Book Review – “In the Name of God”

I heard months ago from Raymond Barber that O.S. Hawkins was writing a book on Norris and Truett. I was very excited to hear that since Hawkins had written an article about Norris and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. To hear someone within the SBC take a objective view on Norris’s ministry is quite rare.

In the Name of God: The Colliding Lives, Legends, and Legacies of J. Frank Norris and George W. Truett is published by B&H Academic. It is 213 pages long, with 152 of those being the text and the rest endnotes, bibliography, etc. List price is $29.99.

Before I begin my review, I want to acknowledge that this very website is cited as a source (see pages 64, 164, and 206) – which is so exciting for me! Having studied, collected, and written about Norris off and on for 15+ years there is a sense of vindication when you see your work cited in print. Even if it was just a reference to membership number at the First Baptist in Fort Worth which I had compiled from various sources and not something really original it still excites me. So much more so than the time this site was cited on Wikipedia. Anyway, I will note that the particular page that is referenced is not currently available. I did not put it back up after I switched over to WordPress. Guess I need to fix that.


In the annals of Southern Baptists, the name of Truett has been revered and the name of Norris reviled. Hawkins’s objective approach in this book is that there is a much more balanced view that needs to be taken of the two. The two men are so easily compared and contrasted – they ministered some 30 miles apart, their paths intersected often, they were both leading pulpiteers, they both led in building some of the earliest megachurches, and so on. This is not the first work on the subject, nor will it be the last.

Hawkins does spend far more space dealing with Norris than Truett. That is because the main thrust of this book, though many will argue and refuse to acknowledge it, is that Norris’s impact on the SBC today is greater than Truett’s. Chapter 5 – “The Influence of J. Frank Norris on Modern Southern Baptist Theology, Church Growth, Evangelism, and Practice” is the best in the book. The previous chapters are largely background for this analysis. The Baptist historian Leon McBeth had written that Norris “had no constructive part in Southern Baptist ministries in this century.” Hawkins takes him to task, even calling out that statement five times with clear examples of its error.

Hawkins is clear that the ministry and personality Norris are complex. He does not paint him as a hero nor a villain. He is objective and analytical in his approach. But he shows that Norris was right on many issues, which is difficult to find SBC writers to acknowledge. Norris’s tactics and combativeness have distracted many from seeing that in so many ways he was right.

Some points of controversy are finally addressed, such as whether Norris was valedictorian at Louisville and if Norris gave rotting fruit to SBTS staff. I will say that Hawkins does take the word of Norris and Entzminger with less skepticism than I would expect since they can embellish things a bit.

I will say that I find the writing to be uneven. Sometimes it sounds very much like a sermon with elaborate and unnecessary alliteration. A couple of sentences I honestly had to reread a few times because they felt incomplete. It is not academic or dry by any stretch. Overall an enjoyable read.

The book is well sourced (and I am not saying that because my website is referenced). However, I get the feeling that not everything in the lengthy bibliography was actually referenced in the making of this book. I cannot prove that statement, just a hunch. I compared it to my own Norris bibliography that I have been working on in an attempt to compile an exhaustive list of resources and especially Norris’s publications. Many of these books and pamphlets are extremely hard to find. It took me years to find copies of some of them. So many of them I have never been able to locate copies of and I simply have recorded their reported existence. Yet I find all but a handful listed in Hawkins’s bibliography regardless of their relevance to the subject. Perhaps he is, like me, merely acknowledging the existence of the works. I sincerely doubt he has actually referenced them all.


There are some finer points that he does get wrong. Speaking of Norris heading to Baylor University on p. 23, Hawkins writes: “No evidence exists to show how he acquired the resources for this journey and his initial college expenses…”. However, Ray Tatum (whom Hawkins references multiple times) wrote: “…Frank presented himself in the small office of the family doctor, W.A. Woods, and told him, with confidence, of his aspirations to attend Baylor University. He asked the doctor for a loan of one hundred dollars, and received ‘one hundred and fifty.'” (Conquest or Failure?, p. 42, with a citation from a 1945 article in The Fundamentalist)

Another example that Hawkins either missed or simplified is that impact of Louis Entzminger on Norris’s ministry. He credits Norris with influencing Arthur Flake’s Sunday School system (p. 111-113). It was not Norris that invented that system, but Louis Entzminger who arrived in Fort Worth in 1913 to build that Sunday School system. Entzminger is also the man who convinced Norris to adopt Premillennialism.

Some other things he is wrong on or curious:

  • Repeats the unfounded rumor that Norris killed his father-in-law (p. 27). The endnote highlights the suspicious nature of the accusation.
  • J.T. Pemberton’s name is misspelled as Pemperton repeatedly (p. 27 and so on).
  • Attributing “multisite campuses” to Norris (p. 110, 136). Norris had to be creative in finding places to meet or to hold the crowds but these were never satellites of his churches – they were the same church meeting in different places.
  • Saying that Norris “wrote” commentaries (p. 129). These were lectures he gave so writing may be a stretch.
How to spell Pemberton

I also would like to take issue with a couple of statements made about Norris’s legacy. On page 144: “In the end, much of what Norris stood for diminished. His network of churches was repeatedly divided across the decades and is virtually unnoticeable today.” [emphasis added]. Splintered, yes. Unnoticeable? Only to those who do not look. Strong SBC bias against Independent Baptists there.

Also I would like to take issue with the statement in the end notes on page 160: “The remnants of Norris’s seminary still exist today…” [emphasis added]. Remnants? That is a loaded word and surely a better one could have been used.

I suppose we can give Hawkins a pass on some of this. He is many things but a professional historian is not one.


Lest you think otherwise, I do really like this book. Hawkins’s approach and perspective is a welcome one.

I like what Hawkins brings out when he compares Norris and Truett. Norris was for “doctrinal fidelity” and Truett for “denominational loyalty”. Norris reveled in conflict, while Truett stayed aloof from it. Norris preached with passion and animation, Truett with precision and dignity.

There is little new ground covered in chapters 1 through 4. We have brief histories of Dallas and Fort Worth, biographies of Norris and Truett, and synopsis of their conflicts and interactions. You will readily find better and deeper resources for the material, except maybe the presentation of the information in chapter 4. Chapter 5 is, again, the best in the book and a welcome addition to catalog of Norris research available. That chapter could only be written in today’s time with the perspective gained over the decades.

I was very glad to see the relationship between Norris and B.H. Carroll emphasized. Too little study has been done on it.

I absolutely love this perspective on page 148: “The fact that the church [First Baptist of Fort Worth] did, indeed, fragment after his death proved to be a blessing to many sister churches as Bible-believing men and women dispersed to find their places in the local churches of their city, thereby multiplying the ministry and lasting influence of J. Frank Norris many times over.” So true. The fragmentation of the Norris empire did not weaken it, instead it multiplied it.

Final verdict: Despite my nitpicking, this is a worthy and welcome addition to anyone’s library with interest on the SBC or Norris. I think the list price of $29.99 is far too steep so maybe everyone should wait for used copies to become available.

Book Review – One in Hope and Doctrine

I am always interested in new books about the Baptist Fundamentalism. I heard about this book a few years ago but only recently purchased it. The reason I delayed buying it was that it has remained fairly expensive and I had not found a copy at a price I was willing to pay.

One in Hope and Doctrine: Origins of Baptist Fundamentalism 1870-1950 is co-written by Kevin Bauder and Robert Delaney and was published by the Regular Baptist Press in 2014. It is only available in paperback I believe and is 396 pages.


My first criticism is the title does not match the content of the book. It should be titled Origins of the GARBC (General Association of Regular Baptists Churches). It excels in telling the story of the origins and early days of the GARBC. As someone who has studied far more about Southern Fundamentalist movements I found that information well done. However, this book does not fairly or adequately cover any movements that did not lead to the GARBC or arise from Northern Baptist heritage.

My second criticism is the authors show little or no objectivity in dealing with Southern Fundamentalism. These authors have an obvious axe to grind against Southern Fundamentalism and its leaders. J. Frank Norris is treated as an inhuman and immoral monster and John R. Rice is treated as a closet Pentecostal. If there is a chance to take a jab at Norris it is swung with gusto even if it has little or no bearing on the actual focus of the book. He is the villain of this story.

Admittedly Norris did bring much of this criticism on himself. He tried to join the GARBC and probably would have attempted to absorb it into his own sphere. He attacked Ketchum and others in print and private. While Ketchum chose not to respond, these authors have chosen to fire multiple broadsides in response. The bias and vitriol is overwhelming for a book supposedly written by academics as a serious historical study.

Some proofs of this unnecessary bias include:

  • In the Index you will find that there are more references to J. Frank Norris than any other individual. More than Ketchum, Van Osdel, Riley. You will also notice that John R. Rice (who really had little to do GARBC) has about as many references as W.B. Riley (who had a lot to do with GARBC’s history). Why are Norris and Rice mentioned so much when the narrative is supposedly about a group they had very little to do with?
  • Beginning on page 313 and lasting 16 pages, there is an absolutely unnecessary section dealing with controversies with John R. Rice. The first is an overblown dispute between Rice and Lewis Sperry Chafer on the role of an evangelist. The second is a critical review of Rice’s positions in his book The Power of Pentecost. Neither of these add anything to the narrative other than to glorify the author’s own movement and vilify Rice (and by extension Southern Fundamentalism). When one of the few GARBC controversies (women preachers) is addressed, it is covered with only seven pages beginning on page 199.
  • The use of unprofessional, unacademic, biased language. On page 253, Norris is described as acting “like a jilted teenager”. On page 258, the structure of the GARBC executive committee is described as “sheer genius”.

We can debate the actions of Norris and the positions of Rice and I have no issue doing so. What I take issue with is a book that proports to be a serious historical study yet constantly descends into petty partisan propaganda.

Related to this criticism, I find the section from pages 295-301 to be curious. It is an analysis of Southern Fundamentalism based on the thoughts of Jack Hyles. While every opportunity is taken to attack Norris and Rice, the authors are strangely silent about the accusations and legacy of Jack Hyles. While Hyles’ observations are interesting, their inclusion without comment on their source highlights how unfairly this book treats other Southern Fundamentalists.

My third criticism is that the writers arrogantly assume their own movement to be true Fundamentalism. From the title to the declaration on page 380 that “Thus ends this first part of the story of Baptist fundamentalism” there is a misguided attempt to make the GARBC movement to be the one true bastion of historic fundamentalism. Other movements are criticized, downplayed, or ignored. This book is more propaganda and claptrap for the GARBC than an honest history survey.


What is this book? It does not live up to its title in scope. It covers the origins and precursors of GARBC and other Northern Baptists Fundamentalists well. It is very unbalanced in how it treats Southern Fundamentalists.

Oliver Van Osdel appears is finally receiving the recognition he deserves. Robert Ketcham is presented as the “Great Man” of the movement despite such a philosophy being criticized on page 300. The interaction of Norris with the GARBC is inflated I think to manufacture a villain for the narrative. The coverage of Rice is unnecessary and barely fits the focus of the book.

In my opinion, this book should be edited into two separate works. The first, a scholastic history of Northern Baptist Fundamentalism and the GARBC. The second, an editorial work criticizing Southern Fundamentalism and its leaders. Both would be of value separately, but combined it makes for an uneven narrative told with inconsistent voice.

Students of the history of Fundamentalism deserve better.

On Defending the KJV

I love the King James Bible. I’ve used it my entire life and do not plan on changing. There is so much about it to love: the majestic flow, the time-honored phrasing, and much else. However, I feel that much of the reasoning for and against using the KJV can be quite absurd.

So, here I would like to examine some of these arguments and test their soundness.

Some Poor Arguments for the KJV

1. The KJV is not copyrighted

Actually, it is. Just depends on where you are at. In the United States it is considered public domain. In the United Kingdom, however, it is technically copyrighted. The rights to printing and publishing the KJV are held by the Crown.

I will add here that I personally would feel better about modern translation attempts if they would make their work public domain. I realize there are costs involved in creating a Bible translation but if the goal is producing a better translation of God’s Word why would anyone add restrictions to its use and propagation?

2. Thousands of changes in other translations

It is a common tactic in arguments to use very large numbers to impress a point without justifying the number. My response would be that you need to produce this list. Many of these “thousands” of changes are no very substantive, such as Ye to You or maybe a The to an A.

Another issue with this argument is that it is based on a foundation that will not be agreed on by both sides. It is based on the assumption that the KJV is superior. Someone who is critical of the KJV can simply dismiss this argument by stating that thousands of changes were necessary.

3. Attacking Westcott and Hort

Who cares? These attacks are very dated and really have no bearing on modern translations. Poor texts and translations predate Westcott and Hort and they are not necessarily seen as giants in the field today.

4. Other languages need the KJV

No, people who speak Spanish, Swahili, or any other language do not need the KJV. They need a Bible faithfully and accurately translated into their own language. Using the underlying principles of translation that the KJV translators used is fine, but the source of the translation should not be an English translation. It has to go back and be based on the Greek and Hebrew texts for accuracy.

5. KJV is required for Salvation, Revival, etc.

This is one of the most absurd arguments you will hear. Did no one get saved before 1611? Must you speak English to have a revival?

Is your faith in God or His Book? You cannot have His Book without Him. He is greater. Now, we know Him and His will through His Book, but we must remember that we worship God and not a book. Don’t allow the Bible to come before the God Who gave you His Word.


Some Poor Arguments against the KJV

1. Their are better alternatives to the KJV

This is a biased opinion and cannot be proven empirically. You may try to support this with facts or studies but it boils down to a personal opinion. Not a sound argument and comes off as elitist.

2. The language is archaic, dated, difficult to understand, etc.

Granted, the language of the KJV is not something that is spoken on the average street corner. There are words (“milch kine” for example) that would be quite different in modern English.

However, the language is a large part of the beauty of the KJV. The rhythm and flow of the words and phrases are closer to Shakespeare that they are to Tom Clancy or Michael Crichton or J.K. Rowling. We all run across a new word in an article or book that we have to look up the definition to. That reading the Bible could require a specialized vocabulary is not something that may be avoided as there are specialized words with theological meanings. I don’t see the issue in adding a few more words to that list.

3. There are better manuscripts that are available now that weren’t available in 1611.

I think there are two theories about finding purity. One is to seek it at the source as close to that as possible. The other is to test and purify the substance. I illustrate this by asking where the purest water is found: is it at the source before it may be contaminated or after it has been filtered and any contaminants removed? It depends. Leaning on ancient manuscripts is like trying to go back as close to the source as possible. Trusting in the Textus Receptus and Masoretic Text is like trusting something that has been filtered and processed over time.

The attempts to rewrite Scripture and Christian history based on fragmentary manuscript evidence is almost laughable at times. The so-called “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” made headlines a few years ago. A piece of papyrus the size of a business card excited conspiracy theorists with the possibility that Christianity had covered up that Jesus was married. After further vetting it was uncovered it is likely a forgery. I bring this story up as an extreme example of using fragmentary evidence is used to rewrite overwhelming evidence.

The Textus Receptus and Masoretic Text that the KJV is based on were made from attempts to see the available texts and find a standard. They were made to reflect the text that the Jews and Christians felt was a pure text.

Sometimes the Dead Sea Scrolls come up in this line of argument. There are two ways of looking at more recent find like this compared to the accepted body of thought. One is focus on small differences that may exist from those first century scrolls to the text we use today and assuming those small differences found are more accurate than every other texts we have available. The other is is to focus on how well the vast majority of the text we have matches the those first century scroll and assume that the small differences are variants that are not authoritative. It is a matter of perspective and rarely is there any balance found in those that engage in arguing in this arena.

4. Which KJV? 1611? 1629? 1762? 1769?

At it root, this is reflecting an attack made against other versions. The NIV for example has undergone several revisions. You will see copyright notices noting major changes in 1978, 1984, and 2011. Fans of the KJV like to poke fun at this by showing the ever-shifting language and often controversial changes made each time. KJV opponents won’t see an issue with a continually changing and updating text but like to deflect this argument back because many KJV users are ignorant or sensitive to this charge.

There were minor changes made to the KJV, some of which were simply printing errors. Many spelling updates were made also, including famously incorporating the letter J in the 1629 revision. Almost none of these are substantive, especially compared to revisions made to other translations.

5. It is not the language of the common man

The definition that needs to be made in this argument is what exactly the common man’s language is. What age group? What region? What education level? Spoken or written?

It is common to read a higher level of language than is spoken. Better attention is paid to syntax and structure when writing. Transcripts often do not read as well as the oral communication that was originally delivered.

Is the KJV in the language of the average reader? No, and no translation will be because language is constantly shifting and evolving. The case can be made that the being in a higher or older form of English further cements the meaning and understanding of the words.

I think the better question is, “Is the KJV understandable?”. The answer to that is affirmative.

6. You need to know the original languages to understand the Scriptures.

Not exactly a KJV issue but it often comes up in these conversations. The goal of any translation should be to put the words of scripture into another language that can be fully understood without constantly checking back to Greek or Hebrew.

Is studying the original languages profitable? Yes. Necessary? Should not be.

7. There is no perfect translation

So why criticize the KJV? Oh, you just want to aggravate KJV users…

8. Why don’t other languages have KJV-like translations?

The English language is blessed to have a masterpiece such as the KJV. Other languages, such as Spanish, have struggled with having a reliable translation.

I believe the existence of the KJV is an example of God’s providence. English has been the dominant business language of the world for maybe 200 years. Children in schools across the globe learn English as a second language because it opens so many opportunities. God knew the how widely used the English language would be in our time and so provided a reliable, beautiful translation.

9. We need a another/better English translation.

I did some research. There are around 7,000 languages in the world. 3,300 have at least a portion of the Bible translated into them. About 1,500 have a complete New Testament and only 700 have a complete Bible. As far as I can tell, there are more English translations of the Bible than in any other language. The numbers I found cited were that English has about 450 translations, French has about 50, Spanish has about 50, and Russian has about 20.

When 90% of the world’s languages lack a complete Bible, it is a very poor use of our time to add to the piles of English Bibles.

My suspicion is that many of the modern translations are born out of arrogance or financial concerns. It is arrogant to say that no one before or present can produce a better translation and therefore only these particular translators have proper understanding to do it correctly. As far as finances go, I do not believe every new translation is a cash grab, but I have heard how profitable Bible translations are and how it helps large publishing companies to have their own in-house translations they can use freely in their own works.

Landmarkism: The Original Fundamental Baptists?

I have long argued that there is a connection between the Landmark Movement of the 1800’s and the the Independent Fundamental Baptist Movement of the 1900’s. Generally this is met with resistance, I think mainly because of ignorance of the subject or as an attempt to distance from some of Landmarkism’s positions. However, the more I have considered the idea, the more convinced I am that there is some link between the two.

The histories of both are so strikingly similar that a connection seems so evident yet few official ties have existed to my knowledge. Both created new separatist Baptists movements with emphases on foundational positions. Both impacted the larger Baptist world through their staunch defense of their beliefs.

Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

History of Landmarkism

Landmarkism began as a movement in the mid-1800’s mainly in the Southern Baptist Convention. It’s chief spokesman was J.R. Graves (1820-1893) and other key early figures include A.C. Dayton (1813-1865) and J.M. Pendleton (1811-1891). Ben Bogard (1868-1951) was its chief defender during his lifetime.

The catalysts that launched Landmarkism are unclear. For J.R. Graves, he said that he had witnessed as a young man a minister immerse, pour, and sprinkle various converts in a single meeting. For others it was a reaction to conflicts with other denominations, especially the newly emerged Church of Christ.

My understanding of Landmark history makes me believe that the conflict with the Church of Christ is the primary reason for the rise of Landmarkism. It is not that they held any new or revolutionary position. They were responding to an attack on their own identity as an upstart group emerged to claim to be the one true church with the only true doctrines. Conflicts and debates between Landmark Baptists and the Church of Christ (or “Campbellites” as Landmarkers liked to call them) were very common. I have read numerous accounts of those debates taking place here in Texas in the late 1800’s and even into the early 1900’s.

Landmark Teachings

In The Baptist Heritage, H. Leon McBeth lists these positions as illustrative of Landmarkism’s stance on the church:

  1. Baptist churches are the only true churches in the world.
  2. The true church is a local, visible institution.
  3. The churches and the kingdom of God are coterminous.
  4. There must be no “pulpit affiliation” with non-Baptists.
  5. Only a church can do churchly acts.
  6. Baptist churches have always existed in every age by an unbroken historical succession.

As you can see, Landmarkism places much emphasis on the practice and position of the church. The extent of those positions has led many to dub them “Baptist Briders”, as their belief that only Baptist churches are the true churches and therefore only they must make up the Bride of Christ.

Relationship with Fundamentalism

Should you compare the six positions listed above to those of Fundamental Baptists, I think only #3 would not be the same generally. #1 may not be taught but is is definitely practiced, and in fact there are those that would question the validity of even a non-Fundamental Baptist church. #2, #4, #5, and #6 are definitely taught and promoted.

There are two major differences that I see. One is that Landmark Baptists can have a more organized denominational structure (Association vs. Fellowship). Two is that Fundamental Baptists are, I think, more open to be influenced by non-Baptist sources. This could be because Classic Fundamentalism was not limited to just one denomination. Many early Fundamentalist leaders and writers were not Baptists but their works are still highly valued.

Historically there hasn’t been much overlap or fellowship between the groups. Landmarkers were suspicious of Fundamentalists and largely isolated from their battles. Fundamental Baptists were often not willing to hold some of the more extreme conclusions of Landmarkism. I know of anecdotal instances of Missionary Baptist churches (a typical name here in Texas for churches with old ties to Landmark movements) having fellowship with Fundamental Baptists or even becoming Fundamental.

Similar Histories

Note – to illustrate this, I am going to here limit the breadth of Fundamental Baptists to just those whose heritage is from the Southern Baptist Convention.

Both movements began as reactions to movements or ideas that were deemed unorthodox.

Both movements sought to define what constitutes true doctrine.

Both movements created controversary in the Southern Baptist Convention.

Both movements could not wield enough influence to take control of the Southern Baptist Convention.

Both movements separated from the Southern Baptist Convention to create their own alliances and fellowships.

Both movements have their own schools/seminaries to train their own leadership.

Both movements have their historic positions continuing to influence the Southern Baptist Convention to this day.

Both movements are largely concerned with local church work and their own affairs with little effort to be ecumenical.

Conclusion

Landmark and Fundamental Baptists share many common positions and a similar history. Many of the positions of the earlier Landmark movement are evident to some degree in the Fundamental Baptist movement. Both remain defenders of their own brands of conservative Baptist identity.

I contend there that Landmarkism, with its staunch defense of Baptist identity and fierce independence, paved the way for the Independent Fundamental Baptist movement. I doubt the “Independent” portion would even exist without the principles developed and ingrained into the Baptist psyche by Landmarkism.

There is far too much to cover in just one quick article, and I doubt there is much of an audience clamoring for such a study anyway.

UPDATE – 7-13-21

Discovered this nice tidbit in a J. Frank Norris sermon I was adding to the website, in which he called J. R. Graves “the outstanding fundamentalist of his day“.

Recent Additions

Just a quick update on some of the recent additions to this website from the last couple of months.

First, I have been working to digitize some books, pamphlets, and sermons that I possess that to my knowledge are not available online elsewhere. I just finished adding the ten sermons from B.H. Carroll‘s 1913 book Baptists and Their Doctrines, including Ecclesia – The Church, Distinctive Baptist Principles, and The Baptists One Hundred Years Ago. I have also added the first few sermons from the book Messages on Prayer.

Also in the past few months I have added some sermons and pamphlets by J. Frank Norris. I have added probably his most famous sermon, But God, along with his Inside the Cup sermons from 1930 in which he gives his account of the history and battles to that point of his pastorate in Ft. Worth. Also added is the text to a Norris pamphlet Did the Jews Write the Protocols? in which he takes a stand against antisemitism.

Two other books were also added. The first is a pamphlet named Election Made Plain which deals with Calvinism and was recommended by J. Frank Norris. The second is the text of The Key of Truth, a document that may have ties back through the centuries to the Paulicians. I have seen it mentioned numerous times as proof that Baptist principles are far older than many modern historians give credit.

Second, I have added a couple of new research articles on J. Frank Norris. The first is some of the information I have tracked down regarding his 1905 graduation from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. The second is some information regarding Norris speaking at the 1926 National Baptist Convention in Ft. Worth. That might not seem like a big deal from the title, but many of Norris’s critics may be surprised to find him speaking at a convention of Black Baptists and also inviting them to attend Sunday services at his own church.

Third, I continue to add new pdf notes that I use for Sunday School and Wednesday nights at Faith Baptist Church in Decatur, TX. Recent additions include notes from a series on Prayer and another on Jonah. I have just started two new series: one on the book of Micah and the other on prophecy. Look for these in the coming weeks and months.


As to what is coming up in the future, I have a few projects in progress. I have more works by B.H. Carroll and J. Frank Norris that I am preparing to add. I am looking a few other various books and sermons to add also. Of course the lesson notes that I prepare each week will be added.

I have a couple of posts that I am refining that I hope to add in the near future. One is on the logic used to defend and attack the KJV. Another is on the Bible college system, its shortfalls and possible solutions.

Another thing I hope to add soon is a study I have been working on regarding the uses of ekklesia and church in the New Testament. I am very excited about it but still have some work and study. As a sneak peek, let me share with you my current (subject to change) conclusions:

  • There are 120 uses of either ekklesia in Greek or church in English (KJV).
  • That includes 5 uses of church or ekklesia which should be omitted from the count.
    • 1 use of church in Acts 19:37 which is not ekklesia and likely not about a Christian church.
    • 1 use in I Peter 5:13 as ekklesia is not in the Greek text.
    • 3 uses that appear in the subscripts to Paul’s epistles.
  • Which leaves 115 uses of ekklesia in the Greek New Testament.
    • 6 uses that are not related to a Christian church.
      • 1 use in Acts 7:38 refers to Israel and not a Christian church.
      • 3 uses in Acts 19:32, 39, and 41 refer to a civic assembly.
      • 2 uses in Hebrews are special cases that when examined do not describe a Christian church.
    • 3 uses spoken by Christ in Matthew that are less definite.
      • 1 use in Matthew 16:18 is a general definition introducing the idea.
      • 2 uses in Matthew 18 are general teaching about non-specific local church function.
    • 64 uses clearly speak of a local church or groups of local churches.
    • 42 uses which many see as general/universal/invisible, to which I will offer that a local church is a better interpretation.

As I said, that is still a work very much in progress. I am working to further understand a few of the less definite or special uses. Also I am considering expanding the study into other areas, such as the descriptions of the church with a body or bride.

Does Acts 20:20 Teach Door-to-Door Evangelism?

One of the greatest obstacles I see in studying the Bible is that we sometimes read into the Bible’s words more than we read from them. We humans have a tendency to put definitions into words that are not justified by context or culture. We also like to prove what we believe rather than believe what we can prove.

I’d like to give an illustration of problem in Acts 20:20. Paul tells the church elders from Ephesus:

“And how I kept back nothing that was profitable unto you, but have shewed you, and have taught you publickly, and from house to house,…”

In my background and training I have heard this verse used many times to prove that Paul went door-to-door soulwinning and thus we should too. I had doubts about this position and even offered an alternative interpretation to some who used this verse thus. My response would be practically dismissed out of hand with no willingness to discuss the verse.

Here, I’d like to lay out my argument against this verse promoting door-to-door evangelism, offer another interpretation, and say a few words against the means leading to misunderstanding this verse.

1. Contextual Analysis of Paul’s Address

Paul is speaking here to the elders from Ephesus (Acts 20:17). In this address to them he is defending his ministry among them and exhorting them to be strong in the difficulties ahead.

Let’s examine the first sentence (vs. 18-21):

Ye know, from the first day that I came into Asia, after what manner I have been with you at all seasons, serving the Lord with all humility of mind, and with many tears, and temptations, which befell me by the lying in wait of the Jews: and how I kept back nothing that was profitable unto you, but have shewed you, and have taught you publickly, and from house to house, testifying both to the Jews, and also to the Greeks, repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ. 

Paul is speaking of his faithfulness and consistency in his ministry. Troubles did not stop him. Situations did not alter his message. Whoever the audience was the message was the same: salvation by grace through faith in Christ.

Next two sentences (vs. 22-24):

And now, behold, I go bound in the spirit unto Jerusalem, not knowing the things that shall befall me there: save that the Holy Ghost witnesseth in every city, saying that bonds and afflictions abide me. But none of these things move me, neither count I my life dear unto myself, so that I might finish my course with joy, and the ministry, which I have received of the Lord Jesus, to testify the gospel of the grace of God. 

Paul is headed toward Jerusalem and has awareness of his fate there. Knowing the trials that lie ahead he is pressing forward.

Next three sentences (vs. 25-27):

And now, behold, I know that ye all, among whom I have gone preaching the kingdom of God, shall see my face no more. Wherefore I take you to record this day, that I am pure from the blood of all men.  For I have not shunned to declare unto you all the counsel of God. 

Paul is appealing to his record and testimony that he has been faithful and full in his minsitry.

Next three sentences (vs. 28-30):

Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood.  For I know this, that after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock.  Also of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them. 

Here he is challenging the Ephesian elders to follow his example and stay strong and faithful.

Now the final four sentences (vs. 31-35):

And now, brethren, I commend you to God, and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up, and to give you an inheritance among all them which are sanctified.  I have coveted no man’s silver, or gold, or apparel. Yea, ye yourselves know, that these hands have ministered unto my necessities, and to them that were with me.  I have shewed you all things, how that so labouring ye ought to support the weak, and to remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he said, It is more blessed to give than to receive. 

We see here further defense of his ministry and the example he set for these church leaders to follow.

I believe it should be obvious that, taken as a whole, this speech is not an address on evangelism. When Paul touches on that subject it is secondary to the defense of his faithfulness. He exhorts his brethren to be strong and steadfast like he had been, but we do not see him commanding them to do exactly as he had done.

As to the meaning of “from house to house”, I do not see clarification from the larger passage. That Paul was preaching the Gospel we have no doubt whatsoever (vs. 21, 24, 25). That Paul did so in the midst of hardships, we have no doubt (vs. 19). That he was consistent and thorough in his teaching we have no doubt (vs. 21, 27, 35). But I don’t think we can definitively explain what “house to house” means quite yet.

2. Grammatical Analysis of Acts 20:18-21

Let’s dig deeper into verse 20 and I think we will begin to get some clarity. Again, the entire sentence is found in vs. 18-21:

Ye know, from the first day that I came into Asia, after what manner I have been with you at all seasons, serving the Lord with all humility of mind, and with many tears, and temptations, which befell me by the lying in wait of the Jews: and how I kept back nothing that was profitable unto you, but have shewed you, and have taught you publickly, and from house to house, testifying both to the Jews, and also to the Greeks, repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ. 

Paul is appealing to his testimony and record here. He has been faithful in adversity and in consistent in message. The main subject is “ye”, the hearer is thus the Ephesian elders. The main verb is “know”. What do they know? Two things: “after what manner I have been” and “how I kept back nothing”. Everything else branches off from these two.

It is to that second object, “how I kept back nothing” we now focus. He expands on that thought: “but [I] have shewed you, and [I] have taught you”. Both of these relating back to how he “kept back nothing”.

Let’s keep going. Paul said “[I] have taught you”. How? Both “publickly, and from house to house”. This combination of adverb and prepositional phrase are linked in their description of how Paul taught.

We finish the sentence by further describing how Paul showed and taught the Ephesian elders, by “testifying both to the Jews, and also to the Greeks” – another couplet of descriptors. And of what was he testifying? “repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Thus, the use of “house to house” in grammatical context is descriptive of how Paul taught in Ephesus, as witnessed by and likely direct at the Ephesian elders. It is further related to how he taught “publickly”. I therefore contend that Paul is speaking in vs. 20 of how he taught both publicly and privately, just he taught both Jew and Greek. It is to show the consistency and faithfulness of Paul’s ministry. It is not emphasizing a method of going house to house, but rather that his private teachings were consistent with his public teachings.

3. What is a House?

Words have meanings, which may not be consistent across time and distance. Let’s see examine the word house here and make sure we understand its meaning.

The Greek word translated as house here is oikos (Strong’s #G3624). It can carry multiple meanings. First, a physical house or dwelling (examples: Matthew 9:6-7, 11:8) Second, the members of a household or family (examples: Acts 7:10, 11:14). It has many other applications and uses that extend from these basic definitions.

Either of the preceding two definitions work in Acts 20:20. He could be teaching from “dwelling to dwelling” or “family to family”. Here we possibly see something against reading door-to-door evangelism into this verse. If it is “dwelling to dwelling” then it could work, but “family to family” sounds more like a modern in-home Bible study.

But I’d also like to offer one more possible definition of “house”: it could be referring to church gatherings. We see Paul write to Timothy of the “the house of God, which is the church of the living God” (I Timothy 3:15). We also see multiple references to churches meeting in homes (Romans 16:5, I Corinthians 16:19, Colossians 4:15, Philemon 2). I also think these church meetings are meant by house in Acts 8:3 when Paul was persecuting the church at Jerusalem.

After Pentecost we see the following description of Christian gatherings: “And they, continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house,…” (Acts 2:46). These Christians met in the public courtyards of the Temple complex or in private homes. No one seems to question that the breaking of bread in this verse took place in Christian meetings in private homes. I haven’t found anyone who sees door-to-door evangelism in Acts 2:46.

So, I offer that there are now three possible definitions of house as used in Acts 20:20: (1) a physical dwelling, (2) a household, and (3) a gathering of the church in a home. Both (1) and (2) we have already seen as possible meanings. I contend that (3) is also. Using this definition, Paul would be teaching both publicly and in private church assemblies. Not only does this maintain the descriptive comparison of public/private, but it enhances that comparison by further describing public to be outsiders from the church and private to be insiders of the church. I am inclined to believe (3) is the best definition to be used, but I don’t know how dogmatic we can be on it.

4. How Paul Preached in Ephesus

What Paul did in Ephesus is no secret. If you simply look back one chapter to Acts 19 you will see the account of it. A brief overview:

  • Paul’s encounter with the disciples of John the Baptist – Acts 19:1-7
  • Paul preaching in the synagogue – 19:8
  • Paul disputing in the school of Tyrannus – 19:9-10
  • The sons of Sceva – 19:11-20
  • Demetrius’ riot – 19:21-41

Only the first ten verses shed any real light on how Paul ministered in Ephesus. The rest of the chapter could be seen as the impact of Paul’s ministry.

What can we learn of Paul’s method of evangelism in those first ten verses? The account regarding John’s disciples is not clear on how it took place, but I would assume an exclusive meeting with them that was likely private. Paul preaching in the Synagogue is something he did quite often, and a very public affair that likely opened doors for private meetings.

The one element that stands out is Paul’s time in the school of Tyrannus. Though we have no archaeological or historical evidence to give us further information on this person or his school, we can readily identify this a place for lecture and debate. In the Greco-Roman culture listening to lecturers, orators, lawyers, and teachers was a prime pastime. It is in his preaching at the school of Tyrannus for two years that find that “all they which dwelt in Asia heard the word of the Lord Jesus, both Jews and Greeks.”

If there is any major and effective method for spreading the Gospel in Ephesus in Acts 19 it is Paul’s preaching at the school of Tyrannus. It was there that he preached “publickly”, as described in Acts 20:20. It was there the Gospel spread into all Asia Minor. No mention or hint of a door-to-door campaign.

What about Paul’s ministry at other times and places? We see the same combination of preaching in a synagogue and in a public place at Athens in Acts 17:17 – “Therefore disputed he in the synagogue with the Jews, and with the devout persons, and in the market daily with them that met with him.” This appears to be the modus operandi of Paul’s ministry. To the Jew first in the synagogue and then to the public in a proper forum.

5. Would House-to-House Evangelism Work in the First Century?

My understanding is that it likely would not.

The poor lived in cramped, one-room tenements. They slept and ate at home. When it was dark they went home and shut the door. In the daylight hours these tenements would likely be largely deserted. People would be away working or gathering in the public areas of the city.

The middle class or wealthy would have multi-room homes. They would receive their clients and some visitors. They would host meals with guests. It is doubtful than an itinerant preacher would gain much of an audience. Not just anyone gained entrance into a Roman home and its family. Especially not a Jew, an even more especially one that spoke of this unknown Christ.

Safety and security were important to these ancient families. Most people did not venture out after dark because of dangers such as robbers. Usually the door was bolted shut and not opened until morning (Luke 11:7). Socialization with strangers would far more likely take place in a public area during daylight hours.

Ignoring the opportunities that may not be there, door-to-door evangelism is really only effective when you are dealing with people with some knowledge of the Bible or Christianity. This was not the case in the ancient world. The average citizen in the Roman empire in the mid-First Century might have a cursory knowledge of what made the Jewish religion different than the polytheism around it. I doubt that most rudimentary understanding was enough to instantly comprehend the tenets of Christianity.

Many of us do not comprehend what it is to share the Gospel with someone that does not possess some knowledge of what sin is or who Christ was. If you will speak to missionaries who work with people groups that have no concept of Christianity you will find it takes much longer than five minutes or even an hour to see someone trust in Christ. In America the question is often used by soulwinners, “If you died right now, are you 100% sure you will go to Heaven?” This presupposes the hearer believes in life after death, understands the Christian-defined Heaven, implies some knowledge of Hell as the only other alternative, and other information assumed be comprehended by both parties. Imagine Paul asking a random pagan that question. What is in their mind? From what we understand of ancient Greek culture there appears to be little emphasis on the afterlife although they believed in one.

Bottom line, in all likelihood “house to house” evangelism would be an ineffective method of evangelism in the First Century A.D.

6. History of Door-to-Door Evangelism

Search the histories of Christian movements, denominations, ministries, evangelists, and churches. You will likely not find any mention of anything that resembles door-to-door soulwinning older than 100 or 150 years.

The earliest reference that I have ever found to something resembling a modern organized door-to-door evangelistic effort is in the Life and Sayings of Sam Jones. I do not see a date given, but I think its around 1880:

At West Point there was a great revival, which resulted in many accessions to the different churches in the town. There was a moral reformation wrought that changed the aspects of the place. When Mr. Jones went there, the people were so dead, religiously, that the attendance was quite small. It was a morning service in a weekday. It seemed the most hopeless outlook for a meeting. There were but four people to hear him preach his first sermon. After his sermon he said, “Now, I want us to have an altar service.” Mr. Jones and the pastor and two noble women knelt for prayer. After they had reconsecrated themselves to God, Mr. Jones said : “I want the pastor to go with me to every business house in this town, and we will say to the men as we meet them, just one thing, and that is, ‘You are going to hell,’ and then we will move on. I want you good women to go all over this town, ring the door bell, and when the women meet you, just look them squarely in the face and don’t say but one things and that is, ‘You are going to hell.’ ” They made him the promise, and that afternoon practically every woman in the town was so addressed, while Mr. Jones and the pastor met men and warned them in that startling way. Some of the women slammed the doors in the faces of the two good women, while others had their curiosity aroused. The men got very angry, and it was with much difficulty and shrewd reasoning that fights were avoided. That night the whole town was out to church, and Mr. Jones preached one of his most scathing sermons. A great revival broke out which swept over the entire place, until finally the men who were notoriously opposed to religion were in constant attendance upon the services.

In the Christian biographies and histories I have read, I do not recall an older account than this. I am certain there are more and better ones, but their scarcity proves my assertion that door-to-door evangelism is a more recent development.

How did the Gospel get out if not by door-to-door soulwinning? Of course the Gospel was preached in churches. But what other means were used?

Like in ancient times, many preachers took to the open air. Whitefield and the Wesleys famously did so. I’ll quote here an account by Z.N. Morrell, one of the first Baptist preachers in Texas, of one such sermon in 1836 as recorded in his book, Flowers and Fruits in the Wilderness:

An election was in progress when I reached the town. This was the law and custom of the country in that day. Here was a large crowd of Americans, Mexicans, and Indians of several different tribes. My mule was soon tied, and after consultation with my great Master – for I had no one else to consult with – I decided to preach, and began looking around for a suitable place. Near by the vast crowd I saw the foundation timbers of a large framed building already laid. No floor had been laid, nor upright pieces raised. No sooner discovered than I selected one corner of this for a pulpit,- the sills and sleepers already laid and well adjusted would answer for seats. I held up my watch in my hand, and cried at the top of my voice, “O-yes! o-yes! o-yes! everybody that wants to buy, without money and without price, come this way,” – and commenced singing the old battle-song: “Am I a soldier of the cross?” Before I finished my song there was around me a large crowd of all sorts and sizes and colors. A brief prayer was offered, and the two verses sung, “‘Tis religion that can give,” amidst profound silence. Astonishment, rather than reverence, was stamped upon their features. Across the street was a large upper gallery, and by this time it was full of ladies and gentlemen. Just at this point some wagons and a carriage, evidently belonging to movers, drove up close to where I was standing, and I recognized brother Win. Whitaker and family, from Hardiman County, Tennessee, three of whose daughters I had baptized in the old State. The preacher who reads this will understand the effect this produced upon the speaker. My text was announced from Isaiah xxxv. 1: “The wilderness and the solitary place shall be glad for them; and the desert shall rejoice and blossom as the rose.” Never did the cane-brake preacher receive better attention. God blessed me with great liberty for one hour, amid many tears shed all around me. The congregation was dismissed in due form, and there were many hearty shakes given the strange preacher’s hand. My soul was full to overflowing, and at that moment I believed the text. God has not disappointed me.

Of course there were the revivals and the camp meetings that sprang up in the 1800’s. There was the work done in the early Sunday School movement. There were ministries where ladies simply went to the homes of the poor and uneducated and read the Bible to them. There are the mass evangelistic campaigns by men like D.L. Moody, Billy Sunday, and later Billy Graham. There have been printed tracts, radio broadcasts, Salvation Army bands, and a host of other methods to spread the Gospel. One of my favorites is from Louis Arnold (1914-2015) who flew a plane around Kentucky that was equipped with loudspeakers blasting out a recorded gospel sermon.

Bottom line is that history is full of innovative and effective methods to proclaim Christ’s Gospel. What works in one place and time may not work in another situation.

As near as I can tell, door-to-door evangelism probably arrived with the Christian worker programs and mass evangelistic efforts of men like D.L. Moody in the mid-1800’s. The growing urbanization of America in the late-1800’s on into the mid-1900’s provided ample doors to target. The rise of the suburbs after World War II played a part. Also the increased mobility because of the automobile widened the range of labor beyond a church’s immediate neighborhood. American culture in those days was largely open to having people (family, salesmen, neighbors, soulwinners, or whatever else) stop by a home. Rising amounts of leisure time meant people were more likely to be home when someone called on them. In short, it was the perfect environment for door-to-door evangelism to grow and flourish.

7. Commentaries on Acts 20:20

What say other men who have studied and commented on Acts 20:20? I have gathered below a few quotes from men of varying backgrounds and opinions. Let us see what we can learn from them.

John Gill (1697-1771) comments:

“…as he visited the saints at their own houses, to know their personal cases, and the state of their souls, he instructed them privately and personally one by one; he taught the same publicly as privately, and privately as publicly: and took every opportunity of instilling Gospel truths into them, and of enriching them with a larger knowledge of them; which shows his affection and zeal, his laboriousness, industry, and indefatigableness in the ministry.

Albert Barnes (1798-1870) comments along similar veins:

And from house to house – Though Paul preached in public, and though his time was much occupied in manual labor for his own support Act_20:34, yet he did not esteem his public preaching to be all that was required of him, nor his daily occupation to be an excuse for not visiting from house to house. We may observe here:
“(1) That Paul’s example is a warrant and an implied injunction for family visitation by a pastor. If proper in Ephesus, it is proper still. If practicable in that city, it is in other cities. If it was useful there, it will be elsewhere. If it furnished to him consolation in the retrospect when he came to look over his ministry, and if it was one of the things which enabled him to say, “I am pure from the blood of all men,” it will be so in other cases.
“(2) The design for which ministers should visit should be a religious design. Paul did not visit for mere ceremony; for idle gossip, or chit-chat; or to converse on the news or politics of the day. His aim was to show the way of salvation, and to teach in private what he taught in public.
“(3) How much of this is to be done is, of course, to be left to the discretion of every minister. Paul, in private visiting, did not neglect public instruction. The latter he evidently considered to be his main or chief business. His high views of preaching are evinced in his life, and in his letters to Timothy and Titus. Yet, while public preaching is the main, the prime, the leading business of a minister, and while his first efforts should be directed to preparation for that, he may and should find time to enforce his public instructions by going from house to house; and often he will find that his most immediate and apparent success will result from such family instructions.
“(4) If it is his duty to visit, it is the duty of is people to receive him as becomes an ambassador of Christ. They should be willing to listen to his instructions; to treat him with kindness, and to aid his endeavours in bringing a family under the influence of religion.

Charles Ellicott (1819-1905) says:

Publicly, and from house to house.—The first word points probably to the teaching in the synagogue and the lecture-room of Tyrannus (Acts 19:9), the second to the meetings of disciples which were held in private houses, such as that of Aquila and Priscilla (1 Corinthians 16:19). It may, however, include even more personal and individual counsel.”

Matthew Poole (1624-1679) writes:

And from house to house; privately, as Acts 2:46; not only speaking publicly and in general, but secretly and particularly, as everyone’s condition did require, exhorting some, reproving others. And indeed a good shepherd will labour to understand the state of his flock, and to supply them with what is necessary and suitable for them. Jacob says, Genesis 31:39, that he bare the loss, and was fain to answer for all the sheep unto Laban. And of how much more value are the souls of men, to be sure, in God’s sight, who will require an account of them!

W. Robertson Nicoll in the Expositor’s Greek Testament:

publice et privatim, another and a further glimpse of the Apostle’s work at Ephesus: publicly in the synagogue and in the school of Tyrannus, privately as in the Church in the house of Aquila and Priscilla, 1 Corinthians 16:19.

E.W. Bullinger (1837-1913):

from house to house = in your houses. Greek. kat” oikon, as in Acts 2:46.

John Calvin (1509-1564) writes:

Publicly, and throughout every house. This is the second point, that he did not only teach all men in the congregation, but also every one privately, as every man’s necessity did require. For Christ hath not appointed pastors upon this condition, that they may only teach the Church in general in the open pulpit; but that they may take charge of every particular sheep, that they may bring back to the sheepfold those which wander and go astray, that they may strengthen those which are discouraged and weak, that they may cure the sick, that they may lift up and set on foot the feeble, ( Ezekiel 34:4) for common doctrine will oftentimes wax cold, unless it be holpen with private admonitions.

Wherefore, the negligence of those men is inexcusable, who, having made one sermon, as if they had done their task, live all the rest of their time idly; as if their voice were shut up within the church walls, seeing that so soon as they be departed, thence they be dumb. Also, disciples and scholars are taught, that if they will be numbered in Christ’s flock, they must give place to their pastors, so often as they come unto them; and that they must not refuse private admonitions. For they be rather bears than sheep, who do not vouchsafe to hear the voice of their pastor, unless he be in the pulpit; and cannot abide to be admonished and reproved at home, yea, do furiously refuse that necessary duty.

H.A. Ironside (1876-1951) said this while preaching from this passage:

And then he was so true to his commission. He said, “I kept back nothing that was profitable unto you, but have showed you, and have taught you publicly, and from house to house.” He was not simply a man of the pulpit. As he stood on the platform he was faithful in giving out the Word of God; he sought to be just as faithful when he visited the people in their homes.

It is pitiable, I think, that to a great extent the good old fashioned custom of pastoral visitation has almost died out. A strange thing occurred to me once. While speaking in a certain city, I learned of a dear soul who was very ill and longed to come to our meetings but was greatly disappointed because she could not come. So I thought, / will look her up. I found her address and went to see her. I had a most delightful visit, and then I asked, “Shall we read a little from God’s Word?” “Oh,” she replied, “how I wish you would!” So I read a portion of Scripture, then bowed with her in prayer. And our hearts were moved. But this was the strange part: when I was leaving, she said, “This is the first time in twenty years that I have ever had a minister read God’s Word or pray with me when he visited me.” “Well,” I said, “perhaps you haven’t been visited often.” “Oh, yes,” she answered; “our minister comes about once a month, and he usually tells me the latest good story and tries to cheer me up a bit.” Isn’t it pitiable? I do not know any more precious ministry than that of going into the homes of God’s dear people and opening up the Word and then lifting up the heart to God in prayer. This is true apostolic service.

Arthur Peake (1865-1929) simply noted:

Acts 20:20. in houses: e.g. of Aquila.

Joseph Benson (1749-1821) notes:

publicly — In worshipping assemblies; and from house to house — As God gave me opportunity; inculcating, in visits and in private meetings, the same great doctrines which I declared in the synagogue and other places of concourse and resort.

A.T. Robertson (1863-1934) wrote:

By (according to) houses. It is worth noting that this greatest of preachers preached from house to house and did not make his visits merely social calls. He was doing kingdom business all the while as in the house of Aquila and Priscilla (1 Corinthians 16:19).

John R. Rice (1895-1980), on p. 495 of Dr. Rice, Here Are More Questions…, makes this comment on Paul’s soulwinning efforts after referencing Acts 20:20 and 31:

Earnest soul winning, publicly and from house to house, night and day with tears – that is the picture given of Paul’s ministry.

B.H. Carroll (1843-1914) says on this passage:

When we get a three years’ sample of a man’s preaching we can have some idea, especially if he is preaching every day and every night in that three years, as to the matter, the scope, and the manner of his preaching. Of course, if he hasn’t got much to preach, he could not preach three years right straight along – he would run out of material – but Paul was brimful, and the scope of his preaching is expressed in two ways: (1) That he had withheld nothing that was profitable. (2) That he had not shunned to teach the whole counsel of God. That would have been a fine seminary course if we could have been there three years; could have taken that three years in the Bible by the greatest expounder since the Master went to heaven. He preached at every town, and particularly in preaching to the unconverted, he says, ‘Is testified both to the Jews and to the Greeks) repentance toward God and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.’ Some preachers go around and leave out repentance. He ought to preach the gospel, and he should preach repentance as he preaches faith, and he needs to preach it in the order – repentance toward God and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. As to the manner of his preaching, notice the address itself, how he describes it. He says, ‘Why, brethren, you know that I was with you in humility. By the space of three years, publicly and privately, from house to house, day and night, with tears, I ministered unto you.‘”

TO SUMMARIZE: There is no consensus view. Some see pastoral visitation, a few see church gatherings, others see something of evangelism.

8. CONCLUSION

I find little basis in the exegesis of this text or in the recorded history of Christianity to support the conclusion that “house to house” must be door-to-door evangelism.

1st, Acts 20:20 is part of a discourse by Paul defending his ministry in Ephesus. He appeals to his example of faithfulness. He does not tell the Ephesian elders to do exactly as he did, but rather to rather to follow in his example of his selfless and thorough care for the church.

2nd, the phrase “house to house” is coupled to the “publickly” to show the breadth of Paul’s ministry and his faithfulness in it. He is speaking to the Ephesian elders, saying that the has taught them faithfully and thoroughly in both public and private settings no matter the audience.

3rd, the word “house” does not clearly define who Paul is speaking about teaching. If dwelling to dwelling, then door-to-door evangelism is possible but not guaranteed. If household to household it is possible but less likely as it would lean more toward pastoral visitation. If church assembly to church assembly, it cannot be door-to-door evangelism. If we accept the similarity of the same phrase in Acts 2:46 and apply it here then it most certainly is speaking of church assemblies and not evangelism.

4th, the account in Acts 19 of Paul’s ministry in Ephesus makes no mention of door-to-door evangelism, instead highlighting the preaching of the school of Tyrannus as being the special impetus behind the spread of the Gospel.

5th, it is unlikely that door-to-door evangelism would have been effective in the first century according to what we know of the culture.

6th, there is no record known to me of door-to-door soulwinning being practiced before the 1800’s. If there exists any it would must to be a rare occurrence and not pattern followed from the New Testament.

7th, the comments on this passage by pastors and scholars do not prove definitive. But it does appear that interpreting “house to house” as door-to-door evangelism is of modern vintage.

Therefore, I believe we have before us a simple case of eisegesis, defined by Merriam Webster as “the interpretation of a text (as of the Bible) by reading into it one’s own ideas”. Instead of letting the Bible speak for itself, some well-meaning Christians put a new meaning into this text. I do not think there was any deceitfulness on their part, just a simple mistake.

So, which came first: the practice of door-to-door evangelism or finding door-to-door evangelism in Acts 20:20? I’m afraid the practice came first, then the interpretation. If not so, many great Christians over many centuries completely missed, overlooked, or ignored it. The older commentaries cited in Section 7 are more likely to see “house to house” as pastoral ministry and not evangelism.

9. Defense Against Critics

The most difficult part of putting this information together is knowing that, based on personal experience, those who incorrectly see door-to-door evangelism in Acts 20:20 will not be convinced otherwise. They value their practice of evangelism greater than their loyalty to Scripture. They can break down the nuances of a difficult verse like Acts 2:38 to counter baptismal regeneration and then rattle through a ready supply of verses on salvation by grace through faith, yet they stumble in the simple interpretation of Acts 20:20.

One issue I find is that people who hold that position on Acts 20:20 view any criticism on door-door evangelism as an attack on evangelism. It is a classic misdirection that deflects the responsibility of defending their position. I am absolutely for evangelism, but I’m also for honest Bible interpretation. If you use a verse like Acts 20:20 to defend you position, be prepared to defend its use.

What we see then is an unfortunate logical error that equates evangelism as door-to-door soulwinning. To that group, the method for accomplishing the Great Commission simply is door-to-door evangelism, or perhaps a broader term like “confrontational soulwinning”. I believe that to say that there is only one method for propagating the Gospel is gross negligence on their part. It places limits on the power and providence of God.

When I propose that door-to-door soulwinning is not found in the Bible, the counter from this group is almost assuredly to be something like, “Well, how are they going to hear if we don’t tell them?” That supposes I am attacking evangelism (which I am not) and also based on their false assumption that evangelism equates to door-to-door soulwinning. Or perhaps, “Well, how many souls have you won?” That supposes we are in a competition (which we are not) and resorts to a weak ad hominem attack instead of having an honest discussion. I’ve heard, “Well, do you have a better idea?” Why, yes, I do: faithfully interpret the words of Scripture and keep trying to reach the lost by all means possible.

I have never and will never say that you can not or should not go door-to-door soulwinning. But I will not limit the work of evangelism to just that one method. I am not against door-to-door soulwinning. I am for any method that is lawful, Scriptural, moral, and effective. What I am against is saying the only Biblical method of evangelism is door-to-door soulwinning, or even that such a method is taught in Scripture. I find no scriptural basis for those claims. I am also against a mentality that says, “If you do not evangelize as I do, you are not truly following God.”

Let us conclude with this: there is an obvious, Biblical mandate to reach the lost with the Gospel (Matthew 28:19-20 is the easiest example). I find that there is simply no mandate to do so in the form of door-to-door soulwinning. It is not in Acts 20:20, nor anywhere else in the Bible. Those that hold such a position are guilty of reading something into the Scriptures that is not there.

The Purest Sources

I would like to share a theory that I have been playing around with concerning the sources of doctrine and practice. I have come to realize that there are two types of sources people tend to favor, I will call them Origin Sources and Structured Sources.

Origin Sources try to get back to the original source of the belief or practice or as close to the origin as possible. You can see this play out a few different ways. One is by seeking Scriptural foundations (II Timothy 3:16-17). Another is by looking at the early church in Acts as an example to model.

Structured Sources don’t ignore their origins, but they do build on them. For example, if I were to study the deity of Christ I could study seek the source (read the Gospel of John, for example) or I could pick up a theology book and turn to the chapter on that subject. In that theology book I may find a structured, logical presentation of the doctrine and even discussions of its development.

Which of these is superior? I am not sure either is inherently superior to the other.

I thought of an analogy involving water. If you wanted to drink the purest water you can find, where would you turn? Well, we see essentially the same two sources.

You can find water at its source, before it could be polluted or contaminated. Remember that in the case of a river the cleanest water is at its head before it has picked up sediments and run off from its tributaries. That is essentially the same as Original Sources.

You may also get water that has been processed and filtered to have any contaminates removed. By sufficiently treating the water chemically or filtering it mechanically we could theoretically be left with only H2O molecules. This is essentially the same as Structured Sources.

Which source of water is superior: pure from the source or pure from filtration? Chemically speaking I suppose you could say both could be equal if the water is tested and proven to be similar. The choice is largely up to you if you would rather buy a bottle of water that is labelled as being straight from a natural spring or another bottle that is labelled as being filtered thoroughly through reverse osmosis .

Returning to our discussion on matters of belief and practice, which type of source is superior? I would contend that both Original or Structured Sources are acceptable as they should produce similarly sound positions. I can trust the Original Sources of the Scriptures, the example of Christ, and the model of the early church. I can also trust doctrinal positions and presentation that has been filtered through the centuries and tried in the flames of debate and controversy.

Why is this important? In large part because the body of fundamental doctrines and practice has been purified and forged throughout the centuries since Christ. Through that time we have developed systematic positions based on Scripture that have stood up to the tests of time, analysis, and debate. There is little need to seek to reinvent the fundamental doctrines or practices because they are tried and true. We may test them, which I would recommend for your own benefit, but they will prove true.

There is danger in rejecting we have founded on Structured Sources to seek primarily from Origin Sources. Often I see articles claiming something has been re-discovered about the Christian faith that has been lost for centuries. Examples that have made headlines in recent years include the spurious Gospel of Jesus’ Wife and Gospel of Judas. I would also include the various Restorationist movements that seem to multiply and thrive in America since the early 1800’s. One of the earmarks was a desire to seek the Original Sources and while rejecting Structured Sources.

There is an error that is bred into this line of thinking is that all sources except the Original Sources are corrupt and unfit for use. For example, the Charismatic movement ignores centuries of theological analysis of the subject of spiritual gifts, especially in regards to tongues, to reinterpret the teachings of the Original Sources. In essence they claim that a vital (in their estimation, anyway) doctrine was lost to Christianity for centuries until rediscovered. Even that position they will defend by saying it is a sign we are in or approaching the End Times. Personally, I cannot see how an omnipotent God could allow vital truth to completely disappear from the earth as even in the darkest of days there is a faithful remnant to be found (examples: Genesis 6:5-9, I Kings 19:13-18).

It is that very thought process concerning “lost tenets” of Christianity that I have been contemplating for some time now and has led me to further develop the water analogy I shared earlier. I strive to hold to the traditional Baptist position of basing as much of what we believe or practice on the sure foundation of the Scriptures. The Original Source of the Scriptures is, and does merely contain, the very words of God, and are thus as reliable as God Himself. But how we interpret and apply the clear teachings of the Scriptures may be largely built upon Structured Sources.

Is that an issue? Not necessarily, and that is point of this article. The harmony of Original and Structured Sources is vital to our faith. These two sources work in unison to present us with the purest teachings on which to build our faith. We must both trust in God’s Word (Original Sources) and that which is tested and proven true (Structured Sources). But we also cannot forget that the most untrustworthy link in our chain of understanding of God’s message is not the sources but is instead ourselves. Our understanding and logic is faulty because we are fallible beings.

To conclude, no matter what path we take we are seeking truth. To quench your physical thirst you will seek good a pure water to drink and its source may vary. When we seek the most fundamental or orthodox points of Christian doctrine we likewise must realize that it is truth that we seek. How that truth is arrived at is not unimportant, but the most important element is the pure truth we seek and hold. Just realize that we may find that truth through differing but not incompatible means.

J. Frank Norris and Donald J. Trump

I can’t wait for this picture to make it onto Google Images! – MBG

On more than one occasion I have been asked to whom we can compare J. Frank Norris to today. Some preachers have imagined themselves as a spiritual heir of Norris and there are some with similarities, especially among those who were influenced by him and his ministry. Some preachers are polarizing like Norris, some are controversial like Norris, some are trailblazers like Norris, but I have yet to find another man whose life and ministry parallels that of Norris.

A couple of years ago, I had an epiphany on the matter. I saw that the presidency and actions of Donald Trump show many similarities to the ministry and methods of J. Frank Norris. I have mulled over this comparison since then and feel that I can finally articulate it enough to foster a discussion on its merits.

Now, let me say up front that there are many areas in which the two could not be more different. For instance, I do believe Norris was sincere in his faith while Trump is not (and I probably just lost a lot of readers with those two statements). The greatest attack on Norris is that he did shoot and kill a man, which was ruled to be self-defense in a court of law, and I do not see a parallel in Trump’s life. The many instances of immorality in Trump’s life and business career are different than the questionable and debatable actions of Norris. It has only been in recent years, almost seventy years after his death, that accusations made against Norris concerning improprieties with women have been put into print and gained acceptance among his detractors. Quite a different situation than the cases brought against Trump by multiple women. Also let me say that I am looking largely at the five or so years of Trump’s candidacy, election, and term in office while looking at many decades of Norris’ ministry.

What I want to emphasize here is the similar mindset and methods of these two men. How one reacted to opposition is similar to the way the other did. How one promoted his agenda is similar to the way the other did.

With no particular order, let me begin with:

I. Norris and Trump both utilized cutting-edge media to reach their audiences and were both had their message censored or ignored by traditional media outlets.

Trump was legendary for the use of his Twitter account to attack his enemies and push his message. When Trump’s message was ignored or attacked in major media outlets, he promoted upstart networks or promoted it himself online.

Norris did not have modern social media, but he was as effective as anyone at using the media of his day. He was a pioneering radio broadcaster, which is a fact that is largely unmentioned today. He used his personal paper, known by various names like The Searchlight and The Fundamentalist, to disseminate his sermons and launch attacks on his foes and even on his allies. Local newspapers and denominational publications would reject Norris’ material in their pages but his message still went out. If Norris had been able to have a Twitter account, I think he would have used it almost exactly like Trump did.

II. Norris and Trump both demeaned and demonized their opponents through name-calling and personal attacks

Trump famously gave nicknames to his opponents. “Sleepy Joe” for Joe Biden and “Pocahontas” for Elizabeth Warren are some well-known examples. His enemies, not mattering if they were in his own party, would expect to be treated to constant accusations and attacks that Trump used to transform their message or person into a caricature.

Norris had his nicknames also. For example, he said he was attacking “Dawsonism” (named after J.M. Dawson) instead of just Modernism in the Baptist denomination. He used Dawson to personify these attacks. The attacks on Dawson are legendary, but I’d like to point out that Dawson did openly and unapologetically hold modernist positions in areas such as Creation and Inspiration of the Scriptures. But Norris could not keep the battle in the theological realm and instead made it personal.

III. Norris and Trump both developed extremely loyal followings that dwindled over time and after controversy.

As I write this we are less than a month from Trump’s successor Joe Biden being sworn in as President. Yet I still see Trump flags and signs displayed proudly. Not as many as a few months ago though. After the riot at the Capitol, even some of his strongest supporters where ready for his departure. Now his own party is largely ready to move on from Trump’s time in office.

Norris had an entourage of extremely loyal followers and supporters. I have heard more than one preacher who claimed to be Norris’ “right hand man” before embarking on their own pastorates. I have seen reports that Norris would hold meetings at the same time and place as denominational conventions and outdraw those meetings. Even today, a few preachers are fiercely loyal to and quick to claim the name of Norris, but they are not many. His contemporary and somewhat rival George W. Truett is not afforded the same popularity and loyalty.

IV. Norris and Trump both used the “cult of personality” to their gain.

Trump promoted Trump. When press conferences were held in the early days of the COVID pandemic he was front and center. His campaign was largely on the name TRUMP and not the ticket of Trump/Pence.

Norris promoted Norris. Other men came and went, like John. R. Rice or G.B. Vick, but Norris was the center of attention. Roy Kemp tells of him preaching about selling J. Frank Norris to the crowds so people would come hear the Gospel. From page 17 from Kemp’s Extravaganza!:

“Then Norris – his soul on the wing – soared up, and up, and up! And for what purpose? Answer: To get his people to sell J. Frank Norris to the masses – by house to house visitation – in order that they might get the sinners out to hear him. And then, he pressed upon them, the claims of Christ, unto eternal salvation, and service in the Lord’s church; yes, and Heaven!”

V. Norris and Trump both attacked their own institutions and made enemies of those of similar beliefs.

Trump was largely and outsider to the political realm. He did not spend time strengthening his party’s influence or strength. He made enemies of some of the most influential party leaders like Romney and McCain. Many in his own party were prepared to lose a presidential election just to rid themselves of Trump.

Norris held few loyalties in his life. I think the only major denominational leader of his time that he did not attack was B.H. Carroll. He attacked leaders and programs of the local, state, and national Baptist conventions of which he began his ministry strongly advocating. He attacked his alma mater Baylor University when evidence of modernistic teachings came to light. His own followers split over Norris’ leadership when many broke away and formed the Baptist Bible Fellowship in 1950. Over the course of his life many of his enemies had earlier been in the ranks of his allies.

VI. Norris and Trump both used populism to push their agenda.

Trump appealed to the “every man” in his message. I have spoken to many people that were convinced Trump had the back of the common man. Much of his message could be interpreted as common man vs. the elite.

Norris appealed often to the common Christian layperson. He accused the denominational institutions of moving in directions that rank-and-file Baptists would not approve of. He appealed not to intellectualism, but to the ordinary faith of the ordinary Christian.

VII. Norris and Trump both thrived on controversy and upheaval and eschewed bipartisanship and compromise.

Many of Trump’s more memorable acts were in the heat of battles. I’ve already mentioned the demeaning names which he would lambast his enemies with. Those usually flew around when he was forced to work with those individuals in effort to throw pressure on them to accept his proposals. We can see much of Trump’s demeanor in the first presidential debate of 2020 in the way he went on the offensive against both Biden and the moderator Chris Wallace.

Norris fostered controversy and many of his attacks had little impact on the issues. He had an ability like P.T. Barnum to market any situation to his advantage. He used sensationalist and controversialist methods that alienated him from potential allies and often hindered any progress to address the issues at hand.


I’m sure these observations are not exhaustive but I hope that the reader can see the same conclusion that I have come to; that is, we finally have someone in Donald Trump in which we can use in comparison to foster a greater understanding of the ministry and methods of J. Frank Norris.