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T. David Gordon's Essay "Evangelistic Responsibility" in Ordained Servant Online: A Critique and an Alternative

R. Fowler White

I have always appreciated T. David Gordon's work, especially his willingness to be an iconoclast. He regularly forces me to think and rethink my positions and assumptions, and he has done it again with his recent essay, "Evangelistic Responsibility," in Ordained Servant Online.[1] In that essay, Gordon evaluated the biblical support for and practical ramifications of the dominant view of evangelistic responsibility (also known as "universal evangelistic responsibility," which affirms that evangelism is a responsibility incumbent upon every believer). In what follows, I offer a two-part response to his essay: first a critique of his arguments, and second an alternative.

A Critique of Gordon's Arguments

In Section 1: "The Selective View of Evangelistic Responsibility," Gordon frames his analysis and presentation of an alternative to the dominant view of evangelistic responsibility. Gordon appeals first to the diversity of gifts, discussing the bearing on his alternative of Rom. 12:4-8; 1 Cor. 12:4-7; and Eph. 4:11. Summarizing his discussion of these three passages (the latter of which is one of the clearest texts related to the question of evangelistic responsibility, clearest in that the text refers specifically to evangelists), Gordon concedes that they do not prove his "selective" alternative to the dominant "universal" view of evangelistic responsibility. What these passages do establish, however, is that no gift is intended for everyone in the church: all are not one thing; all do not have the same gift, function, or responsibility.

With his appeal to Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 12, and Ephesians 4, Gordon introduces a critical shift in the terms of the discussion, implying that duty is a consequence of gifting. Agreeable as we are to all of Gordon's points, there is one looming question: does proof of differentiated service constitute proof of differentiated duty? Gordon is intent on saying that, if individual gifting is different, individual responsibility is different. Is it the case, however, that responsibility is necessarily a consequence of gifting? In fact, should activities done by those with gifts ever be done by those without gifts? Gordon's contention is thought provoking, but in Section 1 he leaves unexamined the question of how individual (particularly official) gifts and corporate duties relate to one another. More on this below.

In Section 2: "Analysis of the Universal View of Evangelistic Responsibility," Gordon examines representative arguments that have been presented in favor of the universal view. The most common and influential arguments come from Matthew 28:19-20; 1 Peter 3:15; 2 Corinthians 5:18ff.; Acts 1:8; Matthew 9:37ff.; 2 Timothy 4:5; and Philippians 2:15-16. Let us consider Gordon's treatment of each passage.

Gordon's overall discussion of Matthew 28:19-20 is, in my opinion, compelling and sensible. The Great Commission cannot, and indeed should not, be fulfilled by every individual in the same way. To get a sense of this fact, take the two main aspects of the Commission, baptizing and teaching. With respect to baptism, all should agree that not every individual is qualified to baptize others: baptism is a duty of the church that should be fulfilled through the office of elder. With respect to teaching, all should agree that Scripture establishes the teaching office and that not every individual is qualified for that church office.

Despite these points of agreement, additional questions arise when it comes to teaching in the church. Texts such as Colossians 3:16 and Hebrews 5:12 can be plausibly read as establishing a responsibility to teach that is broader than the teaching office. Should we, then, distinguish a general responsibility from an official responsibility? If so, how would general teaching take place? Presumably, not all general teaching occurs in the midst of corporate worship, as an exegesis of Colossians 3:16 might imply. In Hebrews 5:12, ostensibly at least, the readers are presumed to have an obligation to become teachers. Whatever else we may say about the fulfillment of this obligation, contextually, teaching ability and activity are marks of maturity acquired by practice (Heb. 5:14). The larger question remains, then: how do general (not gift-related) obligations relate to official (gift-related) duties? We shall return to this question later.

Regarding 1 Peter 3:15, Gordon convincingly points out that Peter envisions Christians under persecution and then instructs them on how to respond to it. Is Gordon right, however, to say that there is nothing evangelistic in the Christian's response or in the persecutor's shame? What would the Christian's defense of the hope in him be if not, in some measure, evangelistic (e.g., Paul's defense in Acts 26)? And what would the persecutor's shame be if not, at least in some cases, a prelude to or evidence of repentance unto life (perhaps an analogy is found in 1 Cor. 14:24-25)?

Gordon takes us next to 2 Corinthians 5:18ff. Here he contests the universal view (represented by Stott) on the point that the "we/us" of this passage is a general reference to Christians, preferring instead to see a reference to ministers or to the apostolate. Gordon's challenge here is reasonable but incomplete. To identify the "we/us" of this passage as only a part of the company of the reconciled and not the whole of it, we need more evidence.

Next Gordon directs our attention to Acts 1:8, where he compellingly urges that "you will be my witnesses" does not refer to the general evangelistic "witness" function of Christians, but to the unique legal "eyewitness" function of the apostles. Still the counterpoints made in response to Gordon's discussion of Matthew 28:18-20 can be made here. Even granting the vital distinction between the apostles' role as witness and the church's role as witness, how does the official role of the gifted relate to the general role of the church as a whole? Does the former render the latter unnecessary? If not that, what is their relation?

Coming to Gordon's analysis of Matthew 9:37ff., he persuasively contends that this text enjoins no duty on Christians to become laborers and only a duty to pray for God to raise up laborers. If there is a duty for all Christians to be laborers in the sense described in this text, it will have to be established from other passages and considerations.

Looking also at the claim that all Christians should follow Timothy's example (1 Tim. 4:12, 16) and "do the work of an evangelist" (2 Tim. 4:5), Gordon demurs, noting 1) that Timothy engaged in this work as one gifted and called to be a helper and fellow worker of the apostle; and 2) that, as it relates to the work of evangelist in particular, the text implies that this was Timothy's specific ministry ("do the work of an evangelist; fulfill your ministry"). Gordon's approach to Timothy himself and his ministry itself is sensible. However, Gordon poses but does not answer the question of whether and how Timothy would be an example to Christians generally. As a crucial point in this discussion, this omission is surprising.

Responding to variations on the preceding arguments for a universal evangelistic responsibility, Gordon makes two good observations, 1) that what the church is (a witness) and does (bear witness) corporately is not necessarily what each Christian is and does individually; and 2) that there is no biblical basis adequate to substantiate the equation of the terms "witness" and "testimony." There are other points to consider, however. For example, in Revelation 6:9 and 12:11 we hear of Christians who died for the witness that they had borne and who conquered by the word of their testimony. Such texts might not justify the identification of every other Christian in these exact terms, but is there any warrant for limiting the identification of these martyrs to those specially called and gifted to bear witness? Such a limitation does not seem at all likely, in which case the question arises as to how we account for the fact that in Scripture Christians other than the gifted and called are said to bear witness.

Lastly, Gordon analyzes Philippians 2:15-16, which has been offered as one of the plainest in favor of the universal view, and argues persuasively that this text is not as plain as the universal view would like: the text enjoins Christians to steadfastness in the face of hostility, not to evangelism. We have to ask, however, if steadfastness in evangelism in the face of hostility would not be a distinguishing characteristic both of the steadfast church and of the steadfast individual believers who make it up.

Turning to practical considerations, Gordon highlights three problems for the universal view: 1) the wrong of placing the burden of evangelism on believers who do not have the gifts and calling to do so; 2) the wrong of disrupting the church's harmony by placing an unbearable and unbiblical requirement for evangelism on all believers; and 3) the corruption of evangelism by those unable and unwilling to evangelize properly. There is much to agree with in these three concerns. However, Gordon frames his response to them by making evangelism the duty only of the gifted and called, even though he has not established the correlation that makes that duty solely a function of gift and calling. Moreover, he has not proved that poor quality in evangelism is traceable to the universal view of evangelism. The culprit is, more probably, poor training, a malady that can afflict even the gifted and called.

An Alternative to Gordon's View

The most basic argument that runs through Gordon's essay is his claim that responsibility is a consequence of gifting and calling. The duty to evangelize is, thus, to be fulfilled by the gifted and called of the church, not by every member of the church. In my judgment, this analysis is biblically incomplete and the thesis unproven. As we noted in his treatment of Timothy and his ministry, Gordon raises but does not give adequate attention to the biblical statements that the gifted and called of the church are given as instructors and examples to the rest of the church. He would agree that, to lead the church in fulfilling her charge to be the pillar and bulwark of the truth (1 Tim. 3:15-16; see also Jude 3; 1 Pet. 3:15; Eph. 4:3-6, 13-16), Christ gives to the church men who by their instruction and example distinguish themselves as those with a faith and practice worthy of imitation (Eph. 4:11-12; 1 Tim. 4:12, 16; 2 Tim. 2:2, 24-25; Heb. 13:7, 17; 1 Pet. 5:1-3). Thus, it is Christ's provision of leaders to the church that is designed to ensure the impartation of worthy faith and practice to the non-leaders. How this truth affects the church's evangelism is at the heart of the issues that Gordon raises.

The role of the church's leaders as instructors and examples upholds the differentiation of gifts and calling that Gordon is rightly concerned to protect. Let me be clear: we should join him in affirming that there is no invitation to egalitarianism in the Bible. At the same time, as suggested by 1 Timothy 4:12-16, the correlation of gifts and graces with example and instruction is demonstrably basic both to the idea of the pastoral office and to the idea of being a disciple. Consistent with 1 Timothy 4:12-16, Ephesians 4:11-12 indicates that in the church there is a division of labor manifested in differing gifts. Those gifted in the Word and leadership are said to equip the saints without those gifts, and the result of that equipping is that those without said gifts are faithful and fruitful according to their own gifts (4:7, 16) and in their own places and relations (4:17-6:20). Those with gifts, then, stand in relation to others as instructors to learners (disciples), and the result of that relationship is that "everyone when he is fully trained will be like his teacher" (note: κατηρτισμένος [katērtismenos] in Luke 6:40 and καταρτισμός [katartismos] in Eph. 4:12). In other words, learners imitate their instructors' faith and practice.

The upshot of the preceding observations is that, agreeable to Gordon's concerns, different gifts do bring about at least one key difference of responsibility: all who serve in the Word and leadership, including evangelists, ought to be examples and instructors to others. This consideration also addresses Gordon's concerns for church unity and for the quality of the church's evangelistic activities and results. In Ephesians 4:12-16, as in 1 Timothy 4:12-16, Paul focuses on the contribution that the gifted make to the edification of others. To be specific, edification involves the church's mature unity in faith and practice (Eph. 4:13-14), and that unity results as the gifted train the church's other members in the truth and thereby make all members better able to speak the truth in love. Truth-speaking, in turn, is the manner and means by which the whole body progresses (Eph. 4:15-16) from the immature faith and practice of its childhood (Eph. 4:1-6) toward the mature faith and practice of its adulthood (Eph. 4:13). Among other things, then, the church's unity in faith and practice is properly a product of the instructor-learner relationship within her membership. Unless there is evidence to the contrary, we shall have to presume that this unity extends to the practice of evangelism.

Gordon, then, is right: no gift—"evangelist" included—is intended for everyone in the church. This fact, however, does not mean that all Christians should not engage in activities performed by the gifted and called; nor does it mean that all Christians do not have duties in common. If we recognize the correlation of gifts with instruction and example, Gordon's most basic argument against the universal view is substantially answered. Knowing that the church is responsible to speak with one voice in evangelism and should be faithful therein, those who lead are responsible to impart to others the faith and practice needed for this effort. Knowing that those with gifts are instructors and examples in the church, evangelists and other leaders serve the church's members, in part, as their examples and trainers in evangelism. The quality of the church's activities and results in evangelism is, thus, traceable to the quality of the instruction and example provided by her leaders: they serve the common good by setting an evangelistic pattern for all Christians to follow according to their own abilities and in their own relations and callings.

Gordon has served us well by pointing out the inadequacies and errors in the case for the universal view of evangelistic responsibility. The needed correction, however, comes not as we circumscribe evangelism by gift and calling, but as we embrace the truth that the proper function of gift and calling includes being examples and instructors to others in the church. If the gifted and called will embrace the work of preparing others for evangelism, Christians, individually and corporately, will bear their witness, as God enables, and will do so more faithfully and more fruitfully.

Endnote

[1] Ordained Servant Online (June-July 2009), http://www.opc.org/os.html?article_id=155.

R. Fowler White is a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America serving as president of Ligonier Academy of Biblical and Theological Studies, Lake Mary, Florida. Ordained Servant Online, March 2010.

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