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The Evangelistic Love of God and Neighbor
A Theology of Witness and Discipleship
By Scott J. Jones
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2003 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
God's Evangelistic Love
To evangelize non-Christian persons without loving them fully is not to evangelize them well. To love non-Christian persons without evangelizing them is not to love them well. Loving God well means loving one's non-Christian neighbor evangelistically and evangelizing one's non-Christian neighbor lovingly.
The essential connections between loving God, loving one's neighbor, and doing evangelism are the fundamental insights that inform this book. Many Christians, especially those in the United States and Europe, are confused about evangelism. Some believe that loving their neighbors entails never inviting them to change their religion, whatever it is or is not. Some rightly point to the unloving ways in which so-called evangelism has been practiced, suggesting that such practices have no place in Christian ministry. They fail to see that not evangelizing such persons at all is also unloving.
Other Christians believe that gaining a non-Christian person's profession of faith, however obtained and with whatever follow-up, is the most important part of Christian ministry. They believe that eternal considerations are at stake, and that a person's entering into a saving relationship with Christ is the overriding issue. They rightly point to the ways in which mission has sometimes become synonymous with social work, and interreligious dialogue has sometimes become religious syncretism, and they suggest that these practices so water down the gospel that it is hardly recognizable as the good news of God's reign preached by Jesus.
Hence, when some persons are invited to engage in the ministry of evangelism, they often enter into it with serious misunderstandings of what they should do and how they should do it. Others, influenced by stereotypes of practices in which they do not wish to engage, refrain from participating in anything that comes under the heading of evangelism. Many congregations emphasize that each Christian is called to be an evangelist. When such a claim is made, many members of those churches respond negatively. In some cases they do not believe it could possibly be true. Other members simply become very uncomfortable. Consequently, the question "What is evangelism?" takes on great significance. By clarifying the definition of the term, we can examine many aspects of the church's mission that we seek to identify under the label of evangelism.
The question received significant attention in the twentieth century. In his Evangelize! A Historical Survey of the Concept, David Barrett includes many other definitions offered over the years, and then concludes:
This proliferation of definitions has in turn been denounced by major Christian organizations and gatherings as a situation of "bewildering variety," "almost chaotic confusion," and "a source of disturbing confusion among Christians." On closer inspection, however, almost all serious definitions that have been put down in black and white are found to be each reporting on only one or several of the multifold aspects of "evangelize," to be not incompatible but mutually compatible, and so collectively to form a vast body of cohesive interpretation on the concept of evangelization.
To "evangelize" is in fact an immensely complex process made up of a large variety of elements. It is multifaceted, pluriform, inclusive, and comprehensive. The term "evangelize" and its cognates are therefore words of tremendous complexity, like all other words that are rich in meaning.
Barrett is correct that many of the definitions overlap and are mutually compatible. When analyzed carefully, it becomes evident that many of them represent different ways of saying the same thing. At the same time, there are substantial differences that are worth thinking critically about. Barrett's discussion helps us realize that the words "evangelism" and "evangelization" have been used in a variety of ways. He draws some distinctions about the cluster of meanings associated with each term, but his historical survey undercuts his conclusions. In my view, the terms are best understood to be interchangeable. Regardless of who uses the words, they are trying to describe the same activity of the church of Jesus Christ, and their different definitions and connotations are best taken as substantive disagreements about how the church engages in its ministry.
Greek Roots of "Evangelism"
Inquiring about evangelism is fundamentally related to inquiring about the gospel of Jesus Christ. The Greek word euangelos from which "evangelism" stems is normally translated as "gospel" in English Bibles. The prefix eu means good and angelos means news, so the gospel is the good news of Jesus Christ. The New Revised Standard Version, the New International Version, the King James Version, and the Revised Standard Version all use "Gospel" as the title of the first four books in the New Testament. The Greek for this is euangelion. This word is used more than sixty times in the Pauline and deutero-Pauline books of the New Testament. It frequently is used to describe the whole Christian message. For example, in Romans 1:1-3 Paul says, "Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh." The same usage occurs in Romans 1:1617 and 1 Corinthians 15:1-8. In each of these texts, euangelion is translated as "gospel" or "good news" in the NRSV.
The verbal form of this word, euangelizesthai, is used by Jesus many times. In Luke 4:43 he says, "I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God to the other cities also." In Matthew 11:5, Jesus says that one of the marks of his ministry is that "the poor have good news brought to them." In both cases the activity of communicating the good news is at the heart of this verb's meaning. In other places the NRSV uses the words "proclaim the gospel" (e.g., 1 Cor. 1:17). Gerhard Friedrich notes that in many cases [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] is equivalent to [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], which means to preach. However, there is a deeper connection between this activity of communicating the good news and everything else that the Christian community does. He says:
[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] is not just speaking and preaching; it is proclamation with full authority and power. Signs and wonders accompany the evangelical message. They belong together, for the Word is powerful and effective. The proclamation of the age of grace, of the rule of God, creates a healthy state in every respect. Bodily disorders are healed and man's relation to God is set right (Mt 4:23; 9:35; 11:5; Lk. 9:6; Ac. 8:4-8; 10:36 ff.; 14:8-18; 16:17 ff.; R. 15:16-20; 2 C. 12:12; Gl. 3:5). Joy reigns where this Word is proclaimed (Ac 8:8). It brings [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (1 C. 15:1 f.). It is the [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Acts 16:17). It effects regeneration (1 Pt 1:23-25). It is not a word of man, but the living, eternal Word of God. The Holy Spirit, who was sought for the day of salvation, attests Himself now in the time of fulfillment when the glad tidings are proclaimed (1 Pt 1:12). Hence [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] is to offer salvation. It is the powerful proclamation of the good news, the impartation of [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]. This would be missed if [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] were to take place in human fashion [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (1 C. 1:17).
This brief word study from the New Testament helps explain two crucial characteristics of the discussion about evangelism in the twenty-first century. First, evangelism concerns matters that lie at the heart of Christianity. When evangelism is being discussed, the most central concerns of the faith are at stake. Clearly, questions about God and humanity are central in Christianity, and the question about the good news is Christianity's answer to how theology and anthropology intersect. Hence, any theology of evangelism should be deeply related to the doctrines of God, Christ, sin, justification, sanctification, ecclesiology, and all of the other loci of Christian theology.
Second, this look at the Greek roots explains the wide range of opinions regarding the nature and practice of evangelism. There are many widely varying versions of Christianity in the world—many different churches, many different theological perspectives, and many different ways of being Christian. Each of these, either explicitly or implicitly, has an approach to evangelism embedded in its theology or its practices. Similarly, any theology of evangelism has theological commitments either stated or implied in the position. At the same time, the unity of Christ's church described in Ephesians 4:4-6—"one body ... one Spirit ... one hope ... one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all"— drives us to engage each other in conversation about how best to understand and practice this dimension of the church's missionary activity.
Finding the Starting Point
How do we find the right beginning point for a theology of evangelism? A survey of recent literature reveals increasing clarity while offering a number of distinct alternatives.
Richard Stoll Armstrong's Service Evangelism begins with a theological analysis of faith. He argues that the evangelist's task is not to prove that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. He writes, "Our task is to show by the way we speak and act that we believe he is." Armstrong then argues that the church should act as a servant of others. He goes on to define evangelism as
reaching out to others in Christian love, identifying with them, caring for them, listening to them, and sharing one's faith with them in such a way that they will freely respond and want to commit themselves to trust, love and obey God as a disciple of Jesus Christ and a member of his servant community, the church. That, I realize, is a statement of method as well as my definition of evangelism. The word "service" is intended to imply a style of evangelism that is caring, supportive, unselfish, sensitive, and responsive to human need. It is evangelism done by a servant church, whose people are there not to be served but to serve.
In this definition, evangelism focuses on meeting all of a person's needs, including spiritual needs.
Malan Nel, in his article "Service and Evangelism: The Theology and Methodology of a Lifestyle," argues that Armstrong never intended service evangelism to be a method of accomplishing the task. Rather, it is a style "that has to do with the personality, character, commitment, and attitude of the evangelist." Nel argues that Armstrong's approach to evangelism is built on an ecclesiology that sees the church as the servant of God. Although the article talks more about style than theology, Nel clearly implies the centrality of a service ecclesiology for the practice of evangelism.
Ben Campbell Johnson's starting point in Rethinking Evangelism: A Theological Approach is self-consciously different. He discusses the "ghosts of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century evangelicalism" that still haunt the church. Partly to remedy this problem, he proposes a different starting point, saying:
Without denying the intention of those who have begun their systematic quest with the doctrine of God, I believe a different starting point will yield a renewed perspective for evangelism and inspire methods appropriate for the task. I propose to begin a theology of evangelism with the Christian understanding of human beings. This approach may provide a needed corrective to the imperialistic style of evangelism we have deplored. We have already defined evangelism as an intentional outreach to persons, and so it would seem logical to begin our inquiry with the nature of persons—their needs, questions and desires. Evangelism must never end with only an exploration of human needs and questions, but perhaps this provides the best starting point.
In other places, Johnson differentiates this approach from "a traditional approach from above," but then seeks to fuse the two together. Despite what he says, it is not clear whether Johnson means to work from purely secular anthropologies or whether he seeks to begin with a Christian anthropology that originates from Scripture. He does both in chapter 2. Part of his analysis relies on the work of Jung, Maslow, and Berger and Luckmann. Another section relies on a traditional exegetical approach to anthropology, but there is little connection between the two analyses. However, the question that Johnson is addressing remains extremely important. It is clear that our theology of evangelism must take the human subject with utmost seriousness and make sure that our answers are correlated with humanity's questions.
In many respects, a variety of different theologies of evangelism is beneficial for precisely the reason articulated by Johnson. A variety of perspectives gives the best opportunity for seeing the many different sides and facets of the gospel and its communication to the world. Harry Poe's survey of the different ways the gospel has been construed demonstrates the importance of these central ideas in the thinking of many theologians throughout Christian history. Poe sees a virtue in this diversity, arguing "the different elements of the gospel speak to different levels of spiritual concern in different cultures at different times."
Two of the best theological books about evangelism begin with its relationship to the reign of God. Mortimer Arias, William Abraham, and others give us an essential insight when they make the reign of God a central theme in understanding the gospel. In part the centrality of this theme is made clear by the etymology of the word itself. For Christians, the Bible should be the primary locus for discerning how the gospel is best understood. Arias and Abraham follow many New Testament scholars who argue that the proclamation of the kingdom of God is central to Jesus' whole ministry. Further, many argue that the preaching and teaching of the apostles centered on the reign of God and that our witness today should still focus on how it is "at hand" in the world and how it is to be anticipated as coming fully in the future.
Arias uses the kingdom of God as a way of bringing the insights of liberation theology and other movements for social justice into the center of the church's evangelistic ministry. He argues "Jesus' evangelization, then, was kingdom evangelization." Arias goes on to argue that the message of the kingdom has continued to be present in the church, but it has been eclipsed. It has remained as a "subversive memory." In recovering this subversive memory, the church will resolve its current crisis with regard to evangelization. He perceives a crisis in the credibility, motivation, definition, and methods of evangelization. In response to this crisis he puts forth an understanding of evangelization that he describes as "biblical, evangelical, holistic, humanizing, conscientizing, liberating, contextual, engaged, incarnational and conflictive." For him, each of these is "a natural component of evangelization in the perspective of the kingdom."
Arias adopts an understanding of the kingdom that had become standard in much of modern New Testament interpretation and theology. Jesus clearly proclaimed that the reign of God is at hand, and yet he also spoke of its coming with power in the future. Arias says, "There is an unbearable tension in Jesus' proclamation of the kingdom. The kingdom has come—and will come. The time is fulfilled—but we await the consummation. The kingdom is experience—but it is also hope. It is present and imminent. It is 'already' and 'not yet.'"
Arias then makes reference to Oscar Cullmann's analogy of the difference between World War II's D day when the defeat of German forces was assured and VE day when the Nazis finally surrendered.
The perspective of the kingdom of God shapes Arias's discussion of evangelization in several ways. From one point of view, the kingdom is seen as a gift, imparting forgiveness and reconciliation. At the same time the kingdom is hope. "To evangelize is to announce the coming kingdom, the kingdom of peace and justice, of love and life, the consummation of God's purpose of love with humanity and his universe—to announce the undefeatable fulfillment of creation." Announcing the kingdom as hope also includes the ministry of denunciation. Evangelization must "denounce anything, any power, any program, any trend which opposes God's purpose for humanity." Evangelization must side with the poor, the marginalized, and the powerless in their struggle for liberation from the demonic powers of this world. This kind of evangelization invites persons to respond with a costly discipleship. Arias says:
Discipleship evangelization, then, means recruitment—an invitation to participate in the blessings of the kingdom, to celebrate the hopes of the kingdom, and to engage in the tasks of the kingdom. It means recruitment to discipleship in the kingdom and for the kingdom.
We need to correct the almost-invincible tendency of our evangelization to present the gospel in terms of "blessings"—benefits to be received, answers to all our questions, remedy to all our evils, new life to be enjoyed, a future state to be secured—without at the same time presenting the challenges, demands, and tasks of the kingdom. We need to remember Bonhoeffer's warning about reducing "costly discipleship" to "cheap grace."
Excerpted from The Evangelistic Love of God and Neighbor by Scott J. Jones. Copyright © 2003 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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