While the number of street preachers seems to be growing, there remains a level of antagonism against street preaching from members and segments of the Body of Christ. Sadly, even though a case against such preaching cannot be made from the authority of Scripture, laymen and pastors alike seek to discourage the biblically-supported and historical practice of street preaching. Sadder still is that some laymen and pastors misuse the Word of God through the practice of eisegesis to build doctrinal houses of straw against street preaching.
In this article I will show how destructive and discouraging it can be when a pastor misuses Scripture in an attempt to argue against street preaching.
An Email From a Discouraged Street Preacher
I received a Facebook message from a young, budding evangelist -- a faithful Christian who has been out with his church's evangelism team -- a courageous follower of Christ who, for the last several months has been street preaching each week. He was discouraged and confused.
He had received a call from a respected friend -- a friend who is a seminary graduate and a pastor. The pastor called to express his dislike of street preaching. During the conversation, he tried to make a “biblical” case against it. The pastor took the position that street preaching tends to upset business owners. He quoted Colossians 4:5 and then told the young evangelist that preaching near businesses is unwise because it violates this verse. Colossians 4:5 says, "Walk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of the time."
The evangelist went on to write:
"As we continued talking I could see that he feels street preaching not only violates this verse when done near local businesses but also when done anywhere else because people view it as hostile. He feels that aside from the Gospel already being offensive, we are adding to its offensiveness by our demeanor since we raise our voices while we declare the Gospel."
This young evangelist’s story is becoming all-too-common. It is unfortunate that some pastors and teachers, men who have graduated from fine schools after receiving fine theological training, mishandle the Word of God in order to further their personal anti-street preaching agenda. They discourage young men, like the one who contacted me, from engaging in a form of public evangelism that is chronicled throughout the Old and New Testaments and throughout 2,000 years of church history.
Exegesis and Eisegesis
An unfortunate weapon in the attack against street preaching is "eisegesis." Before I continue, and for those readers who may be unfamiliar, allow me to define two key theological terms: "exegesis" and "eisegesis."
“Exegesis is when a person interprets a text based solely on what it says. That is, he extracts out of the text what is there as opposed to reading into it what is not there. There are rules to proper exegesis: read the immediate context, related themes, word definitions, etc., that all play a part in properly understanding what something says and does not say.”
Proper exegesis includes using the context around the passage, comparing it with other parts of the Bible, and applying an understanding of the language and customs of the time of the writing, in an attempt to understand clearly what the original writer intended to convey. In other words, it is trying to "pull out" of the passage the meaning inherent in it. The opposite of this word is eisegesis, which is a person's particular interpretation of Scriptures that are not evident in the text itself.
“When a person interprets and reads information into the text that is not there. An example would be in viewing 1 Corinthians 8:5 which says, ‘For though there be that are called gods, whether in heaven or in earth, (as there be gods many, and lords many’ (KJV). With this verse, Mormons, for example, bring their preconceived idea of the existence of many gods to this text and assert that it says there are many gods. But that is not what it says. It says that there are many that are called gods. Being called a god doesn't make something an actual god. Therefore, the text does not teach what the Mormons say and they are guilty of eisegesis; that is, reading into the text what it does not say.”
Unfortunately, as is the case with the pastor who contacted the budding street preacher to discourage him from preaching the gospel in public, it seems there is a growing number of Christians who are employing eisegesis as a weapon to attack open-air preaching. In order to do so, they must completely ignore the historical narratives of both the Old and New Testaments, and they must ignore more than 2,000 years of Church history.
A Hasty Generalization
Before I show how the pastor made an eisegetical argument with Colossians 4:5, I want to address the logical fallacy the pastor applied as a presupposition that informs his eisegetical argument. The pastor applied a logical fallacy known as a "hasty generalization." The fallacy is defined and explained as follows:
"Hasty Generalization (Dicto Simpliciter, also called “Jumping to Conclusions,” "Converse Accident"): Mistaken use of inductive reasoning when there are too few samples to prove a point. Example: "Susan failed Biology 101. Herman failed Biology 101. Egbert failed Biology 101. I therefore conclude that most students who take Biology 101 will fail it." In understanding and characterizing general situations, a logician cannot normally examine every single example. However, the examples used in inductive reasoning should be typical of the problem or situation at hand. Maybe Susan, Herman, and Egbert are exceptionally poor students. Maybe they were sick and missed too many lectures that term to pass. If a logician wants to make the case that most students will fail Biology 101, she should (a) get a very large sample--at least one larger than three--or (b) if that isn't possible, she will need to go out of [her] way to prove to the reader that her three samples are somehow representative of the norm. If a logician considers only exceptional or dramatic cases and generalizes a rule that fits these alone, the author commits the fallacy of hasty generalization."1
The pastor asserted business owners are likely to be upset with street preaching in close proximity (a generalization) to their businesses. Several questions need to be asked at this point.
- Has the pastor ever street preached or witnessed open-air preaching during which a business owner was visibly upset by the preaching?
- If so, how many times has the pastor experienced this?
- If he has experienced this, has he experienced it enough times and in enough different places around the world to establish a significant enough sampling to come to the conclusion that the tendency is business owners are upset by street preaching?
Short of these factors being in place, the pastor is making a hasty generalization about street preaching's impact on the emotions of business owners.
Additionally, my own personal experience regarding street preaching near businesses can credibly refute the pastor's claim. I have street preached hundreds of times over the last seven years. I have preached throughout Southern California. I have also street preached in Northern California, Colorado, Texas, Georgia, Indiana, Washington, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New York, Idaho, and London (UK). Norway and New Orleans will be added to the list in early 2013. I have street preached in business districts, on private property open to the public (outdoor malls), sidewalks, and public and national parks.
Yes, I have faced some opposition from business owners. But my experience has been predominantly positive with business owners. In fact, on Valentine's Day a few years ago, I street preached at an open-air mall. A person in the area became irate and tried to physically stop me from preaching. The owner and employees from a nearby business came out of their store, pulled the man away from me, and stood guard in front of me until I finished preaching. It was the first time we had ever met. I have had other business owners thank me for preaching near their business.
So what, if anything, would make the pastor's position more valid than my own? Nothing.
By making a hasty generalization about street preaching near businesses, the pastor is taking his own experience (if any) and forcing his personal experience upon the rest of the world to establish a fallacious standard for others.
I believe it is the use of logical fallacies like this one that has taken an otherwise well-educated pastor and led him to violate a basic rule of hermeneutics -- forcing a desired meaning onto a text (eisegesis), instead of drawing the writer's original and intended meaning from the text (exegesis).
By now, you may have forgotten the verse in question. However, it was important to lay the above foundation before showing that the pastor's argument against street preaching is eisegetical and more than likely born out of a fundamental, personal dislike of street preaching as a form of evangelism.
Colossians 4:5 reads: "Walk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of the time."
Analogy of Faith
A key principle in the interpretation of Scripture is "Analogy of Faith," which, most simply explained, is allowing Scripture to interpret Scripture. No verse or passage of Scripture should be ripped from its near or far context, historical context, or any other context and then be forced into the vacuum of the interpreter's desired meaning. The Westminster Confession explains the principle this way:
"The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself: and therefore, when there is a question about the true and full sense of any Scripture (which is not manifold, but one), it must be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly.2
While there certainly are verses of Scripture that clearly support and reiterate Paul's assertion that Christians should walk in wisdom toward unbelievers (see Ephesians 5:15-16), are there any passages of Scripture that support the pastor's interpretation and application of Colossians 4:5? Are there any passages of individual verses of Scripture supporting the pastor's assertion that open-air preaching is, in and of itself, an act that shows a lack of wisdom toward outsiders (unbelievers)? The answer is a resounding "no."
In fact, not a single verse of Scripture can be found prohibiting the open-air proclamation of the gospel on the streets by Christians -- not one. So, in the end, the pastor is making an argument based on the silence of God's Word, while eisegetically forcing his desired meaning upon the text.
The pastor asserted that street preaching, in opposition to what some unsaved business owners might want or approve, is in contradiction to Paul's admonition to "walk in wisdom toward outsiders."
Prior to the verse in question, Paul spent much of his letter exhorting the Colossians to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord (Colossians 1:10; Colossians 2:6). He exhorted the Colossians to take off the old self and put on the new self (Colossians 3:9-10). He reminded the Colossians that wisdom from God, the wisdom they were to pursue in their own lives, was a wisdom drawn from the deep study of His Word, teaching His Word to one another, and applying His Word in the discipline of one another's lives (Colossians 3:15-16). He reminded them that a life in Christ is a life in which the believer seeks the things above (Colossians 3:1), sets his mind squarely on Christ (Colossians 3:2), and pursues a life in which he dies to self (Colossians 3:3).
Just before exhorting the Colossians to walk with wisdom toward outsiders, he asked them to pray that doors would be open to him for the furtherance of the gospel of Jesus Christ (Colossians 4:2-4). The verse immediately following Paul's exhortation of wisdom toward outsiders makes clear that Paul has evangelism in mind. The best use of the Colossians' time was evangelizing the lost with gracious speech and a readiness to give answers to questions asked.
To walk with wisdom toward outsiders (unbelievers) was to share the gospel with outsiders while maintaining their Christian character. They were to walk toward outsiders, not hide from them. Warren Wiersbe wrote:
"Practical obedience means pleasing God, serving Him, and getting to know Him better. Any doctrine that isolates the believer from the needs of the world around him is not spiritual doctrine.”3
Evangelist D. L. Moody often said:
“Every Bible should be bound in shoe-leather."4
And the unbeliever has no greater need than salvation by the grace of God alone, through faith alone, in Jesus Christ alone.
John Eadie, in his commentary on Colossians, wrote the following of Colossians 4:5-6. He wrote that the verses...
"...refer to the outer aspects of Christian conduct or such aspects of it as present themselves to the world. While they were to set their affections on things above, and mortify their 'members which are upon the earth;' while they were to put off certain vices, and assume certain virtues, culminating in love; while they were to be exemplary in every social relation—as husbands and wives, parents and children, masters and servants; and while they were to be instant in prayer for themselves and for the apostle, all this ethical code referred to personal and mutual spiritual duties within the church. They must, however, in ordinary circumstances, come in contact with unbelieving heathenism around them. If they shrank entirely from such company, the inference of the apostle would be realized—'for then must ye needs go out of the world.' But they were not to go out of the world because it was bad, they were to remain in it for the purpose of making it better. And that their conduct might exercise such a beneficial influence they were thus enjoined to conduct themselves in truth and communicate the truth to a world steeped in lies and bound tight in sin."5
The IVP New Testament Commentary puts it well with these words:
"Paul's opening exhortation is framed by two imperatives, both of which convey his deep concern to evangelize the lost. The community that God has called out of the world for salvation by the gospel (see Rom 10:8) is called in turn to preach that gospel; evangelism is the church's vocation. The work of evangelism includes prayer (4:2-4) as well as proclamation (4:5-6) -- a point already highlighted in the letter's opening words (1:5-9). In fact, this concluding passage connects well with Paul's opening thanksgiving (1:3-12). So Paul's exhortations to pray for the church's mission (4:2-4) and to be wise toward outsiders (4:5) form a sort of bookend, paired with its opening thanksgiving, bringing into even clearer focus the purpose of the letter's main body. That is, Paul's interest in correcting the errant philosophy concerns the church's vocation; the Christless teaching and ascetic morality of the 'hollow and deceptive philosophy' (2:8) threaten the church's evangelistic mission to outsiders."6
Walking with wisdom toward outsiders does not mean avoiding, doing, or saying anything an unsaved person might deem as offensive. It means the Christian is to maintain his Christ-like character, speak graciously, and be ready to give an answer for His faith in Christ when associating and communicating with unbelievers.
Sadly, there are those who violate these principles when proclaiming the gospel in the open-air. They do not speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15). They do not love their enemies (Matthew 5:43-44). They go out of their way to put themselves in conflict with governing authorities (Romans 13:1-5). Their mouths are open graves and they use their tongues to deceive (Romans 3:13). Maybe this is the pastor's experience. Maybe he ran into one or more street preachers who behaved this way. Maybe he's seen it happen in front of an otherwise quiet business. If he has, then those who committed such sinful behavior are as much an embarrassment to me as a street preacher as they are to the pastor.
However, it is fallacious for the pastor to make a hasty generalization or a snap judgment that all street preaching is contrary to Scripture. It is also fallacious for the pastor to apply verses that speak of how Christians are to behave toward, and in the presence of, unbelievers by arguing that the practice of street preaching is in violation of those verses. By handling the Word of God this way, he is doing a disservice to a young open-air preacher, to the unbelievers the street preacher is trying to reach, to the Word of God, and to the God of the Word. The pastor needs to repent.
Kerusso and Street Preaching
Street preaching is biblical. The Greek word, kerusso, which means "to preach," has the open-air public proclamation of the gospel at the heart of it's definition.
“Kerusso: to preach; to be a herald; to officiate as a herald; to proclaim after the manner of a herald; always with the suggestion of formality, gravity, and an authority which must be listened to and obeyed; to publish; proclaim openly something which has been done; used [in relation to] the public proclamation of the gospel and matters pertaining to it; made by John the Baptist, by Jesus, by the apostles, and other Christian teachers.”7
Yes, all the prophets of old -- from Noah to John the Baptist -- were street preachers. The apostles were street preachers. Stephen, the first Christian martyr, was a street preacher. Paul, the man who held the cloaks of those who murdered Stephen, would come to faith in Christ and become a street preacher. Jesus Christ, the King of kings and the Lord of lords, was a street preacher. And the open-air proclamation of the gospel, while never popular, has continued -- from the resurrection of Christ to the young street preacher who was discouraged by a conversation he had with his pastor friend.
Is street preaching for everyone? No. Should every Christian street preach? No. The responsibility is too great for some. Unless he is serving as a pastor, the street preacher is not a shepherd of a flock, and every street preacher should be in submission to and accountable to the elders/shepherds of one of God's flocks (the local church). However, the box or stool upon which the street preacher stands is, for all intents and purposes, a pulpit. He should treat that street pulpit as holy ground.
Furthermore, the street preacher should have the character of a pastor, the sense of call of a pastor, the competency of a pastor, the command of Scripture of a pastor, the care for others of a pastor, the commitment of a pastor, and the courage of a pastor. Is such a standard too high to impose upon an street preacher? No. This is the stewardship of the gospel we are talking about. The desire of a Christian to street preach will never supersede the guardianship of the gospel. No one's desire to preach will ever be as important as the integrity and fidelity of the gospel of Jesus Christ. I've had the honor of discipling street preachers; and I've made the difficult decision of telling an aspiring street preacher that he could not get on my box.
My advice to the pastor who discouraged the young man who contacted me is to train up young men like this in your congregation to have the character and doctrinal proficiency to take the gospel to the streets. Be to your men as John Wycliffe was to his brave disciples -- training them to be the "poor priests" (the "Lollards") of their day. Do not discourage your people from doing that which is biblical. Equip and encourage them to preach the gospel in the open-air, biblically. Set your unbiblical presuppositions against street preaching aside, rightly divide the Word of God, and prepare your people to preach the gospel to the entire world.
To my fellow street preachers: "Walk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of the time" (Colossians 4:5). The best use of the wisdom God has given you is to apply that wisdom to the open-air proclamation of the gospel. And the best use of your time is to do the same. Preach the gospel!
- 1. http://web.cn.edu/kwheeler/fallacies_list.html
- 2. http://www.reformed.org/documents/wcf_with_proofs/index.html?body=/documents/wcf_with_proofs/ch_I.html
- 3. http://www.preceptaustin.org/colossians_110.htm
- 4. http://www.preceptaustin.org/colossians_110.htm
- 5. http://preceptaustin.org/colossians_45-6.htm
- 6. http://www.biblegateway.com/resources/commentaries/IVP-NT/Col/Pauls-Evangelistic-Concern
- 7. http://www.biblestudytools.com/lexicons/greek/kjv/kerusso.html