Post-Christendom Ethics: Evangelism as Immoral, Confessional, Embodied and Beautiful

Thiessen, Elmer. The Scandal of Evangelism: A Biblical Study of the Ethics of Evangelism. (Cascade 2019).

Stone, Bryan. Evangelism After Pluralism: The Ethics of a Christian Witness (Baker 2018).

Consciousness raising is a taken-for-granted cultural practise, although not all consciousness raisers are equally well-received in our dominant culture. Christians who attempt to raise people’s God consciousness these days are often labelled as coercive and oppressive, ironically offensive to liberal values of tolerance, and if music starts and testimonies begin, as a form of emotional manipulation.

Maybe since Christianity was part of the previous dominant culture and is resented for its former privilege, power, and popularity, there is reason to shun its voice now, even as a witness to God’s love and grace. I do recall some young men barging into an inter-faith dialogue at my public university and shouting “Jesus is the way, the truth, the life!” and then leaving by the back door. They might have thought they were doing something brave for Jesus, but to me it seemed just rude, shameful, and a poor demonstration of Christian witness.

On a much grander scale, the recent news from Kamloops, BC, of unmarked graves of indigenous childrens’ bodies—no doubt related to the Catholic residential school beside it—bespeaks of centuries of twisted ideas of how to “evangelize” other people groups. Supported by the state, coercive in nature, steeped in a Western superiority narrative—it is a human tragedy and an evangelistic wreck.

I’m part of an organization that deliberately seeks to raise the God consciousness of students so that they will seek shalom rather than self, stewardship rather than exploitation, and healing and hope rather than more violence and victimhood. In fact, at Global Scholars Canada, we are celebrating a 25 (+1) anniversary this year. So it is a very, very important question for us: What does it mean to live now as a religious minority, and conscientiously bear witness to the Good News that Jesus brings? Put differently, what does ethical and potentially winsome evangelism look like?

I’m going to review two good books here on the ethics of evangelism and pick out the best from each while critiquing certain parts that I think fall short. Obviously I think the project of Christian evangelism is still a worthy one, but not without some real caveats.

The objective of Elmer Thiessen’s book “is to provide a biblical and theological grounding for an explicitly Christian ethics of evangelism” (6) and to apply those ethics to some specific issues. This is a concern for Thiessen because as an evangelical and Anabaptist (with a Reformed philosophical accent) he is “particularly sensitive to ways in which evangelism can become coercive and even violent” (7).

This book is generally addressed to a Christian audience, although it builds on Thiessen’s previous book, The Ethics of Evangelism: A Philosophical Defense of Proselytizing and Persuasion (IVP 2011), which was directed to a broader general public. Let’s just be clear: proselytizing is a form of persuasion—religious persuasion—and is part of the freedom of conscience and freedom of religion in our country. Thiessen’s more recent work (above) is more directly grounded in a Biblical, rather than philosophical ethics and is illuminated by both good examples (personal and otherwise) and bad (such as the phenomenon of Hell Houses and the antics of Franklin Graham). Bad examples seem easier to find in the U.S. news, although Canada no doubt has its share. We are just in the position of a religious minority here, so we are more circumspect. More chastened. Most of us, at least.

Evangelism Needs Ethics

The first half of the recent 2019 book is Thiessen’s fairly thorough examination of Biblical ethics of evangelism, derived mostly from a straight reading of texts in their literary genre in the New Testament. From this survey, Thiessen develops a set of thirty guidelines for ethical evangelism, which he applies in the second half of the book to hot topics like the evangelism of children, evangelism on university campuses, evangelism and humanitarian aid, and “sheep stealing”—attracting members from other churches (technically referred to as proselytizing).

Thiessen’s book is thorough, logically laid out, and based on some careful Biblical and philosophical foundations. It would serve as a wonderful introductory textbook, as it lays out a framework and then applies it to contemporary issues. This is a book that can offer the groundwork for further discussion and some comparative ethical inquiry in a post-Christian age, where the failures of the Christian church loom large and the fastest growing demographic is the “religious nones.”

American theologian Bryan Stone has criticized Thiessen in his own book Evangelism After Pluralism: The Ethics of a Christian Witness (2018) for suggesting a modern universal foundation for ethics, which Thiessen does articulate in his 2011 book (with IVP, a Christian press), which is addressed to “believers and unbelievers.” But this more recent book (which came out the same year as Stone’s—2018) is addressed explicitly to Christians (on a non-Christian press, ironically) and may have been better received by Stone.  

Thiessen is not a thorough-going Anabaptist, however, and Thiessen can see connections between human beings of all stripes because of God’s natural law, burned on the human heart. Thiessen is first of all a Canadian philosopher, and Stone is a post-liberal Wesleyan theologian drawing on Yoder (and Barth!) and so his ethics is much more ecclesiocentric (thus “apologetics is meaningless”). Actually, Stone appears more Anabaptist than Thiessen in his rejection of the state! Writing from the USA, Stone is eager to separate the American civil religion from the Christian way, and so he takes a strong and rather unnuanced perspective that pits a lackey “chaplaincy” for the empire against a pacifist “martyrdom” against empire.

As a heuristic, sure, it is a typology, but what Stone misses is that in the real world chaplains can be a prophetic witness just as many Old Testament prophets worked in the king’s court but still spoke truth to power (eg. Elijah, Daniel). As a former chaplain myself, I of course take issue that chaplaincy means unfaithfulness and the sacralizing of empire. Thiessen similarly writes about his professorial role at a secular college, where he was recognized as a critical “conscience of the institution” (159). Chaplains can betray Jesus, no doubt, but they can also be conscientious and committed to the welfare of a public community without blessing a state’s evil machinations.

“Empire” is the all-encompassing framework for Stone’s ethics, and while it functions as a powerful critique of large systems of control and manipulation, it gives too much to conflict theory and it overlooks both the nuances that are part of our lived experience of evangelism and the Biblical examples where empire is a more ambivalent presence —or just not the overwhelming frame of reference. I’m reminded of a scene in Monty Python’s The Life of Brian where Jewish zealots planning insurrection against Roman occupation get rhetorically lost in their motivation. Asks one revolutionary:

All right, but apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, a fresh water system, and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?

The climax reply comes meekly: “Brought peace?” Of course I’m not justifying military takeovers or blessing American foreign affairs or the Pax Romana. But empire needs something better than black/white thinking; there are ethics to be mined beyond this theory of empire that equates Rome, Nazism, the USSR, America and capitalism. Note some of these regimes were rivals and the plural empires would be more appropriate, opening up a more complex critique. There is also more to worldliness than just military and economic empires! Ideologists and insurrectionists live and die for other rival empires.

The gospel is more than anti-empire.

I do agree with Stone, however, that Thiessen’s definition of evangelism as proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ aimed at conversion is overstated (15). The motive to bear witness can be mixed and many-layered, as one who shares good news may be moved by love, faithfulness, or joy. A witness may also merely seek to move a person a step closer to faith, or remove a barrier to faith, and not see the conversation in purely pragmatic or utilitarian ways. Some people say they “sow seeds” that they hope the Holy Spirit will grow, although most would be delighted to see faith flourish. This suggests conversion dances in the wings as a possibility, but it is not the only goal of evangelism.

The University and Evangelism

As someone invested in the academy in my role in GSC and as a part-time professor, I’d like to zero in on Thiessen’s chapter entitled “Evangelism in Professional Life: The Academy.” This is an area Stone neglects in his focus on economic and military powers. Thiessen, however, is very aware of his own university context. He has to first do away with certain myths before he can address the matter of ethics and evangelism. For example, the myth of neutrality (and objectivity), the public/private distinction (in which religion is to be a private matter, or more dualistically, is elevated above the world of work), of indoctrination (where the student/teacher relationship is only seen through the lens of power understood as oppression). In sum, we’re talking about university here: the classroom is a place for ideas, convictions, persuasion, and debate—as long as the topic lies within the covenant of the course syllabus and students are free to represent their own views.

At times Thiessen alludes to some notion of the “independent, critical thinker”—but he more fully says elsewhere while there is some “normal autonomy” we are in part inter-dependent thinkers. I would emphasize that even more, as we live and converse in schools of thought, which we challenge and innovate, but always alongside colleagues and academic partners. In fact, I would ask the question, who are we hoping our students think for and with? (See my review of Wolterstorff Religion in the University here).

Furthermore, formation is more a goal of education than just thinking. See my writing on James K. A. Smith to dig into that distinction further. At the very least, orienting to formation practises is a more holistic approach.

Thiessen has written a book on teaching from and for commitment (1993), so disclosing one’s identity in the classroom is not just permissible, it is preferred. He gives a number of personal examples of such, emphasizing that care for the dignity and worth of the student is paramount. So arrogance, condescension, coercion, and the callous destruction of a student’s beliefs or heritage are plain wrong. Manipulating topics or conversations to one’s advantage is poor and reflects badly on the professor. These principles apply to all lectures, regardless of their ideological commitments.

Thiessen mentions the importance of truthfulness in exposing historical distortions of the Christian faith; I would add that this could also be confessional. By acknowledging Christian complicity in environmental destruction and the denigration of indigenous peoples a Christian could model the humility and generosity that Thiessen endorses. In fact, the chapter ends with Thiessen speaking confessionally in a different more personal sense, suggesting Christian advocacy in research and writing can be appropriate, but that this may mean foregoing certain privileged positions and prestigious grants. He relates some fellowships that he may have lost due to anti-Christian bias, although he maintains one is never sure of the true reasons.

Sex and Human Nature

There is a chapter that is missing from the book. In a footnote on page 160 Thiessen agrees with R. R. Reno’s contention that “the most appropriate form of evangelism is to confront postmodern man and woman where it hurts the most—to challenge their faith in sexual freedom.” This suggests to me that a chapter addressing evangelism and sexuality might have been a key exercise for the topic of the book, and probably would have given the book much more publicity (for good or ill!)

In fact, I would broaden that contention to say that the pivotal issue of our day is the nature of human beings. How fundamental is biology, and how does technology enhance and skew our given design? What is the role of authority, community, and religion in ethical life? What does dignity mean in our therapeutic culture, and how is it applied in public discourse? In sum, what is a person? Our sexuality is central here, but human life is more than just sexuality.

Thiessen is ready to address evangelism and sexual issues, as he admits in his ethics classes he “can’t help but be a little amused at the horrified looks of my students as I confront them where it really hurts.” Of course, a Christian wouldn’t approach the world’s wounds with anything but care and compassion—what Thiessen highlights in his manifesto. But the point is that sexuality is the centre point on which our culture spins, and if Christianity is to address our hedonistic world today, it needs to “carefront” the world with its idols. This kind of prophetic role Bryan Stone seems to completely miss.

Thiessen doesn’t engage the theological subject of elenctics, but it’s a tactic ripe for critical assessment that I think his writing would be well-suited to address more directly. Only when people realize their guilt, and joyfully embrace the forgiveness of God in Jesus Christ, will they truly have received a witness of Good News. It is not a popular approach today, to be sure, but it taps into something basic to our nature: failure.

Aesthetic Evangelism

Stone’s book, however, is riddled with references to systemic guilt—not so much personal guilt. He is so focused on economic, political, and military ethics that he seems to at first overlook the central role of sex and the body in our cultural milieu. Yet in a fascinating move, his last chapter takes a radical turn towards beauty. He notes how evangelism is perceived as an ugly practise in our society and “could very much use a reconnection to beauty” such that it “becomes more a work of art, embodiment, and imagination than an exchange of information or a technology designed to secure results” (117).

“The world will be saved by beauty…”

– Dostoevsky

There is wisdom here. While beauty can be rendered subjective, sentimental or as especially spiritual, Stone defines beauty first of all “by the life, actions, ministry, welcome, inclusion, suffering, death, and resurrection of Christ” (123). The synergy of word and deed in the saints, in defiance of the ways of the world resonates with the beauty of pattern of Christ’s Way. This beauty is attractive, invitational, and alluring in and of itself, and so avoids the instrumentalism and pragmatism of evangelism as technique.

There is something compelling in this approach, especially with Stone’s insistence that there is a plurality inherent in the divine beauty. While he also maintains such beauty be necessarily pacifist and subversive, which I think are more debatable and contingent characteristics, the turn to beauty is certainly worth exploring in our less logocentric and more iconographic age. Again, even though he is talking about beauty now, Stone makes no reference to human sexuality. Can a stable, committed, mutually sacrificial Christian marriage, as transgressive as it is in our hookup culture, be a beautiful witness, bringing together creation and covenant for human flourishing?

To be sure, beauty is more than sexuality. The Psalmist sings “How wonderful, how beautiful, when brothers and sisters get along!” (133:1, MSG). Within the diversity of the church family—across divides of age, class, ethnicity, and gender—it is wonderful and inspiring to see people genuinely love and care for each other. It is one example of embodied beauty, and probably a good place to start today in bearing witness to the Triune God in Jesus Christ. Beauty can start at home, so to speak, and unfold from there. (Photo from a Canadian Council of Churches meeting I attended in Montreal 2019, with representatives from a dozen different denominations).

This idea of evangelism as shaped by aesthetics is a promising complement to evangelism as apologetics—which is focused first on arguing for the truth of the gospel (although Os Guiness’ Fool’s Talk seeks to appropriately blend the two). This approach would certainly be ethical, too, as goodness, truth and beauty would certainly meet in a congregation that enjoyed worshipping God together and cooperating in ministry to their neighbours near and far. In our hyper-sexual individualistic age, shaken by rival empires, it would be a testimony suggestive of an attractive and winsome—and embodied—alternative kingdom.

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