The Idol of Evangelism
The second error of which we in the American Church have become guilty-and of which many in the German Church were guilty in the 1930s-may be called “the idol of evangelism.” In the same way that Luther’s zeal for our justification by faith was used to crowd out other essential biblical ideas-and therefore led to theological errors, which may lead to historical tragedy-so can the vital concept of evangelism be gravely misunderstood.
If we elevate any good idea too far, we distort that idea and everything along with it. So just as one might say that “faith” is everything-and thereby forget that “faith” must be lived out might say that the most important thing in the world is that someone come to salvation. After all, if the infinity of eternity is at stake, nothing can even begin to compare with that level of gravity. and so we go about calculating how to do this one thing and this alone. Not only is this the most important thing imaginable, but we encourage ourselves further with the idea that when someone comes to faith, their behavior and their views on every subject will eventually come into line with God’s will. They will instantly come to hold a biblical view of sexuality and of the infinite value of all life, and anything else that is biblical. It’s inevitable.
Of course, it’s not quite that simple. God expects us, and often calls us, to do many things at once. Discipleship is not evangelism, but if we think that without attending to the serious work of discipleship, we can ever be anything like what God intends for His Church, we are mistaken. Nor does the Bible present us with a picture of God’s people doing nothing but leading others to salvation. Sometimes God enjoins His people to build walls or to fight battles. Sometimes He has us say difficult things to people who do not receive those difficult things, but who instead walk away forever. Nonetheless there are some who have this fixed idea that evangelism is the most important and really the only thing worth doing. After all, what’s the point in doing anything at all if one more soul ends up in Hell for eternity?
But if we are to take the Bible as a whole, we see that this view is a capacious misunderstanding of what God expects of us-and as with any such misunderstandings, it leads to grave errors and problems, and often to tragedy.
For one thing, it may well cause us never to say anything that might offend someone, because we fear that that offense-on some infinitely less important issue than eternal salvation-might drive that person from assenting to the only thing that matters, which is a “saving faith in Jesus Christ.” But if we adopt this myopic and unbiblical view, we will essentially be paralyzed, unable to do any of the many other things to which God calls us. As we have earleir touched on reducing “faith” and “belief” to some thin intellectual assent that misses the heart of what it means to love God with our whole being, we have here similarly reduced the “Gospel” to convincing someone to assent to God’s simple plan of salvation. If we are able to get that person to pray a certain prayer, we have done all that is needed and may move on. We can dispense with fighting for justice, or against slavery, or with trying to see that our government enacts the will of the people. We relegate such things to some worldly list of what you can do if you didn’t get the memo that the only thing that matters is bringing others to personal salvation. Won’t all of that other stuff burn anyway? Why waste our time with any of it?
Of course, as extraordinarily vital as evangelism, is, God calls us to more. And in doing those other things, we can rest assured He is using whatever He has asked us to do for His eternal and evangelistic purposes. The only caveat is that it will not be so immediately evident to us, and may never be.
God calls us sometimes, for example, “to speak truth to power,” and gives us a memorable picture of John the Baptist doing that with Herod as well as the astonishing picture of Jesus doing that with the religious leaders of His time. But if John the Baptist and Jesus only cared about the salvation of those to whom they were speaking, could they have said much of what they said? Obviously, God’s calculus is not quite what ours is. But do we dare to think that we care more about souls than God?
For example, Jesus called the Pharisees “white-washed tombs” and said they were “of their father, the devil,” John quotes Him as saying:
“You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies. But because I tell the truth, you do not believe me. Which one of you convicts me of sin? If I tell the truth, why do you not believe me? Whoever is of God hears the words of God. The reason why you do not hear them is that you are not of God.” (John 8:44-47)
Jesus actually tells them that the devil is their father. Can we imagine anything more aggressive and awful to say? Did Jesus not realize that anything He said that might be so extremely insulting could push them away from finding true faith?
But obviously Jesus-who was perfect and sinless-knew more than a little about what He was doing, and in making these harsh pronouncements showed us another side of things. He was engaged in “truth-telling.” In its own way, this is part of what will indeed eventually bring some people to salvation.
We also remember that Jesus turned over the tables of the moneychangers in the Temple and braided a whip of cords to drive the animals out while shouting. To many in the Church today this is the very definition of “toxic masculinity”-and perhaps just as Luther wished James’s epistle had been lost to history, many Christians today secretly wish this unfortunate episode had been kept out of the Gospels. But far from being a picture of “toxic masculinity,” this is a picture of perfect masculinity. It is a picture of God’s idea of masculinity. In this muscular action of some violence, we have God’s own picture of Himself: a holy God who acts in history, and who sometimes does shocking things out of His love for us.
Throughout the Old Testament God judges Israel and its people for their behavior, but can we doubt that He does it out of love for them? Through the mouths of the prophets, He essentially threatens them that if they don’t do X then Y will happen. And if they do X then Z will happily result. This is a picture of a father’s love, not of someone who is controlling or egotistical or “agenda-driven.” If we care so much about “leading people to Christ” that we are somehow holier than God Himself, to what God are we leading them?
Because of this hypertrophied view of evangelism, there are many today who refuse to comment on anything controversial or political if they think it might conceivably interfere with the possibility of leading someone to salvation. They forget that God gives them other duties, including loving our neighbors by sometimes speaking the truth. We become so desperate to show those listening to us that we are exactly like them-and that we do not judge them-that we forget these are not the only things worth being concerned with.
We hear over and over of pastors who have taken this tack with tragic results. The tats and skinny jeans and smoke machines and celebrities in the green room-and all of our professions of “nonjudgmentalism”-are not quite enough to bring people to Jesus. At some point we may be required to say something that causes people to stop nodding along, and might even cause them to walk away. When Jesus spoke of the necessity of us “eating His body” and “drinking His blood,” He knew that many would turn away, would say “enough” and go back to their lives without Him. But He said it anyway. We know it was not a miscalculation on His part. When we wore our bright bracelets that cavalierly asked “What would Jesus do?” we might have remembered that at a certain juncture, that is precisely what He did. And that people walked away when He did it.
But Jesus trusted His Heavenly Father with the eternal souls of those who could not bear His hard teaching. Do we? Recently we saw a celebrity pastor enjoy extraordinary moments in the media spotlight, but in those moments when it suddenly got real, so to speak, he was unable to be clear about God’s most basic views on things like sexual morality, for example. He could not bring himself to say that the Bible has had this view of men and women from the beginning and that Jesus said as much. He was not able to spend some of the good will and hip bona fides he had been accumulating, ostensibly for moments like this. This was the opportunity to spend that coin. But instead, the coin was buried safely.
Have we forgotten that God has given us these coins to spend for His purposes? Has that coin become an idol from which we cannot bear to part? Has it become so valuable to us that it is now controlling us?
Not long after the celebrity pastor’s TV appearance alluded to above, we wept to hear that he had fallen into sexual sin and had been living a double life. Our hearts break, because we know that the idol he had unwittingly been worshiping had exacted its tribute from him, and we pray for him.
At least as early as writing “The Church and the Jewish Question,” Bonhoeffer saw that those in the Church have a solemn obligation to speak up when they see grave injustices. Some years later, he famously wrote, “Only he who cries out for the Jews may sing Gregorian chants.” In other words, we shouldn’t imagine that God would have us worship Him and listen to sermons if we have neglected to do what we can to speak for those who cannot speak for themselves.
The idol of evangelism-which is of course really an idol of “false evangelism”-was a great part of what silenced the Church in Germany in the 1930s. We only want to preach the Gospel, many pastors said. So rather than potentially be thrown into prison for speaking the truth of God, they kept their mouths shut, hoping the Nazis would leave them in peace.
But did it ever occur to them that if God allowed them to go to prison or to a concentration camp for obeying Him, perhaps He had someone in one of those places to whom He was sending them? Bonhoeffer shared his faith with innumerable souls at Tegel Prison in Berlin, and then later on in the other places to which he was taken before his death.
Only weeks ago, while attending the National Religious Broadcasters convention, I was in a room with a prominent American pastor who openly shared how proud he was not to have said anything so controversial that he might in any way be “cancelled” or lose his opportunity to “preach the Gospel.” For him the price of silence on any number of issues was one he paid with joy if it gave him the opportunity to continue doing what he believed God had called him to do. But what if God had called him to say something that arose from what he believed, but that those who had the power to cancel or attack him didn’t like? What if he felt an obligation to speak out on any number of issues which the cultural elites had declared off limits? Why would acceding to such tyranny in a free nation be acceptable, and what gospel did he hope to preach if he was allowing himself to be muzzled in this way? Is it not possible that his witness for the Gospel actually would be strengthened if he dared to say what less timid pastors were afraid to say?
but he had such a theologically narrow view of what it meant to “preach the Gospel” that this had obviously never occurred to him. And as far as he was concerned, those being cancelled were only reaping the results of the imprudence of not keeping focused on their strict evangelistic duties. It never occurred to him that he was helping the enemies of freedom-and the Gospel-gain strength. It never occurred to him that by playing such a game, he was making it more difficult for people in a free society to speak the truth, and that this ability to speak truth freely and without fear is indeed a “Gospel issue.”
As we have said, many pastors in Bonhoeffer’s day were making a similar calculation, although we are able to see exactly how it played out in the end. Bonhoeffer read of one well-meaning American evangelist-Frank Buchman, who headed the Oxford Group-who wished to get a meeting with Hitler and his top lieutenants with the idea of leading them to faith. But Bonhoeffer knew there comes a point when such things are naive to the point of being destructive. We know that theoretically there is no length to which we shouldn’t go to bring a soul into the Kingdom, but a practical element must enter our thinking-and inevitably does, if we are honest. Unless God Himself speaks to us clearly, we are obliged to make such calculations.
When Bonhoeffer was doing all he could to speak out about what was happening and to wake up the Church to act, he was sometimes met with the abominable theology to which we are here referring. Some German pastors felt they must only be allowed to preach the Gospel and lead people to faith. All else was secondary. But at one point-as we have mentioned-Bonhoeffer summed things up quite clearly, “Only he who cries out for the Jews,” he said, “may sing Gregorian chants.” In other words, if you are unwilling to show the self-giving agape love of Christ by openly risking all you have for the sake of those who are suffering, who have no voice, you are no Christian at all, but a hypocrite and a fraud. God will reject your worship because the very thing that He required of you, you ignored.
Bonhoeffer was quite clear about Christians who “did business as usual.” If one did not have the guts to speak against the evils being committed against the German Jews under Hitler, one had abdicted the right to worship God. Many have heard the apocryphal story of Germans in church singing more loudly to drown out the cries of the Jews passing by in boxcars on a nearby railway line. We don’t know if the story is true, but we understand the gist of it. But for many years before Jews were being hauled via train lines to their deaths, most German Christians did nothing. Those were years in which they hoped nothing terrible would happen, but did nothing to prevent terrible things from happening. They sat on their hands. They had church services. Perhaps they prayed. Only Bonhoeffer and a handful of Christians did what God was calling all Christians to do.
But when he heard that Buchman was making great efforts to have a meeting with Hitler and later on with Himmler in the hopes of leading these men to faith, Bonhoeffer knew it was a fool’s errand. This was not because he didn’t care about the souls of the Nazi high command. Obviously, God sent His Son to die for everyone, and if there were any chance of leading these monsters to repentance and faith, Bonhoeffer would be thrilled to take it if possible. But he also saw that those who were singing this easy evangelistic song were ignorant of the realities at hand. He was not. He knew that the time for action was at hand, that human beings were dying and suffering, and that whatever anyone did had better be what God was calling them to do. It had better not be some zealous religious fool’s errand, because innumerable lives were at stake.
This is no less true for us today. If we do not speak out at the injustices we see all around us, to what thin-lipped gospel do we think we are leading anyone? If we believe our own governments is looking the other way at certain injustices while boldly making a show of being heroically concerned with others, are we not obliged to point this out?
Our responsibilities as Christians go beyond mere “evangelism.” We pretend we would have spoken out for the Jews in Bonhoeffer’s day, or that we would have spoken against the slave trade in Wilberforce’s day, but are we speaking out today on the issues that are no less important to God in our time? If not, we are deceiving ourselves. But God is not deceived.
On what issues are we ourselves being silent, and for what reasons? The unborn are being murdered and their body parts sold for profit. Are we not to mention this for fear of driving someone away from God? Or do we ourselves not quite believe it or wish to believeit?
Very young children in schools are being fed pernicious ideas on the subject of sexuality-ideas with which their young minds are quite unable to cope, and to which their own parents object.
Older children are being so confused by sexual activists that they agree to have their bodies mutilated, so that they can never become the men and women God has created them to be.
Socialistic and communistic ideas are being pushed everywhere. These will end up harming the poor more than anyone, although those pushing these ideas boldly spread the lie that any who oppose these wicked ideas secretly hate the poor.
Are we really to keep silent about all of these things? Is it not possible that those whom we wish to evangelize are looking to us in the Church-who claim to have no fear but of God-to speak boldly on these things and fight for the truth as we see it while there is yet time? Is this not perhaps the very thing that will lead these souls to the God we worship, if we obviously so love Him that we are willing to live in this way?
No one cared more about evangelism than William Wilberforce. But he also cared about the Africans suffering in that abomination called the transatlantic slave trade, so he did everything he could to speak out for them and worked in every way possible to end the slave trade, and eventually succeeded. Shall we forget that innumerable people in his day told him that he mustn’t mix faith and politics? But he knew that if his faith did not compel him to work for those who were suffering, and for any number of issues beyond that, then his faith was worth nothing, and whatever he said about it would ring hollow in the ears of his hearers.
Perhaps you are worried about what the New York Times and other elite institutions have to say about you and other “evangelicals”? Do you worry that being portrayed negatively in the media might make it harder for you to share your faith with skeptics? That’s not an entirely wrong concern, but with every day that passes it becomes less important. If we allow our ideological enemies to tell us what we can and cannot say and what views we can and cannot have, we have taken our eyes off God. If we honor Him in all we say and do, He will honor us. He promises that in the Scriptures, and we can count on it. But now we must honestly ask ourselves: Do we believe it? Are we acting as though we believe it?