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The Ethics of Evangelism: A Philosophical Defense of Ethical Proselytizing & Persuasion

Author: Elmer Thiessen
Published By: Paternoster (Milton Keynes)
Pages: 285
Price: $24.00
ISBN: 978 1 84227 724 9

Reviewed by Arthur Brown.

While many may suggest it is no longer acceptable to proselytize, evangelise or seek to persuade someone to convert to another faith, the reality is that mission and witness are central elements of the Christian faith. Within this important book, Elmer Thiessen, Research Professor at Tyndale College, Toronto, seriously engages with the arguments for and against religious proselytization, and demonstrates effectively that being strongly in favour of such a practice, when conducted ethically, is as valid today as it has ever been. Aware of the many, and often valid, criticisms of arrogant, aggressive, manipulative and at time violent examples of evangelistic endeavor, the author humbly seeks to show what a more principled approach might look like, within a deeply suspicious and critical society.

The Ethics of Evangelism is an important book, and one whose content should be reflected upon by all those committed to sharing their faith within the pluralistic, multi-faith context in which many of us find ourselves ministering. It is rooted in a solid theoretical and philosophical base, and yet is eminently accessible for those with a concern and passion for evangelism.  Thiessen clearly states his view that the act of seeking to convince someone of a belief system different to their own is not, in and of itself, an unethical practice. Rather he seeks to highlight features that would make this practice ethical or unethical.

Thiessen recognises the important of language and terminology, yet uses the term ‘proselytizing’ as synonymous with terms such as evangelism, mission, witnessing, sharing one’s faith, proclaiming the gospel, saving souls or the making of religious converts. He suggests that a conversion will be demonstrated through a change in belief, behaviour, identity and belonging. Various elements of these are discussed within the text, although I suggest there is room for a deeper engagement with some of the issues concerned. Thiessen is, however, honest about the limitations he faced within this book, recognising the need for further considerations in a number of related areas.

The book is divided into five sections, each containing chapters within the theme of that section. This starts with some introductory considerations, and is followed by sections on objections to proselytizing, positive approaches to proselytizing, distinguishing between ethical and unethical proselytizing, and a section of concluding considerations.

In the central section on distinguishing between ethical and unethical proselytizing, Thiessen provides fifteen criteria to help determine whether practice is ethical or unethical in nature. These important criteria are: dignity, care, physical coercion, psychological coercion, social coercion, inducement, rationality, truthfulness, humility, tolerance, motivation, identity, cultural sensitivity, results and finally the ‘golden rule’, namely that if we assume the right to proselytize, then we should recognise and respect the right of others to do likewise.

These are all extremely helpful, and provide a sound basis for anyone involved, not only in the direct practice of evangelism, witness or mission of any kind, but also for those responsible for the development of policies and frameworks for churches or agencies with such a mandate.

There are many examples of unethical, as well as ethical, witness. Certain groups are recognized as being particularly vulnerable to unethical practices – however, I would have liked to see some further detailed discussion on witness with, for example, children and vulnerable adults. This should be an area of particular concern to our churches.

Towards the end of the book is a helpful summary of the fifteen criteria mentioned above, as well as a brief literature review, highlighting useful sources in a range of related themes. These themes include: ethics of communication; marketing ethics; ethics of teaching and education; ethics of proselytizing; law, human rights and proselytizing.

The content of the book, or at least the fifteen criteria of ethical proselytizing, could form a useful basis for discussion within a team of people engaged in various forms of evangelism. I would also encourage churches to engage in the issues raised within this book, ideally seeking to adopt a considered approach to its witness within the context it finds itself in.

Arthur Brown

in Youth Ministry and Applied Theology at the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary in Beirut, Lebanon. He and his family are mission personnel with BMS World Mission

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You are reading Issue 55 of Ministry Today, published in July 2012.

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