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Spring 2013 · Vol. 42 No. 1 · pp. 109–111 

Book Review

The Ethics of Evangelism: A Philosophical Defense of Proselytizing and Persuasion

Elmer John Thiessen. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2011. 253 pages.

Reviewed by Edgar French

Thiessen’s argument is an appeal to redefine, reconsider, and redeem the practice of evangelism, which is regarded in postmodern secular culture as a coercive and violent assault on the rights that make for a democratic and liberal society. This book is a plea to unburden the practice of proselytizing (Thiessen’s term for Christian evangelism) from the vices and abuses of history and to distinguish between ethical and unethical proselytizing. Thiessen (Tyndale University College and Seminary) writes from the vantage point of Christian academia but his desire is to engage both a religious and secular readership. Herein lies the book’s strengths and weaknesses.

The author’s methodology is shaped by philosophical ethics. His approach is also influenced by his understanding of ethics as a discipline that gives assent to an objective and universal dimension of morality. Thiessen writes, “I believe there are a few broad and basic ethical principles, or ideals of virtue, that are shared by all rational human beings concerned about the good life.” These virtues include tolerance, integrity, truth, and concern for one another. Thiessen’s approach straddles the middle ground, appealing to both the religious realm of ethics, as typified by the Abrahamic faiths and particularly the Christian concept of natural law, and the secular realm characterized by Kantian ethics. Thiessen hones in on Kant’s conception of the dignity of human beings, wherein Kant argues that humans are to be regarded as ends unto themselves and never as means for personal gain. In addition, Thiessen makes use of the ideology of liberalism in pluralistic societies, which seeks to accommodate a diversity of frameworks that advocate for the good life.

Thiessen breaks down his book into two main sections. The first, defensive in nature, encompasses the first six chapters. Here Thiessen addresses common objections to proselytizing. His concern is to guide the reader in distinguishing between the legitimate practice of proselytizing and the coercive means that have tarnished it. In the second section, Thiessen is on the offensive, presenting a series of arguments that intend to depict proselytizing as a legitimate and moral endeavor. His aim is to develop a set of criteria that would make for ethical proselytizing.

Thiessen’s goal is to overcome the view that regards proselytizing as an inherently evil practice. Thiessen writes, “There is all the difference in the world between brainwashing, and a lover gently and carefully trying to persuade his beloved to marry him.” Proselytizing, Thiessen argues, is an innately human practice with the potential to be an expression of human {111} dignity, the desire to communicate, and show care and concern for others. Religious proselytizing is one expression among many of the human proclivity to engage in persuasion. “We like to argue,” claims Thiessen. “We like to persuade others of our point of view. . . . On issues very dear to our hearts, we want others to be like us, to share what has given us meaning and purpose in living.” Not all forms of proselytizing are “ethical,” yet can be considered honorable when guided by the virtues.

Thiessen’s work is undeniably a necessity given the antagonistic culture the Western church finds itself in. Amidst secular society’s hurt and confusion in relation to the church and its malpractices, this book is a vital move towards gaining a sense of clarity for evangelism. Thiessen runs into a significant challenge, however, in his aim to make his appeal through a liberal/secular ethical framework. His conception of ethics is abstracted from the life and practice of the community of faith. There is a point at which the notion of the good life is not intuitively accessible. Christian ethics depends heavily on revelation, i.e., the incarnation, and only formative within the setting of community life. Ironically, Thiessen himself argues that what is needed in order to understand the practice of evangelism is an overhaul of our standards of civility (139). Indeed, alternate and distinct convictions of civility are what make up for church ethics. While the church is called to engage with the world and other faiths, there are limitations in the commonalities of our ethics. If this were not the case the church would have nothing to offer, and we believe it has the world to offer.

Thiessen concedes to this flaw in his argument in a footnote on page 219. There he informs us of his intent to write a sequel to this present monograph in which he will deal with the subject matter from an explicitly Christian perspective. While some may argue that to disregard secular society’s ethical framework is to move towards making the church’s claims irrelevant, I believe it is a step towards making them relevant. Thiessen alludes to this view in a statement in which he affirms that “the cure for abuses in religious proselytizing might best be found within each of the religious traditions themselves” (219).

What the world needs, more than an apologia on evangelism, is for the church to understand what it has been called to and how it is to herald the gospel. After all, it is the church that has defiled such practice. It is the church that needs to recognize what proselytizing entails so that it may indeed be the bearer of good news.

Edgar French
Lead Pastor
Christian Family Center, Winnipeg, Manitoba

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