Category Archives: Mission

Every Believer Evangelism

Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word.”  Acts 8:4

Reformed Christians have sometimes been accused of being the “frozen chosen.”  Chosen by God’s sovereign grace, we’re frozen when it comes to evangelism.  We have cold hearts that don’t care about the lost and therefore do nothing about the plight of the lost in our lives.  Unfortunately, I think we have to admit that there’s been some truth to this.  To be sure, it’s not because of the doctrine of election.  There are other factors at work, some of them cultural, some personal, and some doctrinal.

One doctrinal factor I’ve encountered is a mistaken understanding of how evangelism is described in the Scriptures.  According to this view, evangelism is limited to special office bearers like ministers or missionaries.  Whenever the Bible speaks about evangelism, it’s speaking only about the official proclamation of God’s Word by one of these special office bearers.  Scripture gives no evidence or example of regular believers evangelizing.

At first glance, it may appear that Acts 8:4 supports this contention.  After all, it speaks about “preaching” and isn’t preaching something limited to special office bearers?  There’s a long tradition in English Bible translation of translating the Greek word used there as “preaching.”  It’s a tradition that extends to even before the King James Version, found with Wycliffe, Tyndale and the Geneva Bible.  Despite the tradition however, it’s arguably not the best translation for this word. 

The word in Greek is a form of the verb euangelizo  — the English word “evangelism” is derived from this word.  In general, it means to “bring or announce good news.”  Oftentimes it does have the sense of official preaching or proclamation, but not always.  Sometimes it simply refers to someone (anyone) speaking a message of good news.

What does it mean in Acts 8:4?  Here we need to look at the context.  Who were those scattered?  That’s referring to the believers in Jerusalem.  Acts 8:3 speaks of Saul ravaging the church, entering houses, and “dragging off men and women” and putting them in prison.  This was the great persecution of the church in Jerusalem mentioned in Acts 8:1, which results in all the believers being scattered except the apostles.  So the apostles were not among those referred to in Acts 8:4.  In fact, it appears that this is just referring to ordinary believers from the church at Jerusalem.

In Acts 8:5, Luke draws attention to Philip, who has also departed Jerusalem, and preaches Christ in Samaria.  There are two important things to note here.  One is that Philip was a deacon, not an apostle, not a minister, and not an officially ordained missionary.  He was a special office bearer, but not one normally entrusted with the task of official proclamation.  The second important thing to note isn’t evident from the ESV Bible translation.  In the original Greek, there is a grammatical construction (the correlative conjunctions men…de) used in verses 4 and 5 which contrasts the two parties.  In simple terms, the grammar prevents one from arguing that Philip is meant as an example of the individuals mentioned in verse 4.  He is set apart from them by this grammatical construction.  The Holy Spirit still highlights Philip’s special role.

It’s only natural to conclude that verse 4 speaks of ordinary Christians spreading the message of the gospel.  In fact, I haven’t been able to find a commentary which asserts otherwise.  This is a clear example of believers evangelizing apart from the special offices.

But is the description of Acts 8:4 prescriptive for Christians today?  There are two angles we should explore.  One has to do with what the book of Acts is really about.  Our English Bibles label the book the Acts of the Apostles.  But Luke didn’t give it that title, or any title for that matter.  In Acts 1:1 he says that his first book was about what “Jesus began to do and teach.”  When Luke writes that, he intimates that his second book (Acts) is about what Jesus continued to do and teach.  We need to read Acts 8:4 in that light.  We may just see ordinary Christians spreading the good news, but the Holy Spirit wants us to see Jesus.  This is what Jesus continued to do – he worked through these believers who were united to him.  As Christians, we’re also united to Christ.  What we see him doing through these Christians, we ought to be doing in union with him too.

The second angle is closely related.  One can hardly imagine that these ordinary believers in Acts needed to be told to evangelize.  Because they were united to Christ, they wanted to.  They couldn’t help themselves.  They were compelled by love to spread the good news of salvation – compelled by love for their Lord Jesus, but also by love for the people around them.  When you experience the reality of life in Jesus Christ, you’ll want to speak about him every opportunity you get.  And you’ll be praying earnestly for those opportunities.  If we don’t have that attitude towards evangelism, we might very well question whether we’re even Christians at all.

Now Acts 8:4 definitely doesn’t exhaust everything the Bible teaches about every believer’s evangelistic calling.  There’s far more, not only in the New Testament, but also in the Old.  But this one passage does prove that speaking the good news of Jesus Christ (evangelism) was something done by ordinary believers in the apostolic church.  Certainly no one can credibly claim on the basis of Scripture that God intends for this task today to be limited to men with seminary educations and titles before their name.


Can Prophets Be Mimes?

What if I told you Christians don’t have a personal responsibility to spread the gospel?  Amongst most Christians such a statement would be met with a raised eyebrow.  But in my little corner of the Reformed world, there are some who hold to this view.  They argue that God has only called ordained ministers and missionaries to evangelize.  Only a minuscule minority of Reformed Christians have ever held such a view.  Of course, the number of people holding to a position doesn’t say anything about whether it’s true.  It’s of far more significance to examine the faithful summary of Scripture we have in our Reformed confessions.  As we do that, such a view of evangelism becomes demonstrably not Reformed.  This view actually runs contrary to what we confess from the Bible.

I’m not going to exposit everything the Three Forms of Unity contain on this point – readers interested in a more fulsome explanation can see my 2015 book, To Win Our Neighbors for Christ.  I’m just going to focus on the Heidelberg Catechism and specifically Lord’s Day 12, QA 32.  As part of what it means to be a Christian, we hold that it involves as a prophet confessing the name of Christ.  This statement has three important features. 

First, Christian prophets confess the name of Christ, the one whose anointing they share.  Christian prophets are not here confessing the name of God as the Triune God, but specifically the Son of God, the second person of the Trinity.  This is important because we are specifically united to Christ – “I am a member of Christ by faith.”  Thus, when considering what our prophetic calling involves, we should first think of what it involved for Christ.  If we refer back to Answer 31, we find that he was anointed “to be our chief Prophet and Teacher, who has fully revealed to us the secret counsel and will of God concerning our redemption.”  Christ’s prophetic calling therefore involves revelation about redemption.  That revelation involved his actions, especially on the cross, but also in his healings and miracles.  Yet it was his words which provided the necessary context to interpret all of these actions.  His words revealed how he was working out our redemption.  His actions meant nothing without words.  If we are members of Christ by faith (united to him), doesn’t our prophetic calling reflect his?  Aren’t we called to use words to reveal redemption through what Christ has done?

Second, Christians confessing the name of Christ are prophets.  If we survey prophecy in Scripture, from Genesis to Revelation, we soon discover that prophecy is unimaginable apart from words.  It would be unthinkable to have a mime as a prophet.  All the prophets in Scripture used words.  Yes, sometimes prophets also used symbolic actions.  However, just like with Christ’s prophetic calling, those actions only had their full meaning in connection with the verbal ministry of that prophet.  No prophet in Scripture was called to communicate merely by his actions.  Prophecy always involves words.      

Third, we need to think closely about that key word “confessing.”  In normal English usage, to confess something is to communicate something with words.  If I confess a crime to the police, I’m telling them with my words that I did it.  In the original German of the Catechism, the same holds for the word used there: bekenne.  Of even more significance here is the footnoted reference in our edition to Matthew 10:32, “So everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven.”  The Greek word for “acknowledge” there is also sometimes translated as “confess” (e.g. in the NKJV).  Homologeo is a word that involves verbal communication.  Sometimes this word can include actions, but it never excludes words.  Thus, to confess the name of Christ necessarily involves the use of our mouths.

When it comes to the original intent and meaning of the Heidelberg Catechism, we’re helped out by the fact that the main author, Zacharias Ursinus, produced a commentary.  On this particular phrase from Answer 32, Ursinus wrote the following:

The prophetical dignity which is in Christians, is an understanding, acknowledgement and confession of the true doctrine of God necessary for our salvation.  Or, our prophetical office is:  1. Rightly to know God and his will.  2.  That everyone in his place and degree profess the same, correctly understood, faithfully, boldly, and constantly, that God may thereby be celebrated, and his truth revealed in its living force and power.  ‘Whosoever shall confess me before men, him will I also confess before my Father which is in heaven’ (Matt. 10:32).       

Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, p.179.

Notice how Ursinus speaks of the “true doctrine of God necessary for our salvation.”  You cannot communicate that with a wordless lifestyle.  Clearly the main author of the Catechism believed that being a Christian prophet involves speaking about salvation in Christ to others.

This has also been widely recognized in the Liberated Reformed tradition of which I’m a part.  I would simply refer to Professor Benne Holwerda’s 1942 sermon on Lord’s Day 12, published in volume 1 of De dingen die ons van God geschonken zijn.  He first says that he’s not talking about mission or evangelism, by which he means mission or evangelism in an organized ecclesiastical way.  Then he says:    

But now I’m thinking about our regular conversations.  The best evangelism is not a tract or brochure, but daily conversations.  We believe in Christ.  But that means, says the second answer, that through faith we share in his anointing of the Holy One and now know all things [pertaining to salvation].  Therefore whoever speaks, let him speak like the words of God.  Not just if it is convenient, not just if you are doing it deliberately, but let every word you say be a word from God.          

De dingen die ons van God geschonken zijn (vol. 1), p.175 (translation mine)

Holwerda was clear that the prophetic calling mentioned in Lord’s Day 12 couldn’t be isolated from words.  It involved “the best evangelism” – using our everyday conversations to speak about the Lord. 

There’s a sense in which we shouldn’t even have to be told of our calling to evangelize.  When you’re a Christian and you know lost people, you care for them, and it should be a natural thing that you think about their eternal destiny and want to tell them about Christ.  It should be the natural outgrowth of our love for people and our love for the Lord.  Yet Scripture still lays out this calling for us – and our confessions reflect it.  Why?  Because even as Christians we’re weak and sinful.  We can be inclined not to love our neighbour and not to think about the eternal destiny of the lost apart from Christ.  When we’re told that we don’t have a personal responsibility for evangelism, all that does is reinforce these sinful and weak remnants of our old nature.  Such an attitude proves right those who say Reformed believers are the “frozen chosen.”  Worst of all, this approach dishonours our Saviour because it gives the impression that the good news about him isn’t worth sharing.  Therefore, it’s not only un-Reformed, it’s un-Christian and ungodly.          


Mission and Reformed Covenant Theology

I don’t normally review multi-author collections of essays and this isn’t going to be an exception to that. I just want to draw your attention to this volume published in 2020 by P & R and Westminster Seminary Press, A Covenantal Vision for Global Mission. It’s a collection of academic papers that were delivered at a Reformed missions conference in South Africa in 2015. According to the Foreword, the papers “seek to ground the growing interest in the missional character of Christian outreach in the classic biblical and historic Reformed theological understanding of God’s covenantal relationship with mankind.”

The reason I don’t write reviews of multi-author volumes is because they tend to be a mixed bag. This one is no different. Some of the contributions are stellar. Chapter 7, “Christ’s Dominion over Creation and Spiritual Warfare in Mission” by Henk Stoker stands out — it’s a great critique of ideas like territorial spirits and spiritual mapping. Flip Buys contributed two papers that are also worthwhile, “Mission and Gathering God’s New Covenant People” (ch. 4), and “Missions in the Fear of God’ (ch.6). Some of the other contributions are good, some mediocre, and a couple are disappointing. But overall, I do think the book is worth a read if you’ve got an interest in mission and missiology. There’s a lot of thought-provoking missiological reflection related to covenant theology — and I’m not sure anything like it has yet been published in English (in Dutch there is Barend Wielenga’s dissertation Verbond en zending).

I end with a few choice quotes to pique your interest:

“The Reformed faith is missional, or it is not Reformed.” (from A Missions Declaration, p.xi)

“I believe that a revitalization of our understanding of the concepts of the covenant of redemption…and the covenant of grace is vital for developing a Reformed approach to global missions…” (Flip Buys, quoted on pp.14-15)

“When a missionary does not really do his work in the fear of God, converts are trained to depend on him, rather than becoming responsible to Christ.” (Flip Buys, p.142)

“The new-wave thinking concerning territorial spirits and their power over areas takes the focus away from the victory of Christ…” (Henk Stoker, p.157)

“Reformed theology has tended to have the best product, but the worst sales technique, and it is too often pushed by intellectually arrogant representatives.” (Paul Wells, p.291)

“The source and origin of world missions is the pactum salutis, God’s own covenant with himself.” (Kent Hughes, p.307)

“To be Reformed was, and is, to have a missionary heart.” (Kent Hughes, p.315)


Another Nail in the Coffin of Some Wrong History

Luther, Calvin and the Mission of the Church: The Mission Theology and Practice of the Protestant Reformers, Thorsten Prill. GRIN Verlag, Open Publishing GmbH, 2017. 96 pp.

It used to be, and to a certain extent still is, an oft-repeated assertion in mission studies that the Protestant Reformation had little or nothing to do with mission.  The problem is that the historical evidence simply does not bear this out.  I argued the point at length in my 2011 book For the Cause of the Son of God: The Missionary Significance of the Belgic Confession, a revision of my doctoral dissertation.  Since then much more research has been done into the Reformation and what it represented and accomplished in terms of Christian mission.  This small volume summarizes a great deal of that research and offers yet more.

Thorsten Prill is currently vice-principal and academic dean at Edinburgh Bible College in Scotland.  Previously he lectured in missiology and other subjects at the Namibia Evangelical Theological Seminary.  He has experienced ministry in six churches, three countries, and two continents.  Prill is an ordained minister of the Rhenish Church in Namibia, a denomination with both Lutheran and Reformed origins.  He has written extensively on missions and mission history. 

As the title indicates, a substantial portion of this book is historical.  The first four chapters are focussed on describing the problem much of contemporary missiology has with properly understanding the Reformation as a missional movement.  Most of this would be well-known to Reformed mission scholars, although it is surprising how much the error has persisted.  Entirely new to me was the fourth chapter on “Wittenberg and the Reformation in Scandinavia.”  Prill describes how missionaries brought the Reformation and the true gospel to Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Finland, and even Iceland.        

The last chapter examines the theology of Luther and Calvin and how it relates to mission.  Prill distils eight principles which continue to bear relevance for contemporary missional thought and practice.  Among them, he rightly notes how the Reformers stressed “that mission is a church-based endeavour.  It is local communities of believers which the Holy Spirit uses to expand the universal Church until the return of Christ” (p.79).

My only criticism of this volume is its relative lack of attention to the confessions produced by the Reformation.  Prill does mention Luther’s Large Catechism a number of times, but other Reformation-era confessional documents would buttress the argument he wants to make.  I think especially of those that were strongly influenced by the theology of someone like Calvin.  Also, since many of these confessions were ecclesiastically produced and sanctioned, they could be regarded as of weightier value than the writings of individual Reformers.

Prill’s book is a valuable addition to the cause of historical accuracy.  I can only rejoice that more missiologists are doing justice to the Reformation.  I am hopeful that in time, with these corrections, the narrative will shift and most Protestant mission scholars will understand that what happened in sixteenth-century Europe was as much about getting the gospel out to unbelievers as it was about reforming the organization and beliefs of the Church.  Moreover, as we see the Reformation correctly, we find that not only are there inspiring missional stories from this period, but also abiding biblical truths of which we need to be reminded.


Herman Bavinck on Women in the Church

Herman Bavinck (1854-1921) stands with John Calvin and Abraham Kuyper as one of the greatest Reformed theologians.  He’s renowned for being biblical, confessional, and incisive.  It’s been especially the publication of his Reformed Dogmatics in English that’s brought him to prominence in our day.  Biographies by Ron Gleason and, more recently James Eglinton, have certainly helped as well.  However, most of Bavinck’s corpus remains in Dutch.  Eric Bristley’s Guide to the Writings of Herman Bavinck illustrates the vastness of this corpus, listing hundreds of his articles and books. 

I want to introduce to you one of these untranslated works, one that was controversial in its day, and still bears some relevance for today.  In 1918, Bavinck published his book De vrouw in de hedendaagsche maatschaapij (Women in Contemporary Society).   It’s a comprehensive look at questions Dutch society was wrestling with in the early 20th century, particularly under the influence of first-wave feminism.  It deals with what Scripture teaches about women and how biblical teaching applies today, but also surveys church history – Bavinck’s typical approach.  In what follows, I’ll summarize what he says in his chapter about women in the church.  I’ll be simply reporting what he writes.  In other words, this is only descriptive and not analytical/critical.

“Women in the Church” is the title of chapter 10 of De vrouw in de hedendaagsche maatschaapij, the second-last chapter of the book.  It begins with the pre-Reformation church, noting the role of nuns in Christian philanthropy.  During the Reformation, some efforts were made to reorient this kind of diaconal service among women, but these efforts were hardly successful.  In some areas, efforts were made to have deaconesses, but the Synod of Middelburg in 1581 decided that it was not advisable to reintroduce the office of deaconess in the Reformed churches of the Netherlands.  In exceptional circumstances such as a time of plague, however, the work of deacons could be done by their wives or other women.  According to Bavinck, this happened in places like Middelburg, Utrecht, Amsterdam, and Emden.

Bavinck then turns his attention to a historical overview of women as pastors/preachers.  He notes that the Salvation Army was among the first to give a prominent role to women as church leaders.  This was owing especially to Catherine Booth, who co-founded the Salvation Army with her husband William.  Catherine Booth argued for the right for women to be preachers alongside men.  Others who pioneered women’s ordination were the Quakers, Congregationalists, Universalists, Unitarians, Methodists and, in the Netherlands the Mennonites and the Remonstrants.

Bavinck evaluates all these developments as being unbiblical.  He notes that Christ entrusted the ministry of the word to men, first to the apostles, and then to pastors and teachers.  The apostolic church never had any official ministry of the word and sacrament by women, nor any government of the church by women.  The apostle Paul said that women are to be silent in the congregation because to do otherwise would violate the natural order grounded in creation.             

Bavinck has a more positive evaluation of women serving in a general diaconal role.  In fact he says, the church “cannot do without women in this work.”  This includes things like Sunday school, care for the poor and the sick, care for the elderly, the support of pregnant women, and more.  He doesn’t think these activities need to be directly under the oversight of the church as an institution, but the church does have the calling to promote this kind of work where women use their gifts.

That leads into a discussion of the active role that women can play in missions.  He notes some figures for women serving on the mission field.  According to his figures, 160 women from America were serving as missionary doctors, and 2458 as “sisters in the mission” (zendingszusters).  Canada had 23 and 220, while Australia and New Zealand 2 and 94.  He also draws attention to the role that “missionary women’s associations” play on the home front, promoting and supporting the work of missions around the world.  Bavinck presents all of this in a positive light. 

Finally Bavinck comes to the controversial topic of women voting for office bearers in the church.  He begins this discussion with an overview of where things stand:  he notes that there are many churches in America, Australia, Denmark, Norway, Iceland, and Switzerland where women vote.  He points out that it was discussed and defended in the Netherlands as early as 1898 by Abraham Kuyper, as well as by pastors A.D.C Kok and C. Lindeboom.

Bavinck notes that the issue did not seem to be a pressing one in the Netherlands of his day.  Unlike in other countries, men were actively involved in Dutch church life and there didn’t seem to be any desire to have women voting for office bearers.  He writes that, with such indifference, it would be foolish to press the issue.

However, he notes that if we discuss it in principle, “there is little ground to condemn it.”  Bavinck argues that women are equal members of the church with men.  They have just as much an interest in having good office bearers as the men do.  Because of their nature as women, they tend to actually have quite a great deal of interest in religious matters.  Moreover, there are large numbers of widows, women married to “religiously indifferent men,” or women married to men who belong to another church.  Without being able to vote, such women are all stripped of the opportunity to have an influence on church life. 

Bavinck strengthens his argument by noting that while women under the authority of their husbands in the home, as church members they receive the same benefits and should receive the same rights.  He notes that young male communicant members who still live with their parents are subordinate to those parents, but yet they have the right to vote.  This is unfair.  Bavinck says the injustice becomes worse because women are allowed to raise objections to the election of an office bearer – yet they cannot vote.  Then he notes that the vote in the church is not an exercise of power.  The congregation only points out its preferences for office bearers; the consistory is responsible to call and appoint.

He maintains that there is only objection with any weight:  if women can vote in the church, it will not be long before the church will be forced to have women standing as candidates.  In other words, women’s voting will lead to women’s ordination. 

But Bavinck notes that this is an argument from fear.  It is an argument that often persuades fearful minds concerned about novelties in the church.  However, he points out, if the Scriptures are so strong that women may not serve as office bearers, then we have nothing to fear.  The clarity of the Bible should prevent any such development.

He then points out that it’s not unusual for people to be able to vote and not be able to stand as a candidate.  One does not follow from the other.  The requirements for eligibility to vote are often different from the eligibility requirements to stand as a candidate.  In the Dutch situation of his time, a public servant, clergyman or teacher was not allowed to be a candidate in a city council election.  Writes Bavinck, “Thus eligibility to any office in Scripture is bound by certain requirements, 1 Timothy 3; but no such limits are placed on the power to vote.”

Finally, Bavinck comes to a brief discussion of Scripture.  In Acts 1:15, in the meeting of the 120 people to replace Judas as apostle, women were certainly there (Acts 1:14).  True, Peter addresses the gathering as “Men and Brothers.”  That was common practice and it still was in the church of Bavinck’s day.  Even though they were present the sisters were never mentioned.  It’s therefore uncertain as to whether or not the women present participated in the process.  Other passages like Acts 13:3 and Acts 14:23 likewise do not shed any light.  Bavinck concludes that while Scripture limits the offices of the church to men, there is no definite and clear statement about who may vote.

Indeed, it seems to Bavinck, in the ancient church women were not excluded from choosing bishops or making contributions to other ecclesiastical matters.  He points out that, in his day, in Germany there were Roman Catholic congregations where independent women had long been allowed to vote on the choice of a pastor.  Similar situations occur in the Netherlands, he says, proving that women have not always been excluded from the voting process in the congregation just because they are women. 

In his biography, Ron Gleason describes the reception of this book (pp.415-416).  It was especially the matter of women voting in the church that led to some negative evaluations by men such as Dammes Fabius and Seakle Greijdanus.  Gleason relates that Abraham Kuyper wrote his last letter to Bavinck about this book and indicated that the two of them had significant differences on the subject.  However, a footnote surmises that these differences may have been about women’s suffrage in civil society.  Given how Bavinck asserts that Kuyper defended women’s voting in the church, Gleason may be correct.

(Note: I haven’t yet read James Eglinton’s biography and what he may have to offer on this – it’s on my list of must-reads for 2021.)