We use the words “proselytize” and “evangelize” synonymously, but did Jesus distinguish between them? What about other words we use to mean roughly the same thing: Witnessing, sharing our faith, soul winning, indoctrination? In the “Woes” what was Jesus referring to when He condemned Pharisee proselytism?
Some scholars argue that He was referring to the practice of turning Jews into Pharisees—of converting someone to Pharisee beliefs and culture. To “evangelize” is to proclaim the good news about Jesus Christ and about God, which was not exactly something the Pharisees were noted for. It seems unlikely that a group whose name in Aramaic signified “separateness” and that regarded non-Jews as unclean sinners would embrace social and religious intercourse with Gentiles. Indeed, they indicted Jesus for doing just that.
Conversion from Jew to Pharisee promised an exclusive lifestyle, isolation from the masses, and a unique and correct understanding of the Torah. Does our religion do the same? Jesus had just condemned the Pharisees for sitting in the seat of Moses, the seat of learning; and for their ostentation in dress and public display of good deeds. It seems unlikely that the Pharisees would expend much energy converting Gentiles. The conversion of Jews would make more sense in the context of the condemnation of Jesus.
The point Jesus seemed to be making was that religion itself is no sure path to heaven. He said:
“For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:20)
The Jews at that time, who saw the Pharisees as the most righteous of all, would have been shocked. It seems to me that the crux of Jesus’ argument is that fatal, hell-bound religion is centered upon individual righteousness and piety, while true religion is centered upon God. The Great Commission to baptize people in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost is God-centered. The Pharisees’ commission to convert people into copies of themselves is Man-centered. This woe is what Jesus called “double hell”. It points people away from salvation. Jesus’ warning hearkens back to the first and second Commandments:
“You shall have no other gods before Me.
“You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth. (Exodus 20:3-4)
While we would never consider worshiping an idol made of stone or wood or metal, we easily fall into the trap of turning our beliefs, practices, and culture into conceptual idols, which are easy to worship. This is fatal religion, doubly damned. Whenever we seek to make others like ourselves, it is false and fatal religion. Converting others is a risky business.
Are we still today in danger of wicked witnessing, evil evangelism, satanic soul winning? How? Do we need to change our ideas? Are we converting people to our culture or to a Christ- and God-centered religion? Can we be sectarian and sanctified? How can we fulfill the Great Commission without falling into the Pharisee trap of making converts who are “twice the sons of hell”?
David: It seems to me that done ideally and as I think Jesus meant, missionary work would not involve conversion at all. But in actual church practice, does it? Is there a quid pro quo of conversion in return for a measles jab for your baby?
Don: Historically, the Western missionary brought both Gospel and Western culture. Local cultures were considered lacking in honesty, integrity, and many other respects. Missionaries were colonizers of what were considered to be underdeveloped countries. Even today there remain many cultural elements in missionary work. In most Christian churches in India most clergy, if not most worshipers, wear a suit and tie and sing from a Western hymnal.
Donald: Are we out to make people see things the way we see them? I used to take student groups to East Africa, initially to photograph big game, but later, as I got to know and respect the people of East Africa, I began to introduce the students to them and their ways of life (which can be very different as between the nomadic Maasai, the bush people, and the city dwellers).
In order to do missionary work effectively, it seems to me essential to understand the people who are the object of the mission, and their worldview. In recent decades it seems to me the Adventist church has moved towards Maranatha-style missionary work, akin to building—imposing—our church in populations we really have not taken the time to understand.
Shakir: It is part of Islam’s religious philosophy to teach others what Moslems believe is the one and only right path. For various financial and geopolitical reasons. the practice of proselytization is not widespread, but the principle is.
Jay: Christians also believe that there is just one name under heaven to believe in; that there is only one right path. Knowing that to be the case, it would seem wrong not to proclaim it. Despite the warning in the “Woes,” the Bible call fors conversion, for justification followed by sanctification, for change, for renewal, for being born again. These calls seem to be a positive counter to the negative warning of the Woes.
Perhaps the difference lies in the purpose behind conversion.
Kiran: You may sell people gym memberships, but you cannot make them go to the gym. You won’t sell many gym memberships by telling buyers there is no guarantee they will lose weight or be healthier. You have to be confident in your product, but only the buyer can determine if it really works.
And you cannot avoid impacting the buyer’s culture. The Christian concept of heaven through grace conflicts with the Hindu concept of nirvana through reincarnation. To accommodate the concept of grace, a Hindu must make some cultural adjustment. But like the gym membership, it is the individual’s decision to accept and accommodate it (or not), therefore it is not wrong to offer it.
Donald: Faith and culture are intertwined, but I am not convinced I need to change someone’s perspective in order to share my faith with them. Do we have to read one another’s holy books in order to share our faiths? I don’t know.
Robin: After discussing with me Islam’s view of Jesus, a Moslem customer offered to bring me a translation of the Qur’an on her next visit. I plan to read it to see how it explains things. I don’t think it will put me in spiritual jeopardy. I think it will be interesting to see what Islam teaches and how it explains the characteristics of God and God’s followers. I am in no way doubtful of my Christian faith, nor am I interested in reading the Qur’an for the purpose of being able to argue with Moslems. I simply wish prayerfully to read a holy book I think will be interesting that was gifted to me by a kind person.
David: The Pharisees wanted to convert people to their faith. It seems to me Jesus was simply trying to get people to love God and one another. This is the witnessing I believe He both taught and practiced. It does not require conversion. It can be done, for example, by healing the sick, whoever they are.
So is a church wrong to proselytize? I would say Yes, if proselytizing involves attempting to change someone’s faith; but No, if all it involves is loving one another and (thereby) loving God. The problem is, it’s easier to convert than to love.
Jay: If I am happy with and fulfilled by my religious experience (my church—the context within which I have built my relationship with God and my fellow Man) should I not want to share that experience with others? If I do, am I in danger of suffering the woe of the Pharisees?
Robin: It depends on your motive. If you bully someone to accept your faith, your are not representing God. You are representing an idol you have made for yourself.
Donald: If I think that others don’t know how to see, should I not teach them how? Or should I leave them alone to see the world however they want to see it? I teach student photographers how to organize visual space into something beautiful. Should I teach people of other faiths how to organize their spiritual space?
David: The master of photography may teach the student of photography how to see the world. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder but assemble 100 beholders to compare my photograph of a scene with Donald’s photograph of the same scene and I am certain all would see more beauty in his picture than in mine.
But who is the master of God? Every organized religion shouts: “I AM!” but no institution and no individual can make that claim. Every one of us is a student of God, none of us is a master of God. The God I study is the Holy Spirit inside me. How can you, or your religious institution, be the master of the God within me?
Donald: One of the most joyous of days in teaching a photography class is the first day of critique, when the students paste their first photographs up on the wall to be critiqued by everyone. I tell them to select what they consider to be their best five (out of perhaps 25 they have taken) and invariably they instinctively know which are their five best pictures. They just don’t know (yet) why those pictures were better.
We can all instinctively recognize good behavior in ourselves or others, as well as we can recognize a good picture. We know what beauty and goodness look like. Nobody has to teach us that.
Anonymous: Indeed. We know the right way. Our hearts tell us. We don’t need churches and denominations and so on to mess this up for us, to confuse us.
Kiran: But as a convert, I worry that if someone had not taken the time and effort to talk to me, I might still be a wreck. I knew I was doing wrong, but I refused to admit it.
Anonymous: All religions claim that theirs is the right way. It cannot be, because the right way is common to all humanity. It is not the exclusive property of any religious group.
Kiran: To be converted is to be transformed, to be liberated, to go in peace. We have a right and a responsibility to tell sufferers a way out of their suffering. It is up to the sufferer to decide whether to follow that way. Everybody’s situation—financial, social, psychological, etc.—will be different but it is still their personal decision.
David: The key is that a sufferer asking for help will accept help from any source that offers it, whether it is Christian, Samaritan, Moslem, Adventist, Buddhist, Catholic, Wiccan, or whatever.
Kiran: I was not asking for help, and only realized I needed it when an Adventist came and talked with me one day. It was my own decision to listen and to heed what he said. If he had not spoken up, I would have remained lost. He changed my life. He may have been a zealot, but God can use broken people to heal broken people. Why should we try to prevent that?
Robin: Jesus was famous for reaching out to untouchable cultures and no-go areas, and He sent the disciples there too. But He never went to convert, and He did not send the disciples to convert, anyone to Judaism. He offered instead a view of God and the kingdom of heaven, saying:
“Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.” (Matthew 7:7)
So when people seek to understand what is good, God will reveal it through other people. But it is still God making the revelation, not the people He uses. If there is any coercion or force involved, then the revelation is not of God. In any church, people who discover they remain sinful after being coerced into believing and accepting “the only right way” often leave, because the promised panacea clearly did not work for them.
It is the spirit of God that reveals Him to us. It is not other people. They might spark an interest or help with an explanation but that is the work of God Himself, not the work of someone trying to push personal or institutional views on others.
Kiran: Nebuchadnezzar tried and failed.
Shakir: In Islam, Allah is God and Mohammed is His Messenger. God told Mohammed:
ﮏ ﮐ ﮑ ﮒ ﮓ ﮔ ﮕ ﮖ ﮗ ﮘ ﮙﮚ ﮛ ﮜ ﮝ
“You cannot guide whom you love. But God guides whom He will. He knows best those who are guided.” (Holy Qur’an 28:56, trans. Shakir)
Many Moslems believe proselytism is a matter of teaching by example, not of converting, on the basis of this pronouncement. Only God can convert.
David: Jacob was converted by God, not from one faith to another but from someone who did not acknowledge God to someone who wrestled intimately with God. True conversion comes from God, not from an institution of faith.
Shakir: If God will convert whom He will, what is the point of proselytizing?