In opening his letter to the Philippian church, Paul wrote,
I thank my God upon every remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine making request for you all with joy, for your fellowship in evangelism from the first day until now…
Wait a minute, that must have been a typo. I believe the text reads as follows:
I thank my God upon every remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine making request for you all with joy, for your fellowship in the gospel from the first day until now…(Philippians 1:3-5, NKJV)
Yes, the fellowship in the Gospel, not the fellowship in evangelism. For the last two years I have been blessed to participate and be a leader in street evangelism ministries. Though driven with good intentions, I cannot say the dynamic or my practice of street evangelism has always been biblical. Based on my observations of the street evangelism community and my own experience and leadership in the street evangelism community, there seems to be a tendency for the phrase “the fellowship in the Gospel” to be, in practice, “the fellowship in evangelism”.
What I mean by “the fellowship in evangelism” is that in practice, some Christians might perceive that the fellowship in the Gospel begins and ends with street evangelism. They believe that fellowship in the Gospel is solely comprised of street evangelism outreaches, distributing Gospel tracts, getting in one-to-one conversations, and preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ in the open air. But the fellowship in the Gospel is so much more than that. There is nothing wrong, at all, with the aforementioned activities and I have shared many joyful times doing them with my brothers and sisters, but if our idea of the fellowship in the Gospel begins and ends with those things, then we need to revisit Scripture and examine what true fellowship in the Gospel actually entails.
I believe Scripture teaches that evangelism should primarily take place within the context of the local church. By taking a look at Paul’s letter to Philippi, we can draw some principles for which believers in the local church can have true fellowship in the Gospel.
A Charge to All Christians
Paul opens his letter to address all the Christians in Philippi, including the leaders of the church:
Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the overseers and deacons: 2 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
What we need to keep in mind is that the exhortations, admonishments, and charges Paul gives to the Philippian church are for all of the saints, or Christians, within the church. This goes for elders, deacons, evangelists, Sunday school teachers, musicians, nursery workers, maintenance staff, and all other believers who have roles in the local body. If you are Christian, Paul is talking to you.
Diligent Prayer for the Church
I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, 4 always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy,
In this passage, the apostle gives us a principle to not only remember our church in prayer, but to come to the Lord in thanksgiving and joy for the work He is doing in the church. In verses 8-11, we see Paul’s pure affection of the church and his hope for the sanctification of Christ’s Bride in Philippi:
For God is my witness, how I yearn for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus. 9 And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, 10 so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, 11 filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.
It is remarkable how the love of Christ is manifested through Paul with regards to his affection toward the local body. He writes that he yearns for them with the affection of Christ Jesus. He prays for them with joy, that their love for God and for one another and for the lost would abound more than it already abounds. Yet, this love is not apart from knowledge and discernment, rather this love is an intelligent love derived and fueled by God’s Word. In the end, the church would stand pure and blameless before the judgment seat of Christ, having been filled with the fruit of His righteousness all to the glory and praise of God.
If we are to have true fellowship in the Gospel, it cannot be apart from joyfully petitioning God on behalf of His church that she would be conformed to the image of her Bridegroom. We might also continually pray for the leadership of the church, for unity in the church, for the church to faithfully practice the “one anothers “, for the ailments of the church (both spiritually and physically), for fruitfulness in the Great Commission, for a holy church, and for protection from false teachers, false doctrine, and divisive persons.
True Fellowship in the Gospel
Every time Paul remembered the Philippian church, he notes that he always thanked God for their fellowship in the Gospel. So what exactly is this fellowship? It is more than joining in the fellowship of their salvation from the risen Savior. The idea is that Paul is joyful in their partnership in the furtherance of the Gospel. Not only does the local church fellowship and rejoice that they are a family, or rejoice in the Gospel that has saved them, but the local church can and should rejoice in their communion or participation in the Gospel for the Kingdom.
Scripture teaches that the church is one body, or one unit, with different moving parts. We do not all have the same role or function (1 Corinthians 12). So while some of us may be more inclined, or equipped, to do intentional evangelism (such as street evangelism), we all do not have that same mold. Yet, we all should have the same goal to build Christ’s church through the preaching of the Gospel. So what does that look like?
In a church that has a healthy culture of evangelism, the body parts will be working as one unit to make disciples. While all or even a significant portion of members may not be doing street evangelism, all members will be partnering in the Gospel through different means. Outreach ministry cannot be done without the prayerful support of the church. Discipleship ministries help build a foundation of faith for new believers and are useful teaching tools for those “seeking”. Beyond formal discipleship ministry, there is coming alongside others to help and encourage them in the faith, or spending precious time with those not yet converted. Financial support in the Great Commission and other ministries are critical in the building of Christ’s church. There are helps ministries and hospitality ministries that open doors to share the Gospel and minister to people’s needs. There is teaching sound doctrine and equipping the saints for the work of the ministry. All of these things work together, and the benefit for the members of Christ’s church is glorifying God in the building of His kingdom. Not only that, but these are means for the love of Christ to be expressed toward the lost and among believers in the local body. Beloved, this is true fellowship in the Gospel; it is a true partnership in the Gospel.
If one’s idea of fellowship in the Gospel is relegated to getting together with other like-minded street evangelists, he is missing out on so many benefits of genuine, Christ-centered fellowship through the local church. He is not only hurting himself, but he is hurting the local body by being detached from her and not serving her (a possible sign of this is whether the street evangelist spends more time with other street evangelists than with believers in his own church).
Wyatt Graham concludes in his recent article at The Cripplegate:
…Lone ranger evangelism divorced from the local church is contrary to the Gospel and actually hurts your evangelistic witness. On the other hand, fellowshipping more with believers actually increases your evangelistic witness…
…We need to balance a love for the church and love for the lost. These two concepts are not contradictory but complimentary. By lovingly submitting to elders and serving each other, we are actually establishing the basis for Gospel preaching.
Partakers of Grace
Paul writes in verse 7,
It is right for me to feel this way about you all, because I hold you in my heart, for you are all partakers with me of grace, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the Gospel.
Paul’s joyful affection and thanksgiving toward the Philippians is further warranted by their partaking in his sufferings and in his defense of the Gospel. In Gill’s Exposition of the Entire Bible, John Gill notes,
Now these Philippians were partakers with him of this, both in his “bonds”, by sympathizing with him, praying for him, sending relief unto him, and by suffering such like things themselves; and “in the defence and confirmation of the Gospel”, whether by suffering, preaching, or writing; they stood by him, encouraged and assisted him, when others forsook him, and laid difficulties and discouragements in his way; on account of all which it was but meet and proper he should entertain such sentiments of them as before expressed.
The principle that I would like to draw out for my street evangelism brethren is that, not only should evangelism flow through the church and out from the church, but it is good for it to flow under the covering of the church. There are any number of issues that may arise as a result of preaching the Gospel on the streets. But if one is preaching the Gospel outside the context of the local church, or if one is not truly submitted to the local church, they not only are not accountable to church elders, but they do not have the protection of the elders or the church.
Paul rejoiced that the Philippian saints shared in his sufferings as he shared in the sufferings of Christ for the sake of the Gospel (as promised in Philippians 1:29-30). If biblical evangelism is taking place under the oversight of the local church, it should also give the members of the body reason for joy to bear the burden of suffering alongside the one directly afflicted. These sufferings could range from conflict with local law enforcement or Constitutional rights, to verbal or physical abuse by scoffers and hecklers, to monetary penalties, to dealing with ministries with significant doctrinal disagreements or false teachers altogether. It could be any number of issues, but if the evangelist is not under the protection of the local body, the evangelist has to suffer alone and work through these issues alone.
True fellowship in the Gospel through the local church results in suffering for the Gospel together as a church.
Paul’s Exhortation to the Philippians
After charging the Philippians to live lives worthy of the Gospel in verses 1:27-30, Paul exhorts the church with the following in verses 2:1-2:
So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, 2 complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.
What Paul is saying in verse 1 is, “Look, beloved, you are in Christ, and because you are in Christ, you are consoled in His love, and you have the Holy Spirit indwelling you, and the love of Christ is manifest in you, it is expected that you live in this reality.” Therefore on the basis of the realities in verse 1, Paul exhorts them to be like-minded in the salvation of souls, to love one another with the love of Christ, and to be unified in doctrine and practice. These are the elements of a healthy church: a Gospel-centered church compelled by the love of Christ with a firm foundation on doctrinal purity and practice.
Now here’s the rub. If a street evangelist does not actively participate and serve the local body, and is only concerned with preaching the Gospel without any real attachment to the local body, he is operating outside the fellowship in the Gospel. While he may have fellowship with his street evangelist brethren, he lacks the fellowship in the Gospel as we see demonstrated by the Philippians.
Paul continues his exhortation in verses 2:3-4 that offer the means to which all of us can be submitted to the local church to serve her and love her as we ought:
Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. 4 Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.
If we are not actively participating in the fellowship of the local body (yes, this means more than attending church on Sunday mornings), then there is no way we can fulfill the commands of verses 2:3-4. That is disobedience, beloved. So practically speaking, how might we follow Christ’s example of humility as we submit ourselves to the local church?
Firstly, we submit to the elders because we are commanded (1 Peter 5:1-5; Hebrews 13:17). But this submission is not out of reluctant obligation, but out of love for the same church for whom Christ gave His life (Ephesians 5:25-27). And just as Christ sacrificially loved and served His Bride, so too are we to sacrificially love and serve her for His glory.
Secondly, we do not serve the church because we have an agenda to promote ourselves or our ministries in the church. Paul says to do nothing out of selfish ambition or in competition with others. Rather, we are to model Christ by denying ourselves, being lowly, and serving others. If all we do is evangelism, we are not exhibiting Christ’s love for the church in service to her. Serving the church may come in the form of teaching students or adults, genuinely discipling others, caring for babies in the nursery, maintaining church grounds and buildings, counseling others, visiting the sick, providing meals, helping people move, etc. There are any number of opportunities to love the Body through service.
Perhaps you have been frustrated for the church not being as zealous in street evangelism as you are, but what are you doing to positively impact the Body of Christ? It is very easy to brow-beat your brothers and sisters for not being as passionate as you to preach the Gospel to strangers, but it takes time and effort to show one’s care and love for the church. Perhaps you’ve pondered the fact that you do street evangelism, and because of your street evangelism activities, you feel that you are fulfilling your duty to your church and do not need to be involved in anything else. That evangelism is your calling, and other people can serve in these other ministries. Beloved, I hope you see how selfish and prideful this is and shows a considerable lack of love for the saints in your local church. I only say this because I’ve removed the log from my own eye, by the grace of God.
Personally speaking, I am not in the church just for my own interests; but as Paul says, I am to consider the interests of others, if not count their needs and interests more than my own. I am to love the Body and seek the maturity of the Body, and this will increase our love for one another and our love for the Gospel as we build Christ-centered relationships in the church. This may open doors to disciple others in evangelism whether by teaching, by example or practice, and by striving to live a godly, Gospel-centered life because of what the Gospel has done in me. I can then hope for Ephesians 4:15-16 to be realized,
Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, 16 from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.
So rather than complaining about the church’s perceived disinterest in street evangelism, the street evangelist must love the local body by serving her. Not only is this our duty in love, but we just might be the encouragement and godly example someone needs to be more bold in sharing the Gospel.
My goal has been to share what the Lord has been teaching me this year. If you recall in Rewind, Refocus, Reload, some major changes are taking place in my life, and there are still yet changes I am hoping for on the horizon. As I continue to understand God’s calling for me, I am growing in my desire to be faithful to the local church. This study through Philippians has been paramount for me, and where I am now is a far cry from where I was just at the beginning of this year regarding evangelism.
Please know I fully empathize with some of my street evangelism brethren in their frustration with their churches not being active in this ministry. I’ve been there, but I do believe some of the problem has been with us. While we can point the finger at others, how far have we fallen short of not fulfilling our responsibilities to Christ’s church?
Perhaps it’s time to stop looking at others as the problem, but to look at ourselves to see how we can glorify God in loving His Bride. In the end, we will grow in our knowledge of the love of Christ, we will grow in our love for Him, we will grow in our love for His Church, we will grow in holiness, we will grow in humility, we will grow in compassion, and we will grow in our love for the Gospel and for the lost. And that is what we should desire, right?
The next two articles on this topic might be helpful in further understanding the biblical definition and role of the evangelist: