You must search diligently through Paul’s epistles if you want to find specific instruction addressing the church’s responsibility and behavior toward their unbelieving neighbors. Paul’s main themes in his letters are the gospel and the resulting unity of the church through the power of the gospel. Thus, the responsibility of believers toward other believers is often what consumes Paul’s attention—a necessary emphasis when the very existence of a unified church is the evidence that reconciliation between God and humankind has truly come to the world.
However, Paul’s comparative lack of teaching on cultural engagement in the world at large is ironic, because he was so engaged in reaching Gentiles with the gospel. Moreover, it may be that the absence of so many commands regarding personal relationships with unbelievers is one of the reasons that churches can grow comfortable largely ignoring the world and merely taking care of their own. Beyond a clear call to preach the gospel to the world, what more is the church supposed to be doing on the outside? Furthermore, the absence of explicit directives in Paul may also be why the church’s response to the more recent social justice movement has been sometimes slow in coming, sometimes inarticulate, or even lacking in conviction, as it struggles to define its biblical role in the community at large.
Nevertheless, there are actually several places where Paul speaks to the issue of how to live in the world alongside of “outsiders.” That’s his word for them. “Outsiders.” In Col 4:5, Paul writes, “Walk in wisdom toward outsiders.” He uses the same word to describe them in 1 Cor 5:12 and 13 and in 1 Thess 4:12. Jesus also uses this designation to describe those who do not belong to the kingdom (Mark 4:11; cf. Luke 13:28). They are outside the community of faith because they are outside the “kingdom of God’s beloved Son” (Col 1:13), and outside of union with Christ through faith (Col 1:14, 27; 2:6; 3:3). They are lost and do not understand their terrible situation.
How are we who are on the inside supposed to minister to those on the outside?
If we pay close attention to the places where Paul speaks to this very question, his instructions, though brief, actually fill out a comprehensive picture of living among outsiders.
Let’s begin with Col 4:2–6, Paul’s final charge before he begins to close the Colossians letter:
Continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving. 3At the same time, pray also for us, that God may open to us a door for the word, to declare the mystery of Christ, on account of which I am in prison— 4 that I may make it clear, which is how I ought to speak. 5 Walk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of the time. 6 Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.
Here, the ESV translation gives us four imperatives, but in the Greek text there are precisely two. Continue steadfastly and Walk. In this initial post, I will make some observations about the first.
CONTINUE STEADFASTLY IN PRAYER
The imperative “Continue steadfastly” is a verb that means “be devoted to” or “give your time and energy to.” What Paul desires the Colossians be devoted to is the activity of prayer. Now, Paul could certainly refer to prayer in general. But Paul immediately qualifies his imperative with a prayer request that is near to his heart, namely, that God would graciously give him the opportunity and ability to proclaim the gospel to those outside, so that they might believe, be rescued and brought to the inside.
In other words, when Paul engages with those on the outside, his first inclination is not to talk about evangelistic strategy, or about building redemptive relationships, or about making the gospel attractive to unbelievers. His primary objective is to pray.
Giving prayer pride of place in the question of outsiders is a doctrinal intuition that coincides with Paul’s theology. If outsiders are not merely spiritually sick but actually “dead” in their sin (Eph 2:1ff.), then the only thing that will deliver them is a resurrection. If their vision is not merely blurred, but they are actually “blinded” by the god of this world (2 Cor 4:4), then they must receive their sight. Only God can raise the dead or give sight to the blind. We can strive to love outsiders and show mercy to them and build relationships with them and earn a hearing for the gospel. But if God does not give new life (1 Cor 3:6–7), then nothing will grow and flourish as a result of our activity. First and foremost, we must pray.
Few understood this truth better than Lewis Sperry Chafer (1871–1952). The first professor of theology at the school that later became Dallas Theological Seminary, best known for his multi-volume Systematic Theology, Chafer articulated one of the clearest arguments for making prayer the foremost and indispensable effort in reaching those who are outside. His little volume is called, True Evangelism: Winning Souls through Prayer (revised, 1919). Chafer wrote his book in the era of early nineteenth-century revivalism, when evangelists began to combine gospel proclamation with spectacle in order to attract large crowds. There was a movement away from the ministry of the local church to preaching to the masses in tents and dance halls and theaters, accompanied by media publicity.
Though Chafer disagreed with this approach, he was not overtly critical of it. “For,” he states, “a sincere attempt to reach the lost [even when it is] … misguided, is preferable to the spiritual death and formalism which knows no burden for the unsaved.”
Still, Chafer saw the excesses in evangelism in his day and was alarmed at how quickly many were moving away from the biblical pattern for reaching the lost set forth in the New Testament. He disagreed with the idea that the gospel preacher has to have a tactic or an angle in order to reach the lost. He wanted to call believers back to an element in evangelism that he saw was largely deemphasized in his day. And that element was prayer.
After all, Chafer explains in his book, the “abiding confidence” that one has embraced Christ, “can be formed in the heart only through the illuminating, regenerating, and indwelling work of the Spirit.”
The examples of soul-winning in the New Testament present a conspicuous contrast to some examples of present-day evangelism. So far as the divine record shows there seemed to be little urging or coaxing, nor was any person dealt with individually who had not first given evidence of a divinely wrought sense of need.
In view of this all-important divine preparation for salvation, it is clear that all evangelism, be it public ministry or personal work, which does not wait for the moving of the Spirit in the hearts of the unsaved is insomuch removed from true co-operation with God [i.e., praying that God will move in the hearts of people to save them].
Such a waiting on God and for God is necessary for true co-operation with the Spirit, although it may shatter the evangelist’s claim to large numbers of converts, will tend to wean the church away from her dependence upon spasmodic periods of concern for the lost into a true and more constant attitude of fruit-bearing.
All evangelism must begin with prayer …. [P]revailing prayer necessarily accompanies all other ministry; for it commands the power of God, and secures the needed illumination of the mind toward the Word that may be preached. Without prayer there will be little understanding and vision of the Gospel, even though faithfully presented.
In summary, Chafer believed Jesus’s words in John 14:14, “If you shall ask anything in my name, I will do it.” This, says Chafer, is the secret of all true evangelism. “Where believing prayer has been offered with expectation toward God alone, there has always been evidence of the power of God unto salvation…. [T]he personal element in true soul-winning work is more a service of pleading for souls than a service of pleading with souls.” It is actually, he argues, more about talking with God about people rather than talking with people about God.
I believe that Paul would have whole-heartedly concurred with Chafer. In writing to Timothy to guide him in how to manage the churches in Ephesus, he literally opens his formal instruction with these earnest words:
First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, 2 for kings and all who are in high positions …. 3 This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, 4 who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. (1 Tim 2:1–4).
In other words, because God desires all people to be saved, then pray, really pray, for all people—even for those in highest authority—to be saved.
We cannot begin to think about reaching those on the outside, let alone pretend to be serious about it, until we begin with earnest, devoted prayer for them to be brought safely to the inside.