With the celebration of the missionary efforts that led to the creation of the Mennonite Community in Congo a century ago (Sept. 3, page 4), now is perhaps a good time to review Elmer John Thiessen’s latest book, The Ethics of Evangelism.
As the title suggests, Thiessen, a research professor of education at Toronto’s Tyndale University College and Seminary, sets out to disprove a 2009 online statement: “. . . I am tired of evangelical people going around the world forcing their religion on people. It’s just not right.”
Thiessen’s response is that evangelism—or proselytizing (he uses the words interchangeably)—is right when done properly. And since this is an academic book, he begins with a formal definition of his subject: “The deliberate attempt of a person or organization, through communication, to bring about the conversion of another person or group of persons, where conversion is understood to involve a change of a person’s belief, behaviour, identity and belonging.”
While this is first and foremost an ethical treatise on evangelism, Thiessen does acknowledge the religious underpinnings provided by Christianity, Judaism and Islam. “Evangelism and mission is at the heart of Christianity,” he writes, quoting Emil Brunner’s aphorism, “‘The church exists by mission as a fire exists by burning,’” followed by Christ’s Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20). He rightly notes that, “[f]or many Christians, this is all that needs to be said about the importance of evangelism—it is mandated by Jesus.”
But just because evangelism is mandated by Jesus—or Mohammed—doesn’t make all attempts ethical, Thiessen acknowledges. However, he claims that many are, despite a variety of ethical and sociological objections to the contrary. In Part 2, he responds by deconstructing, debunking or downplaying a number of these objections. His biggest criticism of these objections, such as claims of arrogance on the part of evangelists or that their efforts impinge on the freedom or rights of individuals or societies, is that they overstep the empirical evidence. “Vagueness” is a term he often uses.
As to the charge of intolerance when it comes to evangelism, Thiessen writes that “the key problem with this objection . . . is that it rests on some misconceptions about the nature of tolerance.” He briefly charts the changes from tolerance being seen as a vice (Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas), to becoming a virtue during the Enlightenment; and from being related primarily to people, but not necessarily their ideas, to encompassing both.
“It has been said that error has no rights, but people do. That is why we endure or put up with ideas and practices and institutions that we do not like,” he writes, but laments that, “[today] this is condescendingly spoken of as ‘mere’ tolerance, and it is not seen as good enough. Today, a further demand is made of the tolerant person, namely the requirement of fully accepting and even agreeing with what is different.” (See “Dismayed with church’s LGBT statement” letter, Sept. 3, page 10, for an example of this type of reasoning.)
In Part III, Thiessen provides a “Positive Approach to Proselytizing,” in order to show that evangelism is “in general a good thing.” He cites John Stuart Mill’s classic defence of liberty, as well contemporary liberal arguments by the likes of John Rawls and Jeff Spinner-Halev, the latter of whom believes, according to Thiessen, that “a genuine liberalism allows religious language in the public square. A genuine liberalism will therefore also welcome religious proselytizing in the public square.”
In the final third book Thiessen sets out detailed guidelines to distinguish between ethical and unethical proselytizing. Those who see evangelism as mandated by Jesus can easily skip the intervening chapters and get right to these “practical” ethics. And for those with a really short attention span, he provides a 15-point summary of his criteria to distinguish between the two forms.
From his perspective, ethical evangelism:
- Ensures the dignity and worth of the person(s) being evangelized.
- Shows concern for the whole person and all of his/her needs.
- Refrains from the use of physical force or psychological coercion, or inducements of any kind.
- Provides information in order for a person to make a rational decision.
- Seeks to tell the truth about the religion being advocated, as well as other religions.
- Is characterized by humility.
- Treats people holding differing beliefs with love and respect, and is sensitive to their culture.
In conclusion, Thiessen quotes Aristotle on the art of persuasion: “A man can confer the greatest of benefits by a right use of these, and inflict the greatest of injuries by using them wrongly.” May those who heed Christ’s Great Commission take these words—and the advice provided in The Ethics of Evangelism—to heart.