In the fall of 2005, shortly after I began teaching at the University of Louisiana at Monroe, I applied for and was granted membership in The Gideons International. I had been familiar with this ministry for practically my entire life. My dad is a member and my grandfather was, as well, so joining the Gideons seemed to be a very natural pursuit for me as a young man seeking to be useful in the Kingdom of God. Nine years later, I remain one of the youngest Gideon members I know; it would be wonderful to see more younger men take part as they are able in this great work.
Founded in 1899, The Gideons International is an association of Christian business and professional men, whose singular purpose is to lead people to saving faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Our primary means of carrying out this work is the distribution of free copies of God’s Word. You are likely familiar with this group even if you don’t know it—we are the folks that place Bibles in hotels, hospitals, and doctors’ offices, in addition to giving New Testaments to students, soldiers, emergency personnel, and prisoners. The Gideon association’s distinctive emblem appears on most of the scriptures we distribute, now in 198 countries (for our purposes sometimes various non-sovereign territories are referred to as “countries”) and 99 languages. Although my family’s level of activity in the Gideons (and, for my wife, the Gideons Auxiliary) has lessened significantly since we became parents, and more so since moving to Oxford due to greater work requirements for me, we are proud to be part of this association and to contribute as we are able by giving money, giving away Scriptures, and, for me, speaking in churches on behalf of the ministry.
I will confess, though, that for a time I questioned whether this ministry was right for me. When we first joined the Gideons I was a convinced Southern Baptist, but had recently embraced what early Southern Baptist theologian John A. Broadus (1827-1895) called “that exalted system of Pauline truth which is technically called Calvinism.” While true Calvinism is no enemy of evangelism, it does call into question some of the evangelistic methods used by fellow Christians who do not share this theological viewpoint. Because the Gideon association brings together evangelicals and Protestants on all sides of the question of Calvinism, as I continued to study the Scriptures (and as I gradually moved from the SBC into a Reformed Baptist church and then to Presbyterianism) I began to develop a few scruples with certain practices of the Gideons regarding evangelism and outreach. In time, though, I concluded that those minor misgivings were no reason to cease my involvement in the ministry. Any group bringing together Christians from multiple theological traditions will see disagreement on secondary and tertiary doctrinal matters. Our shared commitment to “the Bible as the inspired, inerrant, infallible Word of God” (from the Gideon Guide Book), and the further commitment to the gospel contained therein as “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Romans 1:16), far outweighs any disagreement on minor points. (I will admit, though, that given the opportunity I would “tweak” the gospel presentation in the back of our little New Testaments!)
Having worked through that little crisis (which I mostly kept to myself), I remain a Gideon nine years later, and for the same reasons as when I first joined. Here are a few of those.
The work is necessary. As a Calvinist, I believe fully in the doctrines of election and predestination as presented in Scripture. However, I also affirm—as does Scripture—that the God who has ordained the salvation of His people has also ordained the means to that end, namely the proclamation of the Gospel. Christ told us to go into all the world and make disciples, and while the Bible clearly prioritizes preaching as a means of evangelism, the reading of the Word has also proven effective. Indeed, often these little New Testaments find their way into dark and difficult places where preachers are nowhere to be found. Several years ago I served as a driver for an elderly Gideon visiting from France who remarked to me, “These little New Testaments grow legs, and end up wherever God intends them to.” We are called to bring the Gospel to everyone, and publishing God’s Word in as many languages as possible and putting them in the hands in as many people as possible is one means of doing that.
The work is effective. Gideon publications as well as our presentations in churches feature numerous stories of people converted through the reading of Gideon-placed scriptures. Some of the stories are comparably mundane, while others are more dramatic and some downright miraculous, and yet every sinner delivered from darkness to light, from death to life, from Satan to Christ, is a miracle. I was particularly surprised and honored to learn recently that the renowned apologist Ravi Zacharias (b. 1946) was converted to Christ as a teenager after reading a Gideon-placed Bible in the hospital following a suicide attempt. That’s a more high-profile story than most, but we have received thousands of similar reports. This is an effective work!
The ministry’s conduct is above reproach. Christians are sinners just like everyone else. We may be redeemed sinners striving to turn away from sin, but we remain imperfect in this life. Sadly, the results of that sin sometimes infect the conduct of Christian ministries, and the media rarely wastes opportunities to point out more prominent examples of this. The Gideons International, by God’s grace, has conducted itself with complete integrity for the past 115 years, and I know of no other Christian organization that spends 100% of donations received for evangelistic purposes (in our case, purchasing, printing, and shipping Scriptures). The Gideon members themselves cover all of the overhead.
There are no expressly Reformed groups doing this. As a newly-minted Calvinist, I sometimes wished for a more Calvinistic or Reformed group that conducted activities similar to that of the Gideon association. The Trinitarian Bible Society “sort of” fits that description, and does some exemplary work. However, it is in some ways not as active as the Gideons and its exclusive commitment to the King James Version and the particular family of Greek and Hebrew manuscripts from which it is derived is something of a hang-up for those who do not share that commitment.
And even if there were an expressly Reformed group that otherwise conducted the same work as the Gideons, would it not be unnecessarily duplicative? Would the formation of such a group constitute wise stewardship of time, energy, and resources? Probably not, and besides…
Associating with other Christians for fellowship and service is important. Although we all sometimes conduct ourselves as if our denomination has some exclusive claim on the title “Christian,” it is important to remember that the Kingdom of God is much bigger than the sometimes petty divisions among us. We gain from joining with fellow believers from all denominations for fellowship and service whenever possible. Besides the increased manpower and efficiency that comes from pooling resources, often the insights shared by men from one tradition will illuminate blind spots in another—and we all have them!
In the final chapter of his book The Foot of the Cross, Baptist and later Anglican minister Octavius Winslow (1808-1878) appealed for unity among Christians across denominational lines. The following paragraph is pertinent to the present subject:
We will only add that usefulness is another blessing that springs from the recognition and manifestation of Christian union. Beloved, we are useful for Christ, not so much as we stand apart in our individual, isolated condition, as in combination—combination of judgment, of heart, of purpose. This promotes our usefulness. Do you want to be useful in Christ’s Church? Do you want to augment your practical influence in the service of your Master? Then, we beseech you, cooperate with all the Lord’s people in advancing the kingdom of Christ, in circulating God’s holy Word, in distributing religious tracts, in promoting Christian missions. Cooperate with every church or organization in His blessed work. Link and unite yourselves with them, and you will augment vastly that usefulness in the service of Christ, to which, we trust, the Lord by His grace has called you (pp. 162-163).
That, dear reader, is why I am a Gideon. To be as useful as possible in the service of my Master.
Blessed are those servants whom the master finds awake when he comes. (Luke 12:37a)