The Biblical Evangelist

The Biblical Evangelist

Cary G. Kimbrell

The word “evangelist” is so frequently used today it is suprising to learn that the term is rarely defined in evangelistic literature. An investigation into the scriptural usage of the word reveals that it is employed only 3 times in the New Testament (Acts 21:8; Eph. 4:11; 2 Tim. 4:5). A study of those passages is essential to any biblical understanding of the nature and work of evangelists in the life of the early Church.[1]

In all three biblical occurrences, the evangelist was subordinate to the apostles. Philip (Acts 21:8) was under the authority of the apostles as one of the seven (cf. Acts 6:1-6). In Eph. 4:11 the evangelists were only mentioned after the apostles and prophets. Timothy (2 Tim. 2:5) was a pupil of Paul, and not an apostle.

The assertion of Adolf Harnack that any distinction in the early church between the apostles and the evangelists was rare is not supported by the subordination of the evangelists to the apostles which is reflected in the biblical material.[2] The biblical material indicates that “evangelist” was probably a technical title for some sort of minister in the New Testament other than the apostles, as the prophets and pastor-teachers were.

In the space available it would be impossible to give a detailed exegesis of Acts 21:8; Eph 4:11; and Tim 4:5. This section, therefore, will consist of a brief overview of these verses and a summary of the comments which were discovered in commentary material.

Acts 21:8

First, in Acts 21:8, reference is made to “Philip the evangelist, who was one of the seven.” This title comes upon the reader without warning and with no explanation. There is no hint in the context as to why or how Philip acquired the title of evangelist. One can only theorize at this point.

F. J. Foakes-Jackson in his commentary on Acts writes, “Philip seems to have gained the title by having been the earliest recorded preacher of the gospel outside Jerusalem.”[3] Others believed that the title was given simply to distinguish him from Philip the apostle. Whether or not there is any validity to these speculations, in the final analysis it must be said that Acts 21:8 does not advance our understanding of the nature and function of an evangelist. The only definitive information from the passage is that the term was applied to Philip.

Ephesians 4:11

Second, in Eph 4:11 the evangelist is listed with other titles which are commonly held to be offices in the church. Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that the evangelist may also have been an office. Though this association is somewhat helpful to our understanding, there is not one word in the context which describes the nature or function of an evangelist. All that can be concluded thus far is that “evangelist” is the title of an office and that Philip held it.

2 Timothy 4:5

Third, at 2 Tim 4:5 Paul exhorts Timothy to “do the work of an evangelist.” The absence of the article is deemed significant by some of commentators while being ignored altogether by others. Homer Kent writes, “In this charge to Timothy, the absence of an article before `evangelist’ indicates the type or quality of work is being stressed, rather than some official position.”[4] If one follows Kent’s reasoning, the phrase would be better translated, “do evangelistic work.” Why not use euaggelizomai as he did so often in his writing? Why go to such a rare word to express such a common idea? If “do the work of an evangelist” is simply a way for Paul to tell Timothy to “do evangelistic work,” then why did Paul only employ this terminology with Timothy. The rare use of euaggelistes in the Pauline vocabulary would suggest a technical use. Therefore, it is probably a reference to an office, or at least, to a special function.

Summary of New Testament Teaching

From the biblical material, we can surmise that “evangelist” is the title of an office which Philip and Timothy held. Both men were subordinate to the Apostles. Although in Acts eight, Philip preceded the Apostles into Samaria, he had to await the arrival of the Apostles Peter and John before his hearers could receive the Holy Spirit. Timothy was sent back to the churches already established by the Apostle Paul. Timothy was given his charge by the Apostle Paul and took his directions from him.

With this in mind, the evangelist may have been a special office that was exclusively used by the apostles either to begin new churches or to ground churches already established by the apostles. If this is true, then the evangelists’ perpetuity would be inextricably linked to that of the apostles themselves.

Scholarly Opinion

I have examined hundreds of commentaries on this subject. Of these, only ninety-five make statements concerning the nature of the biblical evangelist. These commentaries consulted include both scholarly and devotional works, and their publication dates range from 1677 to 1986. Thirty-eight of the writers claim the evangelist was a missionary much like the missionaries of today. Surprisingly, the second most popular view (twenty-two) among the commentators is that the evangelists were assistants to the apostles and, therefore, the office was extraordinary and temporary. Fourteen commentators see the term in a basic sense as simply a preacher of the gospel. Six see it as a reference to an itinerant preacher, five in a more contemporary light of a revival preacher, five tie it to Philip, three see it as an employment rather than an office, one views it as impossible to define, and one considers the evangelist as a writer of the gospel.

As this survey illustrates, there is very little agreement on the nature and function of the biblical evangelist. The most significant point in all this is how few of the commentators interpret the concept of evangelist as it is most often used today-one who holds an office which specializes in converting persons to initial faith in Christ usually through “revival meetings.”

Roy Fish, professor of evangelism at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary asserts that his extensive study of commentaries has led him to conclude that the evangelist in the New Testament is what “we usually consider it in our denomination and our churches today . . . an itinerant preacher of the gospel, whose primary purpose is going in to win people to initial conversion to the Christian faith.”[5] Fish’s findings, as reported, differ from the findings in this article. The difference may be explained in Dr. Fish’s definition. His definition seems to suggest a missionary function, not a contemporary evangelist.

I have demonstrated that most of the commentators see the evangelist as a missionary. It is, however, a far stretch to say that these men were describing the contemporary evangelist. The contemporary evangelist usually goes into areas where the gospel already is established. These areas already have a continuous gospel witness and many established churches.

Some of the commentators expressly state that the New Testament evangelist is not the “evangelist” of the modern day. William O. Carver writes, “He [the evangelist] was nearly what we call a home missionary, or a city missionary, not at all corresponding to our professional `evangelist’.”[6] H. E. Dana adds,

[Paul] did not instruct Timothy to make occasional trips out into the providence of Asia for a two week revival meeting, but to devote some time to pioneer missionary work, pressing the boundaries of the gospel propagation into new territory.[7]

Space will not permit a thorough discussion of each of the opinions expressed in the commentaries. However, it is informative to see how few of the commentators describe the evangelist in modern terms, and how many of the commentators claim that the office of the evangelist no longer exists. In viewing the office as temporary, many of these men followed John Owen’s reasoning.[8] The strongest argument in favor of Owen’s opinion is the fact that no biblical qualifications for the evangelist exist. The strongest ecclesiastical support for this argument is that the confessions, when speaking of permanent ecclesiastical offices, do not include the evangelist.

Conclusion

In summary one can only approximate the concept of the biblical evangelist. The paucity of biblical material and the wide differences in scholarly opinion militate against dogmatic conclusions in this area. However, some things can be affirmed.

First, the evangelist is listed with other offices at Eph. 4:11. Second, Philip and Timothy had this title ascribed to them. Third, both of these men were subordinate to the apostles and seemed to assist them in their missionary efforts: Philip going before the apostles to establish a church, and Timothy coming after the apostles to ground a church in doctrine. Fourth, no qualifications for this office were given in the Scripture. The lack of biblical qualifications casts a shadow over the perpetuity of the office in the ecclesiastical order of the post-apostolic church. Fifth, most of the scholarship refuses to identify the biblical evangelist with the modern concept, and much of the scholarship affirms the temporariness of the office. With these facts in mind, it is highly probably that the evangelist described in the Bible may not exist today, and if he does, he is probably functioning as a missionary rather than a “revival meeting” preacher.


Calvin on God’s Providence

“The whole world is governed by God for our salvation . . . that those whom he has elected may be saved.”

“God embraces us so lovingly in Christ that he turns to our advantage and welfare everything that befalls us.”

“Nothing will more effectually preserve us in a straight and undeviating course, than a firm persuasion that all events are in the hand of God, and that he is as merciful as he is mighty.”

“Ignorance of the providence of God is the cause of all impatience.”