Debates between the mission of the church related to evangelism and discipleship only happen in those churches that still believe in instantaneous conversion or “You must be born again” (John 3:7).
So at the outset, it must be clarified that these debates only occur in the minds of those who believe in an authoritative Bible. If a person believes in an authoritative church or one particular person within a church, then that person or church tells them what to think about the issue, and there is no debate. But if a person believes that the Holy Spirit speaks in-with-and-by the Word of God and that each individual is called to “take heed” and “guard their heart,” then each person has the privilege and responsibility to diligently search the Scriptures and have his own opinion on the matter.
Further, it must be clarified that this is not an issue for those who believe in a gradual salvation through prolonged application of certain spiritual disciplines, salvation by infant baptism, or some other form of sacramental salvation. The number of Christian Churches that fall within these categories is far more than a super-majority of those who call themselves Christian. For them it is clear that discipleship is the obvious priority over evangelism. Evangelism is either totally unnecessary or exists only to reach barbarians and savages.
At the outset evangelism and discipleship must be defined. By evangelism I mean the sharing of the gospel by which a person who is spiritually dead hears the gospel and is offered an opportunity to receive Christ by placing their trust in Christ alone for the forgiveness of their sins. By discipleship I mean “teaching them to observe all things I have commanded you” as stated in Matthew’s Great Commission (Matt 28:20).
Even so, evangelism and discipleship differ in doctrinal application, in the church leaders in whom these responsibilities are vested, and verbally in the Bible. Yet they are also closely related to one another, as will be noted in three texts. So evangelism and discipleship are similar and also distinct. We will begin with some distinctions.
Evangelism, or the gospel proclaimed, when accompanied by a hearing of faith on the part of the listener, leads to justification. Discipleship, when also accompanied by a hearing of faith, leads to sanctification.
Justification is punctiliar or point-in-time in its application to the human heart. A person goes from the state of not-being-saved to the state of being-saved. So it is explained by Jesus in John 5:24:
John 5:24, “Most assuredly, I say to you, he who hears My word and believes in Him who sent Me has everlasting life, and shall not come into judgment, but has passed from death into life.”
Sanctification, however, is a life-long process that begins at justification and continues on until the end of our lives. Hence, Paul wrote to Christians in the church in Thessalonica, “For this is the will of God, your sanctification” (1 Thessalonians 4:3).
So, evangelism and discipleship are different from a doctrinal point-of-view. Again, for churches that blue the lines between conversion and sanctification (normally by adhering to some kind of sacramental salvation), the doctrinal distinction described above is either non-existent or ascribed to infant baptism.
So evangelism and discipleship are quite different in their result—doctrinally-speaking.
In His great wisdom, Christ gave the church two separate church leaders, one to focus on evangelism and one to focus on discipleship.
The evangelist is given to the church by Christ as noted by Paul in Ephesians 4:11:
Ephesians 4:11, “And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers.”
So one leader that Christ gave to His church is the evangelist. The main focus of the evangelist is to evangelize lost souls who are yet “dead in their trespasses and sins.” This emphasis is found directly in his name—Evangelist.
And yet in the same text, we the NT’s sole use of the word “pastor.” While the evangelist is to focus on lost souls, the pastor is to shepherd the new believers gathered through the work of the evangelist. The primary task of the pastor is then to be a shepherd to the gathered people of God.
It stands to reason that the shepherd will have a role in evangelism and it also stands to reason that they evangelist will have a role in shepherding. However, their gift set and their motivations will differ, as may their attitudes to evangelism and discipleship.
It may be that one of the greatest difficulties in understanding the differences between evangelism and discipleship is the blending and graying of the distinctions between the evangelist and the pastor. Both the evangelist has a role and so does the pastor-shepherd. Neither should overlook the importance of the other!
Just as the leaders have different names, so different verbs are used to explain the roles of each leader in Matthew’s Great Commission. The verb associated with the role of the evangelist is the Greek matheteuo, translated “teach” in the KJV and “make disciples” in more recent translations. These translations are somewhat misleading as they tend to blur the differentiation between justification and sanctification, between evangelism and discipleship, and between the role of the evangelist and that of a pastor.
Here is what the Anglican Church believes about baptism:
XXVII. Of Baptisme. Baptisme is not only a signe of profession, and marke of difference, whereby Christian men are discerned from other that be not christened: but is also a signe of regeneration or newe byrth, whereby as by an instrument, they that receaue baptisme rightly, are grafted into the Church: the promises of the forgeuenesse of sinne, and of our adoption to be the sonnes of God, by the holy ghost, are visibly signed and sealed: fayth is confyrmed: and grace increased by vertue of prayer vnto God. The baptisme of young children, is in any wyse to be retayned in the Churche, as most agreable with the institution of Christe. (Thirty-Nine Articles ; available at: http://www.episcopalian.org/efac/1553-1572.htm; accessed 21 Oct 2004).
In a church that believes that infant baptism saves the infant, it is hardly difficult to see that they do not appreciate evangelists traveling about evangelizing, making it seem like these infants were not really saved in their infancy. Hence, it is not difficult to understand why the KJV’s blurred the lines between “teach” in Matthew 28:19 and “teaching” in v. 20 to fit their pastoral approach to salvation—salvation through the ritual of infant baptism as applied by a pastor of the Church of England.
However, the Greek word matheteuo has a different meaning than being involved in an outward and overt long-term discipleship relationship, as is often considered to be the case. The same verb is found in Matthew 27:57 as applied to Joseph of Arimathea before he identified himself as a follower of Jesus. Consider this verse:
Matthew 27:57, “Now when evening had come, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who himself had also become a disciple [matheteuo] of Jesus.”
The entire phrase “had also become a disciple” is the translation of the verb matheteuo. Here is the skinny. Joseph was called by John a “secret” disciple (John 19:38). And yet the same verb is used of him as was used in the Great Commission for making converts before they are baptized. In fact, we know from other Scriptures, they must be followers of Christ before they are baptized.
So the second verb in Matthew 28:19 is also the first in the salvific sequence of a soul: “Go, win disciples of all nations, baptizing them.” The new convert must first be won as a disciple. Then he must be baptized. Then he is to be taught: “teaching them to observe whatsoever I have commanded you” (v. 20).
So then, there are radical differences between evangelism and discipleship. These differences are seen in doctrine. They are noted in the offices of the evangelist and that of the pastor. They are also clarified in the Greek verbs used in Matthew’s Great Commission.
But just as there are radical differences, so also there is an amazing unity of ministry. It is this “yes-and-no” that makes the issue complicated. Paul spoke with amazing clarity using a united terminology. Ezekiel spoke with clarity about this unity in accountability. And then Paul again spoke with clarity about the unity in ministry.
Colossians 1:28, “Him we preach, warning every man and teaching every man in all wisdom, that we may present every man perfect in Christ Jesus.”
In Colossians 1:28, Paul intentionally repeated the phrase “to all men” (panta anthropon) three times. Each time the phrase is attached to an important concept in the sequence of verbs showing the commonality of the focus whether or not people are saved or lost.
In the first case we find it attached to the verb “warn,” the classic verb that we find used in the Ezekiel 3 passage below. Warning speaks of the motivation as well as the extent to which people are taught. It is more than mere informing, true gospel ministry involves warning the hearers.
Next Paul uses the “all men” in relation to teaching. Here we have a verb often used of pastoral ministry. But Paul purposefully attaches it to “all men.” So there is an element of teaching in evangelism as well as in discipleship.
Lastly, Paul uses all men of the end goal or end result of any and all spiritual ministry, that they might be perfected in Christ. Truly this goal is the aim of all Christian ministry.
In Ezekiel 3 God calls Ezekiel to warn both the wicked (vv. 18-19) as well as the righteous (vv. 20-21). The punishment for not warning is the same in both cases, “his blood I will require at your hand” (Ezekiel 3:18, 20). The parallelism is astounding as the same verbs are used for ministry, and the same concepts are used for accountability. There is a clear parallel between ministry to the saved and ministry to the lost
1 Corinthians 1:10-4:7
It is perhaps in 1 Corinthians 1 that Paul made it absolutely clear. He stated that the root of the argument between evangelism and discipleship was arrogance in the heart of the debater (4:6-7). Yet, rather than enflame an argument, Paul used himself and Apollos as examples or types of the two sides:
1 Corinthians 4:6, “Now these things, brethren, I have figuratively transferred to myself and Apollos for your sakes, that you may learn in us not to think beyond what is written, that none of you may be puffed up on behalf of one against the other.”
So Paul wrote in chapter 3 that he planted and Apollos watered, but that God gave the growth. He continued expounding upon these two phases in ministry:
1 Corinthians 3:7-8, “So then neither he who plants is anything, nor he who waters, but God who gives the increase. Now he who plants and he who waters are one, and each one will receive his own reward according to his own labor.”
So then, it is not about whether evangelism or discipleship is more important. They are both important in God’s economy of things. But in the end, it is God who is important, because it is God who does the work through the evangelist and through the pastor.
Therefore, mankind being puffed up (as we all are), and Christians growing and learning as we go, it is likely that the debate between evangelism and discipleship will not cease with this article. For, in a way it is a useless debate, as it is debating things that the Bible addresses fairly clearly. On the other hand, it is a very important debate. The fact that it exists as a debate shows that those debating it believe in the Bible, believe in conversion, and believe in evangelism. These are all good things. So may the debate continue!
Dr. Thomas Johnston serves as Professor of Evangelism at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Missouri. Born in Paris, France to missionary parents, Dr. Johnston’s heart for missions and evangelism was forged in the context of post-Christian Europe. His fluency in French and familiarity with European cultures have served him well in leading evangelistic teams in six countries across four continents. He also brings to his students sixteen years of pastoral ministry experience in the United States and Canada. Dr. Johnston received his Doctor of Philosophy degree from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, the Master of Divinity from Trinity Evangelical Theological Seminary, and the Bachelor of Science from Wheaton College. He is married to Raschelle and they have three children and four grandchildren.