More on the distinction between proselytism and evangelism
Today's earlier blog, "Language matters in witness," has already drawn responses from many readers. Some have pointed me to some outstanding additional resources and statements.
Two in particular bear directly on our topic of the distinction between proselytism and evangelism.
The Ecumenical Review has a July 2000 article on Proselytism and Church Relations. The author, Veli-Matti Karkkainen, plumbs the nuances of the terms drawing on research and papers developed in conjunction with the World Council of Churches. He states that
1. Proselytism is often seen as what other communions do.
Proselytism, understandably, is a concern of older, more established historic churches. Usually proselytizing charges come from the older churches who take to themselves the right to define what proselytism means. Often younger churches, those regarded by others as "proselytizers", have not been invited to participate in discussions on the subject, nor is it readily apparent that they are particularly concerned to address the subject themselves. The evangelizing activities of, for example, many free churches and their numerous outreach organizations have been effective to the point that older churches are concerned that they may lose even a substantial amount of their members as a result of such activities.2. Calling a church's witness "proselytism" is often an attempt to deny a church its right to share its distinctive witness.
Every church has to be given the right to give its distinctive witness, both to non-believers and members of other churches, even if that message disagrees with the doctrines of other Churches, without it being labelled as "proselytism." ... [A] church, to be a church, has to be engaged in mission and evangelization and must let other churches do the same. ... Thus the refusal to let other churches give their distinctive testimony to the apostolic gospel means nothing less than denying their ecclesiality. A church cannot exist if it has to ask for its right of existence from other churches. Rather, all churches receive their ecclesiality from the presence of Christ and his Spirit among his people.3. Proselytism, while originally a positive term, has come to mean inappropriate attempts at conversion.
In 1970, the WCC produced another joint document, Common Witness and Proselytism (1970). ...According to Common Witness and Proselytism, the concept of proselytism covers all inappropriate attempts at conversion which violate the individual's right to religious freedom and prevent him or her from making a religious decision in freedom. The document encourages the avoidance of actions and attitudes which might be rightly considered as proselytism: every kind of violence, moral constraint, pressure, using of material benefits, other kinds of inducements, and so on.4. Even the Pentecostals - often labeled as likely to proselytize by some - reject proselytization. The Pentecostal team involved in WCC discussions defined proselytism as follows:
Proselytism is a disrespectful and uncharitable recruitment of committed members of Christian communities by persons from other Christian communities. We reject all activities which violate the dignity of human persons, their freedom from external coercion, and manipulation in religious matters, or whatever, in the proclamation of the gospel, which does not conform to the ways God in Jesus Christ wishes to draw people to himself in Spirit and truth.A second article, this one by the International Religious Liberty Association, is called Evangelism and Proselytism, by Dr. BB Beach of Newbold College.
1. Beach's definition of proselytism. Beach sees proselytism, or what he also calls "false evangelism," when there is one or more of the following taking place:
Use of cajoling, material inducements, and even bribery to win adepts. Use of intimidation, such as a superior in the workplace exerting improper pressure on employees. Offering social or educational inducements. Falsely attributing teachings or beliefs to others, which they do not hold. Any form of evangelism involving fiscal fraud or extortion. Use of slander and libel. Keeping individuals in intensive indoctrination and separated from family and old friends. Consciously and as a matter of strategy taking advantage of people’s misfortune (e.g. poverty, ignorance, sickness, death in the family).2. An overlooked aspect is every person's fundamental right to be proselytized.
There is one aspect of evangelism or proselytism that is often overlooked. In dealing with the right to proselytize, one must also consider the right to be proselytized, that is the right to receive information, to be taught, to grow in a new or different religious experience. We should deal not only with the right to witness and impart information, but also with the right to receive information....This right to receive information is also a right recognized by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.Taken together, these demonstrate the wide gulf between regular evangelism and proselytism. Even ambitious evangelistic initiatives would fail to meet these definitions of coercive proselytism.
I conclude that all but severely limited uses of the term 'proselytism' are, simply put, religious discrimination.
As Beach puts it, almost all common uses of proselytism "refer to witness and evangelism by other religious confessions, never one’s own, for, after all, reprehensible methods are never used by "my" church, but only by "other" religious bodies!"
I urge my fellow Presbyterians to convert away from our casual use of the term. Let's keep it for the real McCoy.