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The historical record of proselytism carried out by Christians is tragically marred with all kinds of manipolative and violent means.
Proselytism has become a bad word. Like fundamentalism or exclusivism, in today’s religious language, only the negative overtones of the term are retained and are used to convey a derogatory understanding of its meaning.
In its original Greek context the word simply meant “coming closer” to something. In the New Testament, a proselyte describes a non-Israelite who has come close to the Jewish faith (e.g. Matthew 23:15; Acts 2:10, 6:5, 13:43).
In this sense, Christians have understood proselytism as akin to evangelism in the sense of calling all people to come closer to Jesus Christ.
However, the historical record of proselytism carried out by Christians is tragically marred with all kinds of manipolative and violent means, making the word itself contrary to what biblical evangelism and mission should be.
In the present-day ecumenical context, Pope Francis has repeatedly warned against proselytism. The last episode in this campaign occurred few weeks ago. Coming back from his visit to the Genevan headquarters of the World Council of Churches (June 21, 2018),
Pope Francis gave an in-flight interview in which he summed up one of his main concerns as far as the prospects of the ecumenical movement is concerned. Here are his words: “In the ecumenical movement we have to take from the dictionary a word: ‘proselytism.’ Clear? You cannot have ecumenism with proselytism. You have to choose. Either you have an ecumenical spirit or you are a proselytizer”.
Blotting out the word? Choosing between being ecumenical or proselytizer? And these being the only two alternatives? What is happening here? What is behind all this?
What in the World is Proselytism?
The way in which proselytism has been understood is long and lies beyond the scope of this article. To cut the story short, it will suffice to make reference to the 1995 document The Challenge of Proselytism and the Calling to Common Witness,drafted by the Joint Working Group between the Roman Catholic Church and the World Council of Churches (WCC). Here the main ecumenical body (WCC) and Rome articulate their concerns over the issue. Paragraph 19 states:
Proselytism stands in opposition to all ecumenical effort. It includes certain activities which often aim at having people change their church affiliation and which we believe must be avoided, such as the following:
- making unjust or uncharitable references to other churches’ beliefs and practices and even ridiculing them;
- comparing two Christian communities by emphasizing the achievements and ideals of one, and the weaknesses and practical problems of the other;
- employing any kind of physical violence, moral compulsion and psychological pressure e.g. the use of certain advertising techniques in mass media that might bring undue pressure on readers/viewers;
- using political, social and economic power as a means of winning new members for one’s own church;
- extending explicit or implicit offers of education, health care or material inducements or using financial resources with the intent of making converts;
- manipulative attitudes and practices that exploit people’s needs, weaknesses or lack of education especially in situations of distress, and fail to respect their freedom and human dignity.
It is clear that the word is understood as carrying very bad connotations. Note the false alternative between Ecumenism and Proselytism (as if they are the only two options available to present-day Christians) and the lack of historical awareness and self-criticism (as if churches of all stripes –have not used coercion in their endeavors to convert the world up to recent times).
Of course this description of proselytism (loaded with all kinds of evils, from violence to manipulation) makes the word utterly ugly. In this sense, proselytism is synonimous with abusive propaganda.
A shorter definition was already presented in 2001 in the European context by the WCC-related Conference of European Churches (CEC) and the Roman Catholic Council of European Bishops’ Conferences (CCEE).
The Charta Oecumenica (Ecumenical Charter), a document setting the stage for ecumenism in the new millennium, contains the following description:
“Proselytism” is defined in multiple ways but is often understood as unethical or unfaithful practices in evangelizing those who are in some way already members of other churches or Christian communities.
Here again proselytism is presented as being always marked by “unethical” and “unfaithful” behaviors. Certainly it is the duty of Christians to evangelize in a manner worthy of the gospel, respecting the dignity of all human beings and acting in a Christ-like manner.
There is a further point to be underlined here that reinforces what has been previously observed. Notice that in the Charta Oecumenica what is rejected is to evangelize those who are “members of other churches or Christian communities”.
Proselytism is therefore associated with the evangelization of those who are “members” of other churches, whether or not they are born-again Christians.
What really matters is being a formal “member” of a church, not being regenerated by the Holy Spirit and being a believer in Jesus Christ. Charta Oecumenica adopts an ecclesiastical definition of who is a Christian, not a biblical one.
According to this ecumenical document, we should not evangelize those who are already members of a given church. The question is, does being a formal member of a church equal being a Christian in biblical terms? Obviously not.
At the recent Global Christian Forum in Bogotà (Colombia, April 24-27, 2018) the issue of proselytism again came out. In his speech at the Forum, the Roman Catholic representative, Bishop Brian Farrell, said the following:
By recognizing that we participate in a mutual baptism, Bishop Farrell provided a base on which to invite the Christian community to avoid all types of proselytism. Through baptism, “we enter into communion with God and the Christian community using the biblical form: through water and the Trinitarian formula.”
This is the standard ecumenical pattern already observed in Charta Oecumenica: baptism (i.e. a sacrament of the church) is the entry point into fellowship with God (i.e. regeneration) and membership in the church, which in turn leads to the condemnation of “proselytism” towards those who are baptized.
Hence evangelism to the “members” of a given church is proselytism and must be avoided at all cost.
Either Ecumenism or Proselytism?
Notice the subtle but significant shift that is taking place in ecumenical circles, which forms the background of the Pope’s statement: proselytism is no longer defined by unethical practices (e.g. violence and manipulation) but by its target (i.e. the “members” of a church).
The recipient, rather than the manner, is the main qualifier of the term. Once the negative understanding of proselytism is in place, the real goal of this move becomes clearer. Since baptized people are already members of a church, it is unethical to evangelize them.
Proselytism becomes a derogatory label to disqualify those who want to evangelize their neighbors because they are not believers, even though they might be “members” of a church, whatever that means for them.
We come back to where we started. The 1995 WCC-Catholic document said it clearly from the outset: “Proselytism stands in opposition to all ecumenical efforts”. The real issue is not so much the right exposing of all immoral practices that can accompany evangelism, but rather growing opposition to the fact that evangelism can be done by minority groups in places where the majority is nominally “Christian”.
The trajectory of the ecumenical meaning of the word “proselytism” has moved from warning against immoral acts of a legitimate action to warning against all evangelism in already “Christianized” contexts by labelling it as proselytism.
Practically speaking, this means that all Catholics should not be evangelized by evangelicals because they are already members of the church; all Eastern Orthodox should not be evangelized by evangelicals because they are already members of the church; and so on.
Evangelism has become unethical and is labelled as “proselytism”, not because it is carried out through immoral practices, but because it targets those who have been baptized. Hence, ecumenism – i.e. accepting all people as Christians on the basis of a sacrament administered by a church, not on the grounds of personal faith in the biblical Jesus Christ – stands in opposition to proselytism.
Those who do not accept the ecumenical premise are bad people, i.e. proselytizers. Remember Pope Francis’ harsh comment:
“In the ecumenical movement we have to take from the dictionary a word: ‘proselytism.’ Clear? You cannot have ecumenism with proselytism. You have to choose. Either you have an ecumenical spirit or you are a proselytizer.”
The Better Option
If we follow this train of thought, here is the result. Take, for example, Italy. More than 90% of its population is a “member” of the Roman Catholic Church by virtue of baptism received at infancy.
For most of these people, Christianity is a loose cultural marker with no spiritual significance whatsoever. Biblically speaking, most of them are not Christian at all, yet they are “members” of the Roman Church.
If we evangelize them, are we committing the sin of proselytism? If we follow the “logic” of the ecumenical definition endorsed by Pope Francis, the answer is “Yes”; evangelicals should not evangelize in majority Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant countries because the populations of these nations are “members” of the churches that baptized them.
If we take the train of thought that Pope Francis endorses, ecumenism becomes the “good” Christian platform that accepts all self-defined churches as legitimate expressions of the biblical church and all self-defined accounts of the gospel as legitimate versions of the biblical gospel.
Those who maintain biblical standards for the definition of who is a Christian and what is the church, even if this means being outside of mainstream ecumenical correctness, are “bad” and pseudo-Christians, hence “proselytizers”.
This is a trap for Bible-believing evangelical Christians: either evangelicals accept the definition of a Christian as being a “member” of a given church (and therefore stop evangelizing in majority Catholic and Orthodox contexts) or they become proselytizers (i.e. the ugly word of today’s religious vocabulary!).
Evangelizing a “member” of a church becomes in itself an unethical and unfaithful practice. Will evangelicals fall in the trap that is there to discourage evangelism and mission in majority “Christianized” regions?
In asking to eradicate the word “proselytism” from the dictionary, Pope Francis stands on a recent tradition in Roman Catholic and ecumenical circles which on the surface rightly blames unethical practices in evangelism and warns against them.
However, behind the surface there are worrying elements that need to be taken into account.
This ecumenical consensus that now Pope Francis gives voice to blurs core elements of the gospel by replacing personal faith in Jesus Christ with a sacrament of the church as the main definition of who a Christian is.
It also encourages a judgmental and negative attitude towards those evangelicals who work hard to evangelize in majority “Christianized” contexts, knowing that people might be “members” of a church without being born-again Christians.
Furthermore, it can become a temptation to give new life to an old paradigm (cuius regio eius religio, i.e. “whose realm his religion”) that has done much harm in Europe suffucating religious freedom. Instead of being forced to follow the religion of the ruler as it was the case in 16th century Europe, this new ecumenical consensus implies that the people needs to stick to the religion they were baptized into when they were infants. These are all serious concerns that need to be addressed.
The choice between being ecumenical or a proselytizer that the Pope supports is both false and dangerous.
It is false because it gives the idea that there are only two options available for Christians (which is not true), and it is dangerous because it warns against evangelism aimed at intentional persuasion addressed to all people regardless of their membership in a given church.
While clearly refuting all wrong methods of evangelism that betray the gospel itself (and therefore rejecting proselytism), Christians should treasure the privilege and the responsibility of presenting to all people the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ, expecting their response and being aware that conversion implies change.
As the Lausanne Covenant (1974), the most important document of contemporary evangelicalism, puts it in paragraph 4:
Evangelism itself is the proclamation of the historical, biblical Christ as Saviour and Lord, with a view to persuading people to come to him personally and so be reconciled to God.
In other words, biblical evangelism needs to be faithfully practised everywhere and towards all people, rather than being stigmatized and abandoned by this new wave of ecumenical correctness.
Neither ecumenical nor proselytizer: Christians must be for the Gospel to all people. This is a far better option.
Leonardo De Chirico is an evangelical pastor in Rome (Italy), theologian and expert in Roman Catholicism.