Thursday, 19 April 2012

The Ethics of Evangelism - A Review

Thiessen, E. (2011). The Ethics of Evangelism: A Philosophical Defence of Ethical Proselytising and Persuasion. Milton Keynes: Paternoster.

Thank God someone is addressing this issue.  The very fact that so little has been written on the theme of the ethics of evangelism is itself an indication that we’ve got evangelism wrong.  The first priority of evangelism is to bear faithful witness, to communicate the message of Christ in a Christlike way; our primary concern is not results, success, effectiveness.  When we get these priorities wrong evangelism itself gets screwed up.

What we have in The Ethics of Evangelism is a careful and thorough if at times rather plodding attempt to address those critics who claim that proselytising is inherently unethical, that it is, among other things, disrespectful to seek to persuade people to convert.  The author is convinced of two things: that too often evangelism is in fact unethical and that it absolutely need not be.  It is desirable to seek conversions and it is possible to do so in an ethical way.

After a careful definition of terms Thiessen offers us a survey of motivations for proselytising followed by a reflection on the reasons why evangelism has become an increasingly controversial activity.  We are then given a number of examples of unethical proselytising before the author draws on the likes of Kant, Kung, Rorty and Rawls in an attempt to inform an approach to constructing a pragmatic ethic of proselytising.  Thiessen hopes this approach will win respect from people of all faiths and those of no faith – a bit optimistic this, I reckon.

The next section seeks to refute a range of objections to proselytising.  Thiessen takes on issues of epistemology, freedom, integrity, the individual and social nature of human being along with a range of broadly liberal misapprehensions as a way of clearing the ground for a set of positive proposals.  It is these proposals, a list of fifteen criteria for evaluating proselytising, that are the heart of the book and probably the most useful section for those engaged in evangelism including church leaders seeking to encourage their own congregations.

The book has many strengths.  I appreciate the exposure of special pleading and question-begging on the part of some critics of evangelism and the discussions of persuasion and interfaith dialogue were especially helpful.  Thiessen’s critique is consistently even-handed and carefully nuanced.  However, I am not convinced that The Ethics of Evangelism will have the impact that I would like it to have.  Unfortunately the style is hardly gripping and it falls between the stools of a genuinely rigorous academic treatment of the subject and one that seeks to have a broader appeal. 

Despite these reservations I welcome this book enthusiastically,  I hope that it will receive a wide readership, not least amongst church leaders.  I am convinced that the evangelistic malaise that has descended on our churches is due in no small measure to a loss of nerve on the part of Christians who are not comfortable with the very idea of evangelism let alone some of the approaches that were once popular.  We need to expose and eschew deceptive, manipulative, high pressure techniques and recover confidence in speaking of Christ in a Christlike way.  May this book help us along the way.

This review was originally written for Regent's Reviews and is reproduced here with permission of the editor.  Check out the web site to get a free pdf of a whole bunch of reviews. 

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