We welcome dialogue. We celebrate differences. We promote peace. But proselytizing? No way.
What is the definition of proselytizing? Proselytizing is simply the act of seeking to make converts. ((In Matthew 23:15, Jesus refers to the Pharisees practice of traveling far and wide to “make a single proselyte.” (προσήλυτος) )) Why is that so bad? Because proselytizing implies one person is right and the other is wrong. Proselytizing thereby appears presumptuous and rude, maybe even arrogant. And to make matters worse, we can probably all think of examples of where proselytizing has gone horribly wrong, where it has been too shallow, or too forceful, or too indifferent, or too whatever.
I certainly feel this tension around proselytizing. In preaching, I feel very comfortable and bold in sharing the gospel, but in a sense, that’s on my turf and on my terms. But in personal and familial friendships, I hesitate to openly share the truth. I’m afraid of offending my friend. I’m afraid of shutting down the relationship with “my views.” After all, religion and politics…you just don’t go there in polite company, right?
But here’s the thing…
As a Christian, I believe what I have to share is in fact true. I believe Jesus really died on the cross for our sins. I really believe if we repent and turn to him, he will save us from hell. I believe that. So if I’m convinced this is all true, there must be a moment where (dash it all!) I state the good news about Jesus, that he can save us. This moment is unavoidable, regardless of your missional, incarnational, relational, use-actions-not-words, St.-Francis-of-Assisi-like strategy. There must be a moment when we speak the gospel. The gospel is news and as such, it must be heralded, verbally.
A Voice from the Past
A recent conversation about proselytizing got me thinking along these lines, and I was reminded of something Jonathan Edwards once said. He was defending his boldness in preaching brimstone and hellfire, but I think his logic extends to this discussion. Edwards writes:
“If any of you who are heads of families saw one of your children in a house all on fire, and in imminent danger of being soon consumed in the flames, yet seemed to be very insensible of its danger, and neglected to escape after you had often called to it – would you go on to speak to it only in a cold and indifferent manner? Would not you cry aloud, and call earnestly to it, and represent the danger it was in, and its own folly in delaying, in the most lively manner of which you was capable? Would not nature itself teach this, and oblige you to it? If you should continue to speak to it only in a cold manner, as you are wont to do in ordinary conversation about indifferent matters would not those about you begin to think you were bereft of reason yourself? This is not the way of mankind in temporal affairs of great moment, that require earnest heed and great haste, and about which they are greatly concerned. They are not wont to speak to others of their danger, and warn them but a little or in a cold and indifferent manner. Nature teaches men otherwise. If we who have the care of souls, knew what hell was, had seen the state of the damned, or by any other means had become sensible how dreadful their case was – and at the same time knew that the greater part of men went thither, and saw our hearers not sensible of their danger – it would be morally impossible for us to avoid most earnestly setting before them the dreadfulness of that mystery, and their great exposedness to it, and even to cry aloud to them.” ((Jonathan Edwards, The Works of Jonathan Edwards: Volume 2, p. 266))
These are strong words: “it would be morally impossible for us to avoid most earnestly setting before them the dreadfulness of that mystery…to cry aloud to them” Edwards moves us from polite conversation to shameless pleading. Of course, I would offer several caveats for proselytizing, and there is wisdom in waiting and timing and meekness and genuineness, service, and heartfelt love. But in situations of outreach, I tend to gravitate towards those expressions, not because I’m virtuous but because all those things let be avoid the moment when I must speak up, when I must risk the relationship, when I must say Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. I need more boldness and urgency, not more seeds of service and evangelistic clues.
So how about you?
Some Questions for Comment
- What do you think of those who share their faith? Are you okay with that, even if you disagree?
- Is there room for proselytizing in a pluralistic society?
- Personally, do you err on the side of boldness or meekness?
- What does the evangelical church need more of in your opinion, boldness or meekness? Preaching or service?
Update: Check out Jonathan Fitzgerald’s response.