Language matters in witness
Language and terms regarding our Christian witness are not trivial - and the October 1st PC(USA) News article about the New York meeting of high-level Presbyterians and Jews amply demonstrates the reason why.
Most of that strained discussion, the Presbyterian News Service article reports, centered around the PC(USA) vote to begin selective divestment of funds with Israel. But, the article reports, Jewish leaders also had another area of concern: "Jewish leaders also protested the denomination’s decision not to ban funding of messianic congregations such as the controversial Avodat Yisrael in Philadelphia. Rather than decrying the proselytization of Jews the Assembly opted to study how interfaith relations impacts Christian evangelism."
That's the word of the day: proselytization. And it's loaded with freight.
What does proselytize mean, especially in common usage? And how does using it distort the discussion of normal Christian behavior? In a recent meeting with PCUSA Moderator Rick Ufford-Chase, Rick asked me to help him understand the difference I see between proselytism and evangelism. "You can write a blog about it!," he suggested. So here it is.
Dictionary.com gives this definition of proselytize: "To induce someone to convert to one's own religious faith."
Ah, there's the "inducement" factor. And the first thesaurus entry for that word? "Brainwash." The common understanding of proselytization is of an aggressive, manipulative, theological hijacking version of witness. Using it is like setting up a straw man so terrible everyone would want to decry it.
Whatever happened to gracious and faithful presentation of Jesus' message, "Come, follow me," to those of all faiths along with an invitation to find peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ?The massive 1991 PCUSA policy paper on evangelism, Turn to the Living God, carefully parses (and promotes) evangelism. It clearly states "All Christians have the obligation to share their faith with others and to give a reason for hope that is within them (1 Pet. 3:15). The whole church has the responsibility to identify, train, and support those who possess special gifts for evangelism and for equipping others in evangelism (Eph. 4:11-12)."
Evangelism is loving, gracious, non-coercive, and invitational. Labeling evangelism as proselytism distorts the normal activity of Christians. And using a hostile term to describe a universal Christian obligation is a lousy way to clarify muddy waters, even in sensitive inter-faith dialogues. We need to be clear that Presbyterians are committed to evangelism.
The paper also says that "As Jesus attracted people by who he was, so the church today is challenged to demonstrate a quality of living as revealed in Scripture that is attractive to people and is itself a means of evangelism."
The paper restates a World Council of Churches affirmation of global evangelism: "Mission and Evangelism -- An Ecumenical Affirmation" [paragraph 25], calls for the establishment of [Christian] congregations in every human community and culture: This task of sowing the seed needs to be continued until there is, in every human community, a cell of the kingdom, a church confessing Jesus Christ and in his name serving people." It quickly adds, "The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is committed to this task."
Of course those of other religions would want to label any witness activity of Christians as harmful and manipulative. Some in our own church hold ideologies so severely embarrassed by the scandal of Jesus' particularity that they would disallow any evangelism, any attempt to bring a follower of another faith into the fold of Jesus. The influence of Universalistic theologies is also a factor as some conclude that sincere holders of any religion are equally right with God.
Not so those of the Reformed faith, who walk in the "by faith alone" footsteps of Martin Luther.
Not so those of mainstream Presbyterian theology, who know that the great ends of the church start off with the "proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of humankind" (Book of Order G-1.0200).
Not so those who acknowledge that call in the Presbyterian's most recent confession, A Brief Statement of Faith that "The Spirit gives us courage ... to witness among all peoples to Christ as Lord and Savior."
The fact is, language matters in witness. Evangelism in Christ's way is not the straw enemy known as proselytism. Presbyterians clearly affirm evangelism - and if we're faithful to Christ, we are everyday bearing a clear, invitational witness to Christ to those who follow any other way.
-- Dave Hackett