Should Missionaries Be Looking for “Persons of Peace”?
“Everyone we meet is on a spiritual journey.”
I recently came across this statement printed on a brochure for an evangelistic Bible study. When I see language like this used in church and ministry contexts, I have two responses. On one hand, it’s true that we must start with the unbeliever on his own turf. This means engaging in conversation, learning what he believes, and contextualizing our gospel presentation appropriately.
It’s also true that everyone we meet is on a “spiritual journey.” Everyone, eternally speaking, is going somewhere. We are either plodding onward toward eternal life or careening toward hell (cf. Heb. 9:27).
But on the other hand, I fear such statements reveal a less-than-biblical theology. What’s more, statements like “everyone is on a spiritual journey” raise challenging missiological questions. In what sense can someone be a “seeker”? Do unbelievers engage in honest inquiry in search of spiritual truth—or, better yet, can they?
In North America, these questions are complicated by the seeker-sensitive, church growth, and attractional movements. There are certainly truths contained inside of each of the ministry philosophies represented by these movements: churches should be hospitable to unbelievers who visit their gatherings (1 Cor. 14:24), healthy churches should pursue evangelistic growth (Acts 2:41), and a Christ-exalting church is the most attractive gathering in the cosmos (Eph. 3:10).
The implications extend beyond North America as well when we discuss the concept and strategy related to “persons of peace” (cf. Luke 10:6). You might not be familiar, but this “person of peace” strategy is quite popular overseas. What—or who—are these persons of peace? According to David and Paul Watson, “[They] have three primary characteristics: They are open to a relationship with you. They hunger for spiritual answers for their deepest questions. And they will share whatever they learn with others.” These are the people missionaries should seek out, for they make evangelism and church planting both quicker and easier.
All of this sounds so promising, but it’s worth asking the question: When we go out on the mission field, should we expect to engage honest inquiry, hostile unbelief, or both?
Before we can rush out to preach the gospel, win souls, and make disciples, we must know something of the Bible’s doctrine of man. Scripturally, man is not morally neutral, and neither are his beliefs nor his affections with regard to spiritual realities.
The biblical witness regarding man’s responsibility to seek God is multi-layered.People are commanded to seek God, who offers himself as the great object of all our searching and longing:
- “You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart.” (Jer. 29:13)
- “…that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us…” (Acts 17:27)
- “And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.” (Heb. 11:6)
- “I love those who love me, and those who seek me diligently find me.” (Prov. 8:17)
- “And those who know your name put their trust in you, for you, O Lord, have not forsaken those who seek you.” (Psa. 9:10)
It’s undeniable that Scripture commands all image-bearers to seek God. But it requires a logical leap to assume that God thereby grants fallen human beings the ability to do so in themselves. In terms of sinful human nature, there are no God-seekers, on the mission field or elsewhere. “No one understands; no one seeks for God” (Rom. 3:11; cf. Psa. 14:1–3, 53:1–3). No one who is “in the flesh” can do anything pleasing to God (Rom. 8:8), which certainly includes seeking him in faith. No one is a spiritual “seeker” in a morally-neutral sense of the term.
God thus works to draw unbelievers to Christ (John 12:32) in at least two ways, employing both natural and supernatural means, only one of which is truly determinative. God ordains secondary means by which unbelievers are exposed to gospel witness such as human conversations, relationships, circumstances, and suffering. These means are not effectual in themselves. We have all experienced conversations with unbelievers in which, providentially, they were driven to wander into a church service, email a Christian friend, or call a believer at midnight with spiritual questions, yet these circumstances often don’t result in conversion.
For conversion to occur, the Holy Spirit must intervene in regeneration, changing the heart (Ez. 36:26) and making the individual capable of apprehending and inclining toward God (2 Cor. 4:3–6). God, in Christ, seeks us (Luke 19:10). No one can come to Christ unless the Father sovereignly draws him (John 6:44). When we seek God, it is only because he has first sought us—as only regenerated persons can rightly be described as seeking God at all (cf. John 3:3, Heb. 11:6)!
When we seek God, it’s only because he has first sought us.
What does this mean for terms we employ in our missionary endeavors, like “seeker” or “person of peace”?
THEOLOGY IN PRACTICE
We must not regard unbelievers as impartial, denying the noetic effects of sin. The gospel carries necessary offense; it’s a jarring call to repent and embrace the Lord whose bloody death dismisses the charges of our cosmic crimes. If we regard unbelievers as impartial, we’ll inevitably avoid the scandalous nature of this message in an attempt to appeal to human sensibilities (cf. 1 Cor. 1:18).
The application of a biblical theology of sin and man’s spiritual deadness of heart is not that we cease to call unbelievers to “seek God while he may be found” (Isa. 55:6). Rather, recognizing that their ability to seek is entirely dependent upon God’s power, we do not trust in merely human means of persuasion in our evangelism.
Like Paul, we renounce “disgraceful, underhanded ways” and refuse to “practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word”; rather, “by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God” (2 Cor. 4:1–2). And, to the degree that we are unapologetic about the offense of the cross, our hearers’ newfound faith will “not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God” (1 Cor. 2:5).
This doesn’t mean we cease to show hospitality, host evangelistic Bible studies, or engage in meaningful question-and-answer with unbelievers. It does mean, however, that we trust the Spirit of God to grant regeneration, faith, and repentance to our hearers through the sole means of the simple, unadorned content of the gospel, which is Christ himself.
As we seek to rely upon the ordinary means of proclamation in our ministry, it is my contention that the lesson applies far beyond the confines of our pulpits or even the walls of our churches. Our anthropology must make it all the way across land and sea to our missiology.
FROM “SEEKER” TO “PERSON OF PEACE”
Whereas the term “seeker” has been associated with the church growth movement in North America in particular, “person of peace” has lodged itself into the lexicon of modern missions.
In modern missionary parlance, a person of peace is one whom God is providentially positioning and preparing to hear the gospel and spread it to others. Its practitioners get this idea from the ministry of Jesus.When Jesus sends out his 72 disciples in Luke 10 to announce the gospel of the kingdom to the Jewish people, he adds these instructions: “Whatever house you enter, begin by saying, ‘Peace to this house.’ If a man of peace is there, your peace will rest on him; if not, it will return to you. Stay at the same house, eating and drinking whatever you are offered. For the worker is worthy of his wages. Do not move around from house to house” (vv. 5–7).
The strategy of prayerfully seeking the conversion of a key individual in hopes of influencing a social unit, while not always possible or fitting, is certainly valid. We should pray and labor for group conversions, not just individual ones: “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household” (Acts 16:31). But it’s also possible to overzealously apply this strategy. Did Jesus intend to establish a timeless paradigm that all missionaries must follow in allsituations? Are modern Christians to “carry no moneybag, no knapsack, no sandals, and greet no one on the road” (v. 4)? Since Jesus said, “Do not go from house to house,” should we impose a moratorium on door-to-door evangelism? Certainly, Jesus’ words apply to modern missions, but to import all of his instructions into our context creates problems.
It’s also possible to misconstrue the person of peace concept and smuggle in the same faulty anthropological assumptions we make with the contemporary “seeker” concept. Are persons of peace to be understood as regenerate without hearing the gospel? Do pagan religions contain the content of saving faith?
The answer to all of these questions is found in biblical context.
Tragically missing from this “Person of Peace” conversation is an understanding of the unique redemptive-historical context of Luke 10. Immediately after Jesus sends out the 72 (vv. 1–12), he pronounces woe on unbelieving cities in Israel (vv. 13–16) and explains God’s sovereignty in evangelism and salvation (vv. 17–24). This is followed by a conversation in which he exposes the self-righteousness of a Jewish lawyer (vv. 25–37). We shouldn’t miss Luke’s point here: he’s contrasting the spread of the kingdom with the spiritual hardening of ethnic Israel against the Messiah.
Simply put, Luke 10 records the 72 disciples being sent on a unique, one-time mission throughout unbelieving Israel to announce the offer of the kingdom. This is a central plot point of all four Gospels. The ethnic Jews are under a hardening (Matt. 13:13–15, Mark 4:12, John 12:40, Rom. 11:25, Acts 28:25–28; cf. Isa. 6:9–11), which becomes the eventual catalyst of the Gentile mission. Judgment on Jerusalem is imminent (Matt. 24:1–2, 34). This judgment fell in A.D. 70 when the Romans destroyed the Temple and massacred more than a million Jews. Hence, Jesus’ mission to his 72 disciples in Luke 10 and parallel passages has significant first-century consequences. The old covenant was coming to a convulsive end. This was a final opportunity for that generation of ethnic Israelites to embrace their true King.
Clearly, our Lord’s emphasis in these highly contextual instructions to his disciples was the urgency and immediacy of their mission to Israel. Interestingly, we’re never expressly told about any instances in which the disciples actually found a “person of peace” or if any village-wide conversions happened afterward. In a parallel text, Jesus remarks that his disciples “will not have gone through all the towns of Israel” before the Son of Man comes in temporal judgment against Israel (Matt. 10:23). For the Jews, it was now or never. And for the disciples, this was the mother of all short-term missions trips.
Another contextual factor missing from the missiological discussion is a biblical-theological definition of the actual Greek phrase υἱὸς εἰρήνης; it’s better translated “son of peace.” Within Luke 10, it’s an outright assumption and imposition on the text to read the phrase as referring to preparation prior to evangelism. Chad Vegas convincingly argues that the phrase a “son of peace” can only rightly refer to someone who visibly responds to the gospel in faith, noting that in the context of the Gospels, to “receive” Jesus or his disciples is to embrace the good news of the kingdom and to thereby join that kingdom (Matthew 10:14, 40–41).
Where does this lead us in regard to the contemporary missional application of the person of peace concept? I would like to suggest four crucial considerations.
1. We should prayerfully expect God to draw people to himself.
Let us ask God to put his elect people in our path. In Corinth, the Lord Jesus encouraged Paul: “I have many in this city who are my people.” Paul continued preaching because God’s chosen were still to be drawn in. Paul later wrote, “I endure everything for the sake of the elect” (2 Tim. 2:10). So ought we. It’s our privilege to be the human means by which God accomplishes his supernatural plan to draw his treasured people to himself (cf. Eph. 1:5, 11–13). If we understand persons of peace simply to be those being effectually drawn by God to believe the gospel, we agree with Scripture. But if we add to this definition, we step outside the context of Luke 10. Unfortunately, the modern use of the phrase—and the strategy it’s unwittingly inspired—frequently goes beyond this definition and beyond the context of Luke 10.
2. We must derive our methodologies from clearer texts.
As noted above, Luke doesn’t return to the person of peace concept in his Gospel—at least not explicitly. Neither do the other synoptics use this phrase. When the disciples debrief their mission with Jesus (vv. 17–20), no explicit mention of persons of peace is made.
This is not to dismiss Luke 10:6 as uninspired or unauthoritative. It is to say, however, that as a rule, ministry methodologies should be based on prescriptive, didactic passages that speak clearly to the relevant issues. When descriptive, narrative texts are used to inform our methodologies, they should be employed within the context of the clearer instruction. In Acts, Luke documents multiple persons who might be adequately described as “persons of peace,” including Lydia, the Philippian jailer, and the Ethiopian eunuch. But equally as prevalent throughout the narrative are the recurring apostolic speeches in which the gospel is proclaimed indiscriminately to an entire group. We shouldn’t be overly selective as to which parts of the apostolic model we choose to imitate.
3. We must not conflate persons of peace with so-called “seekers.”
This is the crux of the issue. If we import a faulty anthropology into our missiology, we will in effect saw off the branch on which we sit—the branch of preaching. Unbelieving, pagan man in his depravity isn’t on a morally neutral truth quest. Only Christ can open spiritually blind eyes, and he does so through the proclamation of the Word.
A related issue that cannot be explored here in depth is the New Testament concept of “God-fearers” like Cornelius (cf. Acts 10:2). While the case of Cornelius is certainly unique, what texts such as Acts 10 do not provide is authorization to suppose that modern unreached, unengaged people groups can be saved apart from hearing and believing the gospel (cf. Rom. 10:9–17).
4. We dare not presume to know the secret will of God.
How can we identify the elect? We cannot. Only once we witness a credible response of faith to the gospel do we have reason to identify a person as “elect.” Problems therefore arise when we start to guess about who is “peaceful” prior to presenting the gospel.
Charles Spurgeon is alleged to have once quipped that he preached the gospel to everyone indiscriminately because, unfortunately, the elect are not marked with chalk on their back. Whether or not Spurgeon uttered these words is less relevant than the idea conveyed. The Great Commission commands us to take the gospel to everyone without discrimination or distinction. We cannot be so concerned with finding special, set-apart persons. If we are, then we’ll fail to be evangelistically forthright with everyone.
Problems arise when we start guessing about who is “peaceful” prior to presenting the gospel.
We also shouldn’t expect God to draw someone to himself merely on the basis of their social status within a community. An assumption often follows that that a person of peace is an influencer in his social unit, such that his decision to follow Christ might sway a whole family or village to do likewise.
While we can pray for potential converts to serve as influencers within their social units, as was likely the case with Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:26–40), Luke 10 doesn’t unconditionally promise us such gatekeepers. Contrary to contemporary theories, we cannot sociologically hot-wire church multiplication. We don’t have the right to discriminate. In fact, it’s often not the rich, influential, or respected—the cheerleaders and the football players, we might say—whom God calls. Instead, “God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God” (1 Cor. 1:28–29). We’re responsible to obey God’s mission, but the results are at the mercy of God’s sovereign will—thanks be to God.
God may certainly prepare encounters for us, like that with the Ethiopian eunuch, but we must learn to give thanks to God for his extraordinary providences while resting content in his ordinary ways.
Let us pray that God would providentially arrange the right gospel encounters with the right people. Let us petition the Lord of the harvest to save not just individuals but groups. But let us also preach the gospel indiscriminately to all—not just carefully to some.