes how these grace-gifts are distributed among the church: “And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ” (4:11-12). The special “clerical” gifts are bestowed on the church for the purpose of equipping “the saints,” a reference to all true disciples (clerical and non-clerical), so that they might engage in ministry to the end that Christ’s church might be edified.20 Note the shift from the military to the building metaphor, which is resumed in 4:15-16.
Paul returns to the military metaphor in 6:10-17. Here, he urges the saints to “be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might” and to “put on the whole armor of God, that [they] may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil” and all his demonic forces (6:10-13). This is followed by a list of “spiritual armory” with which each believer is to be equipped to fight the good fight of faith (6:14-17). Commentators tend to describe the battle Paul envisions as defensive rather than offensive. Such a portrayal, however, betrays poor exegesis and misses the bigger picture. The picture is that of soldiers prepared to do battle against the forces of evil with victory, not mere survival, as their goal. The exhortation to “be strong in the Lord and in the power of his might” (6:10) is intended to stir up the courage necessary for a forward advance. Indeed, the terminology “stand against [στῆναι πρὸς]” (6:11), “wrestle against [ἡ πάλη πρὸς]” (6:12), and “withstand [ἀντιστῆναι]” (6:13) are offensive, not merely defensive expressions. Moreover, the “equipage of the saints for the service of ministry” in Ephesians 4:12 is here described in terms of fitting each believer with “spiritual armor.” Remember the words of Jesus in Matthew 16:18. Paul is calling the church to storm “the gates of hell.”
With these preliminary observations in view, we’re ready to focus on verses 15 and 17. Verse 15 literally reads, “And having your feet fitted in readiness of the gospel of peace” (author’s translation). The relationship between the noun translated “readiness” (ἑτοιμασίᾳ) and the genitive “of the gospel” (τοῦ εὐαγγελίου) is the crux interpretum. Some interpret “of the gospel” as a genitive of source, i.e., the readiness that comes from the gospel (see NIV, NET, ESV). Others, however, interpret “of the gospel” as an objective genitive. So the NRSV reads, “As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace” (see also NAB, TEV, NJB). This reading fits well with two OT texts Paul may have had in mind:
How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness, who publishes salvation, who says to Zion, “Your God reigns” (Isa. 52:7).
Behold, upon the mountains, the feet of him who brings good news, who publishes peace! Keep your feasts, O Judah; fulfill your vows, for never again shall the worthless pass through you; he is utterly cut off (Nah. 1:15).
If Paul had these passages in view, both of which speak of “feet” (πούς, LXX), “proclaiming the gospel” (εὐαγγελίζομαι, LXX) and “peace” (εἰρήνη, LXX), then he’s portraying the layperson as a fellow-worker with him in spreading those glad tidings that set the prisoner free.21 The Christian’s ministry would resemble that of his Master who, according to Paul in 2:17, “Came and preached peace to [the Ephesians] who were far off and peace to [the Jewish people] who were near.” Harry Uprichard agrees and remarks, “There is not only the firmness of a defensive stance but the alertness and mobility of an offensive action. This is the Christian soldier’s ‘mission statement.’”22
The evangelistic interpretation of verse 15 gains further support when one notes the last piece of the Christian soldier’s panoply in verse 17b. There, Paul enjoins believers to “take … the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.” The likelihood that Paul drew nearly all his armory language from Isaiah’s prophecy (see note 21) makes it probable that the reader should also interpret this piece of armory evangelistically. In other words, “the sword [μάχαιραν] of the Spirit, which is the word of God” should be read against the backdrop of Isaiah 49:1-6. There, Yahweh commissions his Servant whose “mouth [is fashioned] like a sharp sword [μάχαιραν]” (49:2) to be a “light for the nations that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth” (49:6). As the members of Christ’s body proclaim the gospel, the Servant wields through them the “sharp word” that vanquishes the enemy and sets the captives free. So we agree with Clinton Arnold when he writes, “The Word of God and the work of the Spirit are the means by which the people of God step out in defiance of Satan and rob his domain.”23 This evangelistic interpretation is further confirmed in the three following verses where Paul enjoins the believers to enter the battle in a posture of prayer, seeking God’s grace for their success and Paul’s (6:18-20). How does Paul describe his engagement with the enemy?
[Pray] also for me, that words may be given to me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains, that I may declare it boldly, as I ought to speak (emphasis added).
We conclude, then, that Paul expected the Ephesians to join him in that grand building project and military enterprise whose Master Builder and Field Marshall was none other than Jesus Christ. They weren’t all called to be apostles or pastors or teachers, but they were called to share the good news as lay-evangelists. Accordingly, the ordained man is responsible not only to set example of evangelistic engagement (2 Tim. 4:5) but also to equip the saints with the spiritual armor requisite for their own missional role in extending Christ’s kingdom (Eph. 4:12; 6:13-17).24
Philippians 1:12-18; 2:15-16
The Philippians, like the Ephesians, may have been tempted to “lose heart” in light of Paul’s imprisonment (see Eph. 3:13). Paul seeks to encourage them with the knowledge that God has used his imprisonment for the gospel’s advance:
I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ. And most of the brothers, having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the word without fear (1:12-14).
Of special note is Paul’s reference to “most of the brothers” being emboldened “to speak the word without fear” (1:14). The Greek term translated “brothers” (ἀδελφός) refers to Christians in general. The fact Paul had just addressed the congregation in Philippi as ἀδελφοί (1:12) makes it unlikely that he has clergy exclusively in view in verse 14. It’s even possible that the second use of ἀδελφός may be gender inclusive, as is the first. Hence, Paul is probably referring to evangelistic efforts carried on both by laymen and laywomen.25 So this passage portrays laypeople as “advancing the gospel” (εἰς προκοπὴν τοῦ εὐαγγελίου, 1:12), “speaking the word” (τὸν λόγον λαλεῖν, 1:14), “preaching Christ (τὸν Χριστὸν κηρύσσουσιν, 1:15), and “proclaiming Christ” (τὸν Χριστὸν καταγγέλλουσιν, 1:17). Far from objecting to lay-evangelism Paul celebrates it (1:18) and, by implication, approves it.
The apostle again alludes to the Philippians’ gospel witness in 2:14-16. The point of interest is whether Paul portrays their witness as purely passive. Those who argue for a “passive” witness, i.e., godly lifestyle, base their case largely on the meaning of the Greek verb ἐπέχω (2:16), which is translated by many versions (NAS, NKJ, NLT, NET, ESV, CSB) and interpreted by some as “hold fast.”26 The problem is that the only four other occurrences of this verb in the NT are intransitive (Luke 14:7; Acts 3:5; 19:22; 1 Tim. 4:16). In this passage, however, the verb is used transitively with “the word of life” as the object. Consequently, some translations (KJV, DRA, ASV, NIV, NJB) and commentators favor the idea of “holding forth the word of life.”27 After conducting a thorough survey on the usage of the verb in extra-biblical literature, James Ware concludes, “It can be stated categorically that the verb ἐπέχω does not bear the sense hold fast in any ancient passage, and the etymology and usage of the word … preclude such a meaning.”28 If Ware is correct, Paul is calling on the Philippians to imitate him and the other emboldened “brothers” (1:12-18) in functioning as heavenly luminaries (2:15b) not only by means of living the gospel but also by means of proclaiming the gospel (2:16a).
We conclude, then, that the Philippians’ partnership with Paul in the gospel (1:4) was to include more than prayer and financial support. Paul wanted them to imitate him, not in assuming the office of apostle but in assuming the role of all Christian disciples, that of shining forth the light of the gospel both in conduct and also in communication.
Like the letters to the Ephesians and the Philippians, the letter to the Colossians was written while Paul was in prison. As in the case of other believers, Paul expected the Colossians not only to pray for his evangelistic endeavors but also to follow his example. So, after imploring their prayers for his evangelistic efforts (4:3-4), he enjoins them, “With wisdom walk before outsiders, buying the time” (4:5, author’s translation). Obviously, Paul is concerned about the way believers conduct themselves before unbelievers. The method he prescribes, however, seems at first glace obscure. What does it mean to “buy the time”? The translation “redeeming the time,” found in some older translations (KJV, DRA, ASV), is misleading. It conveys the idea of reclaiming time lost (presumably from the devil?). But the Greek verb (ἐξαγοράζω) need not denote “buy back” in this context but simply “buy” or “acquire.” Accordingly, some translations render the phrase as an idiom referring to the wise stewardship of time (see ESV, CSB).
This reading is unlikely, though, in light of Paul’s subsequent exhortation, which refers to the believer’s verbal communication with the non-believer. It seems preferable, then, to interpret the Greek τὸν καιρὸν not as “time” but as “opportunity” (NAS, NAB, NIV, NLT, NET; see also 2 Cor. 6:2). Opportunity for what? Here’s where verse 6 comes into play: “Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.” The Colossians should be alert not merely for opportunities to play the “Good Samaritan.” More than that, they’re to interact with unbelievers through verbal communication. Their “speech” (ὁ λόγος) should be both gracious and salty, that is, they must communicate in a way that manifests humility and goodwill on the one hand as well as boldness and honesty on the other.29
The reader shouldn’t miss the parallel of thought between Paul’s portrayal of his mission (4:3-4) and Paul’s portrayal of the Colossians’ mission (4:5-6). In both cases, the mission entails interaction with unbelievers. In both cases, the believing parties are to pray for “open doors” (4:3) and be on the lookout for “opportunities” (4:5). And in both cases, the interaction involves more than passive witness. The Colossians’ duty to “answer each person” with “speech” that is both gracious and truthful (4:6) is essentially equivalent to Paul’s responsibility to “declare the mystery of Christ,” making it “clear, which is how [he] ought to speak” (4:3-4). Paul solicits their prayers for his evangelistic outreach and then encourages the believers to remain alert for gospel opportunities.
1 Thessalonians 1:8
In this first letter to the congregation in Thessalonica, Paul praises the newly planted church because “from [them] the word of the Lord has sounded forth not only in Macedonia and Achaia but in every place.” Indeed, the apostle boasts, “Your faith toward God has gone out, so that we do not need to say anything” (1:8). The Greek verb translated “sounded forth,” ἐξηχέω, is used in the NT only here. In the LXX, it’s used for the clamorous noise of a crowd of people (Joel 4:14 [Eng. 3:14]). The apocryphal book Sirach employs it to denote the reverberating sound of a thunderclap (40:13). With a touch of metaphor, then, Paul is saying something like “The proclamation from Thessalonica was set at high volume and went out with great force over a large area.”30 In addition to proclaiming the objective truths of the gospel, the Thessalonians had also shared their subjective experience, that is, their “faith in God” (cf. 1:9-10). “Having received the gospel,” notes F. F. Bruce, “the Thessalonian Christians had no thought of keeping it to themselves; by word and life they made it known to others. From the beginning they functioned as a missionary church.”31
Despite the apparent evangelistic thrust of this text, some scholars attempt to reduce the “noise” from Thessalonica to a merely passive witness. According to W. P. Bowers, “the word of the Lord ringing out” refers simply to news of the Thessalonians’ conversion and godly lifestyle.32 But the following considerations make this view untenable. First, the phrase “the word of the Lord” consistently refers to the objective truths of the gospel not to one’s personal testimony (Acts 8:25; 13:44, 48, 49; 15:35; 16:32; 19:10, 20). Paul uses the phrase in his second letter to the Thessalonians when he asks them to pray for his own evangelistic labors: “Finally, brothers, pray for us, that the word of the Lord may speed ahead and be honored, as happened among you” (2 Thess. 3:1). Second, a godly lifestyle has no meaning apart from a propositional interpretation of that lifestyle. That the Thessalonians stopped worshipping idols and turned to the living God could only have Christian significance if a gospel explanation accompanied that change. Third, as a result of the Thessalonians “noising the word abroad,” Paul could say, “We need not say anything.” While Paul may be employing some hyperbole here, he seems to imply that it was not merely the message of changed lives that went abroad but that of the gospel itself. Finally, preceding and following this verse, Paul commends the Thessalonians for imitating not only him and his missionary band (1:6) but also the churches in Judea (2:14) in their willingness to endure rejection and suffering. Of course, as Jo-Ann Grant rightly observes, “The equation of ‘imitation’ and suffering affliction ignores the fact that the Thessalonians were engaged in some activity that incurred the opposition of others.” So what was that activity for which the missionaries and Judean churches suffered? Paul clearly alludes to it in 1 Thessalonians 2:14b-16a:
For you suffered the same things from your own countrymen as they [the Judean churches] did from the Jews, who killed both the Lord Jesus and the prophets, and drove us out, and displease God and oppose all mankind by hindering us from speaking to the Gentiles that they might be saved (emphasis added).
In conclusion, Paul commends these believers not only for their godly conduct but also for their evangelistic zeal. In the words of one commentator, “The evangelized become the evangelists.”33
One of the main burdens of the author of Hebrews is to demonstrate how New Covenant realities fulfill Old Covenant shadows. At one point, as he’s presenting Christ as the Great High Priest to whom all OT priests were but types, he pauses to admonish his audience for failing to grasp these gospel realities as they should have by now: “by this time you ought to be teachers” (5:12). The text implies that individual believers ought to strive for doctrinal and practical maturity that they might communicate accurately the gospel for the benefit of others. There’s no indication in the immediate or larger context that the writer has narrowed his focus to ministerial aspirants. “He does not mean by this that they should all be ordained ministers,” says Richard Phillips, “but that they ought to be able to instruct others in the faith.”34 So he’s referring to laypeople, and he’s referring to their need to grow in competence to instruct others in the gospel.
Some object that laypeople are not sufficiently gifted or mature to instruct others in the faith.35 But the author of Hebrews has higher expectations for his audience than some modern Reformed leaders seem to have for their congregations. Certainly, there are many Aquilas (laymen) and Priscillas (laywomen) who can be equipped to expound “the way of God more accurately” even to Apolloses (clergy) who are otherwise “competent in the Scriptures” (Acts 18:24-26).
1 Peter 2:9; 3:15
According to 1 Peter 2:9, God has granted the church a privileged status to carry out a particular function. The function is to “proclaim” our Redeemer’s excellencies. The Greek verb ἐξαγγέλλω means to report, announce, or declare. According to John Brown, “Christians, as the called of God, are intended to show forth the excellencies of God, both passively and actively.”36 John Calvin agrees and writes, “It behooves us to declare these excellencies not only by tongue, but also by our whole life.”37 The fact that Peter, in the larger context, addresses the church in corporate (e.g., “a spiritual house”) and in individual language (e.g., “living stones”) suggests that the privileged responsibility has a corporate and individual dimension. Some may confine the verbal proclamation to the setting of corporate worship. Even if Peter’s purview were that narrow, an evangelistic element would not be precluded (compare 1 Cor. 14:23-25). Nevertheless, the church’s calling in this world is surely not limited to corporate worship on Sunday. Hence, it’s also possible that the verb Peter uses here connotes the idea of proclaiming abroad. D. Edmond Hiebert thinks so and sees “a message being proclaimed to those outside what has taken place within. It indicates,” argues Hiebert, “the evangelistic function of the church.”38
If one doubts an “outside the church” application for 1 Peter 2:9, he’s forced to concede such an application in 1 Peter 3:15, which reads, “In your hearts honor 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; yet do it with gentleness and respect.” The phrase “make a defense” translates the Greek word ἀπολογία from which we derive the English word “apologetics.” Peter’s not thinking primarily of a general apologetic for a theistic worldview. He’s referring to reasoned defense of gospel hope. And lest we interpret the passage with the sense “don’t speak unless first asked,” let me highlight two realities that preclude such a reading. First, the fact an unbeliever would ask for such an apologetic assumes that some gospel witness has already been communicated. Folks don’t just walk up out of the blue and say, “Why do you believe your sins are forgiven and you’re going to heaven?” unless they’ve heard about the gospel we believe. Second, this whole epistle is written to Christians who are being persecuted for their faith. It assumes they’re sharing the gospel and that, as a result, they, like the apostles and other gospel heralds, may find themselves arraigned before unfriendly audiences where they must defend their gospel hope. Far from encouraging a non-initiatory approach to evangelism, this text assumes Spirit-filled boldness and active witness on the part of the believer.
These are some passages in the NT that provide warrant for laying a measure of evangelistic responsibility at the feet of lay-people. Of course, we must make appropriate qualifications. My thesis is not that every stay-at-home mom or businessman has to engage in street preaching or door-to-door evangelism. Rather, each believer’s responsibility to evangelize is conditioned by such factors as (1) the depth of his or her knowledge of biblical (gospel) truth, (2) the level of his or her spiritual maturity, (3) the degree of his or her communicative gift, and (4) the kind of providential opportunities that present themselves, which, in turn, relate to his or her vocation or calling in life. Not everyone is called to serve Christ as an ordained pastor, church-planter, or missionary. Nor does every believer possess the same level of doctrinal and practical maturity to communicate the gospel effectively and accurately. So the weight of responsibility on each Christian will differ. Nevertheless, the 6th commandment, the Golden Rule, and numerous other biblical data constrain me to conclude that all of Christ’s disciples are called to take not just a reactive (1 Pet 3:15) but a proactive part in the church’s mission to the world. Consequently, it doesn’t appear wide the mark to conclude that the Scriptures give warrant for us to affirm not only the church’s responsibility to preach the gospel in the context of corporate worship and to commission church planters and missionaries to take the gospel to the nations but also the individual believer’s responsibility to be salt and light by life and lip in the midst of a lost and perishing world.39
A Final Word About Words
Before concluding this study, I must add a word about what I perceive to be an irresponsible handling of terminology by those who would begrudge the laity of the privilege and task of evangelism. As noted in the introduction, Reformed theologian R. Scott Clark argues, “There’s not a lot of evidence in the NT that non-ordained Christians did much ‘evangelism.’” How does someone like Clark wiggle around the NT evidence just presented? The answer lies, I believe, in Clark’s use of the term “evangelism.” I suspect that Clark views “evangelism” as technical terminology that belongs solely to the province of the clergy. Many think the same about the Greek vocabulary for “preaching.” Such terms as the verb κηρύσσω and the noun κήρυγμα refer exclusively, in the minds of some, to preaching a sermon from a pulpit. Consequently, Reformed leaders like Clark will with one hand deny “evangelism” to the laity but will with the other hand allow the laity to “witness.” “It’s probably better,” argues Clark, “to speak about lay witness to THE faith once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 3) as summarized in the Apostles’ Creed and explained by the Reformed churches in the confessions. God’s unordained people should also be able to give witness to THEIR (his or her) personal faith” (emphasis his).40
This line of reasoning is fallacious. First, as noted above (“Defining Terms”), a concept may be present though the technical vocabulary be absent. Even if the technical terms for “evangelism” weren’t predicated of laity in the NT, that doesn’t mean that the laity never did what the terminology conveys. There’s not a universe of difference between “evangelism” and “wielding the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (Eph. 6:17), or “speaking boldly the word without fear” (Phil. 1:14), or “sounding forth the word” (1 Thess. 1:8), or “being prepared to make a defense for one’s gospel hope” (1 Pet. 3:15). Second, there are passages in which the terms for “evangelism” (εὐαγγελίζω/εὐαγγελίζομαι, εὐαγγέλιον) are predicated of non-clergy (Acts 8:4; 11:20; Eph. 6:15; Phil. 1:12, 14). Third, the word “witness” hardly avoids the clerical overtones that Clark and other Reformed folks want to keep out of the reach of the laity. As noted above (“Defining Terms”), the apostle John’s preferred verb for communicating the good news about Christ was μαρτυρέω, “to bear witness.” Throughout John’s Gospel this term is employed to denote the official witness that the OT Scripture writers bore of Christ (5:39), that John the Baptist bore of Christ (1:15, 32, 34; 3:26; 5:33), that Jesus bore of himself and the truth (1:8; 3:11; 3:32; 4:44; 5:31, 36; 7:7; 8:13-14, 18; 10:25; 18:37), that the Father bore of Christ (5:32, 37; 8:18), that the Spirit would bear of Christ (15:26), and that Christ’s chosen apostles were to bear of him (1:34; 15:27; 19:35; 21:24). If there were ever a role that might be too lofty for laypeople, it would be “bearing witness”!41 Of course, the apostle John wasn’t so penurious with his vocabulary as some modern clericalists. He was willing to describe a crowd of people flocking to Jesus on the basis of a Samaritan woman’s “testimony [μαρτυρούσης]” (4:39). And John will use the Greek noun μάρτυς to designate those “martyrs,” whether clergy or laity, who seal their verbal testimony with their own blood (Rev. 17:6). Similarly, Mark could employ the Greek verb for “preaching” (κηρύσσω) to describe Jesus’s official proclamation of the gospel (Mark 1:14), on the one hand, and the enthusiastic testimonies of a leper now healed, a demoniac now freed, and a deaf-dumb man now hearing and speaking (Mark 1:45; 5:20; 7:32), on the other hand. If Scripture writers used gospel vocabulary to predicate both clerical and non-clerical activity, why can’t we?
In closing, I want to restate the purpose of this two-part essay. I’m concerned about a tendency in some Reformed circles to overemphasize the importance of the ordained man’s ministry and to underemphasize the importance of the layperson’s ministry. Certain Reformed leaders and scholars seem inclined to define the life and ministry of a local church more narrowly in terms of what happens in the pulpit on Sundays rather than more broadly in terms of what happens in the pulpit, in the pew, and outside the church all seven days of the week. Healthy church life and ministry is construed mainly in terms of “the preached Word and sacraments” rather than holistically in terms that give proper place to lay-ministry and lay-evangelism. We shouldn’t deny the unique role of the pastoral office or the reality of varied levels of communication-gift. But the activities of ministry and evangelism are not the sole province of the clergy. My hope is that Christian pastors and leaders will strive to equip their flock with the knowledge, skill, and motivation to serve the body and to share the gospel. My prayer is that the non-ordained saints will understand that their role extends beyond singing hymns, listening to sermons, and keeping out of trouble. Jesus may not have authorized them to serve the church as pastors. But he’s authorized them to be more than “pew-potatoes.” They can serve and share the gospel in keeping with their level of gift and maturity. This is the proper due of the people in the pew.
[Note: this article was published in the Founders Journal 83 (Winter 2011): 11-27. It has been updated and reproduced here with permission.]
- A History of the Expansion of Christianity (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1937), 1:116. Comments made by some of the early church fathers corroborate Latourette’s assessment. See Irenaeus, Against Heresies I, 10.2; Tertullian, Apology, 1.7; Origen, Against Celsus, 3.55. [↩]
- See, for example, the Westminster Confession of Faith 7.6; 10.3, 4; 14.1; 23.3; Larger Catechism 35; 68; 155; 159; and Shorter Catechism 89. [↩]
- One of the comments made on a discussion thread dealing with the question, “Do the Reformed Confessions Affirm the Duty of Evangelistic and Missionary Outreach?” which can be found on the Puritan Board: http://www.puritanboard.com/f71/do-reformed-confessions-affirm- duty-evangelistic-missionary-outreach-37503/. For more examples, see also the discussion under the thread, “The Pastor Only Should Evangelize”: http://www.puritanboard.com/f19/pastor-only- should-evangelize-29582/. [↩]
- “Missional Monday: Should Evangelism Happen Only in the Church?” accessed on July 23, 2014 on the Internet. [↩]
- “Church and Mission in Paul,” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 44 (1991): 111. [↩]
- “Promoting the Gospel: ‘Mission-Commitment’ in the Churches of Paul Against Its Jewish Background” (Ph.D. diss., Marquarie University, 2001), 311. [↩]
- We looked at the biblical justification for this distinction in Part One of this series. [↩]
- Johannes P. Louw and Eugene Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament Based on Semantic Domains, 2nd edition (United Bible Socities, 1988, 89), § 33.215, 217 [pp. 412-13]. [↩]
- Sometimes the concept of “preaching the gospel” is conveyed by the verb alone (Matt. 11:5; Luke 1:19; 2:10; 3:18; 4:18; 7:22; 9:6; 16:16; 20:1). In other cases, the noun “gospel” is preceded by a verb of communication (Matt. 4:23; 9:35; 24:14; 26:13; Mark 1:14; 13:10; 14:9). [↩]
- The references are too numerous to list. I counted 57 uses of the noun and 19 uses of the verb. [↩]
- “Gospel, Evangelize, Evangelist,” The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, ed. Colin Brown (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976), 2:110. [↩]
- John uses the verb at least 30 times in his Gospel; nine times in his epistles; and three times in Revelation. He uses the noun “witness” five times in Revelation. [↩]
- Such verbs include but aren’t limited to λαλέω (“to speak”); προσλαλέω (“to address”); κηρύσσω (“to preach”); διδάσκω (“to teach”); κατηχέω (“to teach or catechize”) ἀναγγέλλω (“to proclaim”); ἀπαγγέλλω (“to declare”); ἐξαγγέλλω (“to announce”); παρρησιάζομαι (“to speak boldly”); διαλέγομαι (“to discuss”); προγράφω (“to portray”); πληροφορέω (“to recount fully”); διηγέομαι (“to report”); διαφημίζω (“to publish abroad”); ὁμολογέω (“to confess”); ἐξηχέω (“to sound forth”). [↩]
- Andreas J. Koestenberger and Peter T. O’Brien, Salvation to the Ends of the Earth: A Biblical Theology of Mission, New Studies in Biblical Theology, ed. D. A. Carson (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity, 2001); Peter T. O’Brien, Gospel and Mission in the Writings of Paul: An Exegetical and Theological Analysis (Exeter: Paternoster, 1995); Robert L. Plummer, Paul’s Understanding of the Church’s Mission: Did the Apostle Paul Expect the Early Christian Communities to Evangelize? (Exeter: Paternoster, 2006); Eckhard J. Schnabel, Early Christian Mission, 2 vols. (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity, 2004); James Patrick Ware, “The Mission of the Church in Paul’s Letter to the Philippians in the Context of Ancient Judaism.” Supplements to Novum Testamentum 120 (Leiden: Brill, 2005). For less technical and more popular treatments of the subject, see Mark Dever, The Gospel & Personal Evangelism (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2007); R. B. Kuiper, God-Centered Evangelism (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth, 1966); Will Metzger, Tell the Truth: The Whole Gospel to the Whole Person by Whole People, 2nd edition (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity, 1984). [↩]
- A parallel text is found in Acts 11:19-21. [↩]
- The Exposition of the New Testament (London: William Hill Collingridge, 1852), 1:858. [↩]
- A Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles (1857; reprint, Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth, 1984), 319. [↩]
- The Message of Acts in the History of Redemption (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1997), 45. [↩]
- Paul’s Understanding of the Church’s Mission, 85. [↩]
- For my exposition of Ephesians 4:12, see Part 1 of this series. [↩]
- The likelihood that Paul drew much of the metaphors of armory from Isaiah’s prophecy (compare Eph. 4:14a with Isa. 11:5; Eph. 4:14b with Isa. 59:17; Eph. 6:17a with Isa. 59:17; Eph. 6:17b with Isa. 49:2) makes it all the more likely that he had Isaiah 52:7 in view when composing Ephesians 6:15. [↩]
- A Study Commentary on Ephesians (Webster, NY: Evangelical Press, 2004), 365. And what a mission! “It is a striking paradox,” notes G. B. Caird, “that the soldier should be equipped for battle with a declaration of peace.” Paul’s Letters from Prison: Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, Philemon (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976), 93. See also F. F. Bruce, The Epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon, and to the Ephesians, NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1984), 408; Leon Morris, Expository Reflections on the Letter to the Ephesians (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1994), 206; Peter O’Brien, The Letter to the Ephesians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 477-79. [↩]
- Powers of Darkness: Principalities and Powers in Paul’s Letters (Downers Grove: Inter- Varsity, 1992), 157. Others who interpret Ephesians 6:15 evangelistically include Markus Barth, Ephesians: Translation and Commentary on Chapters 4-6, in AB (New York: Doubleday & Co., 1960), 777; Andrew T. Lincoln, Ephesians, vol. 42 of The Word Biblical Commentary (Nashville: Word Books, 1990). [↩]
- Jay Adams offers a couple of pages of advice for pastors in the realm of leadership and refers to the approach that doesn’t expect or prepare members to evangelize as an example of leadership failure. Shepherding God’s Flock: A Handbook on Pastoral Ministry, Counseling, and Leadership (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1974, 75), 339-44. [↩]
- The reader should note that the “brothers,” whom Paul addresses in 1:12, are identified as “all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the overseers and deacons.” (1:1). So the term “brothers” like “saints” may include office-bearers but is not limited to them in this context. [↩]
- Peter T. O’Brien, Epistle to the Philippians (Eerdmans, 1991), 297; Vern Poythress, “‘Hold Fast’ versus ‘Hold Out’ in Philippians 2:16,” Westminster Theological Journal 63 (2002): 45-53; Moisés Silva, Philippians (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1992), 146. [↩]
- See, for example, F. W. Beare, A Commentary on the Epistle to the Philippians (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1959), 92-93; John Eadie, A Commentary on the Greek Text of the Epistle of Paul to the Philippians (London: T. & T. Clark, 1884), 142; I-Jin Loh and Eugene A. Nida, A Handbook on Paul’s Letter to the Philippians (New York: United Bible Societies, 1977), 71. [↩]
- “‘Holding Forth the Word of Life’: Paul and the Mission of the Church in the Letter to the Philippians in the Context of Second Temple Judaism” (Ph.D. diss.; Yale University Press, 1996), 299-300. Cited in Plummer, 75. [↩]
- The phrase “seasoned with salt” refers to the opposite of what is insipid, innocuous, or compromisingly inoffensive. [↩]
- Gene L. Green, The Letters to the Thessalonians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 101-02. [↩]
- 1 & 2 Thessalonians, in The Word Biblical Commentary (Nashville: Word Books, 1982), 16. See also Green, 101-05; Stott, The Message of 1 & 2 Thessalonians (Downers Grove: Inter- Varsity, 1991), 37-38. [↩]
- This is how Bowers interprets other NT texts where Paul seems to allude to evangelistic ministry among laypeople. “Church and Mission in Paul,” 92-101. [↩]
- Beverly Roberts Gaventa, First and Second Thessalonians, Interpretation (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1998), 18. [↩]
- Hebrews, Reformed Expository Commentary (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian & Reformed, 2006), 176. [↩]
- See D. G. Hart and John R. Muether, With Reverence and Awe: Returning to the Basics of Reformed Worship (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian & Reformed, 2002), 109. [↩]
- Expository Discourses on First Peter (reprint, The Sovereign Grace Book Club, 1958), 1:317. Brown goes on to make application: “By your lips, by your lives … honour Him who has called you” (1:321). [↩]
- Calvin’s New Testament Commentaries, 12:266. [↩]
- 1 Peter (Moody Press, 1992), 144. See also Thomas R. Schreiner, 1, 2 Peter, Jude, vol. 37 of NAC (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2003), 115-16; Peter H. Davids, The First Epistle of Peter, NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990), 92-93. [↩]
- Plummer, Paul’s Understanding of the Church’s Mission, 144. [↩]
- “Missional Monday: Should Evangelism Happen Only in the Church?” The same line of reasoning and preference for “witness” over “evangelism” was reiterated several times on the Puritan Board thread I referenced earlier (see note 3 above). [↩]
- Throughout the rest of the NT, the “witness” terminology is used primarily in the more official sense, particularly of the apostolic witness. [↩]