Over the next few days, I’m going to examine a few statements made by Paul that I think are taken out of context in the way the statements are often applied today. This is not really a series, because the posts won’t really build on one another. Each post will cover a different statement.
For example, in this post I’d like to consider another statement made by Paul that I think is often misunderstood and/or misapplied today. The statement is, “I make it my ambition to preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named, lest I build on someone else’s foundation.” (Romans 15:20 ESV)
Again, it’s not my intention to interpret what Paul is saying. Instead, I want to look at a few ways this passage is often used. First, here is the passage in context:
In Christ Jesus, then, I have reason to be proud of my work for God. For I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me to bring the Gentiles to obedience—by word and deed, by the power of signs and wonders, by the power of the Spirit of God—so that from Jerusalem and all the way around to Illyricum I have fulfilled the ministry of the gospel of Christ; and thus I make it my ambition to preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named, lest I build on someone else’s foundation, but as it is written,
“Those who have never been told of him will see,
and those who have never heard will understand.”
This is the reason why I have so often been hindered from coming to you. But now, since I no longer have any room for work in these regions, and since I have longed for many years to come to you, I hope to see you in passing as I go to Spain, and to be helped on my journey there by you, once I have enjoyed your company for a while. At present, however, I am going to Jerusalem bringing aid to the saints. (Romans 17:20-25 ESV)
Now, I’ve heard this passage used to justify only serving people in one way, perhaps only in evangelism or perhaps only in teaching or some other type of service. The justification? Well, Paul only proclaimed the gospel (evangelized).
Also, I’ve heard this passage used to justify separating areas of service, especially when used by various missions organizations. The justification? Well, Paul did not want to build on anyone else’s foundation.
But, this statement could not have meant these things to Paul. How do we know?
1) Paul could not have meant that he ONLY evangelized. While Paul definitely proclaimed the gospel and wanted to go to other places (such as Spain) to proclaim the gospel, that is definitely NOT all that he did. Even in this passage we see that Paul had put off traveling to Rome (and then Spain) because he was working with other believers in Macedonia and Achaia (Romans 15:26) to help out some brothers and sisters in Christ in Judea. We find several other examples in Acts and in his letters where Paul spent extended time teaching and encouraging people who were already believers.
2) Paul could not have meant that he did not serve where other believers had evangelized. The most obvious evidence that this could not have been Paul’s intention is that Paul was planning to go to Rome, where there were already several thriving groups of Christians. Who evangelized these people? We don’t know, but it was not Paul, because he had never visited Rome. In Acts and in Paul’s letters, we see several other examples of Paul working in areas where others had proclaimed the gospel first. (For example, consider Damascus, Antioch, Colossae, and even Ephesus.)
So, when Paul said, “I make it my ambition to preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named, lest I build on someone else’s foundation,” he could not have meant that he only evangelized, and he could not have meant that he never worked in the same area where someone else had already evangelized.