Shocking! A Straw Man Comes to Life: Some Reformed Theologians/Ministers Deny Lay-Evangelism
Merriam-Webster defines "straw man" as "a weak or imaginary argument or opponent that is set up to be easily defeated." The most blatant example of this informal logical fallacy that I've ever personally encountered is Nelson Price's infamous 'bus driver' illustration of Reformed Theology, published in The Christian Index (the Georgia Baptist newspaper):
|The Reformed view of God,|
according to Nelson Price.
A mass of people are gathered at a bus stop marked “Planet Earth.” Along comes the Celestial Bus marked “Destination Heaven.” It pulls up and stops. The driver, who is God, opens the door, and says, “All destined for heaven get on board.” A number do. A missionary couple who with zeal have served Christ all their lives start on and God says, “Step aside. You haven’t been chosen to ride this bus.” A couple of infants start on and God tells them to step aside. Persons who from youth have loved and ministered in Christ’s name are told to step aside. As the bus is about to depart and the door is closing God says to those not on board, “Catch the next bus.” “No,” they plead, “here comes the next bus and it is driven by Satan and marked ‘Destination Hell.’”As Dr. James White pointed out in his open letter to Dr. Price, "No Reformed theologian, no Calvinist, with the slightest knowledge of their faith, would ever own your story as their own. Not a one."
Reformed Objections to Lay-Evangelism: A Straw Man?
As of last week, if someone had told me, 'Reformed theologians don't believe in lay-evangelism' ["lay evangelism" meaning that Christians-even those who are not ordained ministers-are duty-bound to introduce non-Christians to Christ], I would have asserted-and believed!-that he or she was involved in a gross example of the straw man fallacy on a level approaching Dr. Price's 'bus driver' illustration.
|Dr. Robert Gonzales|
When I saw that Dr. Robert Gonzales, Academic Dean of Reformed Baptist Seminary, had written a blogpost affirming lay-evangelism, I honestly believed that the post was designed as an encouragement for Christians to do what we all already know we ought to be doing. If I'd thought about objections to lay-evangelism, I might have supposed that there would be some one lone sad hyper-Calvinist out there somewhere who thought a person had to be ordained in order to evangelize. But I did not imagine that anyone anywhere near the mainstream of Reformed thought would question the responsibility of every Christian to point people to Christ.
Upon reading Dr. Gonzales' post, I was shocked to discover that he had received push-back on the subject of lay-evangelism. Some of this came from participants on the Puritan Board website. Perhaps even more troubling, when the Confessing Baptist Podcast reported on Dr. Gonzales' post, one of the regular panelists on that podcast registered some objection to the practice of lay-evangelism.
Reformed Objections to Lay-Evangelism: Sometimes a Question of Terminology
|Or: "Keep Calm and Witness"?|
Francis Wayland's Call for Lay-Evangelism
On the other hand, as referenced in Dr. Gonzales' blogpost and evident from some reactions to the post, there are apparently some Reformed theologians/ministers who deny lay-evangelism as both a term and a concept, believing that the duty for gospel proclamation rests solely upon ordained ministers. Dr. Gonzales-in the blogpost linked above-does an admirable job answering this error. Over a hundred and fifty years ago, Baptist theologian and abolitionist Francis Wayland similarly defended lay-evangelism. (Providentially, I came across Wayland's article at about the same time that I read the blogpost by Dr. Gonzales.)
In an address before the New York Baptist Union for Ministerial Education, Wayland called for every Christian to be involved in the proclamation of the gospel to every person. One of the most compelling texts that Wayland highlights in this regard is Acts 8:1-4. (Dr. Gonzales mentions this text as well.) According to the Spirit-inspired historical record, the church in Jerusalem was all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles. The result was NOT that the work of evangelism suffered, but those who were scattered went about preaching the word. Certainly, as we would expect, ordained ministers led by example (in the next verse, we read about the deacon Philip's ministry in Samaria), but the language of this passage points to the entire church-even while scattered abroad-proclaiming the gospel.
Wayland also directs his hearers/readers to consider the example of Moses lifting up the brazen serpent in the wilderness. (This is especially appropriate as Jesus Himself points to this OT episode as a type of His redemptive work.) Wayland writes:
When the Israelites were bitten by the fiery flying serpents, and the bite was inevitably fatal, Moses was directed to set up a brazen serpent, with the assurance that whosoever that had been bitten, looked upon it, should be healed. You can imagine how the first man who felt its saving efficacy, flew to communicate the news to his brethren, and urge them to avail themselves of the remedy which had delivered him from death. Every man who was healed became immediately a herald of the glad tidings to others. Every one who was saved became a publisher of the salvation, or, in other words, a preacher, until in a few minutes the news spread throughout the encampment; and in this sense every tribe was evangelized.Should we-who have beheld the one cure for sin, death, and Hell-not likewise all publish the good news to our neighbors?
Objections to Lay-Evangelism NOT Rooted in the Reformed View of God's Sovereignty
If this line of reasoning is indeed biblical, if the exhortation to lay-evangelism is in tune with the Spirit-then what is the motivation for some Reformed theologians/ministers objecting to the idea that all Christians-including the non-ordained-are under the duty to publish the gospel?
Reformed theology is generally distinguished by the highest view of the sovereignty of God in all matters: including matters of salvation. Evangelicals who object to Reformed theology often assert that the Reformed focus on God's sovereignty is necessarily a detriment to evangelism. So the question is raised: does the fact that some Reformed theologians/ministers deny lay-evangelism prove that evangelical critics of Reformed theology are correct?
I would argue that the denial of the duty upon all Christian laypeople for evangelism, as published by some Reformed theologians/minsters, is NOT rooted in the Reformed view of God's sovereignty. (In other words, this subject has no bearing upon debates over the nature of God's sovereignty.) Upon examination of the objections to lay-evangelism, it seems that there are two sources contributing to these objections. The first underlying source is the idea from some Reformed paedobaptists that Christians should presume that their children are regenerated. This idea-based on a misunderstanding of the nature of the New Covenant community-results in a denial that the home itself is a field for evangelism. Without presumptive regeneration, a rejection of lay-evangelism becomes much less likely. Because if Christian parents see that their own offspring are "by nature children under wrath" (Eph 2:3), and thus in desperate need of salvation "by grace...through faith" (Eph 2:8), and if these Christian parents take seriously the command to bring up their children in "the nurture and admonition of the Lord" (Eph 6:4), then it becomes well-nigh impossible to reach the conclusion that only ordained ministers need be involved in introducing people to Christ.
But (presumably without paedobaptism and presumptive regeneration), the panelist on the Confessing Baptist Podcast mentioned above does reach some kind of conclusion by which he seems to object to lay-evangelism. This is due to a second underlying source for why some Reformed theologians/ministers object to lay-evangelism: namely, an over-reaction against the hyper-individualism seen in current evangelicalism. Evangelicalism as a whole has emphasized the need for a personal relationship with Jesus Christ to the point of denigrating the need for a corporate relationship within the body of Christ as expressed in a local church. Despite clear NT passages such as Hebrews 10:25 and 1 John 2:19, many evangelicals view church participation as optional to their Christian life. This has led some Reformed ministers to react by exalting the necessity of the corporate relationship to the point where the individual's relationship to the Lord is seen as secondary at best. This is an over-reaction, and a denigration of the individual relationship with Jesus Christ misses the properly individualistic nature of many Gospel passages. For example: the individual penitent publican in Luke 18:9-14 is justified before God by means of his repentant faith; the individual Samaritan woman in John 4 invited the people of her town to meet Christ. Likewise Christians today should recognize that individuals need to be justified and that each of us individually has the responsibility to invite non-Christians to trust in the Lord Jesus.
I'll end this post with a final quote from Francis Wayland:
[E]very disciple of Christ is under imperative obligations to become a herald of salvation to his fellow men, and to beseech them, in Christ's stead, to be reconciled to God.