In an RS meeting some time ago I was mildly startled to hear the teacher explain that what the “primitive church” called “evangelists” were what we now call stake patriarchs. Since I am just Sister Mogget on the back row in RS, I sat quietly, said nothing, and began to think about it.
To the extent that the “primitive church” can be equated with the NT, I simply don’t think this is the case. The word translated “evangelist” is euaggelistēs and its denotation is “one who brings good news” (BDAG). In the wider literature of the NT world, “evangelist” was the title accorded certain polytheistic priests.
In the NT, “evangelist” connotes someone who preaches the gospel. The two men who are identified as evangelists in the NT are Philip, one of the Seven (Acts 21:8), and Timothy (2 Ti 4:5). In the post-NT world, the most famous evangelists are ironically neither Philip nor Timothy, but the authors of the four Gospels.
Now I don’t get excited about folk etymologies – in fact, there are quite of a number canonized examples in the Bible. But this made me start to think about the office of the patriarch and I realized that I can’t come up with any examples of a patriarch function as we now know it in the NT.
My natural reaction in a situation like this is to say nothing and forget about it. First, a weird understanding of “evangelist” and an inability to find a patriarch function are not important. Second, I’m not the teacher, I’m not the RS president, I don’t write lesson manuals, and I’m not president of the church. No authority = no responsibility = no need to get involved = no delay leaving church.
Nevertheless, I remain uneasy.
As a high school student, I attended seminary via released time. I was actually pretty interested in matters of doctrine and by and large I accepted the things I was taught, including the idea that evangelists were patriarchs. (I got kicked out of seminary for reasons other than lack of interest…)Then I left for college on the east coast. Many of my fellow student knew rather more about the Bible than I. In the wider intellectual world there were philosophy professors, physics professors, and English professors who expected far more rigorous approaches to Life’s Great Questions than those I had learned in seminary. To make a long story short, I was embarrassed by many things I had accepted from seminary.
No one ever died of embarrassment and I recovered. But to this day, I rarely read anything published by any LDS printing house. It’s a “fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me” reaction. And I have wondered more than once what positive influence might have been achieved had I been taught a slightly more critical approach in a friendlier environment.
Which brings me back to my dear sisters who were listening with me. I was surprised to find that this idea is still around – surely someone had found a dictionary by now! And if one of them should suggest to a biblically literate friend that an evangelist is to be identified with a patriarch, I cannot forsee a positive outcome. At the very least, the image of the church is not enhanced. Depending on the precise details of the interaction, personal embarrassment may also be a factor.
On the other hand, the church is not my responsibility in a situation like this and the women in my ward are all Big Girls and can take care of themselves. If I cannot adequately convey the balance and interaction between a faithful response and critical thinking – and I doubt that I can in the space allotted for a comment in an RS lesson – then perhaps it is best to just drop it.
But I remain uneasy. And I’d sure like to find a thirty-second “response” to the idea that an evangelist is a patriarch that won’t light anybody’s hair on fire.