Among evangelical Christians there is a widespread, even dogmatic belief that every Christian has a duty to evangelize unbelievers, that is, to explicitly share the Gospel with them in order to persuade them to come to belief. If you’re an evangelical Christian reading this, you’re probably thinking, “Well, yes, of course Christians have a duty to do that.” But is this really true? Are there any biblical grounds for thinking that every Christian has a moral obligation to evangelize? I don’t think so. In fact, I don’t think there is a shred of biblical evidence for this.

Now let me explain my claim a bit by clarifying what I am not saying. First, I am not saying that Christians do not have a biblical duty to be prepared to intelligently explain the Gospel when asked.   This much is clear in the apostle Peter’s directive to “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15). Clearly, Peter is saying that all Christians have a duty to be ready to explain the Gospel and even provide some apologetic grounding for their beliefs. But notice that this is an injunction to respond to those who inquire, not a command to actively initiate such conversations in order to persuade others.

Secondly, I am not suggesting that it is unbiblical or morally wrong for individual Christians to do evangelism. In fact, it is overwhelmingly clear in Scripture that well-planned initiatives to persuade people of the Gospel are appropriate and wise in various circumstances. This is obvious from Jesus’ sending out his disciples two-by-two to spread the good news (Luke 9:1-6 and Luke 10:1-11) and numerous instances in the book of Acts where Christian leaders evangelized (Acts 5:42; Acts 8:4-13, etc.). However, note that these are specific initiatives that do not imply a universal duty to evangelize, though they might support the notion that Christian church leaders have a duty to 4242566_origevangelize. In fact, the apostle Paul confesses that “when I preach the gospel, I cannot boast, since I am compelled to preach. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!” (1 Cor. 9:16). But in that passage, Paul is speaking for himself and perhaps, by extension, other apostles, as the context of that passage is Paul’s defense of his rights as an apostle.

Thirdly, I am not suggesting that the Church, as a body of believers, does not have a duty to evangelize unbelievers. Clearly, evangelism is an obligation of the Church. For as Paul says elsewhere, “How . . . can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can anyone preach unless they are sent?” (Romans 10:14-15). Moreover, there is the Great Commission which is given by Jesus himself: “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matt. 28:19-20). But while these passages imply that the Church should spread the Gospel, neither of these passages imply that each individual Christian has a duty to bear this burden. And to suggest that the former implies the latter is to commit the logical fallacy of division (illicitly reasoning from an attribute of a whole to that of its parts).

So by rejecting the notion of a universal Christian duty to evangelize I am not suggesting that evangelism is wrong, that Christians need not be prepared to defend the Gospel, nor even that the Christian church has no duty to evangelize. I am suggesting that evangelism is a crucial function of the Church that should be intentionally carried out by those who are especially well-prepared—and I would say specially gifted—to perform. I would compare the gift of evangelism to such spiritual gifts as prophecy, teaching, and church leadership (1 Cor. 12:8-10 and Rom. 12:6-8). Such are crucial functions within the church, but it would be absurd to suggest that every Christian has a duty to prophesy, teach, and be a church leader. No, as Paul says, not all members of the body of Christ have the same function (Rom. 12:4). Similarly, although evangelism is an important task of the church, not everyone is called or properly gifted to perform that task. (For more on this idea, check out Bryan Stone’s book Evangelism After Christendom.)

Yet the myth of a universal Christian duty to evangelize is extremely popular among evangelicals these days. Given the way that some Christian leaders emphasize and even guilt trip congregations about it, it is tempting to classify this as a modern pharisaism, a way in which Christian leaders have bound the consciences of Christians, effectively adding to the law. I am not exaggerating when I say that I’ve heard more sermons proclaiming a supposed universal Christian duty of evangelism than I have heard proclaim any of the Ten Commandments as moral duties. What is wrong with this picture?

So where did this idea come from? If there are no biblical grounds for an individual mandate to evangelize, then why is this misconception so popular among evangelicals? In short, I believe it is a consequence of Western, particularly American capitalistic thinking as applied to Christian public life. In other words, I think the idea resulted more from market and sales thinking than from Scripture. This is my best guess anyway. (For more on the connection between evangelism and marketing, see the Kenneson and Street book Selling out the Church.)

Speaking of history, consider a final point that should prompt doubt in the minds of even the most stalwart defenders of a universal duty to evangelize. So far as I can tell, none of the greatest Christian theologians and spiritual leaders ever taught this doctrine. I challenge you to locate it in any of the early church fathers (St. Ignatius, Clement of Alexandria, Athanasius, John Chrysostom, Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa, John Cassian, Augustine), the great medieval theologians (Anselm, Bernard of Clairvaux, St. Francis of Assisi, St. Dominic, Thomas Aquinas), the Reformation era theologians (Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Knox, Ulrich Zwingli, Teresa of Avila), Revivalist theologians (John Wesley, Charles Wesley, Jonathan Edwards, and George Whitefield) and the greatest 20th century theological minds (Karl Barth, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and C.S. Lewis). That’s 25 of the greatest Christian minds—and certainly inclusive of the greatest Christian theological minds—in world history. Yet apparently none of them believed that there is a universal Christian duty to do evangelism. Now if that teaching was a biblical one, I think its safe to say that most, if not all, of these folks would have picked up on that. Right? So what gives?

If you’re a conservative evangelical, you’re probably bothered by what you’ve just read. But my plea to you is to honestly reflect on whether your view is actually biblical. I would also urge you to consider the force of the fact that there is no evidence that any of the greatest theological minds in history agree with you. That fact alone should give any Christian serious pause.

Now, finally, why does this matter? Even if we did get this one wrong, you may ask, isn’t it better to err in the direction of zeal than complacency when it comes to evangelizing others? I don’t think so, and here are three reasons why. First, it is wrong and harmful to bind people’s consciences. Legalism is deadly for Christian faith and spiritual formation. Secondly, the myth of a universal duty to evangelize has undoubtedly compromised the power of the Church’s witness, since this myth has had the effect of prompting incompetent evangelizing which poorly represents the Gospel. Thirdly, this myth has created a tragic association of Christianity with cheap marketing, thus making conservative Christianity synonymous with insincere, means-to-an-end salesmanship and kitschy sales techniques. (I’m sure we can all think of many cringe-worthy examples we have personally witnessed.) This, of course, is the most ironic distortion of Christianity, representing the Gospel as something precisely opposite what it is.

So, in summation, the answer to the question “Is evangelism biblical?” is, of course, yes. It is clearly biblical that the church has a duty to spread the Gospel message. But what is not biblical is the notion that there is an individual mandate for Christians to evangelize other people. For those who feel so led or, better, have the gift of evangelism, it is perfectly appropriate for them to do so, given the right circumstances. But the duty for all Christians is to be prepared to answer those who ask them about the Gospel and, most importantly, to live virtuous lives, displaying the fruit of the Spirit (“love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, goodness, faithfulness, and self-control”—Gal. 5:22-23). Now these are universal mandates that are biblical. And if we Christians were all more serious in pursuing them, I bet the Church would be far more effective in fulfilling the Great Commission.


11 Responses to “Is Evangelism Biblical?”


  1. Andy Rowell

     

    Agree mostly.

    Yes, “evangelists” specifically named so not all are.

    Worth looking at use of Greek word euangelizo and cognates as this means share good news and noun gospel is often not technical word about sin and blood but rather broad and about happy news. I think all are to do that.

    Paul in 1 Cor constantly assumes sharing good news is what they should be up to. If an unbeliever asks you to a meal, go!

    We ARE to “make [more and better] disciples” (Matt 28:19) and be Jesus’ witnesses​ (Acts 1:8). (Newbigin says latter is promise not command though I’m dubious about that). Barth says witness is THE task of the people of God. Communicating good news to outsiders WAS wrongly underemphasized in Christendom so your historical argument weakened — Calvin says evangelist role ceased because everyone knows good news! Wesley was quite the evangelist and catalyst for it.
    Writing a book about this and teach about this at Bethel Seminary.

    Reply
    • Jim Spiegel

       

      And I agree with most of that. Don’t see any counter-evidence regarding my historical argument though.

      Reply
  2. Melinda Trotti

     

    As a spiritual director, camp/retreat director, community organizer, I have never been led to evangelism – not once. Going with Campus Crusade for Christ my freshman year of college to evangelize on the beach made me feel dirty, like I was a manipulator and salesperson for some other person’s experience, not a compassionate follower of Christ. I have chosen to default always to to compassionate listening to and learning about others not legalistic reading of the Bible or finding solace in black and white thinking. This is probably the first thing written by you or your wife that I felt a sense of connection to, except maybe that one about why you found tattoos difficult. That actually explained the tattoo discomfort for me! Jim, I see that you write as an academic. I have plenty of degrees including one in theology and yet still process my faith through the lens of feelings, rational and spiritual experience, and intuition, not intellect – because doing otherwise never connected me to God in any way other than getting me through a prescribed process required by some other person or institution. This time your intellectual writing connected with my lived rational and spiritual experiences.

    Reply
    • Jim Spiegel

       

      Melinda, I hear you when it comes to feeling manipulative and “dirty” and when doing programmed evangelism with strangers. I’m glad we finally “connected” on an issue. :)

      Reply
  3. Vance

     

    What about the great commission, are you intoning that was only for the Apostles? Our method of evangelism differs some might be street corner evangelists others lifestyle but we all have a responsibility to be light and salt to a decaying world.

    Reply
    • Jim Spiegel

       

      Vance, I agree that all Christians have a responsibility to be salt and light in this world, though I think that consists primarily in displaying the fruit of the Spirit (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control) in all that we do–personally, socially, professionally, etc. As for the Great Commission, Jesus was speaking to the eventual Apostles–church leaders, so I take this commission to be normative for the Church as a corporate body. But I also believe that some people have the “gift” of evangelism, just as some have the gift of teaching, some have the gift of prophesying, etc. And it would be through such folks, as well as through various church ministries (including local and foreign missions) that evangelism would most naturally happen.

      Reply
  4. Steve Cowan

     

    Hi, Jim! Very interesting post. I have always shared most of the same concerns you have about evangelism, and I want to agree with you. There is one biblical text, though, that makes me hesitate: 2 Cor. 5:11-21. What are your thoughts on it and how it fits into your understanding of evangelism? When Paul says “we persuade others,” and “we are ambassadors for Christ,” and “he…gave us the ministry of reconciliation,” is the “we” and “us” referring to the apostles/evangelists, the church corporately, or individual Christians?

    Reply
    • Jim Spiegel

       

      Thanks, Steve. A few things in response to that passage. First, note that there is nothing in that text that suggests that we must take the “we”/”us” as referring to individual Christians. Secondly, Paul’s terminology is completely descriptive, not prescriptive. He says, we [in fact] “try to persuade others” (v. 11) and “we are Christ’s ambassadors” (v. 20). So even if one does interpret it as applying to individual Christians, there is still no mandate or command made there to warrant interpreting it as anything like a moral obligation. At most, I think Paul is suggesting that the love of Christ should fill us to the point that sharing our faith with others would happen naturally and organically in the context of our relationships with others. And this is certainly consistent with my thesis.

      Reply
  5. Gabriele Replogle

     

    Hi Dr. Spiegel,

    Thanks for your intriguing post. While you have noted that many conservative evangelical Christians might cringe at this concept, as a scholar of the word and a theologian at heart, I cannot agree with you more! I think it is too easy for our cultural/modern views to put prescriptive and descriptive teaching into commands. One of the verses that could be coupled with the great commission is 1 Thes 4:11, “Make it your ambition to live a quiet life, mind your own business and work with your hands.” :) Ha!

    Now obviously this is directed to the people in Thessolinica at a much different time than us… but coupling this sage wisdom for this church as well as the command to love others good be a good piece of advice for some! It would be best to be mindful and more prone to quietude in our speech and at the same time be prepared for an answer. We must couple it with knowledge that the good news is Jesus… and since as Christ followers, we have the Holy Spirit in us, we bring God with us and as He continues to reside in us and change us, we will love others all the better. It is this love, grace, and mercy that we bestow on others in relationship that is the context of love.

    In relationship, forced anything whether it is emotional, physical, sexual, intellectual can border more on abuse, rather than a healthy, loving environment that appreciates both people involved. I agree that it seems to correlated with the business mindset of a sales pitch, where ‘winning souls’ is a Christian status marking. I thought your post was well formulated that you did not at all throw out the need of evangelism, but provided a helpful critique on our modern understanding of it. For many Christians this might be a great sigh of ‘relief’ for those who have felt the ‘false guilt’ of not measuring up to something that may not be their gifting or calling in life. As a Christ follower, that does not mean apathy, but a love for all those who know and love Christ and those who yet know him. And if ‘listening is loving’ than the spiritual gifting of emapthy and quietitude and listening well, (all giftings I have been forced to learn!! and have not come easily) are truly part of the good news… that YES you are loved.. YOU, a person, with feelings, a life, a physical body, other relationships, a social status, a culture you were raised in, a future that is set before you… this is the new Good News— you were made for more!

    I think our transactional view of salvation and our misunderstanding of “SIN” as such a shallow concept rather than its whole pervasiveness creates an easy push button approach, which is a western way of looking at things, rather than understanding that one is not just ascending their thoughts to align with some theological truths but rather aligning their whole person, their whole outlook, the future, and the whole world to a new reality.

    Reply
  6. Martin

     

    Dr. Spiegel,

    A very timely and thought provoking article for me because recently my Pastor made a plea for the congregation to consider stepping up their personal evangelistic efforts.

    It seems so reasonable to be asked to share a life saving message. For some reason, though, my heart is just not into it. When I first became a Christian I was very excited to attempt to persuade friends and family of the truth of the Gospel message, but in the end I was left frustrated because it would just end in arguments. These days I rarely bring up the Gospel, although I’m thrilled (and prepared) to talk with anyone who actually wants to know about it :).

    Your article tempts me to relieve myself of the guilt I feel for not doing more to personally evangelize. In particular, your assertion that 25 of the greatest minds in Christianity did not espouse the view of the personal duty to evangelize caught my attention. Surely the Westminster larger catechism addressed the issue. So I looked and found no question that focused on personal evangelism as a duty. This stunned me considering that, as your article notes, the popular opinion among protestants is that it is a duty.

    So, I was wondering if there were others in your camp that you might be able to cite because it seems as though the great minds that are alive seem to contradict the long gone ones.

    Thanks for any help you may be able to offer to further flesh out this issue.

    Martin

    Reply
    • Jim Spiegel

       

      Thanks for your comment, Martin. Interesting point about the Westminster catechism, and the same appears true of the Westminster Confession of Faith as well. As for others in my camp today, I’m sure there are many but this issue has just not been raised before–pro or con–by serious scholars, so far as I can tell. And I actually don’t know of any “great” Christian theological minds today who advocate for a personal duty to evangelize. There are well-known pastors, evangelists, and authors who defend the idea, of course, but in terms of major contemporary theologians and biblical scholars, I don’t know of any. Presumably there are some, but I would think that even today they are in the minority. That’s just my hunch. You can look into it. But even if there were a large-ish number of contemporary theologians and biblical scholars who defend the idea, it doesn’t detract from my historical argument.

      Reply

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