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Prologue - The Evangelicals Set Forth Their Case

Cultic Studies Journal, 1985, Volume 2, Number 2, pages 301-303

Prologue: The Evangelicals Set Forth Their Case

Dietrich Gruen

The task of differentiating between cults and evangelicals and between ethical and unethical evangelism is a complex issue. In addressing this issue our task force has taken several approaches. To begin with, we want to understand how different people use the word “cult" in our society.

First, the word “cult” has historically referred to any group which deviated in its belief system from that of orthodox theology. Some religious people think of this definition when they use or hear the word “cult.” Second, the scientific community uses “cult” to describe groups which unethically control their members, either psychologically or sociologically. Third, in the past decade the media popularized the word "cult," applying it to new religious groups often characterized by dramatic and even bizarre activities and manipulative techniques.

We face a unique situation historically. Many groups defined as cults theologically do not use unethical or aberrant methods of control or persuasion. However, other groups even evangelical Christian ones which would not be defined as cults theologically may use manipulative techniques of control.

“Thee existence of such groups raises the issue of differentiating ethical and unethical evangelism. Distinguishing between “evangelism” and “proselytizing” is central to this issue. The task force agreed that the term "proselytizing,” with all its current pejorative connotations, was not a word whose original positive denotation (“the effort to persuade”) we could redeem and claim for ourselves. It seems proselytizing” is almost always used in an adversarial sense, as something done by “the bad guys on the other side.”

One of the task force members, Gordon Lewis, elaborates on this very point in "Ethical Evangelism, Yes! "Unethical Proselytism, No!” A second writer on our team, Mark McCloskey, discusses the topic "What is Evangelism?" and elsewhere talks about “Evangelism: Persuasion or Proselytizing?”

Even the term “persuasion” needs to be defined in the current context of this debate on ethics in evangelism. Hence, McCloskey's article, “The Ethics of Persuasion in a Pluralistic Culture,” is recommended reading. For another point of view, read Duane Litfin's reprinted article, "The Perils of Persuasive Preaching.” Each represents a different approach to the appropriateness of Christian persuasion. A third related article combines the twin requirements of love and justice in Christian persuasion, and met with the consensus approval of our task force. I refer the interested reader to Richard Johannesen's summary of Em Griffin, "An Ethic for Christian Evangelism.”

All of the above arguments for the legitimacy of ethical evangelism or Christian persuasion reflect the authors” personal points of view. They serve as resource material to buttress the jointly-drafted and debated keynote article. "A Code of Ethics for the Christian Evangelist.” A wealth of other documents serves as the foundation to this ethical code and the articles related to it.

The Code of Ethics stands upon the 1948 United Declaration of Human Rights, of which Article 13 states: “Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion, and the freedom to manifest one’s religion or belief.” Our task force affirms, as well, the Second Vatican Council's "Declaration on Religious Freedom.” John W. Alexander defends “Religious Freedom at Secular Schools,” and we stand supportive of what he says.

Basic to each of these documents, and to this limited code of ethics, is the biblically-rooted and historically-developed Judeo-Christian ethic. Hence, you will see that these ethical principles are necessarily predicated upon and integrated with our theological convictions.

As well-grounded as this code may be, it has many built-in limitations. In drafting the code, we wanted it to reflect the work of reasonable people of faith who are aware of the issues, sensitive to our critics, and eager to reach consensus while voicing our disagreements with one another. Hence, the code is limited to what we could all agree on and to which we could all be held accountable.

This code is also tentative. The task force still needs several months for this proposal to be circulated, discussed, field-tested and amended for consensus-building within and among evangelical organizations (both their national leadership and the rank-and-file membership). Likewise, we hope to eventually reach an agreement with representatives of ecumenical groups.

In the course of the next several months, we intend to make the general guidelines in this ethical code more specific and measurable. Then we can more effectively educate, train, and assess compliance with respect to the code. We acknowledge from the outset that the control or authority which an organization can legitimately and realistically exercise on its people is limited. Inter-Varsity, for example, can have more control over the planned activities of its staff employees than over its autonomous student groups, or, obviously, over the spontaneous behavior of individual students.

As with any formal code of ethics, this code has inherent weaknesses. Apart from some imprecise generalizations and semantically dense theological language, the code may suffer from the presumption of universality. What appears to us to be universal norms may actually be something that is more culturally conditioned or existentially determined.

Furthermore, this code as it stands now is without “teeth,” without an agency to enforce adherence. Hence, it is likely to be most useful with those who are already behaving responsibly and ethically. While we hope otherwise, we fear that the code may have little impact on those malpractitioners who need the guidance the most.

Nonetheless, those who seek to be responsive to a code of ethics at least have herein some guidelines to follow. We suffer no delusions that the refinement and ratification of this code will settle the issue of ethical evangelism.  Far from it. Our work has only just begun!

While admitting these inherent weaknesses, let me close on a more positive note by borrowing some insights from our consultants Richard Johannesen (1983), who defends the potential usefulness of any code of ethics. Firs4 this code can educate persons entering an evangelical ministry by acquainting them with ethical guidelines based on the collective experience of their predecessors and by sensitizing them to the ethical problems common to their field of endeavor.

Second, this code, as simple as it is, can help novice evangelists focus on the problematic areas with which they have to struggle. Complex or unusual cases will still require careful consideration and enlightened choice see our “Case Study in Ethics” but simpler or recurring problems can be more easily resolved with such a code.

“Third, the task force proposed the code as a starting point to stimulate professional and public debate of the major ethical quandaries and specific communication practices we all confront in the field of evangelism. Certainly, that's one of the reasons the editors of the CSJ have commissioned this special issue on “Cults, Evangelicals, and the Ethics of Social Influence.”

Fourth, should this voluntary code become generally accepted by our ministerial colleagues in the field, the need for cumbersome and costly intervention and regulations by various governmental agencies should be minimized. Just as there has been established in recent years the Evangelical Council for Fiscal Accountability (ECFA), perhaps there will someday be an “Evangelical Council for Accountability in Ministry.” With such a council and/or code of ethics in place, we will have a court of appeal for both critics and defenders arguing the issues of ethics involved in any given communications practice.

In closing, let me acknowledge publicly on behalf of the whole team of collaborators our gratitude to the American Family Foundation. You have taken the initiative and given us this forum to help Christian persuaders clean up their act.  And for that, we thank you.