Should Christians still share their faith with those who don’t believe? I understand that in many contexts the answer to that question is obvious . . . though what is ‘obvious’ in one situation is exactly the opposite of what is ‘obvious’ in another. I get asked for my take on this issue periodically. I don’t think I’m asked because my opinion carries any special weight. I think I’m asked because people assume I’m conflicted about the issue.
Honestly, though, I’m not very conflicted about this ‘issue.’ In fact, I don’t think that the heart of the question is an ‘issue’ at all. Here’s what I mean: We all commend to others things we think are true and good. We all hold our core beliefs with universal intent. I don’t see any issue there. It’s just the way things are.
I am baffled by those who are adamantly opposed to proselytizing in matters of faith but are rabid with evangelistic fervor in matters of politics. I’m baffled by people who argue adamantly that nobody should argue for the truth of their faith. I’m baffled by people who confidently assert that all religions are equal paths to the same place, as though they possess some privileged vantage point from which to make this universal assertion, as though their universal claims are any less exclusive than those of the theological perspectives they so confidently quash.
Now let me add an important qualification to my perspective. I don’t think we should use power to compel others to agree with us or to adopt our spiritual practices. We should commend our beliefs and lifeways with an open hand, without force and with a willingness to learn from those with whom we are speaking. The fact that this has not been how faith has been shared is the reason many of us feel like we should be conflicted about this issue.
For too long, in too many places, those in power have forced ideologies on others. Sometimes that power has been political and sometimes it has been cultural. Sometimes the use of that power has been obvious (think of colonial situations) and sometimes the use of that power has been harder to see (think of the various contemporary regimes of belief and practice). In all of these cases the dignity and right to self-determination of people on one side has been undercut. Some group has assumed that they are the teachers and others are the students.
The other thing that I think makes us uncomfortable with religious persuasion, in my context at least, is some forms of it don’t fit the cultural moment. The neighbourhood that my family and I live in is periodically canvassed . . . canvassed by political candidates or their surrogates, canvassed by representatives of one faith or another, canvassed by fundraisers and canvassed by people wanting to seal driveways, clean windows or fertilize lawns. I do not relish my encounters with these folks. They are all pushy. To all of them I am a means to an end. Also, as a pastor I cringe at being identified with door-to-door evangelists. There’s nothing especially biblical about religious canvassing in this way. It’s clearly annoying.
So, if by ‘proselytizing’ we simply mean commending our beliefs or lifeways to others, then I don’t think there’s really anything to talk about. This happens all the time. It’s not at all peculiar to people of faith, though it may be the case that many of us are more comfortable recommending a restaurant than those things that give our life meaning. On the other hand, if by ‘proselytizing’ we mean one set of people forcing their beliefs and lifeways on others, well, I’m not at all supportive of that.
One final caveat: While there are times when the act of ‘forcing’ of one’s beliefs and lifeways is obvious (and it should stop), much of life happens in the mire of persuasion and within various codes of conduct, where the right and wrong use of power is much harder to discern.
Anthony G. Siegrist pastors at Ottawa Mennonite Church in Ottawa, Ont. He blogs at anthonysiegrist.com, where this post originally appeared. His latest book, Speaking of God: An Essential Guide to Christian Thought, is available now from Herald Press.