I will not be surprised if I receive comments from some of you who assume I have referred to you, personally, when I haven't done so. Certainly I had a few specific people and groups in mind as I prepared this message, but none of them will be mentioned by name; and I don’t think any of those individuals or groups are represented here, at this conference. In the preparation of this message, thinking specifically about individuals and groups was unavoidable since the only way I could prepare portions of this message was to draw from personal experiences and the testimonies I’ve heard from others. But again, no one will be mentioned by name. This message is more about an issue plaguing Christ’s Church than it is about the groups or individuals who are, by their words and deeds, the carriers of the plague. The issue is “Nomadism.”
The people group in question is what I refer to as “Nomadic Tribes of Evangelists.” A nomad is "a member of a group of people that have no fixed home and move according to the seasons from place to place; a person with no fixed residence who roams about; a wanderer."
These tribes (and the word "tribe" is not used in a disparaging way) are comprised of professing Christians (both true and false converts) who are led by men and women who do not have a church home. If they do have a church home, they are only connected to the church in a superficial way, having not submitted to the membership process (if it exists in their particular church), and staying far enough out of reach of the leadership of the church in order to avoid submitting to their authority.
Members of these tribes (not necessarily all members) tend to follow the tribe’s leader(s) behavior toward and thinking about the local church. They see the tribe as their “church” and look to the leader(s) of the tribe as their pastor(s).
While these tribes are not limited to Christians who are passionate about street evangelism and the open-air proclamation of the gospel, for the purpose of this message I will limit my description, critique, and concerns to this specific group.
I think it is important, at this point, to make a distinction between nomads and itinerants in the street evangelism community. The primary difference between a nomadic evangelist and an itinerant evangelist is the evangelist’s involvement in and accountability to the leadership of a local church.
By way of example, two itinerant evangelists come to mind. They are Mike Stockwell, and Robert Gray. Of course, there are others; but these brothers are evangelists with whom I am very familiar. These brothers have devoted their lives to the public proclamation of the gospel. They travel literally around the world to preach the gospel in the open-air. And they do so with the prayerful support and accountability of their churches. The nomadic evangelist has no such accountability in his or her life.
Before I continue, I would like to provide some personal background, which will include my own experiences in and with nomadism. I will then attempt to put forth a simple and relatively brief ecclesiology, which will include the headship of the Lord Jesus Christ, the structure of the local church, and the responsibility of every Christian to submit to the authorities given by God—both inside and outside the church.
In order to make a “case” against these “Nomadic Tribes of Evangelists,” I must first establish a biblical foundation for calling these nomads out of nomadism and back to the local church. And then I will try to wrap things up by addressing a few of the common arguments in favor of (or reasons for) nomadism and, hopefully, then present practical, biblical answers to those arguments.
I quickly became frustrated. I made the common mistake other new converts to biblical evangelism often make. Although it took me more than fifteen years to come to the realization that there is indeed a biblical way to engage in evangelism, I expected the Christians around me to “get it” immediately. While the Lord allowed me to undergo a process that lasted years before the light bulb went on, so to speak; I expected others to come to the evangelism light with a quick flip of the switch. It was an unreasonable and, frankly, an immature expectation.
One day, and I don’t remember how, I heard of an organization that networked like-minded evangelists. I joined and was soon introduced to other Christians in my area who, like me, were part of a growing club—the name of which, like the club itself, was new to me—“Club Frustration.” The name of the club expressed the sentiments of its members toward the local church—their churches.
The members of “Club Frustration” were frustrated with their churches’ lack of desire to reach the lost with the gospel. They were frustrated with weak gospel preaching from the pulpits of their churches. They were tired of answering questions from other Christians—questions like: “Is that really effective? How many people do you see come to faith in Christ? Don’t you think doing it that way is a bit judgmental? You’re not becoming one of those hellfire preachers, are you? I don’t know if I want our church characterized as one of those crazy churches of zealots. Can you tone it down a bit?” And so on...
For the record, while it took a while for my pastor to come on board, my pastor never discouraged me from hitting the streets. And now, my pastor is one of my biggest advocates. He regularly exhorts the church family from the pulpit to get out of their comfort zones and reach the lost with the gospel; and he faithfully proclaims the Law and the Gospel from his pulpit. And, not long ago, the elders of my church called me to serve in the office of evangelist.
Misery truly loves company. I found that the more time I spent on the streets; the more time I spent with other Christians whose frustration I shared, the less time I spent with my church family. Over time, I found it easy to justify this mindset because of the eternal importance of reaching the lost with the gospel. I began to see my fellowship with other evangelists on the streets as, in some ways, a substitute for the fellowship of my local church.
Before long, I was leading a team of evangelists and the work of an evangelist became all-consuming. I was becoming a nomad. Some of us talked about forming our own church, one that would emphasize biblical evangelism and we would grow the church from those who we saw receive Christ from our street evangelism efforts.
Fortunately, all of us realized that we were either already in God-glorifying, Christ-centered churches or there were such churches nearby we could attend. Some left their churches where the gospel was not being preached and settled into churches where the gospel was faithfully proclaimed. Others of us determined to submit to the leadership of our churches and continue to bring biblical evangelism to our church families. By God’s grace, we all avoided becoming a nomadic tribe of evangelists.
In my present ministry capacity, as part of the Living Waters family, I interact and communicate with hundreds if not thousands of Christian evangelists from around the world. I’ve had the great honor and privilege of having a part, if even a small one, in training hundreds of brothers and sisters in Christ to proclaim the gospel in the streets. Many of them are now leading teams and conducting evangelism training in their churches.
Sadly, with so much interaction with the evangelism community, I have seen what I believe is a growing number of nomadic tribes of evangelists. Sadder still is the reality that some of these nomadic tribes have moved or are moving away from biblical Christianity and are ascribing to heretical doctrines such as Pelagianism, Open Theism, and others.
I believe when Christians make the move toward nomadism and begin the doctrinal slide from orthodoxy to heresy; such movement can be attributed to several behaviors and beliefs—a few of which are: a low view of the local church; a refusal to submit to biblical authority and accountability, seeing themselves as in no need of teachers; and the errant and arrogant belief that they have received from God the ability to infallibly discern who is saved and who is not. It’s interesting to note that those who hold to the last belief mentioned seem quick to judge as apostate and unsaved those who dare to question their beliefs and practices.
The Church: Not a "Structure," but "Structured"
There are buildings called "churches." But the Church—the Body of Christ—is not a structure.
For the born-again follower of Jesus Christ, corporate worship often occurs in a "church" building. However, God-glorifying, Christ-centered corporate worship can likewise take place in a living room, in a public park, in an office building, in a basement by candlelight, in a jungle by campfire, and in a prison cell. That being said, "Church" is not where Christians go and it is not what Christians do. "Church" is who Christians are—the Body of Christ.
While the "Church" is not a structure, the "Church" most certainly is, according to God's Word, "structured."
There is only one Head of the Church—Jesus Christ the Lord.
"And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock, I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it" (Matthew 16:18).
Contrary to what the Roman Catholic Church believes, the church of Christ was not built upon the fallible apostle Peter. The Church of Christ was built upon the solid granite foundation of the Lord Jesus Christ. He alone is the Head of His Church.
"And He put all things under His feet and gave Him as head over all things to the church, which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all" (Ephesians 1:22-23).
Jesus Christ is the head of His body, and the body in this earthly realm is His Church.
"For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, His body, and is Himself its Savior" (Ephesians 5:23).
"He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by Him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities--all things were created through Him and for Him. And He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together. And He is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything He might be preeminent" (Colossians 1:15-18).
Scripture leaves no doubt who is the head of the Church—and it is no sinful man, whether apostle, popish figure, or self-anointed street preacher.
God, according to His Word and according to His sovereign will, has provided a structure under His headship, for His Body the Church.
"And they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers . . . praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their numbers day by day those who were being saved" (Acts 2:42, 47).
Those who would be the first among many coming to repentance and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching. The early church recognized both the wisdom and the authority of the apostles. The apostles were the human leaders of the church.
"There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles' feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need. Thus Joseph, who was also called by the apostles Barnabas (which means son of encouragement), a Levite, a native of Cyprus, sold a field that belonged to him and brought the money and laid it at the apostles feet" (Acts 4:34-37).
The apostles, the first leaders of the church, had the authority to collect from and distribute to the Body of Christ financial resources. Christians like Barnabas recognized and submitted to the apostles' authority. Others did not.
"But a man named Ananias, with his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property, and with his wife's knowledge he kept back for himself some of the proceeds and brought only a part of it and laid it at the apostles' feet" (Acts 5:1-2).
The apostles, as the leaders of the church, had the authority to discipline members of the church. Peter, a man, by the power of the Holy Spirit, judged Ananias guilty of not simply lying to men; but of lying to God. Ananias was immediately sentenced to death, by the Holy Spirit, for his sin against God. Three hours later, Peter prophesied the immediate death of Ananias' wife, Sapphira, for the same sin against God.
"And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, 'It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word'" (Acts 6:2-4).
The apostles had the authority to summon the church. They had the authority to establish the position of deacon and to appoint qualified men to serve in that role.
Throughout the Book of Acts it is easy to see that the Church--the Body of Christ--was structured in such a way to include godly, human leadership.
The Apostle Paul’s epistles are yet further testimony to the obvious human structure of the Church, under the headship of the Lord Jesus Christ. More often than not, Paul would address the recipients of his letter as the church—and not as the Church universal, but the local assembly of believers in a given area. In fact, in his opening address of his letter to the believers in Philippi, Paul wrote: “To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the overseers and deacons: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:1b-2).
In addition to the church body, the church is comprised of various leadership roles or offices.
“And He gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for the building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we many no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into Him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love” (Ephesians 4:11-16).
The text makes it clear regarding the purposes of these offices. These human offices exist for the edification, maturation, and spiritual protection of born-again followers of Jesus Christ. In his presentation of these various offices to the church in Ephesus, Paul reaffirms that Jesus Christ is the head of the Church.
In addition to specifying offices within the local church, Paul provides qualifications for elders/overseers/pastors (I Timothy 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9); as well as the qualifications for those men and woman (Romans 16:1) who aspire to serve as deacons (1 Timothy 3:8-13). Not just anyone could serve in leadership of the local church. Only biblically qualified prospective pastors/elders and deacons could serve as leaders in the young and growing Body of Christ. The same holds true, today.
And one of the clear signs of the unbiblical nature of nomadism is that often-times leaders of these nomadic tribes appoint themselves as elders and pastors of the group, forming a church around their self-appointed leadership. They are often young men, who themselves are new converts, who unbilbically lay hands on themselves, or too quickly lay hands on other young, zealous men; and they start a church. They are, at times, what Paul refers to as an arrogant, prideful “novice.”
“He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil” (1 Timothy 3:6).
The Greek word translated “a recent convert” in the ESV and “a novice” in the KJV is “neophuton.” It is a compound word: “neos” meaning “new” and phuo meaning “planted.”
Those who fall prey to the lure of nomadism are often young men who, by outward appearances, seem to grow very quickly in their faith. They devour Scripture and are voracious readers and students. They often show great promise and seemingly leave older Christians in the dust when it comes to their ability to retain information and when it comes to their zeal and ability to serve, to preach, and to teach.
But, before long, the pride and arrogance of the old creature begins to affect the growth of the new creature. He begins to see himself as better equipped and more gifted than the older men around him. And this may be true. But when the novice starts to think about such things, even dwell on such things, they sometimes begin to brood about being held back by older leaders. In their mind, they are not being given leadership responsibilities fast enough. Eventually, the frustration can lead to the novice setting out on his own, with all-too-often a few burnt bridges left behind.
The novice errantly confuses intellectual prowess and spiritual giftedness with spiritual maturity. Ability and maturity may be parallel spiritual roads, but the ground is not always covered at the same speed. And when spiritual ability overruns spiritual maturity, the novice often runs into trouble. Sometimes they become a nomad who answers to no one.