Besides convertee and convertor, there is a third party to any conversion deal: God. The convertor’s role may be minor in comparison to God’s role. The convertor may serve as a guide and teacher, but should never coerce.
The 2015 Pew Religious Landscape study gave a partial look into conversion, or what it calls “religious switching” that helps put our discussion into perspective. It can be read here. [Editor’s note: The reader may find it helpful to review this link before continuing.]
The Pew study provides a window into the zeal of converts when they switch religions. Switching is a big deal. Convertees must set aside their historical perspective on life, their culture, their practices, and often their own family, and embrace a new way of seeing themselves and the world.
In the case of Pharisee convertees [discussed at length in posts immediately preceding this one–Ed.], Jesus said their new worldview was more evil, more destructive; even hellish. The following passage shows His perspective on conversion:
At that time the disciples came to Jesus and said, “Who then is greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” And He called a child to Himself and set him before them, and said, “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. And whoever receives one such child in My name receives Me; but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble, it would be better for him to have a heavy millstone hung around his neck, and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.
“Woe to the world because of its stumbling blocks! For it is inevitable that stumbling blocks come; but woe to that man through whom the stumbling block comes!
“If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it from you; it is better for you to enter life crippled or lame, than to have two hands or two feet and be cast into the eternal fire. If your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out and throw it from you. It is better for you to enter life with one eye, than to have two eyes and be cast into the fiery hell.
“See that you do not despise one of these little ones, for I say to you that their angels in heaven continually see the face of My Father who is in heaven. (Matthew 18:1-10]
The Greek word for “conversion” used here—[Strong’s Greek 4762—στρέφω (stréphō)] means to turn, or, figuratively, to convert by changing (switching) direction, i.e. go the other way, make an “about-face”, take an opposite or divergent course. It is the same word Jesus used in the Sermon on the Mount when He encouraged us to turn the other cheek. It is not something that simply changes our worldview; it is something that has weighty moral consequences, that can turn people in the wrong direction, that can be a stumbling block to their relationship with God.
Much can be said about the metaphor of becoming childlike. Jesus told Nicodemus it needed a metaphorical rebirth:
Now there was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews; this man came to Jesus by night and said to Him, “Rabbi, we know that You have come from God as a teacher; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him.” Jesus answered and said to him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” (John 3:1:3)
Converting to childlikeness, being born again, is associated with the displacement of arrogance. Humility, said Jesus, is the key component of the turnaround. Jesus did not say you must proactively convert yourself. But you must not resist conversion—it is a passive process. The difference may be subtle, but seems to me important. It is less subtle in the metaphor of rebirth, which by definition is entirely passive.
Reverting from adult to a newborn baby erases an entire lifetime of history. Jesus is calling for a complete spiritual shutdown and reboot. Arrogance comes with an accumulation of knowledge; it brings tyranny, and should be shut down, He says. We must erase what we thing we know and start again with a clean slate.
Everyone is called to conversion, to be born again, on a continuous basis. It happened daily to the apostle Paul:
I affirm, brethren, by the boasting in you which I have in Christ Jesus our Lord, I die daily. (1 Corinthians 15:31)
Humility then becomes a constant companion. Birth, death, and resurrection is a daily cycle of life.
How does all this compare with the evangelistic conversions of the Pharisees, and with evangelism and witnessing in general?
Anonymous: It is not our work. Nobody can change an arrogant person into a humble person. We need to focus on our own need to change.
Donald: Words matter. Nobody wants to be called arrogant, but we don’t mind being called… say… confident. We don’t want a physician who claims to be just an OK physician—we want one who is confident of her skill. Proselytizing and witnessing sound different. The first sounds arrogant; the latter humble. We stick with a faith group rather than switch because we grow comfortable with the people with whom we share our faith. The social factor inhibits religious switching.
David: Jesus was clearly talking about spiritual conversion, not religious conversion. We know He castigated the Pharisees and we know He got angry in the temple once. He was not anti-temple; He seemed to be all for it if it helped people connect with God. He was concerned only with people who and things that hindered that connection. It seems to me He used “conversion” only in the sense of converting from having no connection with God to having a fulfilling relationship with God.
When He said “Follow me” we tend to think He meant “Become a Christian religionist” but there was no organized Christian religion, no Church, in His day. I think He meant “Change the way you live, follow the way I live.” His entire life set the supreme example of living a life of poverty and humility but in connection with God. It seems to me that Jesus would want nothing to do with the kind of conversions today’s religions seek to promote.
Mikiko: Jesus said:
“…everyone who exalts himself will be humiliated, but whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 18:14)
Thus Jesus makes clear the need to be humble. That is beneficial counsel for his disciples, who have been reared in a society in which the self-righteous Pharisees stress position and rank. And it is valuable counsel for all of Jesus’ followers.
Jesus mentioned children. Children are humble and innocent. I know people who used to be violent and arrogant but who changed to become humble. It is difficult, but not impossible.
Don: Can one be humble and right?
Donald: So many things divide us, even to the point of waging religious wars. If everyone followed Jesus that would be great, but suggesting that others “follow Jesus” can lead to a fight. However, suggesting that others follow His way of life seems not to be a divisive suggestion.
Anonymous: To witness is not to convert. We witness God’s work in our life. We glorify God by showing His impact on our life. But religious conversion is based on Scripture, not on spiritual experience, and is aimed at building numbers for the religion in question. True conversion takes place in the heart, in private. We may witness, but we may not try to convert. If we do, we may cause untold damage. When Jesus talked about going out to the world to spread His teaching, I think he meant to go out and witness by the example of our lives.
Kiran: Jesus told the disciples:
“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)
How can this be achieved while traveling and spending only short visits with people? People would no have time to see how convertors live their lives. Jesus was more explicit in this passage:
“Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation. He who has believed and has been baptized shall be saved; but he who has disbelieved shall be condemned. These signs will accompany those who have believed: in My name they will cast out demons, they will speak with new tongues; they will pick up serpents, and if they drink any deadly poison, it will not hurt them; they will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover.” (Mark 16:15-18)
There is an important distinction between our getting a person to affiliate to our group, and Jesus trying to change a person’s heart. I see nothing wrong in introducing people to Jesus; indeed, we should do so by all means. It would be selfish not to do so. But telling people they must live the way we live, eat the way we eat, and so on, or else they won’t get to heaven, is wrong. The Pharisees did just this—they set themselves up as heaven’s gatekeepers.
The only way to witness to someone is after one has felt a change in one’s own heart. People can pick up on that very easily. Pastors who have not felt it do not make persuasive pastors.
Donald: It is troubling to think that conversions are into a relationship with church rather than a relationship with God. Our baptism vows are primarily about what being a Seventh Day Adventist involves. That’s OK, but maybe we need to add a step.
Don: What would I have to do to convert to Islam?
Shakir: You would have to witness that there is no God but Allah and that Muhammad is His Messenger. That’s pretty much it. After that of course you need to learn and practice the other four pillars of Islam—prayer, fasting, alms-giving, and undertaking the Hajj. Then you would learn the six articles of faith:
- Belief in the existence and oneness of God (Allah).
- Belief in the existence of angels.
- Belief in the existence of the books of which God is the author: the Quran (revealed to Muhammad), the Gospel (revealed to Jesus), the Torah (revealed to Moses), and Psalms to David.
- Belief in the existence of all Prophets: Muhammad being the last of them, Jesus the penultimate, and others sent before them.
- Belief in the existence of the Day of Judgment: in that day, humanity will be divided into two groups: that of paradise and that of hell. These groups are themselves composed of subgroups.
- Belief in the existence of God’s predestination, whether it involves good or bad.
But the acknowledgment that there is no God but Allah and that Muhammad is His Messenger is enough to be converted.
Don: What would I have to do to convert to Hinduism?
Srilakshmi: Simply go to a temple and pray.
Anonymous: Is it enough to be Christian to assert that there is no God but God and that Jesus is His Son?
Kiran: It sounds exclusive.
David: There is beauty in its simplicity, just as there is in the Islamic statement of faith, and in Jesus’ exhortation to love God and love your neighbor. The Golden Rule is all-inclusive: The whole world subscribes to it. There is no need for cultural conversion. The only conversion needed is a spiritual conversion, which leads to a behavioral conversion (from acting badly to acting goodly). What more do we need? In spiritual terms, doesn’t all religious Scripture—all thousands of pages of pages of it—boil down to this?
Shakir: Is conversion concerned with our relationship with God, or our relationship with one another? If I bear witness of my faith to my friend whom I know to be of another faith, is it a result of my relationship with God, or of my relationship with my friend? If the former, it doesn’t matter what religion my friend follows or what relationship he has with God or what is the outcome of my witnessing.
The primary effect is on my own relationship with God. Witnessing is a way of thanking God for our faith, regardless of what the other person’s faith is. That person will have his or her own relationship with God, and I have no control over that. If we witness our faith in this way, we do not intervene in other people’s relationships with God and we ourselves maintain a good relationship with them. We enrich our own faith without impoverishing that of our neighbor.
“Go, . . . and make disciples of people of all the nations, baptizing them . . . , teaching them to observe all the things I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:19, 20, New World Translation)
And look! I am with you all the days until the conclusion of the system of things.” (Matthew 28:20, New World Translation)
What does this mean? And:
“Go in through the narrow gate, because broad is the gate and spacious is the road leading off into destruction, and many are going in through it; whereas narrow is the gate and cramped the road leading off into life, and few are finding it. (Matthew 7:13-14, New World Translation)
So everlasting life is available, but it is every person’s individual choice whether or not to accept it.
Donald: We derive strength from our large number of Adventists, and that number is based partly upon our view of the Sabbath. To switch to a denomination that worships on a different Sabbath is difficult—it would separate families on the Sabbath.
Don: Indeed, switching is a major event. It is asking a lot.
David: If switching religions causes problems, we could either make a law against switching (as 25 countries have in fact done) or we could eliminate religion. Do either one of these, and the problem goes away.
Kiran: Hinduism has a Supreme Being—Siva the Creator, Preserver, and Destroyer—and ~330 million gods, so has not the slightest problem in assimilating another god or two. Just hang a picture of Jesus in your shrine and He is automatically a Hindu god. Hindu gods are there to help you—they are in your box, your shrine; you are in charge. But in Christianity, we are here to serve God. So switching between these two religions entails a profound cultural change.
Donald: Non-denominational Christian churches are growing. Denominational doctrine is absent. That makes conversion easier. Are non-denominational gatherings occurring in other religions?
Kiran: Hinduism is not exclusive. Hindus happily participate in various Moslem and Christian and Buddhist celebrations and festivals. They believe that the power to attain nirvana (to enter heaven and end the cycle of worldly reincarnation) rests within the individual, who may turn to God for assistance, but the power rests with the individual. Unfortunately, self-reliance is a millstone to the individual who lacks willpower, who is suffering a crisis of faith. At such times, the individual is open to conversion by representatives of faiths that offer a solution to the personal crisis in the form of a fresh start, a clean slate, spiritual rebirth.
Shakir: God has all three powers of creation, sustenance, and destruction. So we are all talking about the same Being, just using different names.
Don: Can a Moslem cut down a little on the five pillars—say, pray only twice a day—and still be Moslem?
Shakir: I would say not; but the bottom line is one’s relationship with God, and nobody but the individual and God can know what that relationship is. God might accept two prayers from you but demand five from me. I can’t know. Islamic doctrine differs somewhat between communities. It is said that during the time of the Prophet some people asked Him this question and were allowed to practice “Islam lite”. It may be that only the Prophet has the authority to give such permission—an imam certainly does not. Again, I cannot know whether God will grant someone permission directly.
Donald: It would seem easy to build a religion around a hymnal, because hymns are about faith, not about doctrine.
David: The religion of Jesus is the lightest of all, because it is not a religion. It is purely about one’s relationship with God and one’s neighbor.
Don: He said: “My burden is light.”
Anonymous: So why do so many people not follow Him?
David: I don’t know. I agree that it is very hard to follow in the footsteps of Jesus—to be as poor and humble and loving and forgiving as He was.
Donald: Or we might say: It’s easy to be selfish.