The Butler: Two Models of Evangelism

WARNING: This post contains spoilers.

The Butler is a film based on a true story.

It follows the life of a black man called Cecil Gaines who impressively serves eight Presidents during his tenure as a White House butler which covers the era of the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War.

Cecil is originally from the Deep South in America. He was born on a cotton farm – but due to a tragic turn of circumstances (the rape of his mother and the murder of his father) at a young age he is taken from the fields and trained as a butler inside the house.

As Cecil matures into a young man it is evident that the man who killed his father is keen to kill him too. So he leaves the farm and finds work as butler elsewhere.

His skill and expertise as a butler is spotted quickly and before long he is serving in a fancy hotel in Washington DC. This is where he is spotted and invited to join the housekeeping staff of the White House.

During his time in Washington, Cecil meets and marries Gloria and together they have two sons, Louis and Gloria.

The primary backdrop of the film is the Civil Rights Movement led by Martin Luther-King.

There is a stark contrast within this family in their approach to this issue:

Cecil is content to serve white Presidents in the White House, using all the skill and expertise he has gained over the years. He has a hope and a trust in those who hold office. He works close enough to them to know and understand that they feel deeply about the Civil Rights Movement and are often distraught at the tragedies they witness. Therefore, Cecil is willing to quietly work to the best of his ability – putting on display the inherent equality black people possess with white people.

Cecil’s son does not agree with his father’s approach. Louis, when he is old enough, chooses to travel south again to study. However, study is not the real reason for his move – the real reason is that he wishes to join the Civil Rights Movement. He wishes to be proactive in protests, explicit about his desires and bold about the abuse that is taking place. This bravery/youthful angst (take your pick) certainly catch the eye of the media and the government, but it also costs him dearly (imprisonments, beatings, death threats).

These two men certainly want the same thing; they just go about it a different way…

As you have probably gathered from the title of this post, I see two models of evangelism here.

Cecil models the quiet, persuasive, rub shoulders with the other-side kind of evangelism. In modern terms this could be called incarnational evangelism – putting flesh on what we believe, putting a life on display.

This kind of evangelism is certainly in vogue today.

This quietly influential evangelism was also in vogue when it came to the Apostles. We see this especially in the book of 1 Peter. This is what Peter has to say to his readers: ‘Beloved…keep your conduct among the Gentiles honourable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God’ (1 Peter 2:11-12 ESV). This is almost a perfect description of Cecil’s approach to the Civil Rights issue. Peter goes on to give this startling advice to wives which further supports this quietly influential type of evangelism. He says ‘wives, be subject to your own husbands, so that even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives’ (1 Peter 3:1 ESV).

This was how Cecil chose to go about dealing with the Civil Rights issue – win people over without a word. And for eight Presidents he did that.

As we have seen briefly from 1 Peter, this is a biblical way to approach evangelism. To win people without a word, to quietly influence their lives with yours, to behave in such a way that people will glorify our Father.

However, Louis, Cecil’s son, had a different approach. Louis models the bold, declarative, preach-at-the-other-side kind of evangelism. Traditionally, this would be seen to be the Gospel Meeting on a Sunday evening, or the preacher standing on a street corner on a Saturday afternoon, or the church blanketing crowds with gospel leaflets.

This style of evangelism has very quickly fallen out of vogue today.

However, what we find as we look back into Scripture again is that the Apostles made good use of it too. This is especially true in the book of Acts. Acts is quite a spectacular book which recounts the formation of the Church of Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. One of the features of this account is the number of ‘speeches’ included.

In the first speech in Acts, Peter the Apostle stands up and declares to the crowd gathered the salvation that is to be found in Jesus Christ. He leaves them in no doubt as to their guilt, saying, ‘this Jesus…you crucified and killed’ (Acts 2:23). The same happens toward the end of the book, in Acts 17:22ff. Paul stands up and makes the Athenians aware of their ignorance. The book of Acts is peppered with people standing up in the face of those who are in the wrong, outside of Christ and in danger of perishing.

This is how Louis approached the Civil Rights issue – proclaim the truth, live boldly in front of everyone using the mouth God has given you to share this message with words.

As we have seen briefly from the book of Acts the Apostles executed this type of evangelism with the aim of seeing the church grow and the gospel spread.

You may now think ‘which one is he going to suggest as the best way forward?’

Unfortunately, I am going to have to disappoint. I am going to sit on the fence in this one, or more accurately I am going to try and knock the fence down!

There is a lovely scene near the end of The Butler. Cecil and Louis have not spoken for a long time because of their differences – but as we see Louis in front of a crowd stirring up a protest, we also see Cecil walk round the corner to join the protest.

There is a meeting of minds – Cecil has joined the protest, but Louis has joined the government (running for a seat in congress). They have both seen the merits of the others approach and have adopted it.

It is similar when it comes to evangelism. Both of the models we have mentioned are equally valid. There should be no fighting, no refusing to talk, no back turning on brothers and sisters who choose to do it differently. In fact, it should be the opposite. We should be joining our brothers and sisters who do it differently.

Both approaches are needed, because both approaches reach different people.

The Butler illustrates two equally effective models of evangelism which need to be used in tandem – the quietly influential alongside the boldly declarative.

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