In our modern society, evangelizing–or, even worse, proselytizing–is frowned upon. There’s something sinister and manipulative about messing with another person’s religious beliefs to try and get them to think like you. It sounds almost cultish. And to many, it also sounds rather unethical.
But what does it mean to say that a particular evangelistic practice is either ethical or unethical? Does evangelism necessarily violate modern notions of tolerance and diversity? Is it okay to invite people to an event without letting them know that it’s actually an evangelistic event? Should religious groups use food distribution and disaster relief as opportunities for evangelism? These are all questions that relate to the ethics of evangelism. And they are questions that many churches and Christians have not spent enough time considering.
In The Ethics of Evangelism: A Philosophical Defense of Proselytizing and Persuasion (IVP 2011), Elmer Thiessen wants to press on these very issues. He is frustrated by two tendencies. On the one hand, many secularists simply assume that proselytizing is intolerant, aggressive, and manipulative. So, in much of the literature, there are only two kinds of evangelism: unethical and really unethical. Pick your poison. But, on the other hand, many religious thinkers fail to see the legitimacy in these critiques. Many evangelistic practices are unethical. So both sides need to nuance their thinking a bit more. So Thiessen sets out to provide a philosophical account of the criteria by which we can distinguish ethical from unethical evangelism.
Thiessen does a very nice job laying out all of the major objections to proselytizing, which he divides into epistemological objections (problems surrounding persuasion, arrogance, pluralism, and rationality/certainty), objections surrounding the integrity/freedom of individuals and societies (coercion, vagueness, inducements to convert, colonialism, etc.), and liberal objections (intolerance, consequences of proselytizing, questionable motivations, etc.). I appreciated what looked like a fairly thorough attempt to lay out all of the major objections and the reasons for each.
The book also does a very nice job recognizing the strengths of the various arguments even while offering a substantive critique. Thiessen never simply dismisses an argument, even when he clearly thinks it to be false. But he recognizes that each critique has some merit that can guide our ethical reflections on evangelism. But he also points out how each goes too far when it tries to rule out any kind of evangelism. Instead, he argues throughout the book that we must use such arguments to help draw a distinction between ethical and unethical evangelism. And he rightly points out that unless we do so, each of these arguments would raise questions about any kind of persuasive practice (e.g. teaching, parenting, marketing, etc.). So clearly more nuance is needed.
And I appreciated Thiessen’s desire throughout to get religious people to think more deeply about evangelistic methodology. Although the book focuses more on those who are opposed to evangelism, the book also serves as a good tool for challenging the “ends justifies the means” mentality that one finds in many approaches to evangelism.
The first weakness that I encountered in the book was my own fault. As the subtitle clearly indicates, this is a “philosophical defense” of evangelism. Failing to notice that, I read the book expecting something that was more theological and practical. Although Thiessen draws on some theological themes, the book covers religious proselytizing in general and no Christian evangelism in particular. And, while Thiessen wants this to be a book with practical significance, and he does use a number of case studies throughout, the book is definitely more academic/theoretical than practical.
A second weakness is one that Thiessen is very aware of. One of the book’s primary tasks is to develop a set of criteria that can be used to distinguish ethical from unethical evangelism. But each of the criteria listed suffers from being somewhat abstract and vague. Thiessen struggles throughout to offer robust and clear definitions of each criteria. But this is a struggle that characterizes ethics as a whole. It’s always difficult to offer abstract ethical criteria that will apply in every particular situation. Thiessen does offer a few case studies to show how each criterion should be used. But I would have appreciated even more work in this area.
Finally, the book suffers at times by the number of issues it tries to address. Because of the questions he raises, Thiessen has to address epistemology, ethics, politics, culture, religion, human rights, natural law, and more. Since there is no way to address any of these comprehensively, each can feel a bit truncated. For example, Thiessen appeals to human dignity as the fundamental ground of his evangelistic ethics. But he doesn’t have enough space to develop a robust explanation/defense of this approach to ethics. That leaves the reader wondering if his quick summary is really adequate to ground the entire ethical argument of the book. And similar comments could be made on other topics. At times I wondered if Thiessen would have been better off addressing fewer issues in more depth, though he would have needed to sacrifice comprehensiveness to do that.
The Ethics of Evangelism is worth reading if you are interested in an academic and largely philosophical discussion of proselytizing in the modern, Western world. Thiessen does a great job summarizing and responding to all of the major objections, and he offers his own set of criteria for distinguishing ethical from unethical evangelism. And the book is probably best suited for those who teach and/or specialize in evangelism and missions. If that’s you, this is worth a look.
[Many thanks to IVP for providing me with a review copy of The Ethics of Evangelism.]