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

The Ethics of Evangelism: A Philosophical Defense of Proselytizing and Persuasion
Elmer John Thiessen

“Some philosophers have described a human as a social or political animal. Others have suggested that a human is a rational animal. I would describe humans as proselytizing animals…. It is in the nature of a human beings to proselytize.”

Many of us reflexively cringe when we see missionaries turning up our driveway, tracts in hand, eager for a conversation. We don’t like being on someone’s “conversion checklist.” Despite the fact that as followers of Jesus we are children of the great commission (Matthew 28:16–20), and that evangelism is in our DNA, we do not relish being proselytized.

We are not alone. Proselytism is an unpopular activity in our culture. We think it’s an affront to our individualism. It’s a waste of our time and an insult to our intelligence. In fact, it’s often thought to be immoral to foist one’s religious views upon others. Our modus operandi seems to be “live and let live.” When it comes to religious beliefs, many in our culture are of the opinion that you’re free to believe whatever you like about God, religion, or the meaning of life – but keep it to yourself, thank you very much!

Is it so bad?

Is proselytizing really as bad as all that? Is it immoral by definition? This is the subject matter of The Ethics of Evangelism by Elmer John Thiessen. Thiessen is a philosopher by trade, and holds the position of research professor of education at Tyndale University College and Seminary, Toronto. While philosophers can, at times, rightly be accused of being abstruse and arcane, Thiessen has written a clear, comprehensive, and compelling defense of proselytizing and persuasion.

Thiessen’s approach is straightforward and easy to follow. He has three purposes corresponding to the three main parts of the book. The first two – answering objections frequently raised against proselytizing and arguing for the possibility of ethical proselytizing – are closely linked.

To cite but one example, it is frequently asserted that proselytizing ought to be avoided because it arrogantly assumes to know “the truth” and presumes to share this with others. Thiessen patiently and convincingly demonstrates how we have no choice but share our view of the truth, implicitly or explicitly, with others. Even the view that there is no such thing as a singular truth expresses a conviction about the truth. The question is not “will we engage our neighbours on matters of truth?” but “how will we engage them?”

The third section outlines criteria to distinguish between ethical and unethical proselytizing. Thiessen offers 15 standards to help his readers make this distinction. From proselytizing as an expression of care for the whole person (as opposed to just their “soul”), to refusing to exploit impressionability and vulnerability (in young children or those in the midst of personal crisis), to being truthful in our attempts to persuade others (not misrepresenting the views of others, being honest about the weaknesses and difficulties of our own views), Thiessen reinforces the foundational truth that our attempts at persuasion must take the golden rule as their basic assumption. We ought always to proselytize as we would appreciate being proselytized.

Perhaps the most welcome feature of Thiessen’s excellent book is his rooting of the practice of proselytism in the dignity of human beings and in their unquenchable thirst for and pursuit of truth. To attempt to persuade our neighbours of anything is to pay them the compliment of considering them worth “converting.” It is to participate in the basic reality that as human beings we are social creatures whose beliefs and practices are negotiated together. It is also to assume that our neighbours are free, rational, and moral creatures, who are capable of understanding and embracing what we are convinced is true, good, and beautiful (even if it turns out that we are mistaken about this). Citing philosopher John Stuart Mill, Thiessen says “the dignity of disagreement” is “unique to thinking beings.”

We all attempt to persuade

Thiessen also reminds us that we all engage in the practice of proselytizing regardless of how opposed to it we may claim to be. Every day, whether through advertising or professional workshops or political campaigns, we’re often either attempting to persuade or are ourselves the subjects of attempts at persuasion.

We need a frank and honest acknowledgment that seeking to persuade others is part of what it means to be human, and then to engage in this practice with humility, care, dignity, and truthfulness.

The Ethics of Evangelism is no blanket affirmation of the practice of proselytizing. Thiessen honestly acknowledges that evangelism often has been and continues to be done arrogantly and unethically. Sometimes, people really do attempt to manipulate others or to pressure them into making decisions. Sometimes the motivation for proselytizing really does have more to do with perceived obligations to God or church than it does with genuine concern for the welfare of others. Sometimes proselytizing really is driven mostly by ignorance and intolerance. But, as Thiessen persistently reminds his readers throughout the book: “the fact of moral failure does not entail that there are no morally exemplary ways to proselytize.”

Though Thiessen’s writing can be a bit dry and mechanical, and the book is academic in tone and style, I would enthusiastically recommend it to anyone interested in the question of how to commend the faith in an age of religious pluralism and diversity. As Christians, we surely ought to be committed to the notion that, when it comes to evangelism, the medium is, at least in part, the message (to borrow the language of Marshall McLuhan).

Elmer Thiessen has given us a tremendous resource for thinking about how to seek and share the truth together in a way that is morally upright, which is open to further insight and correction, and which honours the inherent dignity of those we are seeking to convince.

Ryan Dueck is pastor at Lethbridge (Alta.) Mennonite Church.

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