Proclaim Good Tidings
Proclaim Good Tidings: Evangelism for the Faith Community
by Vernard Eller
This publication was originally published by the Brethren Press (Elgin, IL: 1987).
Bible selections are from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright 1989 (NRSV) by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
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Number me among the admirers of Vernard Eller. I suspect their number is only a little less than legion. Like myself they read with relish whatever he writes--stylistically idiosyncratic, often slightly acerbic, but always biblically informed. A thought-provoking spokesperson for evangelicalism of an Anabaptist orientation, he has an ability which Jesus commended: out of the treasury of God's truth he brings things that are both old and new, refurbishing hackneyed doctrines and finding in centuries-old theology insights that are contemporary.
Though I am a Baptist and he is a staunch Brethren adherent, we share a wide range of convictions and concerns beyond our basic evangelicalism--the imperative of peacemaking, the challenge of radical discipleship, the stewardship of personal and environmental resources, the need to recover and practice New Testament ecclesiology. We also draw refreshing inspiration from the same intellectual wells: Søren Kierkegaard, the Blumhardts, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Karl Barth, and Jacques Ellul.
Not that my admiration for Eller is Unqualified. What mere mortal deserves adulation? He, no more than I, possesses the charisma of infallibility. Yet I profit from my interaction with his thinking even when he is prejudicially shortsighted and egregiously wrong!
In his discussion of the Lord's Supper, for example, he makes assertions that will cause--I suspect to his delight--an arching of ecclesiastical eyebrows. Following Australian scholar Robert Banks, he denies that this dominical ordinance is to be practiced as a "religious ritual" and that Paul's statements in 1 Corinthians 10-11 are to be construed as "liturgical formulae."
Eller also repudiates the notion of "closed communion," contending with Banks and Latin American Methodist Bishop, Mortimer Arias, that "the open table" is obviously not an "exclusive and in-group affair," limited to Christians of a certain denominational persuasion. So for Eller, I must assume, any "fencing of the table," as the stricter Presbyterians once called their deeply soul-searching and severely restricted participation in the Lord's Supper, would be a contradiction of what the Supper's Institutor (and still its invisible host) had in mind.
In so arguing Eller is of course asking that we rethink our Free Church (or Believers' Church) tradition. Most of us in that tradition, to say nothing of other traditions which in this matter concur with ourselves, believe contra Eller that the Lord's Supper is in fact a "religious ritual" and that Paul's First Corinthian statements are to be construed as "liturgical formulae."
In addition, Eller suggests that the apostolic love feasts were ordinary meals which Christians shared together, simply feeding themselves and spontaneously talking about their Savior, recalling all he had done for them. Those earliest disciples, in Eller's opinion, would have repudiated the thought that they were performing any cultic ritual. He suggests, too, that first century Christians probably invited "hungry people off the street" to share their supper. They would do this, he surmises, not only because of their concern for purely physical need, but also because it was an ideal method of evangelism, a golden opportunity to show how the Savior's love has motivated the oneness of his loving, caring Body. Vernard Eller's earlier book, In Place of Sacraments (Eerdmans, 1972) [and updated as Can the Church Have It All Wrong? (House Church Central, 1997)] is a more detailed study of baptism and the Lord's Supper.
Moreover, Eller criticizes the prevalent concept of evangelism as being a lop-sided individualism. Certainly, salvation is not received en masse. One by one sinners in their lostness must make a personal commitment to the sin-atoning Jesus. Certainly, also, there are immediate benefits of incalculable value which accrue from such destiny changing decisions. But evangelism, if faithful to the full-orbed teaching of the New Testament, must proclaim the Good News of God's victory over evil by the cross. It must likewise proclaim Christ's kingly reign over the Church, his new community which is a pilot-model of history's end-state when the Kingdom will be universally established. Leave out the message of the new community, the Body of Christ, and you preach a truncated Gospel. Evangelism demands the proclamation of individual liberation from sin and guilt together with the announcement--the promise--of incorporation into the world-embracing, history-fulfilling Body of Christ. New Testament religion is personal but not individualistic. As John Wesley insisted, Christianity knows nothing of the solitary believer. In the Lord's Supper the cross-created togetherness of redeemed individuals is magnetically exhibited.
I especially appreciate Eller's emphasis on Body language. He takes an idea, body language, which is a cliché of communication theory, and applies it strikingly to the evangelistic ministry of the whole church. Skillful and earnest homiletics, he argues (and, one might add, a zealous witness using the "Four Spiritual Laws") will not by itself win non-Christians to the faith. In Christians, in our Body relationships incarnating love and care and service, they must see a living out of reconciliation. If our corporate speech is the eloquent and convincing idiom of grace, unbelievers may respond as Paul predicted they would: they will fall down and worship crying, "God is certainly among you" (1 Cor. 14:25).
Evangelism therefore is not merely the responsibility of a few disciples who have been uniquely gifted for that task. It is--it ought to be--a function of the whole Body communicating the Gospel by its agapaic interaction. Physicist Robert Oppenheimer once remarked, "If you want to send an idea, wrap it up in a person." God did that, of course. God articulated the truth in the person of Jesus, the resurrected Christ. God's Word became flesh. The Gospel is successfully proclaimed only as the great idea of sacrificial love is enunciated through the Body language of the church, and where the message of the cross is daily enfleshed and persuasively enacted.
For compelling us to rethink our traditional belief and practice regarding the Lord's Supper and for calling us back to the New Testament concept of evangelism, I for one am gratefully indebted to my esteemed brother, Vernard Eller.
President Emeritus, Denver Conservative Baptist Seminary