book cover

The Ethics of Evangelism:  A Philosophical Defence of Proselytizing and Persuasion. 

Paternoster Press, UK,  and IVP Academic, USA (2011)

Elmer John Thiessen


The primary purpose of this book is to deal with the ethics of evangelism or religious proselytizing (I use these terms interchangeably).   I am assuming a Kantian/liberal/pragmatic ethical framework for my analysis.  A central assumption underlying my ethical framework is the dignity of persons, and ideal which has both secular and religious defenders.  One central question:  Is evangelism or proselytizing by its very nature immoral?  I devote three chapters to exploring a variety of charges often made against proselytizing.  After arguing that wholesale condemnations of proselytizing are mistaken and that fears about the consequences of proselytizing are often exaggerated, I provide a positive defense of proselytizing, arguing that it may even be morally obligatory.

My overall aim is to provide a philosophical defense of proselytizing, showing that an ethical form of proselytizing is indeed possible.  However, it is not at all my intent to provide a blanket defense of all proselytizing.  Indeed, another central thrust of this book is to clarify the distinction between ethical and unethical proselytizing.  I dedicate two chapters to describing and illustrating fifteen criteria that can be used to make this distinction.

Throughout the manuscript, I try to illustrate my arguments by referring to concrete examples of proselytizing.  These examples are taken primarily from three religions, Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, although the latter is often seen as a non-proselytizing religion.  I also provide examples from new religious movements, although I am careful not to use cults as the only source of immoral proselytizing.

A philosophical defense of proselytizing raises a broad spectrum of concerns and issues.  Such a defense crosses the boundaries of religion, ethics, epistemology, psychology, sociology and history.  The work is therefore inter-disciplinary in nature, although it needs to be stressed that the orientation is mainly philosophical.

Table of Contents of The Ethics of Evangelism:

Part I:  Some Introductory Considerations

Chapter 1:  Introduction


Academic objections to proselytizing

Objectives and approach

Significance of this study

Chapter 2:  Foundational Issues

Religious impulse to proselytize

Why the growing controversy over proselytizing

Some examples of immoral proselytizing

Ethical foundations

Consensus and relativism

Part II:  Objections to Proselytizing

Chapter 3:  Epistemological/Ethical Objections to Proselytizing

1.  Persuasion

2.  Arrogance

3.  Assumption of truth

4.  Rationality and certainty

Chapter 4:  The Integrity/Freedom of Individuals and Societies

5.  Physical coercion

6.  Psychological coercion

7.  Inducements to convert

8.  Coercion and informed consent

9.  Missionary colonialism

Chapter 5:  Liberal Objections to Proselytizing

10.  Intolerance

11.  Consequences of proselytizing

12.  Questionable motivations

13.  Proselytizing and universalization

14.  Proselytizing and pluralism


Part III:  A Positive Approach to Proselytizing

Chapter 6:  Defence of Proselytizing

J.S. Mill’s argument

Contemporary liberalism

Etiquette and ethics

Dignity of the proselytizer

Dignity of the proselytizee

Epistemologico-ethical considerations


Part IV:  Distinguishing Between Ethical and Unethical Proselytizing

Chapter 7:  Criteria to Evaluate Proselytizing:  Part I

1.  Dignity criterion

2.  Care for the whole person

3.  Physical coercion

4.  Psychological coercion

5.  Social coercion

6.  Inducement criterion

Chapter 8:  Criteria to Evaluate Proselytizing:  Part II

7.  Rationality criterion

8.  Truthfulness criterion

9.  Humility criterion

10.  Tolerance criterion

11.  Motivation criterion

12.  Identity criterion

13.  Cultural sensitivity criterion

14.  Results criterion

15.  Golden Rule

Part V:  Conclusion

Chapter 9:  Some Concluding Considerations


Encouraging ethics proselytizing :

Resources within proselytizing religions

Social reinforcements

Legal reinforcements

Religious freedom


Appendix 1:  Summary of 15 Criteria to Distinguish between Ethical and Unethical Proselytizing

Appendix 2:  Literature Review on the Ethics of Proselytizing and Related Fields



Reviews & Endorsements of The Ethics of Evangelism

“Why scholars have long neglected the ethics of evangelism, one of the most important and controversial practices in our world, is a puzzling question. Fortunately, Elmer Thiessen has now provided us with the most extensive ethical analysis of evangelism to date. Moreover, he’s written an engaging book that examines the messy details and sorts through them patiently and thoughtfully in a way that sheds new light on the subject for both evangelism’s practitioners and critics. All those who are concerned with a respect for human dignity, who have a longing to share what is true and good, and who are concerned for religious freedom should read this book.”

—Perry L. Glanzer, Baylor University, coauthor of Christianity and Moral Identity in Higher Education

“This is a much-needed book. Unethical evangelism brings into disrepute whatever religion is being represented–and sadly most of us have seen examples of it. Christians in particular should be concerned when evangelism is carried out in a spirit incompatible with that of Christ himself. Elmer John Thiessen has put us in his debt by dealing with the topic with immense thoughtfulness, erudition and breadth. Indeed, as he seeks to persuade us that there is such a thing as ethical proselytism, and that the church (among others) needs to learn it, he actually models the kind of proselytism he advocates–thoughtful, gentle, respectful and clear. I for one am persuaded.”

—John P. Bowen, associate professor of evangelism, Wycliffe College, University of Toronto, and author of Evangelism for “Normal” People

“This work is a vital contribution to the field of cross-cultural mission, recognizing, as it does, the proximity of alternative faith views and the resulting opportunities for faith sharing. Thiessen demonstrates that it is possible to be a respecter of the person whilst still desiring to share faith in Christ in such a way that may lead to their conversion. This is a work that takes seriously the philosophical and theological dimensions, yet remains able to equip the reader for effective evangelistic ministry. I warmly commend it.”

—Piers Lane, Director of Evangelism, Cliff College, Calver, Derbyshire, England

“At last a scholarly examination of the ethics of evangelism and, in particular, the process of proselytizing. This groundbreaking book tackles head-on the prejudices and stereotypes so often leveled against Christians who wish to share the good news of Jesus with others. Challenging and thought-provoking, this is a must-read for anyone involved in evangelistic work and even more so for those who argue that there is no place for evangelism in a pluralistic society. Professor Thiessen’s work will no doubt generate considerable debate and discussion on this important topic.”

—Ian Maher CA, Chaplaincy Co-ordinator, Sheffield Hallam Multi-faith Centre, England


The  Ethics of Evangelism received two Canadian Christian Writing Awards sponsored by Word Guild at their Awards Gala on June 13, 2012.  The awards were in the  Apologetics/Evangelism and Culture categories.

To order this book, contact:

Authentic Media, Ltd., c/o 52 Presley Way, Crown Hill, Milton Keynes, MK8 0ES,  United Kingdom Email:


InterVarsity Press, PO Box 1400,  Downers Grove, IL 60515, United States


In Defence of Religious Schools and Colleges

McGill-Queen’s University Press (2001)

 Elmer John Thiessen

 Publisher’s Description:

It is often argued that religious schools and colleges promote intolerance, divisiveness, and fanaticism, and that they violate the principle of academic freedom.  Some writers also suggest that economic support for religious schools by the state violates the principle of the separation of church and state.  Elmer Thiessen provides a philosophical defence of religious schools and colleges against these and other standard objections.  He concludes with a radical proposal:  a pluralistic educational system will better prepare students for citizenship in pluralist liberal democracies than a monopolistic state-maintained school system.

In placing his argument within the context of liberal-democratic values Thiessen gives concrete examples of objections to religious schools and offers practical suggestions that follow from the philosophical treatment of the problem.

In Defence of Religious Schools and Colleges bridges the gap between philosophical argument and educational practice.  It will be of interest not only to philosophers and educational theorists but also to practitioners in education.  Academics, policy makers, political theorists, lay-people, teachers, administrators, and parents – those who object to religious schools and colleges and those who find themselves trying to answer the objections – will benefit from reading this book.

Table of Contents of In Defence of Religious Schools and Colleges

Part I:  Introduction:

1.  Context of Charges Against Religious Schools and Colleges

Part II:  Problems of Social Harmony:

2.  The Charge of Promoting Divisiveness

3.  The Charge of Fostering Intolerance

Part III:  Rights and Freedoms:

4.  The Denial of Parental Rights to Educate

5.  The Charge of Violating Academic Freedom

Part IV:  Economic Concerns:

6.  Funding of Religious Schools and the Separation of Church and State

7.  The Charge of Elitism and other Economic Objections

Part V:  Problems of Narrowness in Religious Education

8.  The Charge of Indoctrination

9.  The Charge of Censorship

Part VI:  Theology and Education

10.  The Possibility of Christian Curriculum/Scholarship

11.  The Danger of Fundamentalist Fanaticism

Part VII:  Conclusion:

12. Liberal Values: The Underlying Problem and a Proposed Revision

13.  Towards Educational Pluralism

Reader’s comments on In Defence of Religious Schools and Colleges:

“This book is the result of good, solid research.  Thiessen presents his ideas with strong arguments.”  Spencer Boudreau, McGill University

“This is a major contribution to the field, bringing together a variety of arguments to address a controversial topic.”  Douglas J. Simpson, University of Louisville

“Elmer Thiessen takes on a significant contemporary issue in this carefully argued book, offering a strong case for a position held in disfavor by most advocates of a liberal democratic political order… The considerable strength of his case grows to a large extent from his willingness to explore and respond thoughtfully to many counter arguments, and to provide a number of examples from Canadian and United States’ school systems that support his case.”  James Anderson, California State University (Teachers College Record 105[1], 2003)

“Thiessen’s argument is thorough, logical, and the most comprehensive treatment of the matter to date. … Philosophers of education, educators at all levels, and those with a sophisticated interest in the idea of religious schools and colleges will find this work indispensable.  No further discussion of the topic will be complete unless it includes extensive reference to this important contribution.”  George T. Smith, St. Thomas More College (Anglican Theological Review, Summer, 2003)

Send orders to:

In Canada:  Direct Mail Manager

McGill-Queen’s University Press

3430 McTavish Street

Montreal, QC

H3A 1X9

Fax:  (514) 398-5443

In USA:  CUP Services,  Order Department,

PO Box 6525,

750 Cascadilla Street,

Ithaca, NY  14851-6525

Fax: (800) 688-2877


Teaching for Commitment: Liberal Education, Indoctrination, and Christian Nurture 

McGill-Queen’s University Press (1993)

Publisher’s Description:

Elmer Thiessen provides a comprehensive critical survey of the debate concerning indoctrination, especially in the context of confessional religious education.  His central aim is to establish that indoctrination as a result f religious instruction is neither inevitable nor as probable as is often assumed by advocates of liberal education.  Thiessen recognizes that indoctrination can occur in Christian homes and schools.  He believes, however, that before the charge of indoctrination can be correctly evaluated, we need to develop a more coherent concept of the term.  He provides a critical examination of the four criteria traditionally associated with indoctrination – content, method, intention, and consequences – and the institutional context of indoctrination.

Thiessen calls for reconstruction of the Enlightenment ideal of liberal education from which the charge of indoctrination arises.  He argues that liberal education necessarily builds on nurture and therefore needs to be more sensitive to the traditions into which a child is initiated.  The ideals of autonomy, rationality, and critical openness – all closely related to the ideal of liberal education – need to be modified if they are to be both realistic and philosophically defensible.  Once this is done it can be seen that confessional religious education without indoctrination is possible.

Teaching for Commitment is an interdisciplinary study covering the fields of religion, philosophy, epistemology, ethics and education.  The very practical nature of the problem being examined, and Thiessen’s straightforward and non-technical presentation, will be of interest to parochial and public school boards, teachers, and parents, as well as religious institutions, educationalists, and philosophers of education.

Table of Comments of Teaching for Commitment


1.  The Charge of Religious Indoctrination

2.  Liberal Education: The Context of the Charge of Indoctrination

3.  Content of Indoctrination and the Scientific Ideal

4.  Methods of Indoctrination and the Ideal of Rationality

5.  Intentions of the Indoctrinator and the Ideal of Autonomy

6.  Consequences of Indoctrination and the Ideal of Critical Openness

7.  Institutional Indoctrination and the Democratic Ideal of Liberal Institutions

8.  Religious Indoctrination vs. Liberal Education:  Some Conclusions

9.  Some Practical Suggestions.

Reader’s comments on Teaching for Commitment:

Adds an essential but overlooked dimension to the ongoing discussion of indoctrination through a detailed analysis of the institutional context of indoctrination …  This book will help fill a regrettable gap in both the scholarly and the public discussions of indoctrination and its implications for the practice of religious education in the home and the school …  It will not settle debates; but it can raise the level of the discussion by stimulating reconsideration of entrenched positions on all sides of the debates.”   Noel Shuell, Memorial University

“Thiessen makes a significant contribution to the debate concerning religious education by systemically answering the accusations of indoctrination through a thorough analysis of the terminology used.”  Spencer Boudreau,  McGill University

“Whether one agrees with its conclusions or not, … this seems to me a good and useful book.  It is clearly and unpretentiously written, and its argument is supported by reference to a wealth of material relating to this highly controversial and vitally important topic.”  Hugo Meynell, University of Calgary (Dialogue  36(3), 1997)

“Without exception, … every question and critique that occurred to me were voiced by Thiessen in the course of his book in a clear and forceful, yet respectful manner.  He writes convincingly from a breadth of knowledge, an engaging rationality, a critical open-mindedness, and an abiding commitment.”  Paul Beaudette, Mount Saint Vincent University  (Paideusus  10(1), 1997)

Send orders to:

Author:  I have copies of this book available for $20 plus postage.  Email: ejthiessen(at)

In Canada:  Direct Mail Manager

McGill-Queen’s University Press

3430 McTavish Street

Montreal, QC

H3A 1X9

Fax:  (514) 398-5443

In USA:  CUP Services,  Order Department,

PO Box 6525,

750 Cascadilla Street,

Ithaca, NY  14851-6525

Fax: (800) 688-2877


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