Marv Newell, Sr. V.P. Missio Nexus
Some would be shocked to question that any effort to evangelize could ever be sinful. Is it possible that intentional outreach, the centerpiece of world evangelization, could at times be wrong? After all, is not the primary responsibility of believers to evangelize all peoples, in all places, at all times, at all costs? With that as a given, how could it even be suggested that evangelism could be ethically wrong or sinful?
I remember years ago arriving on the Indonesian island of Papua as a rookie missionary. I soon learned that churches of another “Christian” group down the coast had better attendance than we did in my mission’s area. How shocked and dismayed I was to learn that their success was built on their missionaries’ practice of enticing villagers to church meetings by free handouts at the end of services. As the villagers exited the church door, they were each given a handful of tobacco. No wonder they had better attendance! A give-away, no matter how small, went a long way in a society of subsistence living.
Just how ethical is the use of material incentives to gain new converts? Is it deemed proper to give material assistance before, during or after people have come into the Christian fold? Just how skewed are our numbers when trying to determine who the true believers really are as compared to those who join church activities based on material rewards? Do ends justify the means?
Hindus in India don’t think so. In isolated instances over recent months they have risen up violently against neighboring Christians, accusing them of using bribery and coercion to make converts. In most instances, they have grievously misunderstood the Christian display of compassion ministries. In others, they have a legitimate gripe.
One thing is clear. Outsiders everywhere are looking in on us, waiting to pounce on missionaries with the slightest excuse if it can be inferred they use ethically questionable evangelism. No matter how thin a case they may muster, they are watching and waiting to accuse.
That being the case, it is incumbent on missionaries to make concerted efforts to keep evangelism above reproach. When evangelistic zeal is not matched with moral integrity, we do deep harm to the credibility of the gospel. We even make it abhorrent to the unconvinced. Thus, to put it bluntly, we make evangelism a sin. Unethical evangelism can manifest itself in numerous forms. Here are a few.
- Evangelism is a sin when evangelistic methods are offensive to the human spirit. Those to whom we proclaim the gospel need to be seen first and foremost as people created in the image of God and not as projects. While it is true they are also sinners in need of conversion, they have worth and dignity and should be approached as such. If we are aggressive, manipulative, abusive, underhanded, lacking in integrity, demeaning, offensive, confrontational, insensitive, distorting, and provocative in our witness, then we are offensive. In 2 Cor. 1:14-16 Paul says that we are the aroma of Christ to those who believe, but a “smell of death” to those perishing. The stench should always be due to the gospel itself, not the unethical means by which it is presented.
- Evangelism is a sin when it is exploitative. This occurs when enticements and inducements are coupled with the gospel message. While there may be times when compassion, health and help ministries accompany proclamation, these should never be construed as manipulative and coercive to those we are seeking to reach. Leaders of other religions especially see right through these enticements and take offense. Subsequently they may put pressure on local authorities to shut that kind of “evangelism” down. If they fail in doing that, they will grumble about it in their circles, stirring up trouble. In the long run more harm than good is done when these tactics are employed.
- Evangelism is a sin when the gospel is peddled for self-serving purposes. In 2 Cor. 1:17 Paul speaks of those who would peddle the gospel “for profit” rather than “with sincerity, like men sent from God.” In the world of missions that “profit” manifests itself not only in possible monetary gain, but also includes the unscrupulous use of inflated statistics, an undeserved reputation for oneself or organization, boasting in accomplishments, or positioning for praise and acclaim. Wrong motives are at the root of each of these selfish outcomes and all are obviously self-promoting rather than God pleasing. When there is greater concern for the status and reputation of an organization than for the salvation of souls being served, the outcome is self-serving sin.
- Evangelism is a sin when it mirrors unscrupulous methods of other religions. Islam, Hinduism and even some threads of Buddhism are also missionary religions. Adherents are schooled in methods of outreach just as we are. The Christian evangelist must guard against copying unethical methods many times employed by these religions that humanly speaking, give them an unfair advantage. Islam has its dawa or mission to convert the world. In places like Indonesia dawa efforts include the promise of the building of mosques in each village that converts to Islam. Furthermore, by strategy Muslim men intentionally marry Christian girls with the goal of turning Christian areas Muslim. In some places in India, militant Hindu priests zealously go around to villages forcibly ‘reconverting’ Christians back to Hinduism. Many times this activity is accompanied by bold threats against those who resist. By contrast the Christian evangelist should not be threatening or conniving. Rather, one should emulate the apostle Paul who was, “gentle…like a mother caring for her little children” (1 Thess. 1:7), “as a father deals with his own children, encouraging, comforting and urging to live lives worthy of God.”(1 Thess. 1:11-12).
- Evangelism is a sin when it is insensitive to peoples’ feelings. Don’t get me wrong – we need to be bold in our witness just as Paul claimed to be very bold in his (2 Cor. 3:12). Yet at the same time in every cultural situation we must exercise sensitivity to our audience (1 Cor. 9:19-23). If our boldness lacks cultural sensitivity and ignorance of worldviews, it will be offensive. Therefore, our witness must be seasoned with grace. And grace means taking a humble, non-confrontational approach to evangelism. Evangelism is graceful if it is open, welcoming, serving, loving, caring, affirming, honest, trusting, vulnerable, attractive, sensitive, and respectful. It is grace-filled when it takes the time to study and observe local customs and traditions. This is evangelism that is Christ-like. This is evangelism that appeals to the unregenerate heart.
So, can evangelism ever be a sin? Yes, it can. When methods and motives are wrong, it is sinful. When it is insensitive to local customs and norms, it is sinful. When it is manipulative and exploitive, it is sinful.
In our zeal to evangelize the lost, our methods should never discredit the message we proclaim. While it may be true that the messenger himself may be discredited, the message should never be – and it won’t if ethical standards are followed. The apostle Paul told the Corinthian believers that our message is offensive to some. As emulators of Christ, we must make every effort to ensure its delivery is not.