The Second Woe: The Perils of Proselytizing

The second woe to afflict the Pharisees was this:

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you travel around on sea and land to make one proselyte; and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as yourselves.” (Matthew 23:15)

How can the goal of religious teaching, practice, and life—the laudable goal of the Pharisees—result in double damnation? What did Jesus mean by it? In our own zeal to save others, can we be guilty of doing the same thing?

The Pharisees were one of three active religious sects, the other two being the Sadducees and the Essenes, in the time of Jesus. The Greek root of the word Pharisee means to separate, to isolate, to be set apart. Their goal was to separate themselves from worldly contamination—from various things, food, and people. They had lists of things to shun, things to do, and most importantly strict provisions on how to decontaminate themselves should they be defiled through exposure to a contaminant.

They were the religious teachers of the day; upstanding citizens who lived (at least on the surface) exemplary lives. Luke 18 recounts a Pharisee presenting his pious credentials in prayer to God while standing next to a tax collector at whose honest admission of sinfulness he sneered. Yet the Pharisee was probably right. The Pharisees were not thieves and murderers. So why was Jesus so against them?

The short answer is that they were the opposite of the kind of people who make it into the kingdom of heaven:

“Truly I say to you, unless you are converted and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever then humbles himself as this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18:3-4)

Jesus went on to detail the criteria, and ended by saying that

“… where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst.” (Matthew 18:20)

He further elaborated on the criteria in Matthew 5, telling us to turn the other cheek, to love our enemies, to be loving, humble, compassionate, and forgiving, and to adopt other characteristics that hardly described the proud and unforgiving Pharisees. Jesus declared:

“The scribes and the Pharisees have seated themselves in the chair of Moses; therefore all that they tell you, do and observe, but do not do according to their deeds; for they say things and do not do them. They tie up heavy burdens and lay them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are unwilling to move them with so much as a finger. But they do all their deeds to be noticed by men; for they broaden their phylacteries and lengthen the tassels of their garments. They love the place of honor at banquets and the chief seats in the synagogues, and respectful greetings in the market places, and being called Rabbi by men. But do not be called Rabbi; for One is your Teacher, and you are all brothers. Do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven. Do not be called leaders; for One is your Leader, that is, Christ. But the greatest among you shall be your servant. Whoever exalts himself shall be humbled; and whoever humbles himself shall be exalted. (Matthew 23:1-12)

In this second woe to the Pharisees, Jesus condemned them not only for stopping converts from entering heaven but also for corrupting them on their way to heaven, and for drawing these fresh converts into their own camp and by doing so corrupting them as well.

Jews are not evangelistic by nature. Most are ethnic rather than converted Jews, but we know from the epistles of Paul that proselytizers were active in the very early Christian church. And Judaists went all the way from Jerusalem to Galatia in order to corrupt the teaching of Paul and make the practice of Judaism an active part of the religious experience. Jesus acknowledged that the Pharisees’ goal of conversion was laudable, but He implied that the effort was misguided and corrupting to the point of double-damnation.

It is an observable fact that some converts become zealots and fanatics. But how is it possible to be “twice as much a son of hell”? In the Greek Bible, the word for hell in this verse is gehenna, a transliteration of an Old Testament term for the Valley of Henna, a place where the sacrifice of children was made to Moloch by the evil kings of the time (2 Chronicles 28:3 and 33:6). When King Josiah initiated reforms, the site was regarded as a hideous abomination (2 Kings 10:14) and by the time of Jesus it had become a permanently burning garbage dump, with dead human bodies often dumped into it.

How could hell, the object to be shunned by leading a religious life, become a destination for the religious Pharisees? What does Jesus mean by all of this? What was so corrupting in the Pharisees’ proselytizing? Might our own evangelism create converts who become sons of hell? Might what we teach and share destroy souls rather than (as we intend) save them?

Donald: What does it mean to convert someone? To a specific church or to a faith?

Michael: There is a guy who visits Wayne State University regularly with a placard listing all the types of people destined for hell. The list includes homosexuals, adulterers, etc. He shouts out his message in anger and receives a lot of angry shouts in return. It usually ends up basically as a slanging match. Nobody pays him any serious attention.

Don: I see the second woe as a serious indictment. We in our church are deep into proselytizing, sharing our faith, saving souls. It is a key part of who we are and what we do as a collective. The notion that to be saved one must acknowledge Jesus as savior is deeply held in Christianity. Yet Jesus takes the Pharisees’ considerable and arduous and potentially dangerous efforts to proselytize as worthy of double damnation. Might He not take us to task too?

Donald: Do Daoists proselytize?

David: No. Daoism has been turned into a faith but it is just a philosophy at heart. The philosophy is fundamentally: It’s futile to try to change the Way (which I think equates to “God’s will” in religion), so don’t interfere with the Way of other people. Let the Way take its course; let God’s will be done.

I would agree, from personal observation, that born-again Christians tend to be twice as zealous as “normal” Christians. [Postscript: The same is visible in Al Qaida and ISIS as sort-of “born-again” Moslems.] If a faith is the wrong faith to begin with, then to convert into it people who can be predicted to be doubly zealous is doubly bad. The Pharisee version of faith is a hypocritical and therefore a wrong version. The last thing needed is the doubly hypocritical Pharisee convert!

Jay: No matter how energetically it may be conducted, if conversion is based on fundamental error—is not in alignment with the will of God—then it is a bad thing. I think that should be a sobering thought for us. There is enormous danger in religions that proselytize in the belief that they alone know the Truth.

But contrast this with the following statement by Jesus after His resurrection:

“All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. 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 28:18-20)

Michael: Proselytizing stems from an insecurity of faith. Converting someone else to one’s faith “proves” the rightness of one’s own faith. If one is happy and secure in one’s faith then it should be enough to share it with others as the source of one’s happiness and security without converting them. It seems to me an assault on basic human dignity to try to convert someone.

Jay: But then, what is Jesus asking us to do in telling us to baptize everyone in His name? How is that sharing of the faith different from that driven by insecurity and need to be proved right?

Donald: There is a difference between sharing faith and sharing doctrine. I discovered (relatively late in life) that people of different faiths can discuss faith and Scripture without mentioning doctrine.

Michael: Baptism is an act of forgiveness; it is not a rite of initiation. Therefore baptizing everyone means sharing the forgiveness of God with them.

David: Donald’s meetings with people of other denominations sound like the “two or three gathered in My name” meetings consisting of baptism “in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost” in the sense Michael described. Religion seems to be absent from such meetings, but what is present in their discussion is Jesus at His core: Love, compassion, forgiveness, and mercy.

Religions don’t grow through private gatherings of two or three like-minded people. They grow by mass marketing and proselytizing their brand, their doctrinal identity. They all claim to worship a God of mercy and love, so there is no marketing advantage there. It is logically (though by no means humanly, fools that we are) impossible to convert people to a God they already believe in.

The Pharisees did not seem to get very far with their proselytizing. Judaism didn’t get very far except through the diaspora, and it remains a small religion. Daoism fared no better but did not proselytize: It is but a tiny fringe outside China (and even there is small relative to Buddhism and Confucianism). Daoism doesn’t care. The Way is what it is.

I read in the teachings of Jesus that He would agree that doctrine is nothing while love and compassion and forgiveness and mercy are everything.

Donald: I don’t know if it would be different if the people I meet to discuss faith were non-Christians.

Michael: Jesus’ denunciation of the Pharisees as hypocrites implies a moral dimension in the issue, a moral deficiency in the Pharisees.

Jay: The mention of hell and even double hell certainly implies about as heavy a moral aspect as could be imagined. Is there a way to share faith that does not risk this great moral danger?

Don: Our church is built on the basis of proselytizing. Joining the church and sharing faith are synonymous with us. Yet we seem to be at potential risk of condemnation if we fail to understand and heed the warning implicit in what Jesus told the Pharisees. Is it an indictment of theology or practice?

David: Both. He calls them hypocrites because they neither walk the zealous walk nor talk the zealous talk of their converts.

Don: How could that be prevented? How can faith be shared “properly”?

David: It depends on the definition of faith. If we mean faith in a God of love, mercy, compassion, and forgiveness then there is surely nothing immoral in universal human terms about sharing it. But if we mean faith in a church and its identifying features of chosen Scripture, dress, rituals, allowed foods and so on, then there is something if not immoral then at least questionable in sharing it. If a group of people happen to share a liking for certain features then let no-one stop them, but the group should not try to convert others to its beliefs.

Donald: A challenge for churches is that they tend to proselytize through sensationalism. The faithful post yard signs showing Jesus surrounded by the animals featured in Daniel. Who is likely to be attracted by such things? And how good is the retention rate for people converted by such means?

Jay: It’s a problem when we share our doctrine on the basis that it is the only way to God. But can we not share it on the basis that it is one way to God?

David: Each of us is staring the answer literally in the face, right now. We are from different faith groups yet we are here to share our common faith in the God of love, mercy, compassion, and forgiveness. So it seems to me the answer is yes, it can be done and is being done, and I think (hope!) its similarity to the two-or-three-person gatherings Jesus recommend makes us somewhat less damnable than the poor Pharisees!

Jay: But it seems extremely unattractive to the masses.

Donald: We are secure enough in our group that we don’t seek to convert everyone else to our views. We value our conversations for what they are, not for what they could be in terms of audience size.

Michael: Perhaps converts are insecure in their necessarily shallow knowledge of the theology of their newly adopted religion or denomination. Theology thus induces feelings of guilt, making guilt-consumed converts out of guilt-free people.

David: Perhaps meetings like ours would be more attractive to more people if they were not actively discouraged. Religions do not want to expose the faithful to folks they regard as infidels. Religion seeks to divide. Jesus seeks to unite.

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