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The Ethics of Evangelism: A Philosophical Defense of Proselytizing and Persuasion

By April 15, 2012July 18th, 2021No Comments

The Ethics of Evangelism: A Philosophical Defense of Proselytizing and Persuasion

Elmer J. Thiessen
Published by IVP Academic in 2011

Proselytism is one of the most contentious issues associated with inter-religious relations. This has been true throughout history and continues to arouse strong reactions today. The Ethics of Evangelism is a pioneering and courageous attempt to sort out the issues, establish criteria for evaluation, and defend the legitimacy of responsible proselytizing activity. Elmer J. Thiessen, research professor of education at Tyndale University College and Seminary in Toronto, brings to the task more than thirty-five years of scholarly research and writing on the theme. As a philosopher and educationist, Thiessen surveys the debates that proselytism has engendered and proposes a sound ethical basis on which to engage this fraught issue.

The book is organized around three objectives. The first is to consider the objections that continue to be raised against proselytizing. The second is to present a principled defense of proselytizing. The third is to develop criteria by which to distinguish between ethical and unethical proselytizing.

Thiessen begins with an exploration of the question: what is proselytism? Few youths in an undergraduate classroom today are familiar with the word. It simply does not communicate. So why use it? This does not mean that the younger generation is unfamiliar with this sort of activity. Is there not an alternative term that is better understood? The author reviews a series of common terms associated with proselytizing: evangelism, missions, making religious converts, religious recruitment, witnessing, proclaiming the gospel, sharing one’s faith, and saving souls. The contention is that all these terms point to one thing, namely, bringing about a religious change in another person, requiring a “turning,” embracing new beliefs and changed behavior. Here he invokes the typology used by Alan Kreider to define “conversion”: a new set of beliefs, new patterns of behavior, and belongingto a committed group.

The next step is to define “proselytizing”: “The deliberate attempt of a person or organization, through communication, to bring about the conversion of another person or a group of persons, where conversion is understood to involve a change of a person’s belief, behavior, identity, and belonging” (11). Admittedly, there is no absolutely right or wrong term, but I have difficulty with the continued use of “proselytizing.” The term carries heavy historical freight that is almost wholly negative. This history derives from two sources. Proselytizing is associated with coercive action over the course of nearly two millennia to “make Christians” – or “make Muslims” – of people who had no choice in the matter. The second source has been the long-running conflict among Christian traditions where efforts have been carried out to win followers from among other Christian groups. Orthodox churches have been especially aggrieved by “sheep stealing” at the hands of Roman Catholics and Protestants in the Middle East and Eastern Europe. Here the term has acquired a narrower definition: for example, attempts by one Christian group to win followers from another Christian tradition.

What the New Testament calls euangelion, I suggest, constitutes the basis for any initiative to share the Christian message and, at the same time, provides the criteria for evaluating whether such action is consistent with the message itself. In spite of this difference concerning terminology, I wholeheartedly affirm Thiessen’s thoughtful and thorough effort to provide a philosophical framework for thinking ethically about how the Christian message is to be shared. Christian understandings in the modern period were developed in the wake of the Enlightenment and the powerful influence of science and technology. Thiessen is correct in emphasizing how little attention has been devoted to this question in relation to the modern mission movement and the various evangelical awakenings in Europe and North America. The twentieth century was a period of a proliferation of evangelistic activity that made use of the various new communications media. Indeed, the relentless secularization of culture has added to the complexity of the questions being addressed.

Chapters 3-5 are devoted to an examination of objections to proselytizing activity. The first group falls under the heading of epistemological and ethical objections: persuasion, arrogance, religious pluralism, and rationality and certainty. At the heart of this cluster of objections is the idealization of the autonomous rational self. Critics argue that attempts to proselytize violate the integrity of the autonomous self. It turns out that the critics mount their criticisms almost exclusively against religion. When it comes to modern advertising, which relentlessly pushes new products and promotes consumerism, the critics largely fall silent.

A second cluster of objections fits under the rubric of actions that violate the integrity and freedom of individuals and groups. Here a range of coercive tactics and means are considered: physical or psychological coercion, inducements used as bait, and missionary imperialism. Critics assert that proselytizing activity is inherently coercive and bound to violate the freedom of groups and individuals. It is indeed possible to cite historical docu-mentation for such practices. But the issues are distorted when such material is treated a-historically or twisted. No right-thinking person would defend proselytizing that is coercive and runs roughshod over the other. It is clear that the post-Enlightenment sense of what is appropriate and acceptable is not the same as it was a thousand years ago.

The third set of objections is associated with the liberal perspective. Liberalism is rooted in intellectual developments in the seventeenth century. Liberals are known as advocates for freedom, autonomy, tolerance, and equality of all persons. The liberal tradition has promoted mutual respect for all members of society as the key to social harmony. Liberalism holds that human progress depends on the application of critical reason to every problem. These values are deeply embedded in modern culture. But conservatives do not have a monopoly on dogmatism. Liberals can be doctrinaire when they turn tolerance into a dogma that must be enforced. In the modern university where liberalism has achieved a controlling influence, secularism is treated as the yardstick in setting standards and expectations. Religious commitment is regarded with suspicion, even contempt. The public square is supposed to be swept clean of religion.

This review of objections to proselytizing has turned up a number of valid objections but none rise to the level of condemning all proselytizing as irremediably immoral. Certain methods, attitudes, and practices must be rejected as unethical; but proselytizing per se is not unethical. Furthermore, critics have generally overlooked the fact that certain religious traditions are inherently missionary. The identity and integrity of these traditions require their adherents to engage in proselytizing. Indeed, the case can and must be made for proselytizing as a legitimate activity. Even liberalism, recognizing the paramount rights of the individual, sanctions legitimate proselytizing. What has generally been lacking is a clear ethical framework for engaging in proselytizing activity.

Thiessen devotes two chapters to developing ethical guidelines to be observed when “trying to convert people with regard to religion, where conversion is understood in terms of a change of belief, behavior, identity, and a sense of belonging” (158). Here a caution is in order. Nowhere in Scripture is the one who witnesses to the euangelion charged with “converting” anyone. The task of convicting and converting is reserved to the Holy Spirit. Much of the proselytizing that history judges as being unethical failed at precisely this point: humans took into their hands work never entrusted to them.

The discussion of ethical guidelines in chapters 7 and 8 is divided into two groups. The first six address directly the problem of coercion that has been at the center of so much of unethical proselytizing practices: the dignity of every person, care for the whole person—not just the soul, avoidance of physical, psychological, and social coercion, and refusal to use any kind of inducement to foster conversion. The second set is made up of nine criteria: rationality, truthfulness, humility, tolerance, motivation, identity, cultural sensitivity, results, and the golden rule. These criteria point up basic human values and common-sense behavior that cultivate civility and make for respectful communication. Two helpful appendices round out the book—Appendix 1: Summary of 15 Criteria to Distinguish between Ethical and Unethical Proselytizing, and Appendix 2: Literature Review on the Ethics of Proselytizing and Related Fields.

Since the 1960s various proposals have been put forward to find new modes of Christian interaction with people of other faiths, especially dialogue. Ecumenical Protestants and Roman Catholics have been in the forefront of these efforts. Both separately and jointly, Protestants and Roman Catholics have developed guidelines for conducting inter-religious dialogue. Elmer Thiessen makes an important contribution to this project by developing an ethical framework that ought to be incorporated into the theological and missiological curricula.

The great Sri Lankan theologian, pastor, and evangelist D. T. Niles wrote in the 1950s that “evangelism is one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread.” That aphorism neatly captures much of what The Ethics of Evangelism is arguing.

Cite this article
Wilbert R. Shenk, “The Ethics of Evangelism: A Philosophical Defense of Proselytizing and Persuasion”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 41:3 , 340-343

Wilbert R. Shenk

Wilbert R. Shenk, Fuller Theological Seminary