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If you’ve spent any amount of time listening to preachers talk about evangelism then you might have come across statements like “If you can reason somebody into Christianity then you can reason them out”, “Nobody ever got argued into belief” & “You can’t prove God”. Much of the thinking around evangelism is to love on people until they come onboard. There is a lot of sense in that, it avoids all sorts of difficult conflicts and conversations, it avoids the risk of potentially losing a non confrontational believer, and whoever comes into Church get’s intensely loved on for a while until they are evangelised and then they can do their own thing for a bit.
I believed this until I started reading the book of acts and looked at what the apostle Paul was actually doing:
- “Every Sabbath he reasoned in the synagogue, trying to persuade Jews and Greeks” (Acts 18:4 NIV)
- “For he vigorously refuted his Jewish opponents in public debate, proving from the Scriptures that Jesus was the Messiah” (Acts 18:28 NIV)
- “As was his custom, Paul went into the synagogue, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, 3 explaining and proving that the Messiah had to suffer and rise from the dead.“This Jesus I am proclaiming to you is the Messiah,” he said. 4 Some of the Jews were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a large number of God-fearing Greeks and quite a few prominent women” (Acts 17:2-4 NIV)
We could explain this by saying this happened early in his ministry and is a mistake to be learned from, this is what God had to say about what Paul was doing:
“One night the Lord spoke to Paul in a vision: “Do not be afraid; keep on speaking, do not be silent” (Acts 18:9 NIV)
That looks awfully like encouragement to me. God spoke to Paul to tell him to continue in his speaking, in his reasoning to the Jews and Greeks. Paul argued persuasively and consistently; but he did not hang around to force himself on people when they were obviously not listening:
“Paul entered the synagogue and spoke boldly there for three months, arguing persuasively about the kingdom of God. 9 But some of them became obstinate; they refused to believe and publicly maligned the Way. So Paul left them. He took the discipleswith him and had discussions daily in the lecture hall of Tyrannus. 10 This went on for two years, so that all the Jews and Greeks who lived in the province of Asia heard the word of the Lord” (Acts 19:8-10 NIV)
Thankfully Paul did not shy away from conflict; but did move on when people became obstinate. Paul risked uproar and potential riot to bring this message to the Jews and Greeks. At this point as imitators of apostle’s imitating Christ we could interpret this as instruction to hit the streets with our bibles and banners and argue whoever we can into Christianity; however we need to look a little at the context and the audience:
- Paul is God’s chosen servant to bring his message of Jesus to the world
- Paul was a highly educated and zealous priest prior to his conversion
- The Jews and Greeks were open to being persuaded by reason
- Paul had an extraordinary testimony where he was left bare for all to see
- Paul operated in the gifts of the Holy Spirit and was accompanied by miracles
“God did extraordinary miracles through Paul, 12 so that even handkerchiefs and aprons that had touched him were taken to the sick, and their illnesses were cured and the evil spirits left them” (Acts 19:11-12 NIV)
Paul was not reasoning from the position where many people find themselves today, with a bible and a few quotes from a Tim Keller book, Paul was operating from a position of strength on all fronts. Paul was operating under the authority of God with all the skills, education, experience and divine power necessary to bring forth the good news of Jesus to both the Jews and the Greeks. Whilst arguing Jesus is something we should imitate Acts 19 also shows us that we should be wary of just what we can achieve without being in Paul’s position of strength:
“13 Some Jews who went around driving out evil spirits tried to invoke the name of the Lord Jesus over those who were demon-possessed. They would say, “In the name of the Jesuswhom Paul preaches, I command you to come out.” 14 Seven sons of Sceva, a Jewish chief priest, were doing this. 15 One day the evil spirit answered them, “Jesus I know, and Paul I know about, but who are you?” 16 Then the man who had the evil spirit jumped on them and overpowered them all. He gave them such a beating that they ran out of the house naked and bleeding.” (Acts 19:13-16 NIV)
The Greeks at that time were not without mental prowess, at that time 3 dominant schools of Hellenistic Philosophy were enjoying power and influence:
These 3 hellenistic philosophical movements were well thought through and in my opinion represent clearer thought processes than talking to the majority of people in this day and age (educated and uneducated), the steps to reasoning are well defined and clear. In further articles I will look at how Paul would have argued against each of these schools in his encounters in Athens.
Looking at how St Paul conducted himself we can see that argument and reasoning are part of evangelism as much as love and divine power are. We can see that whilst some leaders don’t let themselves get drawn into arguments, this is not the case for an apostle like Paul, and that upset the church then as much as it does now; but Paul frowned upon then is now looked on as a hero. Those against reasoning may argue that if you can be reasoned into Christianity then you can be reasoned out; but if you can be loved into Christianity then you can be unloved out once you are no longer the focus of peoples evangelical efforts, of course this is not true love; but it is what people will do in their efforts to be evangelical.
My personal opinion is that this is a case where people’s definition of love has shrunk to not include vital areas of love such as correction, discipline, argument and confrontation. We want to remain comfortable with a warm and fuzzy view of love that does not include everything that God is doing in it’s definition of love. I believe for this commission of evangelism we need reasoning, argument, knowledge, love, fellowship, divine assistance, all the gifts and fruits of the spirit alongside the communication and reasoning skills necessary to reach an educated and intelligent world.
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1Elwell, Walter A., and Barry J. Beitzel. Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1988.
2Barry, John D., Lazarus Wentz, Douglas Mangum, Carrie Sinclair-Wolcott, Rachel Klippenstein, David Bomar, Elliot Ritzema, Wendy Widder, and Derek R. Brown, eds. The Lexham Bible Dictionary. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2012, 2013, 2014.