How Evangelism Goes Wrong
by Jacob Hudgins
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves”(Matt 23:15).
In this chapter of woes to the scribes and Pharisees, Jesus is sharply critical of their evangelistic efforts. It is not their zeal that is the problem—they are willing to “travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte”—but their approach. As disciples of Jesus, we learn here how evangelism goes wrong and where our efforts must improve.
Evangelism goes wrong when we shut the kingdom of heaven. “But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. For you neither enter yourselves nor allow those who would enter to go in”(Matt 23:13). Shutting the kingdom means that we are making it harder for those who would come in. Our standards are higher than Jesus’ standards. As James says of the Gentiles (in the context of the circumcision debate), “we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God”(Acts 15:19). “We should not trouble” people who are seeking God’s kingdom by adding restrictions and expectations that are not God’s. Becoming a Christian is a simple process. We should encourage converts to count the cost of discipleship, but insisting on doctrinal perfection (as we define it) as a precondition of salvation shuts up the kingdom of heaven from others. Everything we encourage someone to do, think, or be must have Bible—not merely human traditions or wisdom—behind it.
Evangelism goes wrong when it is about us, not God. “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves”(Matt 23:15). They work to make proselytes, but they make those proselytes in their own image! He becomes “twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.” The goal is not to bring lost people to their loving God, but to increase the tribe of people who think and act like me. Evangelism goes wrong when my teaching creates people who are like me rather than God. When someone grows in following my teaching, will they be well-versed in my hobby horses and doctrinal pet peeves—or more like Jesus? Our goal is not to make disciples of Jacob Hudgins, but Jesus. Is my teaching making people like me or like him?
Evangelism goes wrong when it makes others worse. “When he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves”(Matt 23:15). In this style of evangelism, I am already wrong and my evil only multiplies as I teach. Jesus hammers the Pharisees with this fact throughout this chapter: “For you neither enter yourselves”(Matt 23:13) and “blind guides”(Matt 23:16, 24) and “hypocrites”(Matt 23:12, 15, 23). Their houses are not in order, yet they presume to teach others their peculiar pollution of the faith. I must consider the character impact of my teaching. Am I making others better? Can I expect those I teach to rise above my own evil, hypocrisy, and distance from God? This is not to say that I must be perfect to teach others, but openly living in sin and acting as though all is well is not a place from which to teach others. Blind guides don’t help their followers.
The Pharisees are a tremendous example of evangelistic zeal—yet zeal is not all that matters! May our efforts truly connect others to God and be a blessing to others and glory to him!