Proselytizing and the Great Commission

What is so evil about proselytizing, about winning souls? In some parts of Scripture, Jesus seems to encourage it:

“…but you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth.” (Acts 1:8)

“Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you;…” (Matthew 28:19-20)

So Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you; as the Father has sent Me, I also send you.” (John 20:21)

Proselytizing, which tends to carry a slightly negative connotation, is also known as evangelism, faith-sharing, witnessing, soul-winning, and soul-saving. Christianity believes in it more than any other faith. The Bahá’í practice it but do not require targets to relinquish former beliefs because the Bahá’í believe in “progressive revelation”—Bahá’í beliefs don’t replace but are simply added on top of what you already believe. To Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, and Sikhs, proselytizing is generally a foreign concept. The Koran states that is is not permissible to force anyone to follow the Islamic way of life:

Let there be no compulsion in religion: Truth stands out clear from Error: whoever rejects evil and believes in Allah hath grasped the most trustworthy hand-hold, that never breaks. And Allah heareth and knoweth all things. — trans. Yusuf Ali, Quran 2:256

However, there is a form of proselytizing in that Muslims are invited to share the word of Allah and his goodness to others (here is an example.)

Except for the Second Temple period (the time of Jesus) Judaism had little to say about evangelism. Most converts to it came through marriage to Jews, and the emphasis was on developing Jewish cultural rather than religious identity. The Druze, Yazedis, and Zoroastrians do not accept converts. One can only be born into those faiths.

Christians strongly urge evangelism. It seems that the religions that focus on a heaven to be gained and a hell to be avoided are more likely to proselytize, to win or save souls. Indeed, it might be argued that it would be (at best) highly irresponsible for those who really believe that salvation comes only through Jesus not to encourage others to become Christians:

And there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12)


Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me. (John 14:6)

Oddly though, He also said:

“No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up on the last day.” (John 6:44)

As well, the whole idea of proselytizing seems to be brought into question in this passage:

There was the true Light which, coming into the world, enlightens every man. [If every man is enlightened, there is no need to proselytize—DW.] He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, and the world did not know Him. He came to His own, and those who were His own did not receive Him. But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth. John *testified about Him and cried out, saying, “This was He of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me has a higher rank than I, for He existed before me.’” For of His fullness we have all received, and grace upon grace. For the Law was given through Moses; grace and truth were realized through Jesus Christ. No one has seen God at any time; the only begotten God who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained Him. (John 1:9-18)

Is it God’s business to reveal Himself to individuals in places and times of His own choosing? The great religions emphasize different aspects of religious life. For Christians, the emphasis is on saving souls; an emphasis served by evangelism to get people to relinquish a false set of beliefs and teachings and instead embracing the “right” set of beliefs and teachings. For Moslems, the emphasis is on physically doing the right thing through the Five Pillars of Islam—shahada (confession of faith), salat (prayer), zakat (almsgiving), sawm (fasting, especially during the month of Ramadan), and hajj (the pilgrimage to Mecca). In Eastern religions the emphasis is on thinking the right things—how to empty and enlighten the mind. Thus, there are differences in emphasis as between soul, body, and mind.

Mother Theresa is reported to have said: “I love all religions, but I am in love with my own.” Most people are born into their religion. Their native culture provides the framework for their religious understanding. Why would they change? Why would they want to become something different? Why does an alien set of beliefs become more appealing than home-grown beliefs?

Why the severe woe to the Pharisees? They appear to be condemned for attempting to force their picture of God onto others. In an ideal world, would we all share the same picture of God, hold the same beliefs, practice the same way? Could it be that God has a separate and unique revelation for every individual, and that by trying to get them to accept a different revelation, we risk turning them into “sons of hell”?

Jay: People born into a religion have a sense of the moral rightness of their faith and their way of life. Knowing that we were not born into another religion is akin to knowing that we were not born to a crack mother or an abusive father or into poverty or into a social stratum lacking educational opportunity. We feel advantaged by the circumstances of our birth.

How unfair is it, then, for those born with what we perceive as a moral disadvantage? In a fallen world of sin, some will be more disadvantaged than others through sheer luck of the draw. But to be born with a moral disadvantage into a system that may disdain, shun, and even punish that disadvantage seems to be most unfair. Is it wrong to seek to bring them into the light?

Don: My Moslem friends often wish sincerely that I were Moslem. They are truly concerned that by not practicing the Five Pillars I am lost. If I had been born in Mecca, learnt to speak the language of God and prayed the prayers of God five times a day, they would have had no cause to be concerned about me. But I happened to be born in America and learnt to pray in English at Seventh Day Adventist church services. I suppose I could learn to speak and pray in Arabic, but why would I? Christians tend to feel the same way about their Moslem friends: “If only you had been born on the right track to salvation,…”

David: Jesus told us to be born again and become like infants. Nobody is born speaking Arabic, or any other tongue. Babies cannot talk, but we must presume they are closer to God than adults. We begin to interfere with that relationship the moment we start to teach them to speak a human language. If God has a separate and unique revelation for every individual, then surely it was there at birth. If it were revealed later in life, then being born again would destroy the revelation. To mess with that revelation is a serious indictment—and it seems to me it must apply not just to the Pharisees but to religion as a whole.

Donald: A conversion affects and tends to disrupt not just the individual but the family and the local society. Perhaps that disruption should factor into any discussion of evangelism.

Don: I have seen conversions from Hinduism to Christianity that were fraught with disruptive tension within the families.

Srilakshmi: That they may turn out well in the end is perhaps moot!

Jay: The Bible gives us a Great Commission to go out and do something to share the Good News. We take that to mean go out and evangelize. But given the terrible woe Jesus associates with proselytizing, have we misunderstood the Great Commission? We make it a moral issue.

Michael: Evangelists essentially tell conversion targets that they (the targets) are immoral; that, by converting, they will be made moral. Christianity might truly have something different from other religions to tell everyone, but it should not be cast as morality. Rather, it is that God’s forgiveness is unconditional and there for all.

Kiran: People equate conversion to brainwashing, but it is too deep, too emotional, for that. It is not simply an intellectual conversion. Forgiveness is key. Self-examination may lead people to realize that they are unworthy. Christianity offers God’s grace and forgiveness for our sins. It seems to me that this concept is alien to other religions and if introduced might be disruptive to them.

Donald: Should we proselytize by the way we live our life, by demonstrating a good lifestyle, rather than by talking about it? If we talk about it, we are inherently pointing out the distinction with other people’s concept of a good life.

Kiran: In India, people who are rich and successful are considered rich and successful because they serve a better, more powerful God. To the Hindu mindset, poor Christians are not a very attractive enticement to switch allegiance.

Robin, in the Great Commission, Jesus specifically said to make disciples to witness what He showed them. He did not say that anyone had to convert to Judaism. He showed us that it doesn’t matter how we feel about our status compared to others, because God loves you and me as much as He loves anybody else. He showed us how to live and how to share—how to proselytize—in a way that has nothing to do with social or educational status.

All religions are tempted to claim superiority. The Great Commission has perhaps been watered down by a desire to show superiority, when it was intended to teach people to behave and to love as Jesus did—period.

Jay: We talk on the one hand about how to relate to God, and on the other about how religion influences that relationship. It is a shame that they tend to be quite different. Reading the Great Commission from the first perspective leads to Robin’s interpretation. Reading it from the religious perspective leads Christians to baptize and proselytize, often with strings attached. A baptism that involves committing to a list of specific conditions is very different from one that simply involves acceptance of the sanctity of one’s fellow Man. How did the two perspectives arise?

Donald: I have taught photography for 20 years. One aspect I taught was the photographer’s visual orientation. At the end of my classes, students would leave with a different perspective on how to organize what they see in order to understand it.

We all do that naturally, without thinking, without attaching moral values to it. We more-or-less unconsciously decide what to look at and in what order, depending on whether there is conflict between the things we see, and our choice is predictable—as advertising understands extremely well! But photographers learn to look consciously at a scene. Does that mean that non-photographers cannot really see?

The fact is that all of us can organize things visually just fine, to get along in life. But if we go to others and say “You are looking at things in the wrong way” we might reveal something new to them. We could just give them a list re-ordered from our perspective, or we could teach them how we look at the world and leave it to them to re-order (or not) their own list.

Don: In an ideal world, would we all be Moslems? Or all be Christians? Or Hindus? Or…?

David: We are all born with the same connection with God. We all see God in the same way. We could not articulate the vision or the connection, but it was there when we were born, and Jesus wants us to get it back by being born again.

Donald could make a better photographer out of any of us. But while a photographer’s photographic view of the world may be better than a non-photographer’s, is it a better human view of the world? Is a Christian’s view of the world and religion and God and spirituality better than a Buddhist’s view?

Shakir: Growing up, we are taught that there is only one right path. All other paths are wrong. We may ask ourselves: “Is there really only one right path, or are there several (in addition to all the wrong paths)?” But to me a more important question is: “Am I sitting passively on the right path (perhaps by accident of birth) or am I actively looking for the right path?” Think of someone born into a Moslem family in Mecca, or into an Adventist family in an American town, or into any other “right path,” and who leads a good life. Then think of someone born outside of any “right path” yet who nevertheless leads a good life and searches for a right path to God. Which of these people is God likely to think more, or less, of?

Mikiko: I was born in Japan and raised in the Shinto and Buddhist tradition. Later in life I was introduced to the Bible, which at first I found hard to believe but after much study have come to accept as the truth, even though I may not understand all of it.

Therefore, since we have this ministry through the mercy that was shown us, we do not give up. But we have renounced the shameful, underhanded things, not walking with cunning or adulterating the word of God; but by making the truth manifest, we recommend ourselves to every human conscience in the sight of God. If, in fact, the good news we declare is veiled, it is veiled among those who are perishing, among whom the god of this system of things has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, so that the illumination of the glorious good news about the Christ, who is the image of God, might not shine through. For we are preaching, not about ourselves, but about Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake. For God is the one who said: “Let the light shine out of darkness,” and he has shone on our hearts to illuminate them with the glorious knowledge of God by the face of Christ. (2 Corinthians 4:1-6, New World Translation)

It is a mystery that there are so many religions in the world.

Michael: That’s true. If (as the Bible says) we are all created in the image of God, we should see things the same way. But I recall our discussions about the small gate that only allows one person at a time into the kingdom of heaven. No two people see things exactly alike—not even two Catholics sitting next to one another at Mass. All faiths are made up of unique individuals who can never be identical.

Chris: What if every photographer had the same eye and saw everything the same way? There would be no variation. There are fundamentals of faith, as of photography, that can be taught as the basis for seeing, but the individual believer and photographer adds an unique perspective. The Babelonians all spoke the same language and were unified in their purpose, and look what happened to them! It is not beneficial to be all the same. Proselytizing tries to make people see things the same way. In and of itself that may not be bad; it’s the ultimatum that comes at the end that is bad: If you don’t think my way, you are lost to God.” Christ said nothing of the sort. He said: “The door’s always open. Just keep seeking Me.”

Jay: We cannot cram a timeless and universal God into our time-bound worldly context. We can’t tell how cavemen related to God a thousand years ago, or how Martian colonists will relate to God a thousand years hence.

The Pharisees had an extraordinarily detailed specification for relating to God, but it turned out to be neither a timeless nor a global specification. It is troubles us greatly—we want to pin God down so we know exactly how to relate to Him. We are afraid that if we get it wrong, we will be lost. We approach the Great Commission from that emotionally driven, selfish, perspective, rather than simply from the unselfish perspective of sharing love and mercy and forgiveness with others, and doing so by example—by going to the back of the line, by turning the other cheek, by following the examples Jesus set.

These are universals, as recognizable in Mecca as in Peoria, in Delhi as in Beijing, in Helsinki as in Tokyo. This is what proselytizing should be, not some religious specification.

Donald: Artists are very reluctant to specify their technique, because once they do, it becomes a rule, and artists hate rules. They like to understand the fundamentals of how to see, they like to have working guidelines; but they will not be dictated to regarding how to interpret what they see.

They may also see in some way better than others, yet others can appreciate their work; just as a concert pianist may “see” a piece of music in some way better than his audience, which nevertheless can also greatly appreciate the music.

In the end, do we want guidelines to live by or do we want step-by-step instructions?

David: Interpretation is key. As I understand it, in Islam it is forbidden to interpret the Qur’an, the Word of God. That means that everybody is in one sense on the same page, but on the other hand everyone will have an unique inner sense of the meaning of the Word.

Going right back to the most fundamental of all things human—listening to the Word of God and not to anyone else’s interpretation of it—is what we should do. Life—a baby’s life—begins with the Word of God, not “It’s a girl!” Religious proselytizing is peddling an interpretation of the Word of God.

The Daoist sees the Dao in everything and does not seek to explain it (in part, knowing the futility of trying). The Christian sees the inner light, senses the inner spirit, hears the inner voice of God, guiding but not dictating behavior. We are all unique, different. The voice of God in me may be saying different things to the voice of God in you.

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