Can evangelism be done ethically?

513y4sNpY8LWhen I was a newish Christian, one of the books that had everyone talking was Rebecca Manley Pippert’s Out of the Saltshaker. I am not sure how much I read of it, but I still remember an opening line:

Evangelism was something I wouldn’t do to my dog, let alone my best friend.

This is more pertinent than ever, now that I actually have a dog!

Evangelism continues to have a distinctly dodgy reputation. This is perhaps rooted in the recognition that it isn’t actually a New Testament word, even though it derives from both euangelion meaning ‘good news’ (which in old English becomes ‘gospel’), and the verb euangelizomai meaning ‘to announce good news.’ There are problems with the notion of evangelism from outside the church; in the intolerance of our tolerant society, street preachers are distinctly suspect. For some, this is a sign of the trouble with our culture—which would be more convincing if it weren’t for the fact that many inside the church also feel uncomfortable with the notion. After all, only 27% of Anglicans are happy inviting someone to church—let alone talking about their own faith.

Gavin Wakefield is Director of Training for Missional Ministry for the Diocese of York—an interesting job title, which suggests that he has had to face these reservations head-on. He explores the issues in the latest Grove Evangelism booklet, Doing Evangelism Ethically which I have found a very helpful discussion. For me, one of the most pertinent issues is how to present a coherent case for Christian belief in the public space of broadcast and social media, where claims to exclusivity do not sit easily. Gavin starts off with his own negative experiences in the past, and reflects:

Sadly, all too many people have had a bad experience of evangelism and not been able to receive the good news we claim to share. A significant factor in evangelism being seen as bad news is the way Christians have sometimes gone about it. Telling hungry people they will get food if they convert, only employing folk who attend the right church or chapel, even putting the choice, ‘Be baptized or die’—all these have been tried. A swathe of bad examples makes it all too easy for people to dismiss evangelism as brainwashing, arrogance or coercion, a form of power games by the powerful against the powerless and vulnerable. No wonder it is easy to write off evangelism as a bad idea.

Rather refreshingly, before offering any defence of evangelism, he engages with the objections to evangelism very openly, under five broad headings:

  • Persuasion
  • Arrogance
  • Truth claims
  • Coercion and manipulation
  • Inducements

One of his most telling comments, under the final heading, engages with the issue of so-called ‘friendship evangelism’:

A contemporary example might be the forming of friendships in order to be able to share the good news—so-called friendship evangelism, advocated by some Christians. It would seem inherently positive that we share good news in relationships of trust and in which people have come to know us. The difficulty arises when we form friends with the hidden motive of sharing faith—this is no longer respect but a form of manipulation. This becomes obvious in more extreme versions of friendship evangelism, such as ‘love-bombing’ or ‘flirty-fishing,’ but any form of hidden agenda fails the test of respect.

71UB-DCdqELBut such critiques are not the end of engaging in evangelism—not least because Jesus seemed to expect his disciples to engage in this, and so expects his church to continue the practice. But we need to reflect. ‘If evangelism is truly about the good news of God’s love for the world then the practice must itself be good news (John 3.16)…[and i]f we are truly to embed ethical standards we will also need to have some good principles to work with.’ Gavin goes principally to two publications for sets of principles, publications which he believes deserve to be better known—an ecumenical publication entitled Christian Witness in a Multi-Religious World, and Bryan Stone’s book Evangelism after Christendom: The Theology and Practice of Christian Witness. The first offers 12 useful principles, which Gavin interprets as addressing three issues: developing Christian character; rejecting coercion of any kind; and mutual respect and interdependence.

Bryan Stone’s work particular picks up on the question of virtuous character, and not just for individuals, but for the church as a whole. After all, evangelism is the task of the whole church, and not just individuals:

Stone suggests four interweaving virtues as being of especial value for the church at the moment: presence, patience, courage and humility.

Presence as virtue is based on the presence of God in Christ (incarnation) and leads to embodying our witness to the gospel. There is a challenge to be present in the hard places in the world, witnessing that the love of God is what motivates us. It is the way of faithfulness, even when ‘results’ are not apparent.

Patience is needed because ‘evangelistic presence is often characterized by contradiction and rejection, it is costly and difficult to sustain across time.’ In a related comment Lesslie Newbigin wrote, ‘Patience means suffering…This suffering is not the passive acceptance of evil; it is the primary form of witness against it.’ For, as St Paul says, ‘Suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope’ (Rom 5.3–4). Patience seen in this way is not resignation, but ‘an active confidence that we live in God’s time and can therefore act without the need to control, manipulate, or predict the results of our acts.’ Ethical evangelism takes time: we witness to the love of God, and we wait patiently for the other to discover—or better, to be discovered by—that love for themselves.

Courage as a Christian virtue is not that of the soldier but of the martyr (witness), who focuses on self-giving for others or for God. Courage is needed in witnessing that the self-giving love of God is the most powerful force in the world. It is all too easy to feel that we need to be part of the power structures in society, that the church will benefit from protection or special status. It is not that we have nothing to do with the powerful, but the courage of Jesus witnesses to the extraordinary power of forgiveness and non-retaliation. Such a witness trusts in the love and truth of God, and hence also exhibits the virtue of humility.

profile21Humility qualifies courage so it does not become glamorous or arrogant, just as courage qualifies humility so it does not become passive or submissive. In the resonant phrase of David Bosch, it is bold humility: humility, because we know we do not know all the answers; bold, because we are willing to risk all as we trust in the leading of God’s Spirit.

I would add a further virtue to Stone’s list: hospitality. The call to care for the stranger runs through both Old and New Testament, from Abraham (Genesis 18) to the Parable of the Sheep and Goats (Matt 25.35). It is a reflection of God’s hospitality to the hungry, poor and naked (Isa 58.7) and is an essential approach in sharing faith as well as food. Archbishop Justin Welby summarized it in this way when addressing the 2014 National Parliamentary Prayer Breakfast: ‘The call to discipleship is always offered without manipulation as hospitality, respecting the freedom of others to say no, without aggression, and always in love. But it is offered.’

Gaining both confidence and credibility in our evangelism is a vital task for the church in Britain today—not least for the Church of England. This exploration addresses a crucial issue if this is to happen. I hope this text will be widely read and engaged with.

You can order this and other Grove booklets post free from the Grove website.

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3 thoughts on “Can evangelism be done ethically?

  1. Although apologetics is not the sum total of evangelism (in its narrow sense), I think the apologist’s ‘go to’ verse of 1 Peter 3:15 gives a few useful pointers. First, the encouragement to ‘revere Christ as Lord’ that is likely to result in non-believers then raising the question of why the believer has ‘the hope’. Secondly, the ‘apologia’ having the thought of a legal argument with the intention of convincing the other person of the position being argued (see also its use in the account of Paul before Agrippa, Acts 25:23-26:29). Thirdly, that this should be done with gentleness and respect.

    Penn Jillett, atheist magician, describes being given a Bible in the link below. His case for believers communication of their beliefs to unbelievers is not something you’d expect from an atheist!

  2. Some other great resources are Elmer Theissen’s book on the ethics of evangelism and the ethical witness guidelines produced by the Christian-Muslim forum.

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