During his recent excellent interview with Darryl Hart, Mark Dever made reference to Acts 8 in regard to every-member evangelism (EME). The question of the nature of evangelism is a popular one on the HB. I’ve addressed the problem of hyping the great commission, of evangelistic pragmatism, (and here), the ethical problem of reducing the subjects of evangelism to objects of evangelism, and I’ve challenged the assumptions and some of the exegesis behind EME. Acts 8, however, is one of the texts to which advocates of EME frequently appeal as if it were conclusive proof for EME. It isn’t.
Usually what happens is that one quotes all or part of Acts 8:1-4:
And Saul approved of his [Stephen’s] execution. And there arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles. Devout men buried Stephen and made great lamentation over him. But Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison. Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word (ESV).
The key to the EME reading of this passage is the assumed reference of the noun “church” (εκκλησια), and its identity with those denominated in the verbal clause, “and they were all scattered” (παντες δε διεσπαρησαν) in (v. 1) and its assumed identity with those in v. 4, “Thus, those having been scattered (διασπαρέντες) they went (διῆλθον) preaching (εὐαγγελιζόμενοι) the Word.” Into this identity advocates of EME read very modern, democratic, egalitarian assumptions about social relations, mobility, and ministry.
I don’t doubt that all the church, except the apostles, was scattered. What’s interesting here and what gets ignored by advocates of EME is the implicit distinction between “all the church” and “the apostles” in v.1 The point of v. 1 is not to lay the groundwork for a method (a profoundly modern notion that cannot be assumed) of evangelism. The point of the narrative is to illustrate how, in the providence of God, the gospel is about to go or did go to Judea, Samaria, and thence to the uttermost parts of the earth, i.e., the ends of the Roman empire. In other words, Luke’s interest here is not in what the church was doing as much as it is in what the Spirit of the ascended (King!) Jesus is doing through his church despite the opposition of the serpent (to put it in Johannine terms).
Second, the qualifier “all” proves too much. I don’t think that even the most radically egalitarian advocates of EME think that every single member of every single congregation (infants, the infirm, the developmentally disabled?) is called to take up the task of “preaching” the gospel. The participle used for preaching refers to the authoritative, public, proclamation of the good news of Jesus’ obedience, death, and resurrection for sinners (that becomes clear enough below). Do these verses, read in their context, constitute grounds for concluding that every single member of every congregation ought to be “scattered” (don’t we have to allegorize that verb to get where EME wants to go?) and “to preach”? Is handing out tracts or pestering someone at a stop light the same thing as was done in Acts 8? I don’t think so. In truth, on the assumption of EME read into this passage, we don’t exactly know who went where or even exactly what they said thus making this verse a convenient sort of biblical carry-all for a lot of baggage.
To my mind there is a second and decisive objection to the use of this passage as a warrant for EME: In vv. 5-6 Luke tells us explicitly what he means by “dispersed” and he tells us who did the authoritative preaching of the good news. It was fellows such as Philip who.
went down to the city of Samaria and announced (ἐκήρυσσεν) to them the Christ. And the crowds with one accord paid attention to what was being said by Philip when they heard him and saw the signs (σημεῖα) that he did.
We do not have to guess or fill in the blanks as to who was doing the announcing of the message. It was those who were associated with the apostles, who had apostolic authority and power. Unless the EME are willing to make every single person in “the church,” into an apostle or member of the apostolic company they must admit some distinction in office between the “all” of v. 1 and the preaching that was done. Further, it is clear in the succeeding verses that Philip isn’t just any bloke. He has authority and right to preach publicly, to baptize in the triune name, to heal, to cast out evil spirits, and he is carried about by the Holy Spirit himself. I’m sure that the advocates of EME are not also saying that we should all be carried about by the Spirit from place to place—if so they should communicate with the department of energy right away.
All this is just a way to point out that the use of these verses in support of EME entails far more than advocates of EME seem to realize. These verses have nothing to do with EME but they do have everything to do with the advance of the kingdom of Christ through the foolishness of ecclesiastical ministry (Philip had an office as evangelist; Acts 21:8—Φιλίππου τοῦ εὐαγγελιστοῦ) as it existed in the apostolic age and as certified by apostolic signs and wonders. This passage has everything to do with sinners to coming to faith and the kingdom coming in the power of the Spirit in fulfillment of our Lord’s promise: Lo, I will be with you always, even to the end of the earth.
[This post was first published in August, 2009]
©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.
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