Is There Biblical Warrant for Evangelism?

Article excerpt

It has become all too common, when attempting to ground evangelism in the New Testament, to resort to what we have called the "great commission." The commissioning words of Jesus, variously reported at the end of each of the Gospels (Matt. 28:16-20; Mark 16:15-18; Luke 24:45-49; John 20:21-23) and at the beginning of Acts (1:6-8), are taken to be straightforward instructions, sufficient in their clarity to provide a rationale for evangelizing, no matter what the circumstances may be in which the church finds itself. But the need for a rationale--and the kind of rationale needed--is always shaped by the church's location in the social and cultural currents of its time and place, and by its character and life within those currents.

At the present time in North America, we in the churches find ourselves in a place rapidly ceasing to be a "churched culture."(1) Living in a post-Christian and pluralist society has sent shock waves through the psyche of our churches, shaking loose our long-accustomed security in the heritage of Christendom. This has brought us to the point of exploring the terrain in search of an identity beyond that of being merely a "vendor of religious services" for that niche of the population that exercises the private option to seek such services. We are thrust into a search for a sense of our mission in this new time and for the meaning of being witnesses to Christ in it.

The preachments and rationales of the past that do not specifically engage these new circumstances can only fail us. The growing disjuncture between the supposed clarity of great-commission instructions and the practical behavior of large numbers of church members should alert us to this. In our situation, the instructions turn into an ever amplifying exhortation to complete the assigned task. But what follows are either soft and fuzzy responses, in which anything that can be construed as lending influence in the direction of Christ "counts," or programmed schemes for structuring us all into activities that, by their very doing, are envisioned to achieve the task.

All of this is not to suggest that the commissioning words of Jesus have no relevance. It is to say that we must come to them in a new way, questioning what lies behind our tendency to focus on them and our way of seeing them as a rationale for evangelism. In this connection, two major problems present themselves.

(1) The first problem has to do with the way we tend to use the great commission as a rationale for evangelism. We appeal to it within a structure of thought oriented toward command and obedience. It is assumed, when we attempt to provide a biblical foundation for evangelism, that this is simply a matter of finding direct commands enjoining us to evangelize. It is further assumed that once such commands are found, evangelism is simply a matter of obedience. The presence of a command is thought to supply sufficient motivation for evangelism, and settling the issue of motivation is taken to be an adequate rationale.

This fails to ask questions about what lies beneath the command. Why was the command given? Why is it proper that, in a world with such a variety of other religious loyalties, we are thus commanded? How does the command make sense for us in Western societies today against the historical backdrop of cultural and religious imperialism? How can it be understood in a day when individual autonomy in matters of belief is asserted as a fundamental right?

More importantly, there are biblical reasons why our assumptions about a command-and-obedience rationale for evangelism ought to be questioned. In the first place, as missionary theologian Lesslie Newbigin suggests in his reflections on Acts 1:8, Jesus' statement that "you shall be my witnesses" is not so much a command as it is a promise, a promise linked with that of the coming Spirit. Newbigin urges: "Please note that it is a promise, not a command. It is not: 'You must go and be witnesses'; it is 'The Holy Spirit will come, and you will be witnesses. …