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Evangelism - Persuasion or Proselytizing

Cultic Studies Journal, 1985, Volume 2, Number 2, pages 309-310


Evangelism - Persuasion or Proselytizing?

Mark McCloskey


In the context of pluralism, the activity of Christian persuasion is often labeled as proselytizing." While this word can be used in a neutral sense (i.e., “to convert another to one’s own religious, political, or ethical orientation”), it is used almost exclusively in a pejorative, derogatory context to describe a persuader’s ethically suspect foray to make converts out of those who should be left alone. By implication, the Christian "evangelist" is depicted as one who, out of selfish motives and an over-zealous mentality, doggedly seeks to convince others of the wrongness of their religious preference and the rightness of his or her own, to leave their group and join "ours.”

The Christian messenger appreciates the concerns of those who fear for their young people in light of the cults. Because we seek to operate according to the highest ethical standards, we are sensitive to charges of “proselytizing.” We must ask ourselves whether we seek to win others to “us” or to Jesus. Are we asking others to manifest an outward sociological, cultural, or religious change, a change in one’s earthly allegiances, without experiencing a corresponding change of allegiance in the spiritual realm? Are we working for the success of our own group or for the Kingdom of God?

Recruiting others to join a human organization, often at the expense of another group and for ends other than the converts personal welfare will always be open to the criticism of “proselytizing,” and rightly so. But Christian persuasion under the ethical guidance of the scriptures should not be confused with such practices. Such persuasion seeks to convince by presenting facts without distortion to a mind fully engaged and a will free to accept or reject the information. On the other hand, proselytizing seeks to convince through a distorted presentation of the "facts” for the benefit of the communicator. For the proselytizer, the means (distortion) justify the ends (gain for the communicator). But the Christian communicator seeks to win others to Jesus for their benefit and God’s glory, not his or her own.

Of course, when there is a radical realignment in one’s spiritual allegiances, there is often a corresponding realignment in the social realm. Such was the case of Paul’s experience in the town of Thessalonia during the spread of the first century church. Acts 17:106 reports that a number of converts were made as a result of his preaching the message of Christ. “These new believers “were persuaded and joined Paul.” Not surprisingly, those from the group they left became angry that Paul’s gain was their loss. They took swift retributive action against these converts and against Paul, chasing him out of town and even pursuing him more than fifty miles down the road.

But was Paul guilty of “proselytizing?” Is the Christian persuader guilty of unethical or even impolite behavior? Is he or she a religious rustler, a sheep stealer? The Christian communicator would answer “no” to these accusations. We endorse the necessity of a prior transfer of one’s spiritual loyalties before a transfer of social loyalties is considered. We affirm the ethical obligation imposed upon us by the scriptures to win men and women to Jesus, and not to “us.” We seek no convert that is not already claimed by Jesus as "one of His sheep.” (John 10:27)

The persuaded man or woman persuading others will always invite the disdain of those committed to the tenets of pluralistic fair play. But the Christian communicator affirms the ethical propriety of calling for authentic spiritual realignment from those to whom Jesus has laid prior claim.