Archive for the ‘Evangelism’ Category

Heterodox Yoder and the Mennonite Church Today

August 14, 2016

Review of
Paul Martens, The Heterodox Yoder
(Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2012)

The Heterodox Yoder has its origins in Martens’ graduate work at Notre Dame. Since then, the author has been teaching Christian ethics at Baylor University.

In this book, Martens attempts a survey and reinterpretation of John Howard Yoder’s writings. Martens departs from some standard and sympathetic interpretations of Yoder’s work by scholars like Craig Carter and Mark Thiessen-Nation. Martens faults these standard accounts of Yoder for focusing mainly on his classic texts, The Politics of Jesus, and Witness to the State. In defending his critical assessment of Yoder, Martens makes a point to take all Yoder’s writings into account. Though still somewhat sympathetic with Yoder, and admitting his indebtedness to him, Martens uncovers a trajectory in Yoder’s thought which he finds troublesome, and ultimately leads him to label Yoder as heterodox.

Martens’ criterion for orthodoxy is “the Christian affirmation of the particularity or uniqueness of Jesus Christ as a historical person and as a revelation of God” (p.2). Traditional interpreters of Yoder would argue that the central thrust of Yoder’s writings was precisely to preserve “the particularity or uniqueness of Jesus Christ against the acids of Constantinianism, modernity, or any number of other threats to Christianity” (p.2). Martens begs to differ.

In his introduction Martens suggests that a good way to understand Yoder’s lack of orthodoxy is to examine his way of doing theology as found in his Preface to Theology (2002). In this work, Yoder outlines different modes of doing theology, and specifically rejects the mode of “dogmatic theology” which he defines as “the interpretation of the statements made by or implied in the classic Christian creeds” (p.2). Instead, Yoder adopts the mode of “historical theology” which is concerned with how Christian convictions came into being. His approach to doing theology throughout his corpus is “inductive and historical,” watching how theology evolved in the early Christian church (filtered through the sixteenth-century Anabaptists), and from that drawing conclusions about how to do theology (p.3). This sounds like an “Is-Ought Fallacy” to me, and Yoder’s historicism has all the marks of full-blown relativism. But I won’t pursue these philosophical points here.

So, yes, Yoder wants to affirm the particularity of Jesus Christ as affirmed by the early church, but his anti-creedal and historicizing approach leads to a radical reinterpretation of the theology of the early church primarily in ethical or political terms. Indeed, “the defining activities of the early church become abstracted into a general and universalizable, not-particularly-Christian ethic: Jesus becomes merely an ethico-political example or paradigm within a form of ethical monotheism (at best) or a form of secular sociology (at worst)” (pp. 3-4). This, according to Martens is a heterodox account of the particularity and uniqueness of Jesus Christ. Sadly, this unorthodox interpretation of Jesus has been very influential in the Mennonite church today, as I will suggest by way of conclusion later.

Throughout his writings, Yoder wrestles with the question of how Christians relate to and witness to the world (p.12). Indeed, as Martens observes, Yoder is haunted by the charge of sectarianism and his desire to make the gospel relevant and communicable becomes “overriding and, at times, obsessive” (p.139). At one point he suggests the use of “middle axioms” which help to translate the gospel message into language that the world will understand (p.75). But he finds problems with this approach, and in the end middle axioms are rendered obsolete (p.136). Indeed, we already see the shape of his final thinking in his earlier book, The Christian Witness to the State (1964), where “the implicit witness of the church is elevated to direct witness” (p. 136). Then in The Politics of Jesus (1972), the gospel of Jesus is translated into political language, language that the world already understands.

By the end of his writings, Yoder is no longer worried about the church communicating a message, according to Martens. Instead, gospel witness has been transformed into the church itself being witness by virtue of its modelling a new political reality. No need for evangelism! The medium is the message (p. 136). In his “New Humanity as Pulpit and Paradigm” (1997), Yoder says “actions proclaim.” Again in a later work, “First fruits: The Paradigmatic Public Role of God’s People” (1997), Yoder introduces the sacraments as “marks of the church” that make evident the unity of the message and medium of the first Christians. But, by the end of this essay, Marten’s argues, the sacraments are no longer marks or attributes of the church but “sample civil imperatives” (p.137). For example, baptism is no longer discussed as “a sign of [a believer’s] cleansing from sin,” but as a reconciliation between Jew and Gentle, male and female, etc.. In other words, baptism is fundamentally about the political ideal of egalitarianism (p. 137). The eucharist is all about socialism. Dialogue under the Holy Spirit now functions as the ground floor of democracy (p. 138). Thus essential elements of Christian faith and practice get translated into thoroughly secular terms, which of course the world does understand.

So, what is the culmination of decades of theological and ethical reflection on the part of Yoder? We end up with “a Jesus who has become merely an ethico-political paradigm” (p.142). Indeed, Yoder falls in line with modern theologians who have reduced the gospel to a secular ethic – Kant, Harnack, Ritschle, and Rauschenbusch (p. 142). What is so misleading is that the language of Yoder and some of these theologians often “seems” orthodox. They use the same concepts as orthodox Christians, but the meaning has changed in a fundamental way. Christ as Lord and Savior is translated into political terms, and no longer refers to a person’s inner transformation and willingness to be make Christ king of his or her life. Key dimensions of orthodoxy, such as spiritual development, divine mystery, propositional confessions of faith, “are as important as wrapping paper” which can be thrown away once the package itself is opened, to use Yoder’s own metaphor (p.144). Martens does not want to call Yoder a heretic, though he admits that Yoder was openly critical of orthodoxy and worked hard to differentiate himself from its concerns and claims (p.144). Instead Martens chooses the softer term, “heterodox,” though in my opinion there is very little difference between being heterodox and being heretical.

Reading Martens’ critique of Yoder has raised two questions for me, that I believe merit further research. First, to what extent has the Mennonite church today been influenced by Yoder? Martens doesn’t really pursue this question. I certainly found Martens’ survey of Yoder’s thought helpful in understanding trends within some segments of the Mennonite church today. All too often I hear the gospel being largely reduced to political and social causes. Like Yoder, many in the Mennonite church seem to be embarrassed about using biblical language to describe sin and salvation. We are so preoccupied with being relevant, with being understood in today’s society that we like to secularize biblical language. Jesus is no longer a divine Saviour who died for our sins, but a moral teacher and an inspiring example to follow. We prefer to talk about sexual health rather than the biblical commandments regarding sex. The “spirit of God” is reduced to a democratic majority vote! We are embarrassed about evangelism as proclamation. Like Yoder we have made the medium the message. Our actions are supposed to convey our message. The creeds are not important – we like to question them.(1) Like Yoder, many Mennonites today see them as mere wrapping paper to be discarded at our convenience. And thus we have confessional anarchy in the Mennonite Church today. Martens suggests that Yoder would have been comfortable with the label, heterodox (p. 144). Many Mennonites today would seem to view being heterodox as a badge of honor. We are Yoder’s disciples, it would seem.

If the above analysis is true, if Yoder has influenced the Mennonite church more than we realize, then we need to pay attention to Martens’ suggestion that the trajectory of Yoder’s thinking has led us in a direction which “can cripple and corrupt Christianity in very troubling ways” (p.147). And this leads to my second question. Are we as a Mennonite church open to hearing this prophetic voice in the church? Will Paul Martens’ critique of Yoder be read and carefully considered? Will we pay attention to other writers who have provided warnings about the direction of Yoder’s thought? Martens himself identifies two such writers, A. James Reimer and Tom Finger, the former arguing that Yoder essentially ignored “theological orthodoxy,” and the latter that Yoder almost uniformly eliminates any form of the transcendent from his theology (p. 143). Are we listening?

In a footnote Martens refers to another essay that created quite a stir in Mennonite circles – Steve Dintaman’s 1992 short essay, “The Spiritual Poverty of the Anabaptist Vision” (p.147).(2) Martens refers to this essay in the context of reflecting on his own experience of eventually recognizing the dangers of reducing the Christian faith “into just another form of ethics or series of practices” (p.147). Martens expresses long-standing sympathy with Dintaman’s analysis of the spiritual impoverishment that results from a Yoderian interpretation of the Christian faith. This prompted me to reread Dintaman’s essay as well as a series of follow-up essays published three years later.(3) Dintaman expresses surprise at the volume and the intensity of positive responses his earlier essay generated. He received some eighty letters, in addition to phone calls, personal visits, and letters to the editor in the magazines which carried his essay.(4) Of course, there were also negative reactions, afraid that Dintaman’s critique rested on “a total embrace of Luther and/or pietism and/or evangelicalism.” (5) But perhaps, as Dintaman himself suggests, there is another way – a marriage of Anabaptism and Evangelicalism. That is surely at the heart of the Evangelical-Anabaptist networks that are currently forming in North America. Are we listening to the prophetic voices in the Mennonite church today?

Endnotes:
1. See my essay, “Question-focused Christian faith” on my blog, https://elmerjohnthiessen.wordpress.com/2012/05/14/question-focused-christian-faith/
1. Dintaman’s essay appeared in: The Conrad Grebel Review 10 (Spring 1992): 205-208; Mennonite Reporter, Oct. 19, 1992, 8; Gospel Herald, Feb. 23, 1993, 1-3; Mennonite Brethren Herald, March 5, 1993, 6-7; The Mennonite, May 11, 1993, 11-12.
3. “Revisiting ‘The Spiritual Poverty of the Anabaptist Vision,’” The Conrad Grebel Review 13 (Winter 1995): 1-22. The essays here are written by Steve Dintaman, J. Loren Peachey, editor of the Gospel Herald, Richard Showalter, president, Rosedale Bible Institute, and Mitchell Brown, pastor, Evanston Mennonite Church.
4. Ibid., p. 2, 3.
5. Ibid., p. 5.

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Preaching to Convert: Evangelical Outreach and Performance Activism in a Secular Age – a review

June 26, 2016

Review of
Preaching to Convert: Evangelical Outreach and Performance Activism in a Secular Age,
by John Fletcher
Ann Arbor, MI: The University of Michigan Press, 2013.

The Christian church in North America today, including the evangelical church, is rather embarrassed about doing evangelism. In part this is due to fact that the history of the Christian church is littered with obviously immoral approaches to evangelism, from which we want to distance ourselves. But, as John Fletcher points out in the conclusion to his book, perhaps there is a more telling and current reason for our embarrassment about evangelism. We have accommodated to contemporary liberal pluralism, and thus do our utmost to be “pleasingly tolerant, faithful-but-non-fanatic” (p. 309), as per the portrait found in American Grace by Robert Putnam and David Campbell (2010). “Indeed, so great is the desire to ‘leave everybody else alone,’ so painful the self-inflicted wounds of awkward/offensive/presumptive evangelism, that most self-identified evangelicals rarely evangelize at all, at least not with any frequency” (p. 305). And yet, as Fletcher reminds us, evangelicals should engage in outreach. That is part of what it means to be an evangelical, as Fletcher points out in an early chapter, which provides a helpful analysis of what it means to be an evangelical (Ch. 2). Indeed, Fletcher frequently expresses his admiration for evangelical evangelism, even though he is an outsider.

This raises the question as to why a Professor of Theatre at Louisiana State University, and “a liberal, gay, ex-Southern Baptist, United Methodist” (p. 5), would write a careful analysis of evangelical approaches to evangelism. Fletcher interprets evangelism as a kind of theatrical performance, an “activist performance,” which he uses as an umbrella word to describe a host of other popular and scholarly terms that each touch on some aspect of the kind of performance that he studies – political theater, theater for social change, street theater, people’s theater, community-engaged theatre, theatre of the oppressed, or applied theatre/drama (Ch. 1, p. 18). I found trying to understand evangelism from this perspective to be not only refreshing but also illuminating in that it serves to highlight aspects of evangelism that are easily missed by those immersed in the evangelical mindset.

Fletcher also dares to suggest that progressive left activists have something to learn from evangelicals and their approaches to evangelism (pp. 311-13). Evangelicals are committed to inviting others to a better way, a better worldview, and they engage in evangelism because they believe that their message is in the other’s best interests. Evangelicals, while respecting the deep convictions of others, are willing to challenge them with their own convictions. Some evangelistic approaches also stress the need to understand their target audiences. Worldview assumptions need to be understood to be challenged. “Evangelicalism’s conversionist orientation – imperfectly realized as it may be – offers a reminder that democratically minded activism must always include an element of attraction and empathy with the enemy” (p. 312). Fletcher concludes Chapter 2 with this generous comment: “In a time of cynicism and diminished hopes, in a time of partisan polarization, in a time of desperation and apathy, I am envious of evangelicals’ faith in activism” (p. 45).

The bulk of Preaching to Convert is devoted to a careful analysis of various approaches to evangelism as practiced by evangelicals, who are described by Fletcher as “a heterogeneous collection of communities and individuals who unit in constantly seeking out, innovating, defining, theorizing, criticizing, reacting to, refining, combining, experimenting with, discarding, and realizing this ever-expanding, ever-deepening repertoire of techniques for changing the hearts, minds, and souls of those around them” (p. 309). Chapter 3 examines personal evangelism as proclamation – the “soul-winning” tradition of door-to-door evangelism, the “Four Spiritual Laws” presentation innovated by Bill Bright and the Campus Crusade for Christ, and the stop-strangers-on-the-street dialogic evangelism promoted by Ray Comfort in his “Way of the Master.”

In Chapter 4, Fletcher examines a number of evangelicals who have become critical of interpersonal evangelism that limits itself to proclamation. Indeed, multiple congregations across the United States have taken up the “Confessions of a Sinful Church” strategy, where they publicly apologize for “ugly evangelism” (pp. 124-8). Instead of confrontational approaches to evangelism, some evangelicals advocate approaches that involve friendship, careful listening, countering anti-Christian presuppositions, and apologetics. Chapter 4 takes up Jim Henderson’s “Ordinary Attempts,” Greg Koukl’s conversational apologetics, and Greg Stier’s “ideavirus” approach. Each of these approaches draw from the work of Francis Schaeffer who counseled evangelists to spend time trying to understand the worldviews of non-Christians before they tried to persuade them of Christian Truth.

In the third section of the book Fletcher studies two large-scale, more traditionally “theatrical” evangelical performance forms. Chapter 5 focuses on the community/church-based staging of “hell houses” and judgement houses” as a way of reaching the unconverted. Chapter 6 examines the Creation Museum, a multi-million-dollar combination of science museum and discovery-fun-center based around a strictly young-earth creationist viewpoint. Often considered to be exemplars of evangelical backwardness and anti-intellectualism, Fletcher suggests they are best understood as community based productions that accomplish vital work for the producing communities in terms of reinforcing their beliefs, even as they strive to reach the unconverted.

Chapter 7 examines the way in which mega-churches have used seeker-sensitive worship services to attract new members. The chapter begins with an intriguing question raised in a video produced by Richard Reising’s company, Artistry Labs: “What if Starbucks Marketed like the Church? A Parable” (p. 221). Chapter 8 is somewhat of an odd fit for this book, and Fletcher concedes this point to some extent. The focus of Chapter 8 is on organizations like Exodus International, which are dedicated to helping homosexuals find healing. Here the focus is not on changing someone else, but on individual conversion. In this chapter Fletcher analyzes the controversies surrounding the effectiveness of gay cures, and the resulting spectrum of positions on LGBT people within evangelicalism.

I found Fletcher’s survey of each of these evangelical performances to be thorough and often insightful, uncovering the assumptions underlying each approach and doing some good comparative analysis. Indeed, his careful analysis belies his status as an outsider. This is in part due to his background as “a preacher’s kid in the Southern Baptist Church” and his knowing “from firsthand experience what it is to evangelize” (pp. 12-13). Fletcher is also not afraid to use the works of evangelical scholarship, though he is careful to note and account for interpretive slants that might exist. Interestingly, he draws attention to a “comparable warping in many ostensibly ‘neutral’ works on religion, works that can sometimes dwell more on the author’s distance from faith than on the beliefs and believers being studied” (p. 12). This is very definitely not a weakness of Fletcher’s own analysis. Though he engages in criticism, I found his criticisms to be on the whole fair, and meeting his aim of “critical generosity” (p. 36). At times he quite deliberately defends evangelicals and evangelistic methods against unfair criticisms. It is only in his chapter on homosexuality that his language occasionally becomes a little strident.

I would highly recommend this book for anyone wanting a good overview of evangelical practices of outreach. Though a book of scholarship, it is very readable, and further, fascinating for anyone interested in evangelical approaches to evangelism.

The Ethics of Evangelism and Integral Mission

November 2, 2014

(This essay grew out of two presentations I made at the 5th. Global Triennial Consultation of the Micah Network, Thun, Switzerland, Sept. 10-14, 2012. A French version of this essay has been published in a book growing out of this conference: “Éthique de l’évangélisation et Mission intégrale”, in Le cri des chrétiens du Sud, Pour une Bonne Nouvelle incarnée dans des actes, Éditions « Je sème », sl, Dossier vivre n°34, 2013, p.83-103)

Western cultures have been shaped by the Enlightenment and its central liberal values of reason, autonomy, and tolerance. The Enlightenment made peace with “irrational” religion by relegating it to the private sphere. It is this inheritance that explains why evangelism is today viewed with a lot of suspicion. Christians engaging in evangelism are daring to enter the public arena and are further declaring the gospel to be public truth. I address this tension in my recent book, The Ethics of Evangelism: A Philosophical Defence of Ethical Proselytizing and Persuasion (Thiessen 2011).(1) This essay is meant to provide a brief summary of my book, after which I will address the relation between evangelism and integral mission. I will then deal with the ethics of integral mission.

I had three basic objectives in mind when I wrote the book – to defend evangelism against a variety of objections, to defend evangelism more generally, and to develop criteria to distinguish between ethical and unethical forms of evangelism. The book was written with two readerships in mind – skeptics opposed to religion and religious activity, and religious adherents, especially evangelical Christians, who are very much committed to evangelism. Writing for these two very different readerships is a challenge, particularly with regard to using language that will be understood by both. In the next section I treat two aspects of that challenge.

Evangelism and Ethics
First, what word should be used to identify the central focus of my book – “evangelism” or “proselytizing”? Christians prefer to talk about evangelism, the meaning of which can vary from “evangelism is social action,” to evangelism is “announcing the gospel to non-Christians with a view to faith and conversion.” Another word that is sometimes used as a synonym for evangelism is “proselytizing.” The dictionary definition of “proselytism” refers only to conversion from one opinion, creed or party to another. My use of the term “proselytizing” throughout the book was based on the conviction that this term was more familiar to my “secular” readership. However, in Christian circles proselytism has come to be associated with “evangelistic malpractice,” or the use of coercive techniques to achieve conversion.(2) In ecumenical circles ‘proselytism’ has also come to mean “sheep-stealing.” In this paper, I will for clarity’s sake, use only the word, “evangelism,” treating this as a neutral term from an ethical point of view, and then acknowledging that evangelism can be done either in an ethical or an unethical manner.

I have already suggested that “evangelism” also has a range of meanings. In my book – and in this essay – evangelism will be understood in its narrower sense as giving verbal witness to the gospel with a view to conversion. Another term sometimes used by Christians as a synonym of evangelism is “proclamation.” This word too can be used to refer both to verbal proclamation, and to living out the Lordship of Jesus Christ in everything that Christians do, including relief, rehabilitation, development, working for justice, and environmental care. (I will use the term “social action” as an abbreviation for the broader collective meaning of proclamation.) This paper begins with a focus on the narrower meaning of proclamation or evangelism, and I will later deal with these notions within the context of social action.

The second challenge I faced in writing for two very different readerships, involves the question, what ethical framework would I use to deal with the ethics of evangelism? Obviously, for us as Christians, ethics or the definition of right and wrong are rooted in God and in God’s word, especially God’s revelation in Jesus Christ.(3) In a way, nothing more needs to be said about providing an ethical framework for Christians. But, when talking with others who don’t share our faith, I believe it is important to try to find an ethical framework that we as Christians share with unbelievers. Why do I believe in the possibility of some common ground between believers and unbelievers when it comes to ethics? First, because of my faith in God as Creator of all that exists. God created laws – both physical laws and ethical norms. So a careful and open-minded study of nature will lead to a discovery of these laws. This has led various theologians to stress the notion of natural law as accessible to both believers and unbelievers. Secondly, God also created human nature, and so we find Paul arguing that Gentiles who don’t have the law nevertheless have the requirements of the law written in their hearts (Rom 2:14). I believe we are all born with a moral compass, which can be distorted, but never entirely silenced. Thirdly, I appeal to the dignity and care of persons as foundational to ethics, and as again providing a common ethical framework for both believers and unbelievers.

It was Immanuel Kant, in the eighteenth century, who gave us the modern and secular version of an ethical theory based on the dignity of persons. Kant repeatedly appeals to the absolute worth of human beings who are rational and free. This leads him to argue that we should always treat human beings as ends in themselves, never simply as a means to an end. Historically, this emphasis on the dignity of human beings has led to an ethics formulated in terms of rights and duties. Some feminist writers have reminded us of the limitations of rights-based ethics. I therefore believe a better approach to ethics is to combine an emphasis on the dignity and worth of persons with an emphasis on love and care for persons.

As Christians we can provide a theological foundation for this appeal to the dignity and care of persons. The most fundamental reason for respecting the dignity of the human being is that each person is created in the image of God. We are also called to love our neighbor, and so care for persons is also foundational to ethics. My hope is that all (or at least most) people will accept the dignity and care of persons as foundational to ethics. This gives rise to two foundational principles for dealing with the ethics of evangelism.

Dignity criterion
Ethical evangelism is always done in such a way as to protect the dignity and worth of the person or persons being evangelized. Evangelism becomes unethical when it reduces the potential convert to the status of an object or a pawn in the evangelism program of any church or Christian organization.

Care criterion
Ethical evangelism must always be an expression of concern for the whole person and all of his or her needs – physical, social, economic, intellectual, emotional, and spiritual. To care only for the salvation of the souls of persons is unethical. It involves an objectification of a part of the person and as such violates that person’s dignity.

Objections to Evangelism
There are many today, including some scholars, who would condemn most or even all evangelism as immoral. Objections to evangelism can be divided roughly into two categories.(4) First, some of the objections are empirical in nature. For example, it is argued that efforts at evangelism have harmful consequences for individuals and for society as a whole. Some critics argue that evangelism leads to resentment, hatred, disunity in society, and even holy wars. Sadly, there is some truth to these empirically-based objections. But, we need to be fair. All too often, claims about the harmful consequences of evangelism involve sweeping generalizations with little or no concern about concrete evidence. Critics also tend to load the dice by talking about fanatic, irrational or aggressive evangelists. And what about the counter-evidence – the countless individuals who have received relief from guilt after responding to evangelists’ proclamation of the message of forgiveness in Jesus Christ? Then there are the religious revivals that have led to significant moral improvement in societies.

The second and more common kind of objection to evangelism is conceptual in nature. It is often argued that there are certain characteristics of evangelism that make it immoral by its very nature. Some critics feel that persuasion is in itself immoral. Others focus more specifically on religious persuasion and argue that this is immoral because of the uncertainty or irrationality of religious claims. Still others maintain that evangelism is arrogant and intolerant. Some critics question the motivation behind evangelism. Then of course there is the charge that evangelism is coercive by its very nature. I argue that each of these objections against evangelism is unsound, based on problematic assumptions and questionable definitions, as I illustrate below with respect to coercion. Blanket condemnations of all evangelism, or claims that evangelism is inherently unethical, are simply unwarranted. This does not at all mean that these charges are never appropriate. The history of the Christian church is littered with evangelistic malpractice, including the use of coercive techniques or force to achieve conversion. This calls for repentance. At the same time, we can and should defend ourselves against criticisms to the effect that ethical evangelism is impossible.

A Positive Defence of Evangelism
As Christians we are called to proclaim the gospel and make disciples of all nations. The gospel is good news. To evangelize is therefore a good thing. But how does one defend evangelism to unbelievers? I argue that persuasion, including religious persuasion is an essential part of the human makeup.(5) Much of our conversation involves persuasion, and our efforts to persuade cover a wide variety of issues, including religion. Persuading others about our convictions is an essential part of our own dignity. Trying to persuade other persons of the error of their ways is also a way to honor others. Indifference is in the end an insult to others. John Stuart Mill, in his classic defense of liberty, argues that proselytizing is a healthy phenomenon, because it encourages controversy and discussion on “subjects which are large and important enough to kindle enthusiasm,” and which therefore enable even ordinary persons to rise “to something of the dignity of thinking beings” (Mill 1978, 33).

My defense of evangelism is not meant to rule out the possibility of there being unethical methods of evangelism. We can neither approve of evangelism generally nor condemn it outright, as is sadly all too often done. Instead, we need to pay more attention to developing criteria to distinguish between ethical and unethical evangelism. In my book I devote two chapters to analyzing and defending fifteen criteria to define ethical evangelism.(6)

Criteria to Distinguish between Ethical and Unethical Evangelism
I have already considered the first two criteria, dignity and care, in my treatment of the foundation of ethics. One important dimension of treating people with dignity involves respecting their freedom to make choices. Four of my criteria have to do with coercion, which is a frequently made charge against evangelism and proselytizing. While I believe that some evangelistic approaches are coercive and hence immoral, I believe the charge of coercion is not as easy to substantiate as is often assumed. Of course, if one starts with the assumption that all human actions are determined, it follows that all evangelistic efforts are coercive and hence immoral. But this begs the question. Besides, a deterministic worldview precludes moral evaluation. I prefer to talk about degrees of human freedom, and hence degrees of human responsibility. But as soon as one admits to degrees of human freedom, it becomes more difficult to define what is coercive. Indeed, the problem of vagueness pervades charges made against cult recruitment. This does not mean that the charge of coercion can never be made. I argue that it is better to deal with cases of suspected coercive evangelism on a case-by-case analysis. However, I believe some broader types of coercive evangelism can be identified.

It is helpful here to distinguish between four categories of coercion – physical, psychological, social, and inducements to convert. These four categories lead to four criteria to distinguish between ethical and unethical evangelism. The latter two categories are more closely related to the interface between evangelism and Christian aid/development and so I will treat these later. Physical coercion is the easier criterion to define. Some vagueness is unavoidable in defining the other criteria, although in each case there are extremes that should be seen as obviously morally offensive.

Physical coercion criterion
The freedom to make choices is central to the dignity of persons. Ethical evangelism will therefore allow persons to make a genuinely free and uncoerced choice with regard to conversion. Evangelism involving the use of physical force or threats is unethical.

Psychological coercion criterion
Stated as a general principle, ethical evangelism avoids psychological manipulation. There are various ways in which evangelism can be psychologically manipulative. (a) Christians engaged in evangelism should avoid intense, repeated and extremely programmatic approaches to bringing about conversions. (b) Care must be taken to avoid exploiting vulnerability. This becomes especially important when dealing with children, young people, vulnerable adults, and individuals facing personal crises. (c) Excessive appeals to emotion and fear must also be avoided.

Another set of criteria has to do with epistemic concerns, such as rationality, truth, and the way in which we present our claims to truth.

Rationality criterion
Evangelism involves persuasion to convert. Ethical persuasion includes the providing of information in order to make such a decision. It also includes giving reasons for the proposed change of heart and mind. Evangelism that attempts to sidestep human reason entirely is unethical.

Truthfulness criterion
Ethical evangelism is truthful. It seeks to tell the truth about Christianity. It is truthful also with regard to what it says about other religions. Integrity characterizes the ethical evangelist. Evangelism accompanied by hidden agendas, hidden identities, lying, deception, and failure to speak the truth should be condemned as unethical.

Humility criterion
Ethical evangelism is characterized by humility. Evangelism becomes unethical when it becomes arrogant, condescending, and dogmatic in the claims being made.

Sadly, Christians are not always exemplary in displaying the epistemic virtues of rationality and humility. They forget that they “only know in part” when evangelizing (I Cor. 13:12). Sometimes they are also not honest about their evangelistic intent. For example, Perry Glanzer has documented the story of a failure to be entirely truthful in a major missionary/educational endeavor prompted by an invitation by the Russian Ministry of Education in the early 1990’s, when evangelicals from America were invited to come and instruct Russian public school teachers on how to teach Christian ethics. In the main, the 1,500 people recruited to help train teachers in Russia were not educators, and had not been trained to teach Christian ethics, but were in fact missionaries intent on using this opportunity to evangelize and plant churches, leading Glanzer to conclude that the enterprise was “ethically problematic” (Glanzer 2002, p. 196).

A criterion that deserves to stand on its own has to do with motivation. Of course it is difficult to assess someone else’s motivation so perhaps the application of this criterion is best left for self-assessment.

Motivation criterion
The primary motivation for ethical evangelism is love for God and love for humanity. Ethical evangelism grows out of genuine concern for the other person’s well-being, and his or her assumed need to hear the truth as understood by the evangelist. With unethical evangelism, on the other hand, ego-centric motives such as personal benefit and reward, personal reassurance resulting from being able to convert another person to one’s own position, personal domination over another person, and personal satisfaction about growth of one’s own church, become dominant.

Another stand-alone criterion having to do with identity is fairly self-explanatory.

Identity criterion
Ethical evangelism will take into account and show some respect for the communal identity of the person being evangelized. Evangelism which completely disregards the dignity of the individual as rooted in his or her social (or religious) attachments is immoral.

The following two criteria try to capture what is right about the liberal virtues of tolerance and pluralism. It is important here to note how these criteria differ from traditional understandings of tolerance and pluralism. I am quite deliberately distancing myself from notions of tolerance and pluralism that assume a relativistic understanding of truth. Tolerance has to do with putting up with something that you don’t like. To preclude all criticism of beliefs is in fact to be intolerant. What is important is to respect persons even though one disagrees with the beliefs they hold. And one must also protect the right of others to share their beliefs even though one disagrees with them.

Tolerance criterion
Ethical evangelism treats persons holding beliefs differing from that of the evangelist with love and respect. While it does not preclude fair criticism of other religious or irreligious beliefs, it treats the same with respect, and avoids hostile attitudes or the use of insulting and abusive language against other religions and worldviews.

Golden Rule
Ethical evangelism operates under the assumption that others have the right to share their faith as well. It is immoral to assume or to work towards a monopoly of the evangelism enterprise.

I conclude my analysis of criteria to distinguish between ethical and unethical evangelism with a criterion that is particularly important given the passion for evangelism among evangelicals.

Results criterion
Results, success in persuasion, or church growth, while welcomed, should not be seen as
primary goals in evangelism. A pre-occupation with results, success, or church growth, when evangelizing, is unethical.

Evangelism and Integral Mission
There has been some discussion among Micah Network members about the relation between evangelism (understood as preaching/proclaiming the good news) and Christian aid/relief/development and working for justice (or social action). The oft-quoted definition of ‘integral mission” from the 2001 “Micah Network Declaration on Integral Mission” suggests that there is a close link between evangelism and social action.

It is not simply that evangelism and social involvement are to be done alongside each other. Rather in integral mission our proclamation has social consequences as we call people to love and repentance in all areas of life. And our social involvement has evangelistic consequences as we bear witness to the transforming grace of Jesus Christ.(7)

But does this mean that Christian social action and verbal proclamation of the gospel, always occur “at the same time?” Some members of the Micah Network have argued that this is a misinterpretation of integral mission, and have called for further nuancing of the declaration so as to avoid such misinterpretation.(8) There would seem to be some confusion with regard to the relation between evangelism and social action. Further, there are repeated demands by governments and government agencies that evangelism and social involvement be separated. In fact faith-based non-governmental development organizations (FBNGDOs) have accommodated such a separation by calling on workers in the field to abstain from explicit evangelism.

Clearly, it is possible to distinguish between aid/relief/development and verbal evangelism/proclamation, both at a conceptual and at a practical level. At the same time, each must be seen as a legitimate expression of the mission of God. Jesus called his disciples both to preach the good news and to heal the sick (Luke 9 & 10). Paul in his description of the “cosmic Christ” talks both about “reconciling” to himself “all things,” and about reconciling individuals to Jesus Christ (Col. 1:19, 22). As followers of Jesus Christ, we are therefore bound to say that in some sense, the ideal is that Christians and the church are engaged in both social action and evangelism. While each penetrates the other, yet in their core meaning, they can be distinguished, and thus there is a need to ensure that overall and in the long run, the church maintains a balance between these two aspects of Christian mission.

Sometimes circumstances are such that we as Christians will find ourselves preoccupied with social action. This should be seen as a perfectly legitimate expression of the mission of the church. We boldly engage in this somewhat one-sided approach to Christian mission because Christ calls the church to be involved in feeding the hungry, and overcoming poverty and exploitation. We also realize that even while we are engaged primarily in social action, our work cannot help but further the cause of evangelism, because the two can’t be entirely separated. Recipients of our aid will realize (over time) that we are doing this for the sake of Christ. Indeed, when asked why we are engaged in the same we will be honest in explaining our motivation. The truthfulness criterion considered above also applies to Christian aid and development.

At the same time, we must allow for the possibility that we as Christians will sometimes find ourselves focusing primarily on evangelism or verbal proclamation, because this too is an expression of obedience to God and the imitation of Jesus Christ. Again we realize that even while we are engaged primarily in verbal proclamation of the gospel, we will still be calling people to love and repentance in all areas of life, and thus our verbal proclamation will have social consequences.

Christian aid workers therefore need to acknowledge the legitimacy of those Christians who are engaged primarily in evangelism, and Christians committed to evangelism need to acknowledge the legitimacy of those Christians who are engaged primarily in social action. At the same time, both groups will recognize that it is impossible to entirely separate aid from evangelism. Hence, the notion of integral mission. I want to move on now to consider some unique dimensions of the ethics of evangelism within the context of relief and development.

Ethics of Integral Mission
Steve Bradbury, in a recent chapter on “The Micah Mandate,” suggests that The Micah Declaration lacks any acknowledgement of the sensitivities and ethics of evangelism in contexts of human vulnerability and dependence. He suggests that this may be due to the brevity of the declaration, or perhaps because of its original purpose and intended audience. He then identifies a problem that needs to be addressed.

All development and humanitarian programs necessarily involve transactions between people of greater or lesser dependence on the one side, and those who are the conduit for essential resources or services on the other. Within the context of these transactional relationships there is an inevitable imbalance of power, regardless of how much care is exercised and regardless of the humility or otherwise of the development or aid workers.(9)

So how does one address this imbalance of power? One of my criteria relating to coercion attempts to answer this question.

Social coercion criterion
While acknowledging that some degree of power and control is inescapable in evangelism (and Christian aid and development), excessive expressions of power, or the exploiting of power-imbalances when evangelising is unethical.

Clearly there is again some vagueness in this criterion. This is simply unavoidable. What can be done to overcome excessive levels of power-imbalance? I concur with Bradbury that FBNGDOs should be working in partnerships with local churches.(10)

Closely related to the problem of power-imbalance is the problem of exploiting vulnerability when engaged in Christian relief and development. Humanitarian aid cannot but create some psychological pressure and inducement to convert. Indeed, any Christian kindness, even ordinary friendship, has this “problem.” But is there really a problem here? We are human beings influenced by all kinds of factors, and it is impossible to isolate completely one aspect of our nature from another. Humanitarian aid provided by Christians (or atheists), will create some psychological pressure and inducement to convert to Christianity (or atheism). A degree of psychological pressure or inducement to convert is inescapable in humanitarian efforts. I think it is therefore important for Christian aid agencies and workers to admit this. Again, we need to be truthful about what we are doing. At the same time, there comes a point where it is clear that the inducements to convert are carried to an extreme. My next criterion of ethical evangelism identifies the extreme and then goes on to respond to less obvious cases of inducements to convert.

Inducement criterion
Evangelism accompanied by material enticement such as money, gifts, or privileges, is unethical. In situations where providing medical care, humanitarian aid, or education is in some way linked with evangelism, the greater the need, the more sensitive the person(s) engaged in social aid/development must be to the danger of exploiting that need, and thus inducing to convert. In situations where physical needs are overwhelming, evangelism should be kept entirely separate from the activity of responding to these physical needs. A further requirement is a high standard of transparency. Persons engaged in social aid/development must make it clear that they are not trading medical or humanitarian aid for conversion. There is no quid pro quo. The person being evangelized must therefore be given a clear sense that it is perfectly acceptable for him or her to accept aid, or medical help, and yet refuse any persuasive appeals to convert.

Here is an example of what I consider to be unethical integral mission. Christian groups who combined relief efforts and evangelism in response to the tsunami disaster in Asia in December of 2004 came under severe criticism in the media. I believe this criticism was justified. To evangelize in the context of extreme physical needs is simply inappropriate. It involves an exploitation of extreme vulnerability and therefore is unethical (Thiessen 2011, p. 167).

I conclude with a few comments on the Micah Network Statement on “Proselytism.”(11) While I am largely in agreement with this Statement, I do have some problems with its “unequivocal” affirmation of the Code of Conduct for the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and NGO’s in Disaster Relief, which says that “aid will not be used to further a particular political or religious standpoint” (Section #3). I believe a qualification needs to be made here. The giving of aid cannot help but make the recipient sympathetic to the religious or political standpoint of the aid-giver. The real issue therefore is one of exploiting aid in order to bring about political or religious conversion. The additional sentences of the relevant part of the Code of Conduct being referred to spells this out: “Humanitarian aid will be given according to the need of individuals, families and communities. Notwithstanding the right of Non Governmental Humanitarian Agencies to espouse particular political or religious opinions, we affirm that assistance will not be dependent on the adherence of the recipients to those opinions. We will not tie the promise, delivery or distribution of assistance to embracing or acceptance of a particular political or religious creed.” This I can heartily endorse.

There is a final problem in the ethics of integral mission that deserves some comment. I have argued that if we look at the work of Christians and the church in terms of the big picture, and over the long haul, we should be involved in both evangelism and social activity. I have also acknowledged that there will be circumstances that might limit our engagement in evangelism. For example, FBNGDOs sometimes face government constraints and even prohibitions with regard to evangelism. How should Christians respond to such regulations and restrictions?

I agree with the Micah Network Statement on “Proselytism” that it is not possible to dissociate what we are as Christians from what we do. Therefore, in seeking official entry to serve the needy in countries that restrict Christian activity, Christians should be very open about their Christian identity and motivation. At the same time, while foreign agencies should be careful to be transparent in their official relationship with any government, it should be recognized that it is often difficult for local organizations to operate in the same way.

I also believe that it is possible for Christians to accept the restrictions placed upon them by certain governments that prohibit them from taking the initiative in sharing their faith with those they are serving. Steve Bradbury makes a useful distinction between “programmatic” evangelism and the informal sharing of deeply held “spiritual” beliefs, a distinction that has been used as a guide by TEAR Australia.(12) I would also argue that governments have no authority to stop Christians from truthfully explaining their faith when asked to do so. If someone asks Christian aid workers why they are serving, then they should be able to say that it is out of obedience to Jesus Christ and in response to his love. If government regulations of a country are such that they do not allow Christians to explain their faith when asked why they are engaging in aid and development, then I seriously question whether FBNGDOs should be engaging in aid and development in this country.

Ethical evangelism is possible. So is ethical integral mission. May we as Christians be faithful to our Lord’s calling to both evangelism and social action.(13) May we also be committed to doing both in an ethical manner.

References:
Bradbury, Steve. (2012). “The Micah Mandate: An Evangelical View.” In Mission and Development: God’s Work or Good Works, ed. Matthew Clarke, 103-122. London & New York: Continuum.

Glanzer, P. (2002). The Quest for Russia’s Soul: Evangelicals and Moral Education in Post-Communist Russia. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press.

Mill, J.S. (1978/1859). On Liberty. Indianapolis: Hackett.

Thiessen, E. J. (2011). The Ethics of Evangelism: A Philosophical Defense of Proselytizing and Persuasion. Milton Keynes, U.K., Paternoster; and Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic.
————————
Endnotes:
(1) In doing the research for my book, I discovered that little had been written about the ethics of evangelism. Since the publication of my book, the World Evangelical Alliance, the World Council of Churches, and the Vatican’s Pontifical Council on Inter-religious Dialogue released a major statement on the ethics of evangelism entitled, “Christian Witness in a Multi-Religious World: Recommendations for Conduct.” http://www.worldevangelicals.org/pdf/1106Christian_Witness_in_a_Multi-Religious_World.pdf (accessed April 6, 2013)
(2) See for example, http://www.micahnetwork.org/sites/default/files/doc/library/proselytism_policy_statement.pdf (accessed April 5, 2013.
(3) The ethics of evangelism is in fact specifically addressed in the New Testament. Jesus decisively rejected the use of all types of coercion in establishing his kingdom when he was tempted at the beginning of his public ministry (Matt. 4:1-11). He instructed his disciples to respect the freedom of individuals to reject the gospel message they preached (Luke 9:5). Paul too advocated sincerity of motive and truthfulness when spreading the good news (II Cor. 2:17; 4:1-2).
(4) In my book I devote three chapters to defending evangelism or proselytising against about a dozen objections (Thiessen 2011, chs. 3, 4, 5).
(5) This more positive defense of evangelism is found in Chapter 6 of my book (Thiessen, 2011).
(6) See Chapters 7 & 8 of my book (Thiessen, 2011). These criteria are summarized in Appendix #1 of my book (pp. 234-7). In this article I am offering a slightly revised version of these criteria, and am substituting “evangelism” for “proselytising” which were treated as synonyms in my book. I am well aware of the limitations of defining ethics in terms of principles, but I believe the attempt to do so still has some merit.
(7) http://www.micahnetwork.org/sites/default/files/doc/page/mn_integral_mission_declaration_en.pdf (accessed April 6, 2013)
(8) See for example, Steve Bradbury (2012, pp.112-13).
(9) Bradbury (2012, p.113).
(10) Bradbury (2012, p.118) See also http://tilz.tearfund.org/webdocs/Tilz/Topics/DRR/Publications/The%20local%20church%20%26%20its%20engagement%20with%20disasters.pdf (accessed April 5, 2013)
(11) See footnote #2 for details.
(12) Bradbury (2012, pp. 117-18).
(13) I want to thank Daniel Hillion and an anonymous reader for their helpful comments on an earlier draft of this paper.

The Offensiveness of Religious Persuasion and Evangelism

June 18, 2012

The topic of evangelism made national headlines in Canada recently.[i]  It all started with a Grade 12 student in Nova Scotia wearing a T-shirt in school boldly emblazoned with the words, “Life is wasted without Jesus.”   William Swinimer continued to wear his yellow T-shirt after the vice-principal at his school asked him not to do so because some students had complained that they found the message offensive.  William’s refusal to obey led to a series of in-school suspensions and finally a five-day at-home suspension.  The normally shy 19-year-old refused to comply even if it might mean permanent suspension and the loss of the rest of the academic year and his chance of graduating.  “I believe this is worth standing up for – it’s not just standing up for religious rights, it’s standing up for my rights as a Canadian citizen; for freedom of speech, freedom of religion.”

The regional school board initially supported the actions of the school administration, with Superintendent Nancy Pynch-Worthylake maintaining that repeated defiance of school authorities was justified grounds for suspending William Swinimer.  The school board issued a statement clarifying that “students may choose to wear clothing that embraces their beliefs.  However, it is expected that students will not wear clothing with messages that may offend others’ beliefs, race, religion, culture or lifestyle.”

The nationwide debate ignited by this incident is most revealing.  It can be interpreted as involving a conflict of rights.  This is how Superintendent Nancy Pynch-Worthylake described the problem: “We absolutely support students’ rights to express their beliefs, but we absolutely support students’ rights to not have their own beliefs unreasonably criticized.”  But does a T-shirt with the message, “Life is wasted without Jesus,” involve unreasonable criticism of other people’s beliefs?  Indeed, is it even fair to suggest that this message involves criticism of the beliefs of others?  The vice-principal of the school even went so far as to suggest that the message on the T-shirt spewed “hate talk.”  The absurdity of this assessment doesn’t even deserve comment.  I’m not even sure Swinimer’s message involves criticism of the beliefs of others.  The students at the school were divided on this question, with some saying that the T-shirt message was simply expressing the personal beliefs of William Swinimer – “I believe that life is wasted without Jesus.”   Indeed Swinimer is quoted as saying, “I don’t do it to be disrespectful or to put down anyone else’s beliefs.”  Clearly Nancy Pynch-Worthylake and some other students didn’t interpret the message this way.  But, maybe they are the problem.  Maybe they need to develop thicker skins.  Surely if someone tells me that they believe life is not worth living without Pepsi, I shouldn’t take offense because I do not like Pepsi.  People are also not entirely consistent in the way in which they take offense, as Swinimer himself pointed out.  He wondered why his T-shirt became so controversial when he had seen other students around the school wearing T-shirts with slogans like “Hail Satan.”  Is it Christians who are being picked on?

Let’s for the sake of argument assume that there is at least an implicit criticism of other beliefs in the message of William Swinimer’s T-shirt.  Indeed, I believe that any evaluative statement entails an implicit judgment on contrary statements.  We are now left with the claim of the school board that students have the right not to have their own beliefs “unreasonably” criticized.  But, what is so unreasonable about the implicit criticism of other beliefs by making a simple statement like, “Life is wasted without Jesus”?  I suspect that what lies behind this judgment is a hidden assumption that all religious statements are unreasonable, and hence all implicit criticisms of other beliefs are similarly unreasonable.  But this is in itself a rather unreasonable position to hold, resting on a host of assumptions that need to be and can be critiqued.  We need a more generous definition of what it means to be reasonable.  Here the late John Rawls has something to teach us with his notion of “burdens of judgment,” introduced to help us to cope with the deep differences of belief within a society.  Rawls maintained that we need to give each other the benefit of the doubt with regard to the reasonableness of our differing beliefs.  We need a spirit of generosity allowing that reasonable persons may affirm differing reasonable doctrines.   Both those who believe that life is wasted without Jesus, and those who don’t, need to see each other as reasonable persons who can give reasons for their implicit and explicit criticisms of beliefs contrary to their own.

Emma Teitel brings to the fore another reason for considering William Swinimer’s T-shirt offensive.[ii]  He is not being “discreet” but “rude.”   Religious beliefs are “far too precious to flaunt” and should be kept private, according to Teitel.  Another on-line critic uses more colorful language: “Bloody Jesus freaks…they just can’t keep it to themselves! They just have to be IN YOUR FACE!”  Ah yes, if only we could keep religion restricted to the closets of private homes, or, if we must, to mosques, churches, and synagogues.  What is rather strange here is that we don’t demand this of other similar sorts of value declarations.  We seem to have no problem with the flaunting of commercial messages in the form of advertising.  Billboards and T.V. ads are very much IN YOUR FACE!  Why single out religion as something that needs to be kept private?  It seems a little unfair.  And there are some real problems with the private/public distinction appealed to by Teitel and other liberals who so desperately want to keep religion out of the public sphere. It is very difficult to keep anything completely private.  No, I don’t think Teitel really believes that religious beliefs are too precious to flaunt.  She simply disagrees with religious beliefs and she dares to flaunt her own anti-religious sentiments in a national weekly magazine. How rude!  How indiscreet!

But there is more to Teitel’s tirade against the T-shirt episode. “There is a great difference between cherishing a belief and wielding it like a weapon,” Teitel argues.  Now this is really quite serious.  Teitel goes on to multiply analogies, one of which involves the inappropriateness of pulling out a revolver at the dinner table if your guests are pro-gun control.  Another on-line critic was a little less dramatic: “The problem, for me, with religious people is that they get so righteous and full of themselves that they think they have a duty to impose their beliefs.”  Ah yes, the old skeptical sawhorse of coercion applied to evangelism.  But surely we have stretched the notion of coercion beyond recognition if we apply it to a message written on a T-shirt of a normally shy teenager.  Other students are perfectly free to simply ignore the message.  They can even look away.  Or they could choose to tell William that they disagree with his message.  And to talk about a message on a T-shirt as a kind of weaponry borders on the absurd, unless of course one is drawing on the insights of French postmodernist Michel Foucault who interprets all truth claims as “fruits of a poisoned tree of power relations.”  But if so, then this also applies to Teitel and her company of critics.  The weapon analogy is ultimately self-refuting.  So perhaps we should tone down the rhetoric.

So what was all the fuss about?  Given the weakness and even the absurdity of the arguments used against William Swinimer, it is not surprising that the school administration and the board, after consulting with a human rights activist, backed away from their controversial decision.  However, they tried to save face by scheduling some follow-up “open dialogue” on how students can express their beliefs “in a complex multicultural school environment.”  Sadly, William’s father did not let his son participate in this dialogue.

The reader might also be wondering whether this incident deserves the attention that I have given it.  I believe this case is significant because it illustrates some deeply held suspicions in our society against all forms of Christian evangelism or proselytizing.  These suspicions also surface in the academy.  Take for example, Canadian philosopher, Jay Newman, in his important study entitled, Foundations of Religious Tolerance:  “We usually do not like the people who come to convert us.  We often find them arrogant, ignorant, hypocritical, meddlesome…. [M]any forms of missionary activity and overassertive ‘witnessing’ accompany, foreshadow, and promote more radical forms of religious harassment.  There is something essentially intolerant about the missionary, the proselytizer.”[iii]  Newman concludes: “Most religious proselytizing tends to promote resentment.  Resentment promotes intolerance, which in turn promotes barbarism.”[iv]   I have argued elsewhere that these arguments are not as strong as is generally assumed.[v]  We are all indebted to William Swinimer for his bold demonstration of ethical evangelism.

(This blog is an expanded version of a blog which first appeared on http://www.firstthings.com/onthesquare/2012/06/the-offensiveness-of-evangelism, June 8, 2012)

[i] I am drawing on the following accounts of this case:  Bev Ware, “Nova Scotia school to debate religious T-shirt controversy,” Globe and Mail, May 4, 2012;  Sarah Boesveld, “Suspended Nova Scotia student defiantly wears T-shirt with pro-Jesus message,” National Post, May 4, 2012;  and Megan O’Toole, “N.S. school backs off from ban of student’s T-shirt with pro-Jesus message,” National Post, May 5, 2012.

[ii] Emma Teitel, “A Tiring Tempest in a T-shirt,” Maclean’s Magazine, May 21, 2012, p. 12.

[iii] Jay Newman, 1982. Foundations of Religious Tolerance. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, pp. 88-9.

[iv] Ibid, p.110.

[v] See Elmer John Thiessen, The Ethics of Evangelism:  A Philosophical Defense of Ethical Proselytizing and Persuasion.  Paternoster and IVP Academic, 2011.

Ethics of Evangelism or Proselytizing

December 15, 2011

 

This blog is about my recently published book, The Ethics of Evangelism: A Philosophical Defence of Proselytizing and Persuasion, published by Paternoster Press, in the U.K., and by IVP Academic, in the U.S.A. in 2011.

Why did I write this book?

Well, asking a philosopher why he wrote a book is a little bit like asking a mountain climber why he climbed Mount Everest.  Mount Everest is there to be climbed!  That is the way I felt about writing a book on the ethics of evangelism or proselytizing.  Indeed, I discovered that very little had been written on this topic heretofore.  So, I wanted to be the first to write a comprehensive treatment of the ethics of evangelism or religious persuasion.  What little had been written on this topic was in the main very critical of any efforts at evangelism or proselytizing.  When reading these objections against evangelism, I was disturbed by the fact that these attacks were often unfair and outright wrongheaded.  So again, I felt a need to answer these objections in the public domain by writing a book on the subject.  In part, my writing this book also grew out of my embarrassment as to what religious adherents sometimes do in the name of evangelism. Writing this book was a way of helping me to clarify this embarrassment.  I discovered that sometimes there is something immoral going on when religious adherents do evangelism.  I also discovered that Christians, and more specifically evangelical Christians, who are very much committed to evangelism, tend to skirt the subject of the ethics of what they are doing.  Indeed, one nearly gets the impression that for some evangelicals, evangelism is considered to be so imperative that the end justifies the means. Someone needed to show how terribly wrong-headed this kind of thinking is.  So I answered the call! Throughout my writing, I have been very concerned to bridge the divide that often exists between religious believers and those who are skeptical of religion.  I therefore wanted to write a book on evangelism/proselytizing that would at the same time be addressed to these two very different readerships.  Skeptics needed to hear a defense of evangelism or proselytizing, and religious believers needed to be told that not just anything is acceptable in trying to bring about conversions.

For the table of contents and endorsements of the book, see the IVP website:

http://www.ivpress.com/cgi-ivpress/book.pl/code=3927

For a recent review of the book, see one by A. Morgan as found on the Amazon books website:

http://www.amazon.ca/ETHICS-EVANGELISM-Elmer-John-Thiessen/dp/0830839275/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1323962877&sr=8-1

The book can be purchased online from:

http://www.ivpress.com/  (in Canada, order from www.DavidCCook.ca )

http://www.authenticmedia.co.uk/

http://www.amazon.ca/

http://www.chapters.indigo.ca/

 

The Ethics of Persuasion

July 20, 2010

(This blog first appeared in the Waterloo Region Record, May 4, 2009, p. A7, while I was serving on the Community Editorial Board, and is here slightly revised.  Newspaper title:  “The art of persuasion isn’t necessary bad”)

Do you think it is wrong for someone to try to persuade you about anything?  My hunch is that most readers will answer, yes.

Suspicion about persuasion is widespread.  We also don’t have a very high opinion of practitioners of persuasion, for example, people involved in public relations, merchandizing and religious proselytizing.  Why?  I suspect the main reason for these suspicions is that we like to think of ourselves as autonomous.  We see ourselves as independent thinkers and believe that we don’t need anyone meddling around with our beliefs.  Leave us alone!  After all, we can make up our own minds, thank you very much!

There is a problem with this attitude, however.  None of us are quite as independent as we think we are.  The human condition is characterized fundamentally by inter-dependence, and this also applies to the way in which we acquire our beliefs.  Indeed, most (maybe even 95%) of the beliefs that we hold are a result of persuasion.  Just think of all the beliefs that we’ve inherited from our parents.  Here we need to keep in mind that persuasion can be both, explicit or implicit.  Some time ago Vance Packard, a noted critic of the advertising industry, correctly drew our attention to “hidden persuaders.”  The phenomenon of hidden persuasion also applies to the beliefs, attitudes and prejudices that we absorb in childhood.  This is similarly true for many of the beliefs that we absorb via our immediate environment – the media and our culture.  These are powerful persuaders, and we can’t avoid them.

Then there are our teachers.  Much of what we believe is accepted on authority.  Children believe what their teachers say.  Even at universities, professors exert a powerful persuasive influence on students.  Indeed, university professors themselves are not quite as independent as they would like to think.  They too submit to the latest academic fads and to pressures of political correctness.  The late Richard John Neuhaus, a prominent Canadian-born churchman and writer liked to characterize the intellectual elite and the chattering class as “a herd of independent minds.”

We are dependent creatures.  We need to be persuaded.  We would not be human without persuasion.  And we like to persuade others.  We are by nature persuading animals.  Our prejudice against persuasion is unwarranted.  To be suspicious about all persuasion is to hide our heads in the sand.

Rather than condemning persuasion outright, we need to pay more attention to distinguishing between ethical and unethical forms of persuasion.  Unfortunately, not much attention has been given to this task.  I suspect the main reason for this neglect is the widespread tendency to condemn all forms of persuasion.  This neglect is also due to the notorious difficulties associated with distinguishing ethical from unethical forms of persuasion.

Take for example the need to distinguish between coercive and non-coercive forms of persuasion.  An ancient and armed crusader announcing, “Convert, or I will kill you,” was obviously engaging in coercive and hence immoral proselytizing.  However, it is much more difficult to identify psychologically coercive proselytizing.

But we must not give up too soon.  Here are some questions that might help us to make the all-important distinction between ethical and unethical forms of persuasion.  Have you given explicit or implicit permission to be persuaded? Does the persuader genuinely care for you as a person?  Are persuaders being truthful?  Do they engage your reason in trying to persuade you?  Are they people of integrity?  Do they have something to gain from persuading you?  Are they willing to admit that they might be wrong?  Is the persuader open to having you persuade them?  Do they respect your freedom to say no?

At a societal level, we need to be especially concerned about the connection between power and persuasion. Do monopolies of persuasion exist?  Multiple voices of persuasion are an essential feature of liberal democratic societies.

So the next time that you encounter a persuader, whether a salesperson, a political or religious proselytizer, an editorial writer, or a friend trying to convince you about something, don’t simply engage in a blanket condemnation of what they are doing.  At least they are being explicit about trying to persuade you.  Maybe you can even learn something from them.

Persuasion arises because we as human beings differ.  Persuasion, if done in an ethical manner contributes to the dignity of difference.  Indeed, healthy persuasion is both an expression of the persuader’s own dignity, and an acknowledgement of the dignity of the person being persuaded.

(For more on this topic, see my book entitled, “The Ethics of Evangelism:  A Defense of Proselytizing and Persuasion,”  published by Paternoster Press and IVP Academic, 2011.)  For more information on this book, see topic of “Books” under Pages.