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
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.
- Evangelism and Mission (lifeandbuilding.com)