Thiessen's 'The Ethics of Evangelism' Hits the Spot

Is the Practice of Evangelism Ethical?

Can Evangelicalism Withstand the 21st Century Attacks of Liberalism?

This is a book review of Elmer Thiessen's 'The Ethics of Evangelism,' published by Paternoster in 2011.

ISBN: 978-1-84227-724-9.

If you are a deep thinking evangelical who not only ponders on some of the techniques traditionally employed by evangelists, but also sometimes wonders about the future of Christian proselytizing in an increasingly alien liberal climate, this book is surely for you.

M any Christians, especially evangelical Christians, accept that proselytizing (or, to actively 'witness,' if you will) is part of one's Christian duty. Few indeed would dissent from this overall view, although not all would agree on the best formula. Yet there is no doubt that most of these same people have never given any serious thought to the whole ethics of evangelism. Evangelism is simply accepted, and that's it. Yet, during the last few years, the whole ethics of attempting to persuade others to change their religious view, or views, has come under attack from liberal thinkers. Just when and where does the art of persuasion sometimes go too far? Indeed, when does it even become immoral? History does, of course, offer us some extreme examples, including the forced "conversion" of thousands of south American Indians by the Spanish. So we see that this is a fair question for consideration, even if we reject many of the assumptions which liberalism invariably carries.

Elmer Thiessen's excellent little book of something just under 300 pages encourages evangelicals to think through these questions. The book does what it says on the cover. Thiessen describes the book's purpose as "a philosophical defence of ethical proselytizing and persuasion." And that is exactly what the reader gets. If you are a deep thinking evangelical who not only ponders on some of the techniques traditionally employed by evangelists, but also sometimes wonders about the future of Christian proselytizing in an increasingly alien liberal climate, this book is surely for you. So, at long last, we get a writer who is obviously broadly sympathetic to active Christian witnessing, giving rather a stout philosophical defence of the practice. Not - mark you - that the sometimes foolish and unwise excesses of the past (and present) are simply glossed over or excused. Mr Thiessen insists that believers face up to these things, and I think he is exactly right to do so. Truth is: every single one of us who has been involved in such areas knows that 'persuasion' can go too far and will then do more harm than good (witness the Indians of south America).

The book is made up of five parts. They are, Part One: Some Introductory Considerations, Part Two: Objections to Proselytizing, Part Three: A Positive Approach to Proselytizing, Part Four: Distinguishing Between Ethical and Unethical Proselytizing, and Part Five: Conclusion.

Let us say at once that this book, in our opinion, should be consulted by every single leader within evangelicalism, for it sets wise and sensible responsibilities and parameters of active Christian mission; it also tackles a few of those gray areas of religious witness and persuasion. Moreover, the book arms the evangelical Christian with a fair and reasonable defence in order to oppose increasing attacks from liberalism.

Dr. Elmer Thiessen.

Dr. Elmer Thiessen has recently retired from teaching philosophy and religious studies at Medicine Hat College in Alberta for over 35 years. Other teaching posts have included Waterloo Lutheran University, two semesters at Lithuania Christian College, and two courses at the Evangelische Theologische Faculteit in Leuven, Belgium. He has been a research reader/scholar/fellow during his four sabbaticals, at Mansfield College, Oxford, England, Stapleford Education Centre in England, the Centre for the Study of Religion, University of Toronto, and the Centre for Studies in Religion and Society at the University of Victoria.

Dr Thiessen has published numerous articles and book reviews, both in professional journals and religious magazines. His research specialty is the philosophy of education – here he has published two books, Teaching for Commitment, and In Defence of Religious Schools and Colleges (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1993; 2001). His present research interest is the philosophy of religion. Here he has recently published "The Ethics of Evangelism: A Philosophical Defence of Proselytizing and Persuasion" (Paternoster Press and IVP Academic, Feb./March, 2011). It is this new book which is the focus of our book review.

Okay, let us look at some of this book's highspots.

At an early point in the book, Thiessen sets out his stall of the full rejection of the sometimes hideous evangelistic excesses of the past (and who, in our day, would disagree with him?), as well as certain excesses of the present, especially within the United States:

"Proselytizing that dehumanizes the person is simply wrong. Using force and violence to convert someone is wrong. Proselytizing that expresses itself in hostility and malice is morally wrong. Dishonesty and duplicity about evangelistic intentions is wrong. Selfishness as a primary motivation to proselytize is wrong." (p 43).

A well-aimed broadside is soon fired by the author at modern liberal academics who oppose evangelism, when he states:

"If academics like Newman, Battin or Foss and Griffin wish to hold that all attempts to alter the beliefs of others are suspect, then they should extend their suspicions also to the areas of education and scholarship, since the purpose of argumentation, scholarship, and indeed the educational enterprise generally, is precisely to persuade and alter beliefs." (p 58).

This is well pointed out, for the double standards among those who now attack Christian evangelism, yet never cease to spread their own materialistic 'gospel' of liberalistic and Darwinistic hopelessness and despair is quite stunning.

It was needful for such a book to deal with 'missionary colonialism' because of certain plain errors of the past, although these are now often over-stated by liberals. But certainly the feeling, in earlier centuries, that peoples should not only be taught to embrace the Gospel, but also to embrace western cultural standards, can now be seen to be a mistake. Moreover, sometimes inhabitants of Africa felt that missionaries were fully in league with other Europeans who simply wanted their land. The author includes the quote of Jomo Kenyatta,

"When the white men came we had the land and they had the Bible. They taught us to pray with our eyes closed and when we opened them, they had the land and we had the Bible." (p 97).

Yet, despite many errors of the past, the writer insists (and I agree with him), that the concept of 'missionary colonialism' is " part a misleading stereotype" (p 102). This leads straight into a most vital section of the book which is Chapter Five, 'Liberal Objections to Proselytizing.' There is sound material here, well discussed by the author. However, here and elsewhere Thiessen's main problem overall is readability and accessability. He is a philosopher and he treads a fine line between, a. readily informing the reader who may be actively involved in evangelism, and possibly looking for a fresh structure and a clearer path for future evangelism, and, b, considering this whole matter on a deeper philosophical and esoteric level. Mostly, the second approach is wisely avoided, yet there are just a few times where one would prefer a more 'punchy' and practically-applicable approach.

I am very impressed with the humility, understanding and just good, plain old-fashioned common sense employed by the author at numerous points in his study. For example,

"Proselytizers should avoid intense, repeated and extremely programmatic approaches to bringing about must be taken to avoid exploiting vulnerability. This becomes especially important when dealing with children, young people, vulnerable adults and individuals facing personal crises..." (p 170).

This is a most excellent and very true point. Why - then - have I never heard it - or seen it - pointed out in any evangelistic guidlines-type course/programme?

The writer is also impressively aware of the curbs and restraints now being placed on Christian evangelism within Europe...

"Various European countries are formulating lists of religious sects and religious groups that are considered dangerous because their members seek to recruit or evangelize... France has assembled a list of of more than 170 such dangerous religious organizations. In Austria, a religious registration act now places many of the newer Christian denominations, and all sectarian bodies, at a disadvantage as compared with the dominant Roman Catholic Church..." (p 231).

There is more on this vital point but a book reviewer must keep quotes to a minimum so I leave it there.

I heartily applaud Elmer Thiessen's fifteen points which he offers, in his own words, "to distinguish between ethical and unethical proselytizing." Given earlier in the book, Thiessen wisely repeats these points in his Appendix One. I would love to see every single person who considers himself/herself to be an evangelical, to be thoroughly conversant with these excellent points and equally determined to employ them. This book is worth purchasing to have access to these very well thought-out points alone.

Any criticisms?

Yes. Whilst this book operates on a philosophical - though generally quite approachable - level, in view of some of the hideous, and persecution-promoting, excesses of modern American 'prosperity-evangelism,' surely one might have expected Dr Thiessen to fire a few well-aimed broadsides in the direction of some of those false apostles of greed who masquerade as 'men of God,' claiming to stand in the great evangelical tradition? For sure, this book is philosophical rather than theological, neither does it set out to be an analysis of current evangelistic techniques being employed in the West, but I still expected a few strong comments on this. In fact, it has become hard for me to see how any serious consideration of modern evangelism can not make some very telling comments about the new breed of millionaire evangelists who so plainly serve mammon, willingly making merchandise out of the Gospel. Although certain comments in this volume certainly do morally indict many of these people (for example, 'Humility Criterion,' p 196, and 'Motivation Criterion,' p 200), I still expected at least a few more pointed statements. Many of us have also been alarmed at various elements within the 'Willow Creek' experience with their mass-marketing evangelism, and the author does certainly include several critical comments about that, but the prosperity gospel heresy is, in influence, even bigger than that and certainly more damaging overall.

Nevertheless, this bright orange-coloured little book remains a most perceptive and telling consideration of the avenues of thought behind the Christian proselytizing of the last several hundred years. I was especially pleased that the writer avoids the tendency of many north American-based writers in only seeming to be speaking to north Americans. Thiessen is, for instance, obviously well aware of developments in the UK during the last few years in which liberal politicians have relentlessly attacked the Christian community whilst offering seemingly constant support to Islam!

The book, as already suggested, serves the admirable purpose of fine-tuning the focus of all serious-thinking evangelicals regarding the future of Christian witnessing. The whole area has become somewhat confused, due to the over-influence of both the prosperity evangelists and the mass-marketing 'numbers' evangelists. We all need to find our true bearings once again, to check our moorings and to firmly consider what it is which amounts to good, healthy evangelism, and which tactics are overly-coercive, or overly-motivated by the desire for personal glory and success. In short, we all need to look again to Christ, our only true and sure foundation. Elmer Thiessen's fine book can only be of assistance.

We recommend that every Christian leader who is involved in evangelism should go out and purchase this book, then immerse themselves in it for a few weeks!
Robin A. Brace. May 2nd, 2011.