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QUESTION: Who Comes First, Evangelists or Ministers?

I received this question via The Question Box at my congregation’s web page. At first, I was tempted to give it a very short answer – but as I slept on it, I saw that there may be more in the question than I first saw. Accordingly, I gave it more attention than I first thought it needed. At first, I did not think I would post it here – but having given it more, I’d like you to have it as well – with enhancements over the answer posted on the church web page.

Who comes first, evangelists or ministers?

I’m not sure if you mean first in time or first in importance, not that it makes a great deal of difference. In time, they are for all practical purposes simultaneous. In importance, they are equal.

This is a question that rises from man’s tendency to establish “official” titles and offices where God simply describes works of service people do in keeping with their gifts. Jesus said to His disciples, as He rebuked the Pharisees:

They love the best places at feasts, the best seats in the synagogues, greetings in the marketplaces, and to be called by men, “Rabbi, Rabbi.” But you, do not be called “Rabbi”; for One is your Teacher, the Christ,” and you are all brethren. Do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven. And do not be called teachers; for One is your Teacher, the Christ. But he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. And whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted. – Matthew 23:6-12

What was Jesus’ point here? The Pharisees wanted people to look upon them as some great ones, so they adopted various titles of distinction. Titles tend to separate disciple from disciple and to exalt one above another.

Are there teachers? Yes, but they only teach what they have received. Hence, they should be humble about what they do.

Are there “fathers”? Yes, there are our biological fathers, who are to bring us up in the instruction of the Lord (Ephesians 6:4). There are also those who are our “fathers in the faith” – as Paul was to Timothy and Titus (1Timothy 1:2; 2 Timothy 1:2; & Titus 1:4). Yet, this does not exalt them above their sons in the faith, except perhaps in experience, knowledge, and wisdom – which call for humility if we possess them “in the Lord.” We can recognize and respect these virtues in others without exalting them to a place of preeminence or authority over us.

When Jesus said, in the passage above, that the greatest among you shall be your servant, He used a word frequently translated as minister, and sometimes as deacon. Here and in many other places, it is servant, which would be (I believe) a better translation wherever it appears.

Being a servant is at the heart of what being a disciple of Jesus is all about. Jesus Himself came as a servant, and He teaches His disciples to be servants as well (see Mark 10:42-45). He taught this lesson when His disciples were tending to follow the example of the Pharisees and find ways to be “greater” than other disciples (see verses 35-42).

As servants, ministers have many different kinds of service to offer. No servant has all “gifts.” No one person has all of the giftedness needed in the body of Christ – and those who have “humble” gifts, or those that are deemed “lesser gifts” by men, are equally important (see 1 Corinthians 12:12-27). Paul’s concept of the church as the body of Christ is an important one, which if we understood it completely would keep us from seeking preeminence over one another. It would also keep us from exalting one Christian brother or sister above others.

One area of ministry (service) is that of the evangelist. All evangelists should be ministers, but not all ministers are evangelists. The evangelist is a particular kind of minister, not a more important minister.

The word evangelist is a transliteration (i.e., an English spelling of a Greek word) of a word that simply means to proclaim the good news. Thus, an evangelist is a gospel preacher. We have come to distinguish between Ministers and Evangelists, making Ministers those who preach to a particular congregation while Evangelists are those who preach to the world outside the church. Put another way, the Evangelist travels in his preaching ministry while the Minister remains in one location. There is no such distinction in the Scriptures. Both proclaim the good news – or at least, they should!

Paul used both of those words in writing to Timothy:

But you be watchful in all things, endure afflictions, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry. – 2 Timothy 2:5

Timothy’s ministry was to be an evangelist. Yet, at the time Paul wrote to him, he was preaching the gospel in the city of Ephesus and working with the church in that city much as a “located preacher” (what many call a Minister) might do in a particular congregation today. What made him an evangelist? He served God and man by preaching the gospel. What made him a minister? He served God and man by preaching the gospel. He would also be a minister had he served God and man by serving tables as did the seven in Acts 6:1-6.  In fact, at least two of those seven also served by preaching the good news (see Acts 6:8-15; 8:4-5). One of them was one of the few men called evangelist in the Scripture (see Acts 21:8).

Evangelist was not a “title” Paul gave Timothy, but a work of kingdom-service Paul encouraged him to do. It was a work of service – but there were other works of service equally important as we serve God and others.

In the Church of Christ there is a long standing tradition of not calling men by special titles. This is a tradition of which I approve – though I do not normally consider myself a “traditionalist.” Yet, it is one we seem to be leaving behind.

At one time, we referred to each other as “brother Jones” or “sister Smith” (note the lower case?). For sometime now, that practice has changed, and when the honorific “brother” is used it is most often capitalized as a title. More than 40 years ago, one of my teachers noted that even then, someone would introduce a group by saying, “This is Joe Jones, Bill Smith, and Brother Wright” – and everyone would immediately know who was the preacher.

In my first full-time work as a gospel preacher in the States, the wife of one of the elders (old enough to be my mother) continually called me “Brother Starling,” even in informal situations. One day I asked her to call me by my first name. She was horrified: “Oh, I just couldn’t call the Preacher by his first name!”

Maybe the devil made me do it, but I responded, “Then why not go all the way and call me Reverend?” She would not have thought of doing that, since that word is used in the (King James) Bible only of God (at Psalm 111:9). Yet she set me apart from others by calling me Brother Starling while she spoke to and of others by their first names.

I trust that these few remarks will be of some help to you in sorting out how our continued desire to have positions of honor have caused us to misapply words that simply describe works to be done instead of offices to be filled. Let’s not get hung up or puffed up over titles – but treat every Christian as a brother or sister in Christ with God as our Father.


One Response

  1. I received the following comment from a friend from my days in New Zealand back in the early 1960s via facebook:

    Dave Bell wrote: Yes, they are – and all are for the building up of the body.

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