Evangelists in Old School Presbyterianism

In the nineteenth century, there were two leading publications that enlightened orthodox Presbyterians on doctrine and life. Charles Hodge was the general editor of The Biblical Repertory and Princeton Review. James Henley Thornwell was the editor of The Southern Presbyterian Review. Both men were committed to Old School Presbyterianism and were the leading theologians, respectively, in the northern and southern branches of the Presbyterian Church. Old School Presbyterianism was faithful to the Scripture and required full subscription to the Westminster Confession of Faith. Old School Presbyterianism has been falsely accused of being opposed to revivals. They were not. They were opposed to the man-made revivalism of Charles G. Finney, Albert Barnes, and the New School Presbyterians. They were opposed to the ‘new measures’ and the ‘anxious bench.’ They were not opposed to revival. In fact, it was the Old School Presbyterians who grew the most from the separation in 1837-8 until the beginning of the Civil Wat in 1860. At the division in 1838, the Old School had 126,000 members and grew to 290,000 over the next 22-23 years. The New School had 106,000 members at the time of the division and grew to 138,00 members by 1864. A great part of the growth of the Old School Presbyterians was their devotion to evangelism, missions, God-centered revivals, and the recognition of the office of evangelists.  

Both Hodge and Thornwell held that the office of evangelist continued past the days of the Apostles. In his Commentary on the Epistles to the Ephesians, Hodge wrote: 

According to the other view, the evangelists were itinerant preachers. . . as Theodoret and other early writers describe them. They were properly missionaries sent to preach the Gospel where it had not been previously known. This is the commonly received view, in favour of which may be urged—1. The signification of the word, which in itself means nothing more than preacher of the Gospel. Philip was an evangelist, but was in sense a vicar of the apostles; and when Timothy was exhorted to do the work of an evangelist, the exhortation was simply to be a faithful preacher of the Gospel. . . 3. Acts 8,4; 14,7; 1 Cor. 1,17, and 2 Cor. 10, 16, serves to confirm the commonly received opinion that an evangelist is one who makes known the Gospel. (Charles Hodge, Commentary on the Epistle to the Ephesians, Old Tappan, New Jersey, Fleming H. Revell Company, n.d., 224-5).  

What is interesting is that Hodge twice states that the continuance of evangelists in the Church was “the commonly received view” or the “commonly received opinion.” In spite of the disagreement of John Calvin and John Owen, the view that evangelists are permanent in the Church is the commonly held view and the commonly held practice. Anyone who has ever studied out historical theology or the history of interpretation of various Scripture passages is well aware that Calvin has never been knighted as the final word in all matters of opinion. I personally put great stock in what Calvin says, but it is important that we call no man ‘Lord.’ I cannot begin to recount the numbers of times that I have studied a matter and come to a different conclusion than Calvin, along with many other reformed authors and ministers. I also unequivocally state that to no one individual do I owe my understanding of the Christian faith more so than to John Calvin. He was great, but imperfect. His view on evangelists is actually a proof of that point. Calvin was actually conflicted on his view of evangelists. He first said that they were “vicars of the apostles—men commissioned by them for a definite purpose and clothed with special powers for the time being, analogous to the apostolic vicars of the Romanists.” (Hodge, Ibid.) Then, he vacillated and stated that God could sometimes raise back up the office of evangelists for a period of time under special circumstances and suggested that Luther was probably one such evangelist. It is best, therefore, to not depend too much on the views of Calvin as the final word on evangelists. 

Then, Thornwell also believed that the office of evangelist is permanent and did not die with the end of the Apostolic Age. In writing to his fellow Southern Presbyterian minister, Thomas E. Peck, Thornwell stated concerning evangelists:

You concede the point in the case of evangelists. To say that they are extraordinary officers, is only to say that they belong not to the order of a settled and organized congregation, and, therefore, cannot be members of a Session; but they can sit and preside in Presbyteries, as we know form the Acts of the Apostles and the Epistles of Paul. . . But when a man is absolutely without charge, when he is neither a pastor nor evangelist, not filling an office to which he is elected by the Church, then he refuses to act as a minister or elder, and ought not to be allowed to sit in Presbytery. A man, however, who has never been ordained upon a call, or as a true evangelist, is not, as far as I can see, a Presbyter at all; and such men can sit in no court. (Benjamin Morgan Palmer, The Life and Letters of James Henley Thornwell, Edinburgh, Scotland and Carlisle, Pennsylvania: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1974. p. 316). 

Thornwell clearly believed that the Presbyterian Church was correct in ordaining men as evangelists during his time and described them as ministers who do not belong “to the order of a settled and organized congregation.” There were several articles written by Southern Presbyterian ministers defending the practice of the Old School Presbyterians with respect to the office of evangelists. In 1883, there were two articles written in that periodical: “The Evangelist and Church Work” by Herbert H. Hawes; and, “The Foreign Evangelist as Viewed by One in the Foreign Field” by John Boyle. The latter of those articles is the best, in my opinion. Boyle proves the necessity of the office of evangelists for the well-being of the Church. Twice the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States (PCUS—the old Southern Presbyterian Church) prepared special committee reports on the evangelist, in 1876 and 1881. J. A. Lefevre wrote an article that was published in The Southern Presbyterian Review in 1879, titled, “The Jurisdiction of the Evangelist.” And an anonymous author in 1877 wrote an article, “The Evangelist and Presbytery” that was published in The Southern Presbyterian Review in 1877. Those articles are clear evidence that the old Southern Presbyterian Church held to the office of evangelist. Their various Books of Church Order, as they were revised, continued to provide for the office of evangelist. And that denomination used them appropriately also.     

Along with Hodge in the north, Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield was ordained as an evangelist when he completed his theological education and before he assumed a professorship at Princeton. The Books of Church Order of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (PCUSA—the old Northern Presbyterian Church) also had a section on evangelists. If Jesus was correct when He quoted Deuteronomy 19:15 (and He certainly was): “By the mouth of two or three witnesses every fact may be confirmed” (Matthew 18:16), then we have all the proof that we need that the Old School Presbyterians both in the north and the south were committed to the office of evangelists. It was taught by their greatest theologians and published in the leading periodicals on Reformed theology of that day. There was not even a whimper of objection to the office of evangelists in neither publication nor in any writing that I have seen. Thus, the Old School Presbyterians were true spiritual descendants of the New Side Presbyterians from the previous century. The New Side ministers believed in God-centered revival and full subscription to the Westminster Confession of Faith. The Old School Presbyterians reversed the order, but believed in both also.    

Now concerning Calvin’s view that evangelists were “vicars of the apostles,” there is not one passage in the New Testament that defines them as such. The more accurate definition of an evangelist is that he is one who goes forth evangelizing. That is how Scripture defines them. John and Jesus came evangelizing. Their message was clear: “Repent for the kingdom of God is at hand.” Leaving aside Calvin’s opinion, it is agreed by all that there are two important things about evangelists. First, there are their powers. Every reformed church BCO that I am personally aware of gives certain powers—the powers of an evangelist—to ministers today in extraordinary circumstances. For instance, I was clothed with the powers of an evangelist during my twenty-four-year service as chaplain in the National Guard, the Army Reserve, and the Army. When I was deployed to Saudi Arabia in 1990-1, I served communion to my soldiers without the oversight of a session. I also could have baptized soldiers without the oversight of the session. Those are extraordinary circumstances, but most every denomination today does the same. I would go even further. Shame on the denomination that does not or would not give the powers of an evangelist to ministers in such circumstances. Extraordinary circumstances demand extraordinary powers or measures to meet them. Ordinarily, that is not true. No man can take on himself the powers of an evangelist. Christ has established His Church and given directions for its government. There is an order Christ has established for the governing of the Church. And the Church must empower those ministers with the powers of an evangelist in those extraordinary circumstances. As it was said about Christ in Hebrews 5:4, 5— “And no one takes the honor to himself, but receives it when he is called by God, even as Aaron was. So also Christ did not glorify Himself so as to become a high priest, but He who said to Him, ‘You are My Son, Today I have Begotten You.’” Thus the powers of being an evangelist must be bestowed by the church—with their approval and agreement that one is called to such. Paul and Barnabas were set apart by the church at Antioch to be missionaries to the Gentiles—and being a missionary is one of the functions of being an evangelist. Thus, the Church is agreed that the powers of an evangelist can still be bestowed on elders today.

Second, evangelists have certain functions. They are evangelists because they go forth evangelizing. There are some elders who are more gifted in that area than others. I have functioned in several spheres where I was essentially doing the work of an evangelist in order to fulfill my ministry. But I am not an evangelist. I am a pastor-teacher. Al Baker is more of an evangelist because his passion when he wakes up in the morning is how to reach people for the gospel. Ryan Denton is like Al in that respect. My passion is how can I do a better job of taking care of my flock. Those things are not mutually exclusive. Yet, the work of an evangelist must precede the work of a pastor-teacher. Paul and Barnabas were sent out to evangelize the Gentiles. They did not immediately establish a church. First, they evangelized. They went to the synagogues. They went to the agoras—the open markets—and preached Christ to the Gentiles. They started churches through aggressive evangelism. The modern church is dying because the work of evangelism has been thrown out and the methods and messages of the world have been adopted. It should be clear to every person that we need the function of evangelists. We need more evangelism—not less. How can anyone take the position that the function of evangelists is no longer needed? Evangelism will be needed until the very last elect person has been gathered in. Evangelism cannot and must not be stopped until that person has been safely delivered from the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of light. 

I think the great confusion about the gifts Christ gave—apostles, prophets, evangelists, and pastor-teachers—is due primarily to the fact that it is overlooked that all of them were, first of all, elders. Some were elders and then apostles. Peter wrote: “Therefore, I exhort the elders among you, as your fellow elder and witness of the sufferings of Christ, and a partaker also of the glory that is to be revealed” (I Peter 5:1). Peter does not address them in conclusion as an apostle as he had done at the beginning of the epistle. Rather, he appeals to them as fellow-elders. Apostles were first elders. Prophets were first elders. Evangelists are first elders. And pastor-teachers are first elders. Being an apostle or a prophet or an evangelist or a pastor-teacher are various functions of the office of elder. The Scripture only gives us the requirements for the offices of elders and deacons. The functions of apostles and prophets have ceased with the completion of the canon of Scripture. But the functions of evangelists and pastor-teachers are as perpetual as the Great Commission. Those functions will cease “when this passing world has done, when has sunk yon glaring sun, when we stand with Christ in glory, looking over life’s finished story.” The whole number of the elect has not yet been gathered in as far as I know. Thus, let us continue to evangelize the lost and shepherd the flock until that glorious day. 

NEWS BRIEF:  I cannot go into details, but there are several encouraging things happening with the interest in Vanguard Presbyterian Church by different churches and ministers and new churches that are even now being formed. When certain events come to pass, I will let you know. 

Dewey Roberts, Pastor of Cornerstone Presbyterian Church in Destin, FL

www.vanguardpresbyterianchurch.com     Please send any donations to: Vanguard Presbytery, PO Box 1862, Destin, FL 32540. Thanks for your interest, prayers and support.    

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