Shouldn’t We Evangelise Instead of Arguing About Theology
SHOULDN’T WE EVANGELISE INSTEAD OF ARGUING ABOUT THEOLOGY?
It is one thing for us to seek prayerfully to be faithful to the character and proper place of the Great Commission. It is quite another for us to exaggerate its place while diminishing its content
by William Harrell
The cry going up increasingly in the Presbyterian Church in America is: Let us fulfil the Great Commission and stop wrangling amongst ourselves over theological issues. Such a cry betrays the impatience of immaturity, similar to that of an adolescent who feels that he is ready to drive a car, though he has not yet attained driving age. For many in our denomination, the Great Commission is used as a trump card, which they seek to play prevailingly over all other matters. My concern is that those beating the drums most loudly for our neglect of theological issues in favour of our fulfilling the Great Commission seem to understand neither the character of the Great Commission, nor the place it should hold in the life of a healthy Church.
To hear some of the passionate cries in our denomination, one would suppose that the Great Commission was the first and last word in the Bible. In truth, it is the last word Jesus spoke in Matthew’s Gospel. It is less clearly and fully stated at the end of the Gospels of Mark and Luke, while it is nowhere expressed in John’s Gospel. In the Book of Acts, we find the apostles and deacons, like Stephen, and evangelists, like Philip, fulfilling the Great Commission. But the churches these servants of the Lord plant are not urged to go into the world and fulfil the Great Commission. Nor do we find evangelism to be other than an occasional and incidental theme in the epistles of the New Testament. Those letters focus far more on edifying believers than on converting unbelievers. Thus, we discover, regarding the place of evangelism in the Word of God, that it occupies an important but secondary position, not a primary one.
Regarding the character of the Great Commission, we find that it is not reduced to the minimal proportions that are so popularly espoused by many in our denomination. True evangelism does not urge men to surrender to the love of God in order that they might have more happy and prosperous lives. Jesus defines the Great Commission as our making disciples, not merely converts. He further tells us that our charge is to teach the disciples we make all that He had commanded (Mt. 28:19,20). Hence, for example, when the Apostle Paul evangelised Ephesus, he proclaimed no reduced gospel message, but rather the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:27). Indeed, the epistles of the New Testament are largely concerned with the sort of theological wrestling that the Great Commission trump men in our denomination say is impeding our efforts to evangelise.
It is one thing for us to seek prayerfully to be faithful to the character and proper place of the Great Commission. It is quite another for us to exaggerate its place while diminishing its content, thus creating a counterfeit Great Commission. But why would anyone want to pander a cheap, pseudo-gospel, rather than proclaim the genuine, glorious good news of a free and full salvation? A key to the answer is perhaps found in what Paul writes to Timothy. In his last letter to his own young disciple, the dying apostle charges Timothy to preach the Word; he further warns him that there will be seasons when the gospel will be in and seasons when it will be out (2 Tim. 4:1,2). Paul warns that men will cease enduring sound doctrine, and will accumulate entertaining teachers for themselves (2 Tim. 4:3,4). But the apostle does not instruct Timothy, consequently, to become culturally relevant in his own ministry, so as not to lose his church members to the entertainers. He tells him, instead, to keep sober and to evangelise by His ministering God’s Word (2 Tim. 4:5).
Yet, few in our day can stand to bear the costly hardship that such faithfulness to the true Great Commission will entail. One of our prominent denominational leaders has expressed the concern of many in these terms:
"a looming crisis for all American evangelical churches is that they cannot thrive outside of the shrinking enclaves of conservative and traditional people and culture. We have not created the new ministry and communication and church models that will flourish and grow in the coming post-Christian and very secular Western world."
From this alarming observation, many men are now being driven, not necessarily to proclaim God’s eternal and ever relevant truth, but rather to devise models that will flourish in a secular world. Hence, if our maintaining the fourth commandment, for example, sours secular men on the Church, we are urged to tank the Sabbath and design our Sunday services along the lines of a television talk show and musical extravaganza. We are urged to have Super Bowl parties on Sunday as an evangelistic outreach.
One hears increasingly urgings that our churches and their worship should be made culturally relevant. These calls for a culturally relevant gospel are disturbingly similar to the old, liberal calls for a social gospel. The social gospel failed miserably to convert men or to reform churches. I believe the new cultural gospel to be self-defeating as well. How are we to speak in cultural terms to a generation wherein culture is rapidly vanishing? We do not only live in a post-Christian day; we live in a post-culture day, amongst a generation which may best be described as being an anti-culture generation. The emerging anti-culture goes beyond the old hedonistic and self-centred mentality. It plunges men into the blackness of nihilism. Are we, then, to construct nihilistic models of ministry?
The early Church did not only survive, it flourished. It did so not by studying anthropology and sociology – the surface froth of reality – but rather by the devoted contemplation and living of theology – the root of reality. Believers then were so far out of the cultural mainstream, so greatly marginalized and consigned to their enclaves, that they were persecuted as being societal pests. Yet conversions took place, and the Church grew in quality and quantity.
Let us not heed these siren calls to devise culturally relevant models of ministry. Let us refuse to fulfil the pseudo-Great Commission. Rather, let us stand firm in this evil day, clad in the whole armour of God, seeking to grow in our understanding and proclamation of the whole counsel of God. Then, we shall truly be, and make of others, disciples, not of cultural fads, but of the Christ, the Son of the Living God.
Immanuel Presbyterian Church, Norfolk, Virginia
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