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The Ethics of Evangelism (by Elmer John Thiessen)

Ethics of evangelism

[Elmer J. Thiessen introduces his recent book, The Ethics of Evangelism: A Philosophical Defence of Ethical Proselytizing and Persuasion (Paternoster Press & IVP Academic, 2011).]

The activity of religious proselytizing or evangelism is often under attack, and would seem to be increasingly so today. Sometimes critics suggest that most proselytizing is immoral, while at other times they call into question the very institution of proselytizing. In other words, proselytizing is considered to be immoral by its very nature. This opposition to proselytizing spills over into the political realm, with at times growing world-wide restrictions on religious freedom and the right to proselytize.

In the first two chapters of The Ethics of Evangelism, I review this opposition and also articulate the two basic objectives of the book – to defend evangelism against a variety of objections, and to develop criteria to distinguish between ethical and unethical forms of evangelism.  My book was written with two readerships in mind – skeptics opposed to religion and religious activity, and religious adherents, especially evangelical Christians, who are very much committed to evangelism.Skeptics need to hear a defense of evangelism, and religious believers need to be told that not just anything goes in trying to bring about conversions.

Proselytizing is defined as “the deliberate attempt of a person or organization, through communication, to bring about the conversion of another person or a group of persons, where conversion is understood to involve a change of a person’s belief, behavior, identity, and belonging.”  I treat “evangelism” and “proselytizing” as synonyms, even though the latter term has come to be associated with evangelistic malpractice” in Christian circles.  My fear is that using two words for essentially the same activity leads to a skirting of issues.  Evangelism is therefore treated as a neutral term from an ethical point of view, thus allowing for it to be done either in an ethical or an unethical manner.

A final issue addressed in the first two chapters is the ethical framework being assumed in addressing the central focus of the book.  I appeal to the dignity and care of persons as foundational to ethics.  It was Immanuel Kant, in the eighteenth century, who gave us the modern and secular version of an ethical theory based on the dignity of persons. It is also possible to provide a religious grounding for human dignity – each person is created in the image of God.  My hope is that all (or at least most) people will accept the dignity of persons as foundational to ethics. Historically, an emphasis on the dignity of human beings has led to an ethics formulated in terms of rights and duties. Some feminist writers have reminded us of the limitations of rights-based ethics. I therefore combine an emphasis on the dignity and worth of persons with an emphasis on love and care for persons.

In chapters 3-5 I attempt to answer the many critics who would condemn most or even all evangelism as immoral. Objections to evangelism can be divided roughly into two categories.  First, some of the objections are empirical in nature.  For example, it is argued that efforts at evangelism have harmful consequences for individuals or for society as a whole. Some critics argue that evangelism leads to resentment, hatred, disunity in society, and even holy wars. Sadly, there is some truth to these empirically-based objections.  But, we need to be fair.  All too often, claims about the harmful consequences of evangelism involve sweeping generalizations with little or no concern about concrete evidence.  Critics also tend to load the dice by talking about fanatic, irrational, or aggressive evangelists.  And what about the counter-evidence – the countless individuals who have received relief from guilt after responding to evangelists’ proclamation of the message of forgiveness in Jesus Christ? Then there are religious revivals that have prompted significant moral improvement in societies. Empirically-based objections to evangelism aren’t as strong as is commonly assumed.

The second and more common kind of objection to evangelism is conceptual in nature.  It is often argued that there are certain characteristics of evangelism that make it immoral by its very nature.  Some critics feel that persuasion is in itself immoral.  Others focus more specifically on religious persuasion and argue that this is immoral because of the uncertainty or irrationality of religious claims.  Still others maintain that evangelism is arrogant and intolerant.  Some critics question the motivation behind evangelism.  Then of course there is the charge that evangelism is coercive by its very nature.  I argue that each of these objections against evangelism is unsound, based on problematic assumptions and questionable definitions.  Blanket condemnations of all evangelism, or claims that evangelism is inherently unethical, are simply unwarranted.

I devote one chapter to providing a positive general defense of proselytizing (Ch. 6). I argue that sharing our beliefs and convictions is an essential part of the human makeup.  Much of our conversation involves persuading others about our beliefs and convictions, and our efforts to persuade cover a wide variety of issues, including religion.  Sharing our beliefs and persuading others about our convictions is an essential part of our own dignity. Trying to persuade other persons of the error of their ways is also a way to honor others. Indifference is in the end an insult to others. John Stuart Mill, in his classic defense of liberty, argues that the propagation and diffusions of religious beliefs is a healthy phenomenon, because it encourages controversy and discussion on “subjects which are large and important enough to kindle enthusiasm,” and which therefore enable even ordinary persons to rise “to something of the dignity of thinking beings” (On Liberty, Ch. 2).


My defense of evangelism is not meant to rule out the possibility of there being unethical methods of evangelism.  We can neither approve of evangelism generally nor condemn it outright, as is sadly all too often done.  Instead, we need to pay more attention to developing criteria to distinguish between ethical and unethical evangelism.

I devote two chapters to analyzing and defending fifteen criteria to help us distinguish between ethical and unethical evangelism (chs. 7 & 8).  Four of my criteria have to do with coercion – physical, psychological, social, and the specific problem of inducements to convert. Physical coercion is the easier criterion to define. Obviously, proselytizing involving the use of physical force or threats is immoral. Some vagueness is unavoidable in defining the other coercive criteria, although in each case there are extremes that should obviously be seen as morally offensive.  Stated as a general principle, ethical proselytizing avoids excessive psychological manipulation. The social coercion criterion addresses the problem of exploiting of power-imbalances when proselytising.  Then there is the inducement criterion: Proselytizing accompanied by material enticement such as money, gifts, or privileges, is immoral. I also address situations where providing medical care or humanitarian aid is in some way linked with proselytizing, and here I argue that the greater the need, the more sensitive the proselytizer must be to the danger of exploiting that need.

Another set of criteria has to do with epistemic concerns, such as rationality, truth, and the way in which we present our claims to truth.  This gives rise to three criteria, given here in abbreviated form.  Rationality criterion:  Proselytizing that attempts to sidestep human reason entirely is unethical. Truthfulness criterion: Ethical proselytizing is truthful.  Humility criterion: Ethical proselytizing is characterized by humility.

Two criteria have to do with motivation.  The primary motivation for ethical proselytizing is love for humanity. Ethical proselytizing is other-centred. It is also not preoccupied with success and church growth.

The final set of criteria relate to liberal principles of tolerance and pluralism. Here it is important to correct contemporary misunderstandings of tolerance where it is seen as precluding all difference and disagreement.  Ethical proselytizing treats persons holding beliefs differing from that of the proselytizer with love and respect. This does not preclude disagreement and even criticism of other religious or irreligious beliefs, but it does preclude hostile attitudes or the use of insulting and abusive language against other religions and worldviews. Ethical proselytizing also is sensitive to communal identity and cultural difference.  Finally, ethical proselytizing operates under the assumption that the other has the right to proselytize as well.


In the final chapter of my book I examine some ways in which we can encourage ethical proselytizing. Legal enforcement is of course one means that can be used, but I caution against using this means because the ethical criteria I offer are rather vague and hence difficult to enact into law and then to enforce.  Further, attempts at legislating the ethics of proselytizing will run into conflict with regulations governing the protection of free speech, as was illustrated in the controversies surrounding twelve years of attempts to introduce the Racial and Religious Hatred bill in Britain, eventually enacted in 2006.  The final problem with legislating ethical evangelism is that legal sanctions can so easily be misused, as has been the case, for example, in Israel and Greece (pp. 226-30). A better approach is to draw on the resources of proselytizing religions themselves in order to accomplish this goal. Each proselytizing religion should be encouraged to develop an ethical code that governs its proselytizing activities.  Ethical proselytizing can also be encouraged through social reinforcement. Violators of ethical norms in evangelism and recruitment can be privately and publicly named and shamed.  The International Cultic Studies Association, for example, provides an invaluable service in regard to disseminating information on cults that violate ethical norms when engaged in recruitment activities.


Elmer John Thiessen, having retired after 36 years teaching philosophy at Medicine Hat College in Alberta, Canada, now works as an independent scholar and “roving philosopher” based in Waterloo, ON.  He is the author of two books on the philosophy of education, in addition to his recent book The Ethics of Evangelism.

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