IVP - Behind the Books - What Does it Mean to Evangelize Ethically?

August 19, 2011

What Does it Mean to Evangelize Ethically?

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Is there a right and wrong way to evangelize? How could the way Christians proselytize affect the Gospel message? Elmer Thiessen discusses these questions and many others in his new book, The Ethics of Evangelism: A Philosophical Defense of Proselytizing and Persuasion.

Dr. Thiessen recently took time out of his busy summer schedule to answer some questions on the main points of his new book:

How do you define proselytizing?

I define proselytizing, or evangelism (I used the terms interchangeably) as 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 sense of belonging. Although my focus in the book is on religious proselytizing, it should be obvious from this definition that proselytizing occurs in many contexts, including the area of commercial marketing. Advertisers are trying to change our identities! It is also fairly common to define proselytizing as bad evangelism. I, on the other hand, use the term in a neutral sense, where proselytizing can be either good or bad. In short, proselytizing involves any attempt at trying to convert a person.

What are some of the ethical objections leveled against religious proselytizing?

I deal with a dozen different objections to proselytizing in my book. Many view it as inherently wrong because it seems arrogant and intolerant. Persuading another is seen as meddling or an invasion of privacy. It is also seen as coercive. Missionary activity can be described as religious colonialism or cultural genocide. Some critics assume that proselytizing is wrong because religion is inherently irrational or unverifiable. There is also a weaker form of opposition to proselytizing, which maintains that proselytizing is often, or nearly always immoral. Here, some critics point to the unwelcome consequences of proselytizing. It sometimes (often) leads to hatred and division. Some proselytizers claim a right to proselytizing while denying this right to others. The motivations of proselytizing are also often questioned. Is it merely a form of self-aggrandizement? Or, is it a way to overcome self-doubt?

What are the characteristics of ethical proselytizing?

Ethical proselytizing protects the dignity and freedom of the individual and cares genuinely for the person being proselytized. These are the foundational characteristics. Obviously, any kind of physical coercion is wrong. Similar concerns arise with regard to social and psychological coercion, though as I argue in my book, these are difficult to define, and so we can at best rule out extremes in social and psychological coercion. Financial inducements to convert are also wrong. Ethical proselytizing must always be truthful and humble, even to the point of admitting that one might be wrong. After all, we as Christians only know in part! Ethical proselytizing will take into account and show some respect for the communal identity and culture of the proselytizee. It should be noted, finally, that success is not a criterion of ethical proselytizing.

Why is it important to note the difference between ethics and etiquette?

Frankly, I find it rather annoying to have Jehovah Witnesses or Mormons come to my door from time to time in order to spread their faith. It's embarrassing to have to refuse their invitations and finally close the door on them. I prefer to be left alone, but have they done anything morally wrong? Obviously not! They have only encroached on standards of civility that we have come to accept in a liberal democracy. That is why I think the distinction between ethics and etiquette is so important. Proselytizing is frequently seen to violate our standards of civility, or violate our normal etiquette, but these standards are not central and are relative to a specific culture. Ethical norms, on the other hand are more important and universal. My concern in the book is to uphold ethical standards in proselytizing.

How should churches evaluate their evangelistic efforts?

The first step for churches is to be aware of the importance of doing evangelism in an ethical manner. There is a danger, particularly in evangelical churches, to think that because evangelism is so important, we shouldn't worry at all about how we go about doing evangelism. But Christ's message needs to be conveyed in a Christ-like manner. Therefore, I believe churches should spend some time reflecting on how they do evangelism. There are some key biblical passages where concerns about the ethics of evangelism are raised (Luke 9:51-6; I Cor. 4:1-2; I Peter 3:16-16). The approaches to evangelism in a church should be evaluated in the light of these passages. In my book, I identify 15 criteria in Appendix I to distinguish between ethical and unethical evangelism. This might be a useful checklist to help a church assess how they are doing in terms of ethical evangelism. It is also important for members of a church to hold each other accountable; we need to help one another uphold the highest ethical standards in spreading the Good News of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

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Elmer Thiessen is currently spending his summer at a college in Debra Zeit, Ethiopia teaching a course called "Philosophy, Theology and Logic" to 25 seasoned Ethiopian pastors.

Posted by Leah Kiple at August 19, 2011 9:15 AM Bookmark and Share

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