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Spring 1999 · Vol. 28 No. 1 · pp. 18–27 

Evangelism by Lifestyle

David Ewert

The Early Church lived as a minority in the midst of a non-Christian society. In its effort to carry out Christ’s great commission it realized that the spoken word was ineffective if it was not backed up by a consistent life. From the teachings of Jesus and the apostles it was clear to the early Christians that proclamation and lifestyle were of one piece.

Evangelism by lifestyle and evangelism by word of mouth must not be divorced.

In this essay we want to underscore the significance of letting our “manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ” (Phil. 1:27) if our verbal witness is to have credence and authenticity. Lest this emphasis be misunderstood, let me quickly say with Elton Trueblood that

the living deed is never adequate without the support which the spoken word can provide. This is because no life is ever good enough. The person who says naively, “I don’t preach; I just let my life speak,” is insufferably self-righteous. 1

We do not intend to create a dichotomy between word and deed; we only want to underscore what Jesus and the apostles taught, that the verbal witness of the followers of Jesus must be undergirded with a Christian lifestyle.

Even Old Testament Israel was castigated by the prophets for profaning God’s name among the nations by her violation of God’s covenant requirements (Isa. 52:5; Ezek. 36:20; see also Rom. 2:24). Not Israel’s misfortunes, but her misconduct, led Gentiles to conclude that the God of Israel was of no account. In similar vein the members of the Qumran community were warned to be careful in their dealings with Gentiles “lest they blaspheme. {19} 2

This concern is expressed even more strongly by the apostles in the epistolary literature of the New Testament. Paul, for example, confesses that he and his colleagues “endure anything rather than put an obstacle in the way of the gospel of Christ” (1 Cor. 9:12). The word “obstacle” (egkope) means “to block the way.” 3 He even refused to accept remuneration for his services from the Corinthians, fearing that his motives for preaching the gospel might be misconstrued. He wanted to avoid everything that could possibly hinder the progress of the gospel.

In his second letter to the Corinthians he again claims that he and his associates “put no obstacle in anyone’s way, so that no fault may be found with (their) ministry” (2 Cor. 6:3). The word here translated “obstacle” (proskope) is a compound meaning literally to strike or dash against, to stumble against something, to bump oneself. In the figurative sense it means to give offense to another, to give reason for antipathy. 4

Paul then proceeds to speak of the hardships he endures, the integrity with which he lives, the love with which he treats people, and a host of other things he does. By these he seeks to commend the gospel to others and to keep his ministry from being vilified.

Not only did Paul himself seek to live winsomely, but he exhorts his readers to do likewise. Writing to the Corinthians he cautions: “Give no offense to Jews or Greeks or to the church of God” (1 Cor. 10:32). Jews and Greeks represent the unbelieving neighbors in contrast to the church of God. To be without offense (aproskopos) means to avoid everything that could keep people from the faith, and thus to prevent their salvation. 5 It means to be pleasant and obliging to unbelievers, so that they will be attracted to the Christian faith. To live without offense in the midst of a “crooked and perverse generation” must be a guiding principle for all believers if they want to see men and women come to Christ.

In this article we want to limit ourselves to the letters of Peter and Paul in our effort to underscore the significance of lifestyle evangelism.


Paul claims that he pleases “everyone in everything” (1 Cor. 10:33) so that he might win them for Christ. The verb “to please” (aresko) should be taken in the conative sense, that is, Paul “tries” to please everyone in all things. He is not claiming that he always succeeds. 6

Formally such a statement is at variance with Galatians 1:10 where the apostle protests the charge that he is a people-pleaser. “If I were still pleasing people,” he writes, “I should not be a servant of Christ.” Paul refuses to trim the truth of the gospel to please his audience (according to Gal. 1:10), but he seeks to please with respect to their feelings {20} regarding customs and mores (according to 1 Cor. 10:33).

“To please” is misunderstood if read in the sense of currying favor. In an inscription from antiquity the word “please” is used in the sense of “being a benefactor to others.” 7 Paul in fact explains forthwith that in seeking to please others he was not seeking his own advantage but that of others. And lest the word “advantage” be misconstrued, he adds, “that they might be saved.” It is not simply a matter of ingratiating himself with people, but of befriending them in order to lead them to Christ. Ignatius of Antioch recalls these words of Paul in his second-century letter to the Trallians when he reminds the servants of Christ that they ought “to please everyone in every respect.” 8

Paul will “allow no attitudes or practices of his own to stand between the truth of the gospel and those he seeks to win.” 9 Earlier, in 1 Corinthians 9:19-23, Paul had given some of the details of what he meant by seeking to please others. Although he was a free man, he made himself a slave to all. The language is an echo of Jesus’ words in Mark 10:45, and prompted Luther’s paradoxical saying: “A Christian is a most dutiful servant of all, subject to all.”

Paul respected the customs of those among whom he moved. “To the Jew I became a Jew” (1 Cor. 9:20). He tried to avoid everything that would antagonize his fellow Jews. He respected Jewish scruples. He even had Timothy circumcised, although circumcision was neither here nor there in the matter of salvation. He took part in the discharge of a Nazarite vow in the temple in Jerusalem. When he was with Jews he respected their food laws; he confined himself to kosher meat out of consideration for Jewish scruples even though he regarded all foods as clean. Why all this concern to please the Jews? “In order to win Jews” (1 Cor. 9:20).

Among Gentiles Paul behaved quite differently, for to win Gentiles he had to drop Jewish practices. Of course, in all his concern not to offend people, he never sacrificed ethical principles. He explains that he is not an “outlaw” of God but an “in-law” of Christ. But personal considerations were totally submerged in his desire to win others. “I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some.” Making friends was not an end in itself; Paul wanted to win them for Christ, so that he might have them as friends forever.

His instructions on what to do when an unbelieving neighbor invites a Corinthian Christian for dinner is a concrete example of what it means to be sensitive to people’s feelings. Paul’s advice is to eat whatever is set before them without asking questions about where the meat comes from (1 Cor. 10:27). Paul forbids table fellowship with immoral church {21} members (1 Cor. 5:9-12) but not with the immoral of this world. They are the objects of the church’s mission and if they are to be won for Christ, believers must befriend them and not shy away from eating with them.

What an agenda this provides for missionaries entering other cultures! One cannot treat the practices of other people with disdain and hope to win them for the gospel. How one dresses, how one greets, how one eats, how one reacts to accepted customs, determines in large measure whether one will find a way to the hearts of others. If we want to be winsome, we must be sensitive to the feelings of non-Christians.


That Paul and his associates were sometimes accused of dishonesty, greed, pride, or the like, can be seen from his defense in 1 Thessalonians 2:1-12. Paul and his coworkers, he insists, had not used deceit or trickery in their efforts to win the Thessalonians. They had never used flattery in their attempt to make converts, nor had they asked for money or sought after praise. Rather, they had been gentle among them and had cared for their new converts as a mother tenderly cares for her children. Day and night they had given themselves to serving the Thessalonians. And lest they be accused of having pecuniary interests, the apostles had worked with their own hands to earn their daily bread. They did not want to be a burden to the Thessalonians in any way nor to make demands that would lay the missionaries open to charges of self-interest.

Why this detailed defense? For the simple reason that their mission efforts could be ruined if the bad rumors that enemies of the Christian faith were spreading should prove to be true. If it could be shown that Paul, Silas, and Timothy were like the many other charlatans that travelled from city to city, seeking to pawn off their ideas for a fee, their mission was doomed.

The kind of ethical integrity which Paul claims for himself and his colleagues is expected of his converts also. “Conduct yourselves wisely toward outsiders,” he writes to the Colossians (4:5). There were plenty of distorted accounts of Christian behavior floating around and believers were to give the lie to these by their manner of life.

Even today it is true that the reputation of the gospel is bound up with the conduct of those who claim to have experienced its saving power. Non-Christians may not read the Bible or listen to the preaching of the word of God; but they can see the lives of those who do, and form their judgment accordingly. 10

It was expected that believers would suffer for their, but they {22} were to make sure, writes Peter, that they never suffered because of wrongdoing. “But let none of you suffer as a murderer, or a thief, or a wrongdoer, or as a mischief-maker” (1 Pet. 4:15). Christian slaves are told that there is no credit if they “do wrong and are beaten for it” (1 Pet. 2:20). They are to make sure, when they suffer, that it is for the sake of their faith and not for wrongs they have done. “For it is better to suffer for doing right, if that should be God’s will, than for doing wrong” (1 Pet. 3:17).

“Maintain good conduct among the Gentiles,” exhorts Peter, “so that in case they speak against you as wrongdoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation” (1 Pet. 2:12). Christians were frequently vilified as enemies of society in the early days of the church because they refused to participate in pagan practices. The way to overcome this hatred and prejudice, explains Peter, is to let non-Christians see “good deeds.” The unusual verb “to see” (epopteuo) speaks of an observation over a period of time. The hoped-for result is that unbelievers will glorify God on “the day of visitation.” The day of visitation may be understood eschatologically, but it may also refer to the day when the unbeliever is converted, when God visits him or her in his grace, after observing the life of Christians.

By integrity in ethical matters and by doing good to others, Christians exercise a powerful evangelistic influence on their non-Christian neighbors. “The serene, silent beauty of a holy life is the most powerful influence in the world, next to the might of the Spirit of God,” wrote Blaise Pascal.


When John Wesley was still searching for the assurance of salvation, he was impressed by the Moravians on board the ship that took him to America. He writes, “If they were pushed, struck, or thrown down, they rose again and went away; but no complaint was found in their mouth.” 11 This helped to convince the founder of Methodism that they had something he lacked but very much desired.

By suffering wrongs patiently, early believers drew many a persecutor into the Christian fold. Paul, in imitation of Jesus, claims: “When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we try to conciliate” (1 Cor. 4:12-13). Here are clear echoes of the Sermon on the Mount.

In his letter to the Romans he warns against paying back evil for evil and then shows his readers how to turn the enemy of the Christian faith into a friend, namely, by overcoming evil with good (Rom. 12:16-21). {23} Quoting Proverbs 25:21-22, he counsels, “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for by so doing you will heap fiery coals upon his head” (Rom. 12:20). Whereas the precise meaning of the “fiery coals” is still being debated, the thrust of the passage is clear: Treat your enemy kindly; this will make him ashamed and lead him to repentance.

Peter agrees with Paul in emphasizing that patient endurance of wrongs has a profound effect on unbelievers. Accusation against the Christians must be dispelled by their noble conduct. He exhorts his suffering readers to keep a good conscience so that when they are abused, “those who revile [their] good behavior in Christ may be put to shame” (1 Pet. 3:16). Not retaliation but good behavior is the answer of the suffering church to the abuse heaped upon it.

Suffering for Christ’s sake is not a shame as long as one suffers for doing right (1 Pet. 3:16), for being a Christian (4:16). In fact, the patient suffering of Christ’s followers leads unbelievers to ask for the secret of the Christian life. Peter counsels his readers in such a situation to “be prepared to make a defense to anyone who calls you to account for the hope that is in you” (1 Pet. 3:15). It was the church that patiently endured wrongs in the early centuries that grew by leaps and bounds.

Ignatius, in the early second century, exhorts the Ephesians: “Keep on praying for others, too, for there is a chance of their being converted

. . . . Return their bad temper with gentleness; their boasts with humility; their abuse with prayer.” 12 The preacher in Second Clement makes the observation that when the heathen hear that Christians are commanded to love their enemies and those who hate them, they are amazed “at such surpassing goodness. But when they see that we fail to love not only those who hate us, but even those who love us, then they mock at us and scoff at the Name.” 13 The apostles were concerned that this should not happen and, therefore, admonish the believers to endure wrongs patiently and not to pay back evil with evil.


Whereas the believer is a citizen of a heavenly commonwealth (Phil. 3:20) and gives supreme allegiance to Christ as Lord, he does not serve the cause of mission by poor citizenship. Paul exhorts his Roman readers to obey the laws of the land “and [they] will receive approval” (Rom. 13:3). If they do wrong, naturally, they must expect punishment. However, it is not simply to avoid punishment that believers respect the laws of the land, but for conscience’ sake (v. 5). Included in good citizenship is the payment of taxes, respect for authorities, and the repayment of debts. {24} One debt, of course, always remains and that is the obligation to love one’s neighbor.

The charge, that Christians made bad citizens out of believers, was common enough in the early centuries, and the churches are admonished to do all they can to dispel such false charges. (It was understood, of course, that when Caesar’s demands conflicted with Christ’s, believers would then obey God and not human beings.)

Peter writes in a similar vein:

Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to praise those who do right. For it is God’s will that by doing right you should put to silence the ignorance of the foolish (1 Pet. 2:13-15).

Good citizenship would not only win Christians the esteem of the public, but also give the lie to their calumniators whose charges against them stemmed from ignorance. Christians are warned not to misinterpret their freedom in Christ to mean that they could now take liberties with the laws of the land (v. 16).

Good citizenship would also include responsible participation in the work-a-day world. If non-Christians should have to help believers because of their failure to work, a real barrier to the gospel would be erected (1 Thess. 4:11-12). This evidently had happened in Thessalonica. Some church members, it seems, had given up working because they thought the Lord’s coming was imminent. The result was that, with time heavy on their hands, they became busybodies. Not only were they making a nuisance of themselves, but they soon found themselves without food and so became dependent on their neighbors for their livelihood. They were becoming parasites, as it were. Paul urges them to go back to work, to live quietly, and to mind their own affairs. And why? Two reasons are given: (1) so that they might win the respect of the outsider, and (2) not be dependent on anybody (v. 12).

Believers must always live with an eye to the outsider. They must so live in the eyes of the public that the gospel is commended by their manner of life. To walk euschemonos (“orderly,” “becoming,” 1 Thess. 4:12) does not mean simply that the Christian’s life is a matter of good appearance, but rather that unbelievers cannot justifiably criticize Christians for their manner of life. Paul wants nothing to happen in the lives of church members that would bring the Christian name into disrepute (Rom. 13:13). That is why Paul was shocked when he heard that believers were taking each other to court to settle quarrels in the eyes of {25} unbelievers (1 Cor. 6:1-8).

Eugene Nida points out that any real church growth depends on the life of the laity in the work-a-day world:

Formal communication is rarely as important as informal sharing, for example, the casual remarks people make about their faith and the opinions and rumors that spread about the behavior of church members. 14

The writer of Second Clement recognized this already in the early second century:

For when the heathen hear God’s oracles from our lips, they marvel at their beauty and greatness. But afterwards, they mark that our deeds are unworthy of the words we utter, they turn from this to scoffing, and say that it is a myth and a delusion (13.1-2).


For people who have come to know the truth it is all too easy to become overbearing and to speak disrespectfully to and of those who are still in darkness. Also, there is a temptation for those who have been delivered from evil habits to denounce those who are still in bondage to sin and to inveigh against the pagan practices of society in such a way that unbelievers are offended rather than drawn closer to the faith. Paul, therefore, exhorts the Colossians to walk wisely with respect to the outsiders and then adds, “Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer everyone” (4:16). Just what salt means in this context is not quite clear, but given the fact that it stands next to “gracious,” it must have the connotation of winsomeness.

Where people have experienced God’s grace their language should reflect this. A debtor to grace must not speak boastfully but humbly to fellow sinners. He must not denigrate them. Brusque and discourteous behavior is not fitting for saints. Not only must filthy conversation be avoided, but the speech of the believer must become a carrier of grace (Eph. 4:29).

Peter says something very similar in his admonition to his readers to defend their faith “with gentleness and reverence” (1 Pet. 3:15). This admonition finds application particularly in a situation where a believing wife or husband has an unbelieving spouse. How could a believing wife, for example, win an unbelieving husband? By constantly reminding him of his sins? By threatening him with hellfire? By denying him conjugal rights? Hardly! Peter’s advice is that unbelieving husbands “may be won {26} without a word by the behavior of their wives” (1 Pet. 3:1). “When they see your reverent and chaste behavior,” adds Peter, they will be encouraged to turn to Christ. Not nagging but gentleness and submissiveness will win the husband over more readily. Not gaudy dress, but that “gentle and quite spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious,” will draw the husband to Christ.

In Justin’s First Apology we are told that Gentiles, for whom the name Christos did not have messianic connotations, sometimes confused this word with chrestos, meaning “gentle” or “kind.” Justin saw apologetic value in this mistake and writes: “Indeed, as far as the name charged against us goes, we are very gracious people” (4.1). 15 If only that could also be said of all those who take the name of Christ in our day, we might see a great forward thrust in evangelism.

Evangelism by lifestyle and evangelism by word of mouth must not be divorced. And lest we excuse ourselves from a verbal witness on the grounds that we are witnessing by life, let us remind ourselves once more of Colossians 4:5-6 where the exhortation to conduct ourselves wisely toward the outsiders is combined with instructions on our verbal witness.

Commenting on this text, R. C. Lucas writes:

Always we must be praying that opportunities for the gospel to be preached to them [i.e., outsiders] be given by God. Always we must gladly take those opportunities, however unpropitious our circumstances. Always we must use the fleeting moments for Christian response when people give us opportunities. And always, however far off in understanding the questioner may be, we must seek the wisdom and grace to answer with words that will awaken his appetite for the things of Christ. {27} 16


  1. Elton Trueblood, The Company of the Committed (New York: Harper, 1961), 53.
  2. Geza Vermes, The Dead Sea Scrolls in English (Baltimore, MD: Penguin, 1962), 114.
  3. Gustav Stählin, “egkope, egkopto,” in Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, ed. Gerhard Kittel (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1965), 3:855-57.
  4. Gustav Stählin, “proskopto, et al.,” in Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, ed. Gerhard Friedrich (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1968), 6:747.
  5. Ibid., 747-48.
  6. C. K. Barrett, A Commentary on the First Epistle to the Corinthians (London: Adam and Charles Black, 1968), 245.
  7. A. Robertson and A. Plummer, First Epistle of St. Paul to the Corinthians (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1914), 224.
  8. “Ignatius’ Letter to the Trallians” (2.3), in Early Christian Fathers, ed. Cyril Richardson (New York: Macmillan, 1970), 98-101.
  9. F. F. Bruce, 1 and 2 Corinthians (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1971), 101.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Howard Snyder, The Radical Wesley (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1980), 21.
  12. “Ignatius’ Letter to the Ephesians” (10.1-2), in Early Christian Fathers, 87-93.
  13. “II Clement” (13.4), in Early Christian Fathers, 98-101.
  14. Eugene Nida, Church Growth and Christian Mission (New York: Harper and Row, 1965), 180.
  15. “The First Apology of Justin, the Martyr” (4), in Early Christian Fathers, 243.
  16. R. C. Lucas, Fullness and Freedom: The Message of Colossians and Philemon (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1980), 175.
David Ewert is Professor Emeritus of Biblical Studies, Concord College, Winnipeg, Manitoba.
Forty-five years ago a young man from Brazil, by the name of Hans Kasdorf, sat in my college classes in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Many years later it was my good fortune to have Dr. Kasdorf as seminary colleague. This led to a deepening of our friendship, and it is a delight for me to contribute to this issue published in his honor.

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