None Dare Call Them Evangelists

One of the matters that causes me the greatest amount of confusion is why there is such a pushback even by conservative reformed pastors and theologians concerning the office of evangelist. It was not always that way. It was around 1980 that the great change towards evangelism and evangelists began in the US. Before then the title of “evangelist” was thrown around casually. There were organizations such as Presbyterian Evangelistic Fellowship (PEF) that sent out evangelists to conduct 8-10 day long evangelistic meetings. Reformed publishing companies printed biographies of great evangelists—George Whitefield, Daniel Rowland, Daniel Baker, Asahel Nettleton, and many others. All the polity books of reformed denominations contained sections on the office of evangelists. Here is what the Book of Church Order of the Presbyterian Church in the United States (the old Southern Presbyterian Church) said in 1972:

As the Lord has given different gifts to the Ministers of the Word, and has committed to them various works to execute, the Church is authorized to call and appoint them to labor as Pastors, teachers, and Evangelists, and in such other works as may be needful to the Church, according to the gifts in which they excel.

When a minister is called to labor as an Evangelist, the Presbytery shall commission him to preach the Word and administer the Sacraments in other countries or in parts of the Church which have no regular ministration of the Word. The Presbytery may, by a separate act from that which it commissioned him, entrust to the Evangelist for a period of twelve months the power to organize churches, and, until there is a Session in the church so organized, to instruct, examine, ordain, and install Ruling Elders and Deacons therein, and to receive or dismiss members.  

The PCA adopted almost the same thing for its original BCO and those sections were very practical with people actually ordained as evangelists in those early days. The same could be said about the RPCES, the OPC, and numerous other reformed denominations in the US—and even in other countries. Then, a great change took place. Peter Wagner’s views on church growth suddenly took over the PCA and other American denominations. What were his views? Basically, it was the promotion of the seeker sensitive church. Or, to put it another way, it was making the message of the Bible palatable to the unbeliever. Congregations were not to be built up through evangelism, but through demographic studies and making people feel comfortable in worship service. Door to door evangelism and expository preaching were cast out. It all happened so quickly—kind of like how quickly our society has fallen apart in the last decade. But it really wasn’t so quickly after all. The 1960’s and 1970’s had seen a great harvest for the gospel with numerous young people swept into the Church. I would imagine that there are several ministers even in Vanguard who are like me and were converted during that time frame out of a life of paganism. It was in the early 1980’s when my wife and I attended a Presbyterian Church while on vacation in her hometown. I distinctly remember the minister scoffing at the title of a sermon by Robert G. Lee, “Turn or Burn.” Preaching about Hell and the need for repentance and the dangers of eternal damnation were just not cool anymore. Instead, the focus was on “discipling” Yuppies. After all, the Laodicean Church always needs wealthy young professionals in order to maintain her status as being “rich, and having become wealthy, and having need of nothing” (Revelation 3:17). Fast forward 40 years. How well is the Laodicean Church doing today? 

With the adoption of the church growth principles of Peter Wagner and others, evangelists were no longer needed. All reference to the office dropped, even though it technically remained in the various BCO’s of the denominations. New churches were started by church planters—not evangelists. Denominational assessment centers tested potential church planters on their ability to get along with people—rather than their faithfulness to the gospel message. It all seemed to be the right way to approach the brave new world in which we live. But something important was lost when the office of evangelists was cast out—something very important. That something was the evangel. Church planters were supposed to get people to come to church by soft pedaling the gospel. How has that worked out? Missionaries have moved away from starting churches to helping with economic development. Khrushchev and the KGB would be very proud that their 1961 plan to destroy the churches in the West by substituting social justice for the gospel as the message of the Church has worked very, very well.  

Now, here is the main point I want to make. When the office of evangelist is denied, the evangel (the gospel) follows close behind. Destroy one, destroy the other. Yes, I know that John Calvin in a few places denied that the office of evangelist is a permanent office of the church. He also contradicted that position in just as many places as he denied it. The Academy in Geneva was called by John Knox “the most perfect school of Christ which has been since the days of the Apostles.” Emanuel Stickelberger, one of Calvin’s biographers, tells us what was taught in that Academy:

Even in the year of its founding some nine hundred youths, coming from many different countries, matriculated as regular students, and almost the same number were being trained in Calvin’s lectures to become Evangelists and teachers of the Bible in their respective lands.[1]  

Additionally, there were some 60 Evangelists who were sent throughout Geneva to evangelize the citizens of that great city. In light of the whole corpus of Calvin’s writings and ministry, it is hard for anyone to take the position that the great Reformer was against the office of evangelists. He was not, though he was sometimes inconsistent. 

That leaves only John Owen as the champion of the position that the office of the evangelist has ceased. He has virtually all of Presbyterianism and Reformed theology against his view. I do not take lightly any disagreement with John Owen, the greatest theologian ever produced by Great Britain—a true champion of orthodoxy. As I wrote last week, though, if Owen had lived in 17th century America instead of 17th century Great Britain, he would soon have become a flying angel with an eternal gospel to preach—like Richard Denton and Francis Makemie. Owen would have devoted his energies to evangelizing the natives of America and the released prisoners from British debtors’ prisons and the poor orphans in Georgia. How can I say that? Because any minister who refuses to preach the gospel to poor sinners who need it is not called of God and Owen was definitely called of God. Owen would have been a first-rate Evangelist!

There is one practical truth that I would like to point out before finishing this article. It is a very simple truth. It is this: There are no statements in the Scripture which say to us—“Do the work of an Apostle,” or “Do the work of a Prophet.” Why? Because those offices were supernaturally gifted and temporary offices to which only a few were called until the revelation of Scripture was completed. Yet, the Scripture does say to ministers, as Paul wrote to Timothy: “Do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry” (2 Timothy 4:5). Paul does say to ministers: “Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction” (2 Timothy 3:2). “Do the work of an evangelist” remains in the Scripture as a charge to all ministers in some respect, but especially to those who are gifted as evangelists.

Perhaps, nothing has done more harm to the Church over the past 40 years than the denial of the office of evangelist. Here is the syllogism of what has happened;

Deny the office of evangelist

Soft-pedal the evangel, the gospel

Welcome “seekers” into a “seeker sensitive” church where the gospel is on the back burner

And, the Church will become conformed to the world rather than transformed by the Word

 Are we there yet? Secular Christianity in America says, “Yes, we are there now.” 

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

Please send any donations to: Vanguard Presbytery, PO Box 1862, Destin, FL 32540

[1] David Georg Gelzer, trans., Emanuel Stickelberger, Calvin (London: James Clarke & Co., 1959), 144. 

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: