One of the subjects dearest to the heart of those of us who started Vanguard Presbytery is the office of evangelist. It is also the doctrinal position that has caused the most disagreement with us by people who should be supportive of our efforts. Perhaps there are many reasons for such disagreement, but the main reason, as far as I can understand, is because of the general neglect of evangelism by the modern church in America. Just yesterday, I talked by phone with a ruling elder in the PCA who was intrigued by Vanguard Presbytery because of our position on evangelists. This elder became a Christian in the late 1980’s and was surprised when I told him that there was once a time when every church in this country would have revival or evangelistic services every year. I graduated from seminary in 1976 and took a call to a country church in Mississippi. A week after I moved onto the field, that flying angel, Ben Wilkinson, was scheduled to preach for 8 straight days at our congregation. That was an experience I will never forget. While I was trying to figure him out, he was sizing me up also. But the 1970’s were almost the end of revival services, evangelistic meetings, or whatever you want to call them, in this country. The question begs to be asked and demands an answer. Are we better off as a nation now than we were then? How could anyone say that we are? I blame a great deal of the problems in this nation today on the fact that the church has ceased to aggressively evangelize the lost. Thus, the mind of the world has been mostly unchecked for the past 40 years with the result that even the church has become conformed to the world.
It is amazing to me that there are people who seem to think that holding to the office of evangelist is a new innovation that borders on being hyper-charismatic; i.e., they view it as a return to the gifts of the Spirit that ceased with the age of the apostles. I have dealt with the theological and Scriptural and historical aspects of the office of evangelist in several articles in the past. Vanguard Presbytery claims to be a New Light—Old School Presbyterian denomination. The New Light Presbyterians were supporters of the 18th century Great Awakening. They regularly ordained men as evangelists. What about the Old School Presbyterians of the 19th century? Were they supporters of the office of evangelist? The documentary evidence certainly shows that they did. James Henley Thornwell is quoted in his biography written by Benjamin Morgan Palmer in support of the office of evangelist as a perpetual office in the church. The various BCO’s of the Southern Presbyterian Church had statements about evangelists in them. Even today, most Presbyterian denominations have the vestiges of the office of evangelist woven throughout their BCO’s. That fact, in itself, shows that the doctrine has long-standing support in the Reformed and Presbyterian churches. Yea, even the Church of Scotland had the basics of the office of evangelist in their polity, but they were called superintendents. A rose by any other name still smells as sweet.
A question that has come to the forefront in some circles of late is whether or not a ruling elder can be an evangelist? Well, before we answer that question, let us quote from the 1879 PCUS BCO on evangelists:
When a minister is appointed to the work of an Evangelist, he is commissioned to preach the Word and administer the sacraments in foreign countries, frontier settlements, or the destitute parts of the Church; and to him may be entrusted power to organize churches, and ordain Ruling Elders and Deacons (BCO 2-6).
I certainly agree with everything that BCO said about evangelists. That section applied to Ministers. It spoke of the “destitute parts of the Church” as being one of the fields of service for evangelists. Are there no “destitute areas of the Church” in the neighborhoods around the local churches where you attend? The practice of the 19th century Presbyterians was that they would appoint a minister as an evangelist to go to those areas where no Presbyterian church existed—perhaps there were no churches at all. Those evangelists would spend their time in preaching evangelism with the goal of raising up Christians from whom they could plant a church.
The 20th century saw an explosion of personal evangelism and less dependence on preaching evangelism. Both are necessary. Only ministers can ordinarily be involved in preaching evangelism. Personal evangelism can be practiced by all Christians. In fact, Scripture teaches us that we should all be ready to give an account for the hope that is in us. So, this brings us back to the question we asked a few paragraphs earlier: Can a ruling elder be an evangelist? Or, to ask it a little more succinctly: Can a church session appoint a ruling elder to be an evangelist for their congregation? There are some additional questions that have to be asked. Are there no lost people in the cities and towns where you live? Are ministers alone able to present the gospel to the lost? Is there parity among the eldership or not? These are all important questions.
When someone asks the question whether there is any place in the Scripture that teaches a ruling elder can be an evangelist they are essentially answering the question in asking it. Of course, there is no place where the Scripture directly says that a ruling elder can be an evangelist. But let us ask the question a little different way. Is there any place in the Scripture that says only a teaching elder can be an evangelist? Well, that answer is also no. Thus, nothing is proved by asking either question. Instead, we should look at what the Scripture says about the requirements for the office of elder. 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9 are the only places where detailed requirements for the office of elder are given to us. There are other places where the Scripture discusses elders and their duties, but those are the places that mention their requirements. Neither place makes a distinction between teaching and ruling elders. Neither place refers to elders as evangelists—or missionaries, or teachers in college or seminary, etc.
If a church sets apart a ruling elder as an evangelist, this does not mean that he is going to setup a tent and start preaching every night. Evangelists are subject to the courts that have appointed them. When Presbytery appoints a teaching elder as an evangelist, they give him powers commensurate with their own authority. When a session appoints a ruling elder, they do the same. A session cannot ordain a man as a teaching elder, but they can appoint a ruling elder to the task of evangelizing the lost in their area. Here, I think, is the most important question: What harm can befall the church if sessions appoint ruling elders to the work of evangelizing the lost? I am having a hard time coming up with a legitimate answer to that question. Perhaps, the only answer would be that it is against the Scripture, but that is begging the question. The Scripture also never states that a minister can be a seminary professor.
I have often heard Al Baker say that every church needs an evangelist. I agree with him. Just recently, it came to my attention that there is a newer member of my congregation who evidently has the gift of evangelism. He hungers to talk to people about Christ. He finds ways to raise the subject with them. And he is gifted in it. It is his passion. This man is not an elder in our church, but all gifts come from God—not by the laying on of hands by men. Who would say to such a man: “You are not a minister, so you should not be evangelizing people.” Or, who would say to a ruling elder, “We do not allow ruling elders to evangelize.” So, what I am saying is this. The whole debate is really kind of silly. The church needs more people evangelizing—not fewer. The disciples once saw a man casting out demons in the name of Jesus. John came back to Jesus and told Him, “’Master, we saw someone casting out demons in Your name; and we tried to prevent him because he does not follow along with us.’ But Jesus said, ‘Do not hinder him; for he who is not against you is for you’” (Luke 9:49, 50).
Brothers, evangelists are not against Christ or you. Ruling elder evangelists are not against Christ or you. Lay evangelists are not against Christ or you. If the devil is being thrown out of a sinner’s life through the witness of evangelists—whether they are ministers, ruling elders, or laymen—then praise God. We need more of them, not fewer. They need to be encouraged, not prevented. Jesus said, “Do not hinder them.”
Dewey Roberts, Pastor of Cornerstone Presbyterian Church in Destin, FL. Visit Vanguard Presbytery’s website at: www.vanguardpresbytery.com Please send any donations for Vanguard Presbytery to: PO Box 1862, Destin. FL 32540. May the Lord bless you.