Ethical Evangelism

Cultic Studies Journal, 1985, Volume 2, Number 2, pages 306-307

Ethical Evangelism, Yes! Unethical Proselytizing, No!

Gordon Lewis

Otherwise peaceful people may become emotionally inflamed when loved ones choose to practice a religion which differs from theirs. If the means employed by individuals or groups to advance their religious commitments are unethical, then there is just cause for strong reaction. In many cases, though, a person converts to a different belief in response to ethical evangelism not unethical proselytising.

Two basic assumptions underlying this analysis of ethical evangelism and unethical proselytism are that people are distinctively human and have inalienable rights.

The adherents of religions are not robots programmed or deprogrammed entirely by others or circumstances. Christians believing that all people are uniquely created in the image of God have more reasons than most for acknowledging the dignity, the inherent value, and the redemptive potential of all human beings, regardless of religious affiliation.

Religious persons, as others, ought not be deprived of their right to hear, read, and critically evaluate various sides of any religious issue. Tolerance means recognition of these rights for all, including those who differ strongly from us. Protestant Christians who believe that all persons are created in the image of GA and that an Christians are priests responsible to and capable of direct relationship with God, should respect the individual’s uncoerced self-determination in religious beliefs, practices, and associations.

Given the inherent value of personhood and its inalienable rights, we may compare and contrast unethical proselytism (including coercive programming and coercive deprogramming) with ethical evangelism (including pre-evangelism, apologetics, follow-up, or rehabilitation).

There are similarities between ethical evangelism and unethical proselytism. Both seek to persuade people. Both intend for the convert to accept certain distinct beliefs about ultimate reality, to form a religious world-view. Both encourage the convert to become part of a religious community or church, with a particular world view, set of values, and way of life.

With such similarities, it is not difficult to see why evangelism is sometimes confused with proselytism. But they are different in many vitally important respects.

  • There are seven significant distinctions between evangelism and proselytism:

  • The Inherent Value of Persons. Unethical proselytism may persuade people by depersonalizing or depriving them of their human rights. Ethical evangelism respect the inherent dignity of the prospective members personhood and human rights.

  • Uliiiwte Concern. Unethical proselytism's supreme end is gaining a member for a certain human organization. Ethical evangelism's supreme end is, first, to help people get into a right relationship with a transcendent God and, second, to strengthen a religious organization which can be followed only under God’s moral standards.

  • Personal Freedom. Unethical proselytism deprives prospective members of their rights to self-determination and unintimidated decision making. Ethical evangelism appeals to a prospective member’s own informed judgment and freedom for decision making.

  • Personal Identity. Unethical proselytism attempts to change people so totally that they lose any sense of continuity with their past identities. Ethical evangelism attempts to change people by breaking the power of self-destructive patterns of behavior in order to renew their created identities in the moral likeness of God.

  • Family Relationships. Unethical proselytism may deprive people of their normal loyalties and affective behavior (under God) toward parents, other relatives, associates, and sometimes even reality itself. Ethical evangelism attempts to renew normal loyalties and healthy affective behavior toward relatives and friends (under God).

  • Non-Coercion. Unethical proselytism may use physical force or coercive psychological pressures, such as threats of injury and bribes. Ethical evangelism persuades people in a context of academic freedom. It encourages listeners to survey live options and argues for the most comprehensively coherent position on the basis of objective criteria, such as publicly observable evidence, logical principles, and personal authentication.

  • Pious Deception. Unethical proselytism may knowingly use the immoral means of “heavenly deception” to attain its “sacred” ends. Ethical evangelism seeks to achieve its ends solely on the grounds of the truth of the message and, therefore, its reliability in relating believers to the living God.

Ethical persuasion does not destroy the persons God created; it renews them! Ethical evangelism does not destroy the mental and critical faculties God created; it liberates them from the effects of selfishness, greed, and sin. In the stimulating atmosphere of academic freedom and intellectual honesty, people in a pluralistic society can present a case, not only for popcorn and soft drinks, but also for the justice and the grace of God.