Book Review - The Ethics of Evangelism

International Journal of Cultic Studies, 3, 2012, 79-81.

Book Review - The Ethics of Evangelism: A Philosophical Defense of Proselytizing and Persuasion

by Elmer John Theissen

Reviewed by the Reverend Richard L. Dowhower, DD

Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press. 2011. ISBN-10: 0830839275; ISBN-13: 978-0830839278 (paperback), $19.20, InterVarsity Press; $18.72, 285 pages.

The term proselytizing may have pejorative connotations to some people, but not to this research professor of education at Tyndale University College and Seminary in Toronto, Canada. He wants to defend proselytizing and evangelism, “the making of converts, those who have come over from one opinion, belief, creed or party to another,” as not only morally respectable but to be desired and pursued.

In morally and ethically justifying efforts at religious conversion, namely helping others “to change their belief, behavior, identity and sense of belonging,” Dr. Theissen uses the controversial word proselytizing almost exclusively, ignoring for the most part more comfortable terms for missionary activity, such as evangelization, witnessing, saving souls, sharing one’s faith, recruiting, and so on. He’s out to redeem and sanctify the dirty “p” word and its practice.

While identifying his discipline and method as that of a philosopher, he early on classifies himself as a committed evangelical Christian of the Mennonite tradition: “I believe in writing (and teaching) from and for commitment … it needs to be underscored that my presentation is an exercise of advocacy, not of disinterested neutrality.” The author's commitment to exercising advocacy rather than disinterested neutrality is shared by his publisher, the InterVarsity Press, the publishing arm of the well-known campus evangelism movement of the same name.

By comparison, I, the reviewer, am a committed Christian clergy (although retired) of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, having served for 2 years in my national denomination’s Pastor-Evangelist corps. At the same time, I have been a member of the International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA) and its predecessor organization for more than 30 years. (I frequently introduced myself as a counter-cult missionary to the mainline churches and a missionary for healthy religion to the counter-cult movement.) At any rate, I approached this book without an antagonistic bias.

I did approach this book with two overriding questions: Would Dr. Theissen address the cult phenomena? And, if so, how would he treat the ICSA?

Theissen states his intent as

…simply to illustrate that proselytizing is often in the news, that it is most often seen as a very controversial topic, and that most often it is described in pejorative terms, even as an immoral activity. This book is an exploration of the ethics of proselytizing. (p. 8)

He defines his objectives for this monograph as to clarify the charges often made against religious proselytizing and to answer these charges, to defend the possibility of ethical proselytizing, and to define and apply criteria for defining moral and immoral forms.

The author’s most persuasive characteristics begin with his acknowledgement and utilization of ambiguity in dealing with proselytizing in both its immoral and moral manifestations. He addresses the excesses of evangelization, such as arrogance, deception, coercion, and inducements. He seeks to win the reader’s respect by citing all the types of immoral and unethical extremes in the history of proselytizing he can find through his extensive research, and then beating the critical reader to the punch in condemning them.

Theissen is most concerned to challenge those who condemn all proselytizing as immoral and always wrong. This is especially true of liberals like my fellow-Lutheran, Martin Marty; Theissen cites Marty as condemning evangelization for violating the ethical mandate of a pluralistic society that demands mutually respectful tolerance as the moral imperative among peoples of different beliefs and practices, and thus substituting dialog for efforts to convert.

Much later, the author identifies the fact that many countries legally condemn proselytizing; he cites a 2009 Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life study, which reported that 70 per cent of the world’s population lives in 64 nations that impose high restrictions on religion. Although his research identifies a number of proposed ethical codes for evangelism, he deals with none of them in detail but chooses to focus the reader’s attention instead on his own 15 criteria for the moral and ethical practice of proselytizing: dignity, care, physical coercion, psychological coercion, social coercion, inducement, rationality, truthfulness, humility, tolerance, motivation, identity, cultural sensitivity, results, and the Golden Rule.

A thorough review of the literature on the ethics of evangelism is one of the greatest strengths of Theissen’s work, even if it frequently leaves him disappointed at the meager results. The review produced 20 pages of bibliography totaling some 380 publications, including a number by Michael Langone and 13 other authors associated with the ICSA and its predecessor organizations.

Regarding my inquiry about Theissen’s awareness and treatment of the cults and ICSA, I was initially pleased, three pages into the Preface, to find evidence of cooperation between the author and ICSA about cults. Among four publications the author cited to be quoted later with permission was a 2006 Cultic Studies Review article, “The Problems and Possibilities of Defining Precise Criteria to Distinguish Between Ethical and Unethical Proselytizing/Evangelism.”

My initial warm feelings about Theissen, cults, and the ICSA turned quite cool when, among 24 related references by my count, the next significant statement came in a chapter that dealt with various forms of religious coercion:

So much for the charge of coercion against the cults. More generally, I would suggest that critics of proselytizing are playing fast and loose with the notion of coercion. It is this kind of elasticity in meaning and non-specificity in its applicability that makes Young and Griffith reject coercive persuasion as a useful way to distinguish between moral and immoral methods of proselytizing (1992). Further, the language used in making the charge of coercion against proselytizing is invariably strident and exaggerated. (page 87)

I began to wonder whether the good Dr. Theissen has ever experienced firsthand, in a personal encounter, a cult victim, the victim’s family, and their story. The next significant interaction regarding coercion comes on page 157, where we read,

More has been written on this topic in relation to what are often identified as cults, or new religious movements. However as I already explained in chapters 1 and 4, we should not expect too much by way of help from this corner in distinguishing between ethical and unethical proselytizing.

Then he refers us to Appendix 2 (page 248), where he continues to discount research associated with ICSA even further:

Clearly, scholarly opinion still remains divided on identifying what is objectionable in the cults (Young and Griffith, 1992, 96). This is one reason why [sic] I have avoided getting too preoccupied with this cult literature and with this dispute regarding the cults. There are other reasons for doing so. Much of the literature on the cults is not that useful for my purposes as it lacks the conceptual precision philosophers strive for, and I am trying to achieve in this book.

Dr. Theissen’s philosophical approach, as announced in the subtitle, may be at odds with my more experiential and existential approach. He researches the academic work of other scholars, while pastorally oriented persons are more concerned about specific individuals and their families whose lives have been drastically harmed by abusive proselytizers. I take my hat off to my colleagues in the ICSA who have worked diligently to make our cause respectable in the halls of scholars. Here is one we have yet to convert.

Although I personally and professionally approve and agree with the author’s 15 criteria for ethical evangelism and his condemnation of the many moral violations he cites, I found his writing style tediously repetitious after the first 140 pages, as I muttered to myself, “Oh, you already told me that more than once.”

The cult phenomena may not have served his purposes very well, and InterVarsity may concur; but Elmer John Theissen’s inability to share my perspective and commitments in that regard left me disappointed and doubtful of the depth, breadth, and relevance of his scholarly wisdom.

International Journal of Cultic Studies ■ Vol. 3, 2012