Evangelism is not Proselytism

11. Evangelism is not proselytism.

Proselytism is a somewhat tricky word to pin down. The word proselyte is used in the New Testament of Gentiles who had converted to Judaism (Matt. 23:15; Acts 2:10; 6:5; 13:43). Except for the reference in Matthew, it seems to have no negative baggage associated with it. Technically, proselytism is defined as the practice of seeking others to become adherents of one’s religious faith. This just about sounds like the gospel though.

However, proselytism usually implies more than conversion. It is often used for the intentional winning over of existing Christians to another Christian group.

Bosch describes the shift that occurred in Europe at the founding of the Sacra Congregatio de Propaganda Fide in 1622. Instead of focusing efforts on the conversion of non-Christians, the focus shifted to non-Catholics.

Only too often, then, evangelism has been used as a means of reconquering lost ecclesiastical influence…

–David J Bosch, p. 414

Of course, this point brings up again the entire issue of denominations, without which there could be no proselytism among Christian groups. For all the great advances it made, the “bewildering taxonomy” of Christian churches today stems from the Reformation.

When the Reformation shattered the ancient unity of the Western church, each of the fragments into which it was now divided was obliged to define itself over against all other fragments… The Reformational descriptions of the church thus ended up accentuating differences rather than similarities. Christians were taught to look divisively at other Christians. Eventually Lutherans divided from Lutherans, Reformed separated from Reformed, each group justifying its action by appealing to the marks of the true church…

–David J Bosch, p. 248-249

Finding Balance

This doesn’t mean that we have to agree with other Christians on every doctrinal point, but there should be a way to maintain a larger unity among all Christians that doesn’t compromise our collective testimony, which is our most effective tool in our witness to the world (John 17:21). Paul calls this the oneness of the faith (Eph. 4:13), something that we need to arrive at, in contrast to the oneness of the Spirit (Eph. 4:3), something that we simply need to keep (implying that we already have it).

Even still, at the end of the day we should respect our fellow believers’ decisions on where and how to meet. As much passion and conviction as we may feel about our own ecclesiastical heritage, we must leave this up to them and the Lord and “let each be fully persuaded in his own mind” (Rom. 14:5). Should others become interested in our way of practicing the church, we shouldn’t shy away from presenting what we believe to them or ministering the riches of the truth to them. And neither should we be labeled as sheep-stealers (or vice versa) if they decide to leave their denomination and join with us.

What is Proselytism?

In his Introduction to Ecclesiology, Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen reproduces four points that help define proselytism:

  • all ways of promoting our own community of faith that are intellectually dishonest, such as contrasting an ideal presentation of our own community with the weaknesses of another Christian community
  • all intellectual laziness and culpable ignorance that neglect readily accessible knowledge of the other’s tradition
  • every willful misinterpretation of the beliefs and practices of other Christian communities
  • every form of force, coercion, compulsion, mockery or intimidation of a personal, psychological, physical, moral, social, economic, religious or political nature, etc.

Evangelism is not this. Evangelism is preaching the gospel to sinners for their salvation. Evangelism is the offer of profoundly good news. That offer can be made to a family member, a close acquaintance, or a stranger. None of these should be considered proselytizing, if it’s done in love, sincerity, and respect. The Lord has also commissioned us to teach the truth and minister life to our fellow believers for the building up the church. Whether that happens with those that share our understanding of the church or not, we should not be labeled as proselytizing. We should receive one another (Rom. 15:7) and honor one another’s portion of Christ (1 Cor. 12:21).

Thus in our mind their should only be two categories of people- nonbelievers and believers. When we meet the first, we should endeavor to share the gospel with them (at the right time and in the right way). When we meet the second, we should endeavor to minister life to them. In neither case should we proselytize.

7 thoughts on “Evangelism is not Proselytism

  1. On point! I’m meeting with someone who promotes the “Navigators” and my inward response is typically to promote my own convictions regarding meeting. Many times, at this juncture of the conversation I have been forbidden to do so. I realize that my feeling of the Spirit speaking in me cares for ministering life, not my view and standing on the Church so much. I have struggled with this matter because of such a passion for the Truth concerning Church practice. It is wonderful when brethren dwell together in unity(Psa. 133)! However, when it comes to our dealing w/ other believers, we should simply minister life to them. How precious! If we really care for the oneness of the faith (Eph 4:13) we will care for this and keep what we already have in the Spirit (Eph. 4:3)! When fellowship allows, and the Lord says yes and IS speaking, we may divulge the juicy sweetness concerning the Church! Timely and impressive post that met my current need, and definitely re-centered me.

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    • I agree Chris! One thing that I always try and keep in mind when I’m interacting with Christians from other traditions is that they are my brothers. We may disagree on certain points, but there is a basic and fundamental oneness we share in the divine life. It is a uniting bond of peace.

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  2. Reminds me of a song I once learned:

    “Let us go forth and preach Christ to all the creation,
    Proclaiming the gospel,
    Presenting the truth,
    And ministering life,
    For the growth, development, and manifestation of the kingdom of God.”

    Our commission can be summed up in these three words: proclaim, present, and minister. The result should be the kingdom of God, aka the church, as God’s manifestation on the earth.

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  3. “And over all these things put on love, which is the uniting bond of perfectness” – Colossians 3:14
    “But in all these things we more than conquer through Him who loved us” – Romans 8:37
    “The love of God has been poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given tu us”
    Romans 5:5b – This makes all believers equal.
    “knowledge puffs up, but love builds up” – 1.Cor. 8:1
    “…unto the building up of itself in …? (Ephesians 4:16c)
    The church in Philadelphia is the church of brotherly love and the “end of the charge is love out of a pure heart and out of a good conscience and out of unfeigned faith” – 1 Timothy 1:5
    The late Apostle John, in a time of degradation and persecution, stressed this word ,”love”, again and again, and this is also my experience, that only in an atmosphere, where the life of God finds in love its
    expression, people are attracted and our preaching is prevailing.

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  4. “… at the end of the day we should respect our fellow believers’ decisions on where and how to meet.”

    This point has a two-fold nature. I respect each person’s decision on where and how to meet only to the extent that we should be those who minister life, like Chris said in his post. We are waiters/waitresses and even if we bring someone a platter of life, if we offend them in giving them life then we are not ministering life, by definition. To ‘unfurl our flag’ in this case is often damaging and unproductive. So I can certainly relate to that point. That is one side.

    BUT, on the flip side: I absolutely reject division and the validity that denominations and free groups think that they have as a “church.” This side of the matter is mostly for prayer and boldness before the Lord’s face. When we have someone who is “on the fence,” whether they should “meet with us” or “meet with them,” we do not / should not shrink back in our praying. We are bold with the Lord. Actually, even with a spirit of indignation I pray “Absolutely not, Lord. It is not Your will that they fall into Christianity, thus I echo Your heart and I reject that they would be in division. Save them from what 1,900 years worth of Christians have been victim to and bring them into the reality of the church life.” So, in my spirit, in prayer, I do not have any respect for “decisions” on where and how to meet. Jerusalem is the only proper ground. Mt. Zion, nowhere else. It is not a decision to be made by you, me, or even God Himself. The decision has already been made. Jerusalem. In prayer, I reject any so-called “decisions” to the contrary.

    Fight strong, don’t let the enemy convince you that your desire to build the church is really proselytizing. Don’t proselytize, but don’t let the enemy have any ground. We have the authority of the sons of God to bind and loose, and we should.

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