Friday, February 19, 2021

Ponzi Scheme

There is a recurring theme in a lot of the sermons I've been hearing over the last couple decades. It seems like a lot of people believe that our primary role is evangelism. I heard one recording where the speaker said the best way to honor the Lord is to share the gospel with lost sinners. I'm not convinced that's true.

I know, 2 Timothy 4:5 says, "do the work of an evangelist." Isn't that a slam dunk? Doesn't that prove we're to focus on witnessing?

Well... it's a little more complicated than that. Let's start with the context of that verse: v. 9 says "Use diligence to come to me quickly," and then goes on to detail that he should bring Mark, a cloak, and manuscripts (2 Timothy 4:9–13). I find it interesting that people are quick to say 2 Timothy 4:5 is a command to us, who don't then make a pilgrimage to Troas. It's clearly the same person being addressed in v. 5 and v. 9–13. What reason do we have to think the one verse applies to us, but the others do not?

I'm not trying to be pugilistic here, I'm just pointing out that reading 2 Timothy 4:5 as a command to us is an untenable hermeneutical position. There's not justification for it in the text. It's a command to Timothy, not to us. And the context makes that clear.

Just today I read an article that said, "Let’s start with the premise that the paramount mission of the church is the proclamation of the gospel and creation of disciples" (emphasis in the original). That's quite a statement, and one the author doesn't really demonstrate from the texts he quotes (Matthew 28:19, Mark 16:15).  There are (at least) two problems with this reasoning:

First, the Lord wasn't addressing the church, which didn't exist at the time. He was addressing the Eleven. 

Second, I don't see anything in the text that claims these verses are somehow more important than the rest of what the Lord commanded. I know it's common to label those passages "the Great Commission", but the Scripture does not. There's nothing in the text to suggest these verses take primacy over anything else the Lord commanded. It's just not there.

Of course none of this is to say we ought not to evangelize. It's just to say that dubious hermeneutics and careless handling of the text aren't a solid foundation for building much of anything. It's certainly not sufficient for the claim that evangelism is "the paramount mission of the church."

It seems to me there are several problems that spring from this sort of carelessness with the Word of God. There are probably many, but I'll just mention a few.

The first problem is that we end up messing with the gospel. I've mentioned at least a few times that the Scripture talks about the gospel a lot, but it only tells us what the gospel is twice: 1 Corinthians 15:1–8 and Revelation 14:6–7. 1 Corinthians 15 lays out the gospel Paul preached (1 Corinthians 15:1). When he says, "if even we or an angel out of heaven announce as glad tidings to you [anything] besides what we have announced as glad tidings to you, let him be accursed" (Galatians 1:8). That's a serious statement, and it should catch our attention.

If we examine the gospel Paul preached, we see it doesn't bear a lot of resemblance to most of the "gospel preaching" we hear most places today. How many "gospel messages" have you heard that mentioned the burial of Christ? I've heard "gospel messages" that don't even mention the Resurrection!

Further, the gospel Paul preached is remarkably devoid of appeals to repent, or even urging to believe. It wasn't much of a sales pitch.  Acts 13:16–41 records Paul's message to the synagogue in Antioch of Pisidia. We notice immediately the lack of the pressure to "close the deal". There just isn't that high-pressure sales tactic here.

We might see a bit more of an appeal in Acts 2:14–40, in Peter's sermon on Pentecost. But the context sheds some light on that: notice that Peter's urging the hearers to repent comes after they ask him what they should do (Acts 2:37). Peter tells the people that the Man they had crucified was the Messiah, and He had been raised from the dead, and is now sitting at God's right hand. They respond by asking what they should do, having crucified the Lord, and he tells them, "Repent, and be baptised, each one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ, for remission of sins, and ye will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit" (Acts 2:38).

Someone pointed out many years ago that the book of Acts doesn't even mention the love of God. Not once. I'm afraid that our "gospel preaching" is a whole lot more like a sales pitch than it is like the preaching of the Apostles. 

The second problem is that we reduce Christianity to a race to sign people up: a membership drive, if you will. It seems to me that evangelicalism frequently reduces to a Ponzi scheme. It's people working hard to sign others up, so they can sign others up, so they can sign others up... there doesn't seem to be a lot of point to it.

The point of Christianity – at least according to the Word of God – is to know God (John 17:3). It's to know Christ (Philippians 3:8–12). It's to have fellowship with the Father and the Son (1 John 1:3). I can't recall ever reading in the Scripture that the point of Christianity is to get as many other people on board as possible. 

The third problem is that high-pressure tactics create false profession. I personally have seen – I was there – people who put so much pressure on the gospel, that entirely unrepentant sinners repeat a prayer just to get the "evangelist" to shut up. How do I know that's what happened? Because the supposed "new convert" said that's what happened. I heard Robert say something like, "the devil has made enough false professors, let's not help him by making more."

So let's do invite sinners to repent, let's do tell them about that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that He was buried, that He was raised the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He was seen by Cephas and the Twelve. But don't let's miss out on what Christianity actually is: fellowship with the Father and the Son.


Rodger said...

What often seems to happen in these discussions is we tend to minimize something, that in its proper place is true, in order to maximize the point we think has been neglected. Clearly the heart of Christian faith and practice is not evangelism, nor is it even the church, but like you are saying, to be in fellowship with the Father and His Son Jesus Christ. At the same time, we are to evangelize, because that is a passionate interest of the Father and His Son. Evangelism should flow out of our having fellowship, our sharing in life (interests, judgments, activities) with Christ. For that reason, I have always appreciated the "concentric circle" model of understanding the Christian life.

CH Mackintosh said, "There is nothing more to be dreaded than one-sided truth; it is far more dangerous than positive, palpable error."
I think that is what you are highlighting, Mark, by pointing out context and interrelationship in the verses of the Bible. We aren't being told just one thing, but a number of things together. That's why it is essential to be a good listener, to really have an "ear to hear," that we don't miss something and go off on a tangent. Or a "scheme..."

Susan said...

Amen Mark! Speaking of Robert - Is he OK? He's usually active here.

clumsy ox said...

Well said!

Gerdus said...

Thanks Mark. Church/Assembling is for christians primarily, should always be geared to them in a scriptural way. The individual christians should take the good news to the outside world-and that glad tiding should be the actual true gospel, as you have pointed out. Thinking of what you said about Matthew 28, it may be that we have also missed a contextual and thorough interpretation of Matthew 18- "where two or three are gather in my name"?