Evangelism: Early Brethren and Early Christians

It was an entirely chance event but through it I came to realize that "evangelism" is actually an item demanding to be listed (along with peace, the simple life, radical discipleship, and what all) as one of the core distinctives of Brethrenism. This means, first, that the Brethren played a particular role in the historical development of modern evangelism. It means also that this tradition is in position to contribute an understanding of evangelism somewhat different from the ordinary.

Though doing it for a purpose entirely unrelated to evangelism, a graduate student from the Fuller Seminary School of Missions showed me the book History of Evangelism by the German scholar Paulus Scharpff. In great detail, Scharpff traces the Protestant development of "evangelism" (as a deliberately programmed interest) from the time of the Reformation down to the present day.

For the Reformation period, he prefers to speak of "forerunners"--in that a full-fledged movement did not develop until later. He explains how the concept of "state church" effectively prevented Luther and the other Reformers from thinking in terms of what we would call "evangelism." Accordingly, he spots the true evangelistic forerunners as two: Kaspar Schwenkfeld (who had at least something of a connection with Anabaptism) and the Anabaptists themselves. So it turns out that the sixteenth-century forerunners of "evangelism" and the sixteenth-century forerunners of the Church of the Brethren are the very same forerunners--and also, of course, the direct progenitors of the Mennonites.

But where Scharpff becomes quite explicit is in his argument that the entire modern movement of evangelism traces back directly to the European Pietism of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Consequently, in developing those beginnings, he names the very same people that Don Dumbaugh, Dale Brown, David Ensign, and Bill Willoughby have been naming as the Pietists out of whose thought-world the Brethren came to birth: such people as Johannes Arndt, Jakob Boehme, Gottfried Arnold, Jean de Labadie, Theodor Untereyck, P. J. Spener, A. H. Francke, Gerhard Tersteegen, the Berleburg group, the Community of True Inspiration, Count Zinzendorf and the Moravians.

In other words, Scharpff portrays the very milieu from which the Brethren sprang--yet without naming them explicitly. However, he does come close--very, very close. He gives major attention to Hochmann von Hochenau, calling him "a prince among evangelists in the early period of pietism." And Alexander Mack, the first minister of the Brethren, was, of course, an actual convert, protégé, and colleague who traveled with Hochmann on his evangelistic tours. It would be entirely correct to call the original Brethren "followers of Hochmann who broke with him in his understanding of the church but certainly not in his understanding (or practice) of evangelism."

I don't know that anyone has seen it until now--but the Church of the Brethren was born as an evangelistic body right in and with the birth of Protestant evangelism itself. Historically understood, "evangelism" might even rate as the first and prior among traditional Brethren emphases. Consider, the Brethren got their start with just eight lay people. They didn't have brilliant, educated leaders of the likes of a Martin Luther, a John Wesley, or a Count Zinzendorf. Neither did they have a parent body from which they could pull off a goodly bloc of people and an established organizational pattern. Yet, out of the oodles of groups that came into being at the time, the Brethren are one of the very few to have survived. This in itself must indicate that the group knew and did something evangelistically right. It's a thought that will bear some thinking about, in any case.

Then, a second chance event put me onto the evangelism--not of the early Brethren this time, but of the early Christians. And of course, it would be hoped that these two "evangelisms" might bear some relationship to each other.

Mortimer Arias is a Methodist bishop from Latin America who, at the time of my story, was teaching evangelism at the School of Theology in Claremont, but is now heading a seminary in Costa Rica. He is author of Announcing the Reign of God--a book highly recommended in the Church of the Brethren program for evangelism. And in that book, in a section headed "Opening the Table," he says, "It is time for us to recover the evangelistic dimension of the Eucharist."

This passage, in turn, was enough to trigger a newsletter-writing Brethren pastor to complain that the suggestion of inviting unbelievers to the Lord's table is rank heresy and that, consequently, Arias' is a bad book. Yet the more I thought about it, the more I felt Arias was probably right.

His being a Methodist bishop, I assumed Arias had picked up his "open table" idea from John Wesley's having called the Lord's Supper "a converting ordinance." However, upon my putting it to him, Arias confessed he had never heard of this teaching of Wesley's--although upon his checking with a real, true Methodist Wesley scholar, I was found to have it right. The bishop was grateful for my helping him out with his Methodism. However, his notion of the "open table" had come to him directly as he had stated it in his book: "'For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes' (1 Cor. 11:26). The Lord's Supper is an act of proclamation--that is evangelization!"

Nevertheless, being Brethren and thus knowing that the Lord's Supper was meant to be a real meal (a love feast, remember), I was able to go those bread-and-cup Methodists--Wesley and Arias--one better. Simply on the basis of my New Testament familiarity with the early Christians, my guess was that it would have been lust like those people to have invited to the table hungry people off the street--first, as a way of ministering to their physical need and, second, as giving them what must have been the best possible evangelistic opportunity for "discerning the body of Christ" (which is what Paul insists the Supper is all about).

"Goodness knows I'm nothing but a broken-down, ignorant beggar; but I didn't even have to approach these people for a handout. They were out on the street looking for me, inviting me in. And once in, they put me right up at the table with everyone else just as though I were one of them. And would you believe it? they even washed my feet, just like the big spenders have their slaves do for honored guests at these wonderful banquets you hear about. And then we ate a good supper--while they talked about Jesus and told about how he was the one who was responsible for all this; how he had been ready to welcome them, people like me, anybody ... and make them into his people, his body. Of course, I couldn't do anything but fall down crying, 'God is really among you' (1 Cor. 14:25)."

It was my earlier reading of Robert Banks (an Australian and thus obviously non-Brethren, though denominationally unidentified scholar) that had me set up for this interpretation of the New Testament love feast. Being a social historian as well as a biblical scholar, in his book Paul's Idea of Community Banks sets out to discover and deduce all he can about the nature and procedures of the congregations founded and addressed by the Apostle.

His first revelation (or at least what struck me as such) had to do with congregational size. The regular gatherings--perhaps as often as daily--would be those of "house groups." Intermittently, then, on special occasions (such as the reading of a letter received from Paul), all the Christians of a locality (what Paul addresses as "the church at Corinth," or wherever) would congregate for a big meeting. Banks' educated guess is that the house groups numbered approximately eight to ten people and the big meetings not over forty or fifty. The normal locale for the Lord's Supper (love feast) would have been the smaller house group rather than the big meeting. And this difference in group size and setting is itself enough to indicate that a New Testament "love feast" was something quite different even from what the Brethren tradition has known as the love feast--let alone the broader church's bread-and-cup communions, Eucharists, and masses.

Banks' next "revelation" came with his suggestion to the effect that, if you were to interrupt a New Testament love feast and ask the participants to explain the religious ritual in which they were engaged, they would be flabbergasted: "What do you mean, 'religious ritual'? This isn't any 'ritual.' We are just Christians who have come together to eat supper because it's suppertime. And when Christians eat together they naturally take the opportunity to talk about the things nearest their hearts. We are Christians eating together as the body of Christ; but what we are doing is feeding ourselves, not performing some sort of cultic ritual."

Banks further suggests that the sentences from 1 Corinthians 10-11 ("The bread which we break, etc."), which we use as liturgical formulae, were never intended so by Paul nor understood as such by the early Christians. No, Paul was simply saying, "When you eat together as the body of Christ--which is whenever you eat together, period--here are the topics you should take pains to get into the conversation."

Obviously, once the love feast had been converted into what was truly a religious ritual--for that matter, it soon became the central and constituting rite of the church--it is easy to see why participation became a very exclusive and in-group affair. Clearly, only Christians should be allowed in on Christianity's most special and sacred mystery--and if only "Christians," then only true Christians, namely, those of a particular and true persuasion. As the administrator of one Eucharistic rite gently excluded me: "The Lutheran Eucharist is for Lutherans"--and, as he admitted, that meant only Missouri Synod Lutherans. As I say, if holy ritual is what the New Testament love feast is meant to be, then the idea of "closed communion" (or at least somewhat closed communion) is as much as inevitable.

However, if Banks' reading of the New Testament is correct, then Arias' idea of "the open table" becomes just as likely. And within that context my proposal begins to sound "right." Namely, in the New Testament love feast,

  1. the church's service ministry to the poor and needy,
  2. its evangelistic ministry of outreach and proclamation, and
  3. its internal ministry of reminding itself of its identity as the body of Christ and actually exercising itself in being such--in the love feast these three came to a common focus and were as much as a single, integrated action.

Consequently, I was, of course, delighted when, upon my broaching this idea at Bethany Theological Seminary (related to the Church of the Brethren), professor Graydon Snyder cited me to a German-language journal article by the Scandinavian scholar, Bo Reicke--in which, Snyder says, Reicke virtually proves my thesis. So you don't have to take my word for it; we have the word of some people who actually know what they're talking about.

Now, the Brethren certainly have been ahead of the pack in eating a love feast that could at least qualify as a meat for a hungry person; but there is no indication that they have ever used that love feast evangelistically, is there? Well, yes and no. My conversation at Bethany expanded into a professorial trinity with the accession of Don Miller. By virtue of his "Old Order" (Old German Baptist Brethren) background, he knew one fact about the good-old-days Brethren love feast that I had never heard before. I knew that 'love feast" had been an only-once-in-a-while event that was quite something. The host congregation would invite in the Brethren from miles around and give the service the accouterments of an entire weekend of preaching, worship, and fellowship. There went on a very great deal of "love feasting" in addition to the one "sacred" meal.

I knew, too, that--for lack of TV, sports events, and what not--a Brethren love feast was often the greatest show in town (actually "in the countryside"). Crowds of curious onlookers were regularly to be found hanging around the fringes at Brethren love feasts. But what Don Miller knew that I didn't was that the Brethren took advantage of such situations to provide special (and undoubtedly evangelistic) preaching services for the visitors. Guests would also, on occasion, be fed. Granted, this hardly amounted to the "open table" for which Bishop Arias calls--and not at all to the full-fledged practice we have here attributed to the early Christians. Nevertheless, it certainly qualified as a biblical nudge in the right direction.

Now I am quick to admit I have no insight as to how or if--in our day and situation, and with congregations much larger than simple house churches--it is practicable to think of using the Brethren love feast the way the New Testament Christians used theirs. Yet perhaps the principle is more important than is the detailed model in any case. Upon my sharing some of the foregoing ideas with Bishop Arias, he responded with an earlier-published article of his, in which he argued that the truest New Testament form was what he called "hospitality evangelism," the Inviting of people in--in not only to our love feasts but into our homes, our social activities, our churches, our Christian "life together." That is where Brethren/biblical distinctiveness could have us centering.

Arias' hospitality article in turn brought the realization that--in one of my earlier-published books I had all along been thinking "hospitality evangelism" even though I didn't have the right words for it. That chapter, on "Body Language" from The Outward Bound is here reprinted.

Copyright (c) 1987