Proselytism versus Evangelism

David Virtue DVirtue236 at AOL.COM
Wed May 9 00:12:19 EDT 2001

Proselytism versus Evangelism

By The Rev. Dr. Michael Green

During his current historic journey in the footsteps of St. Paul, the
pope of one billion Roman Catholics once again made headlines in the
world press.

He apologized handsomely to the Greek Orthodox Church for sins
committed against it by Roman Catholics in the eleventh century. He was
the first pope to pray in a Muslim mosque. He wept over the devastation
caused by warfare between Israel and Syria, and he spoke out against
the evils of proselytism.

This last point is perhaps the most interesting, because at first blush
it stands in complete contrast to the attitude of St. Paul, in whose
steps the pope is treading.

The Apostle Paul was the most passionate evangelist the world has ever
seen, and cheerfully proclaimed Christ to Jews, Romans, Greeks and all
who would listen. Is there a contradiction here? Or could it be that
there is an important distinction between proselytism and evangelism?

The word "proselytism" has an unpleasant taste. It speaks of the
supporters of one belief system while applying pressure to others in
order to get them to conform. Unfortunately there are many examples of
it all over the world.

One highly reliable source is a magazine called 'Response' published in
Britain and edited by Baroness Caroline Cox. I regard it as one of the
finest sources of information regarding proselytism in the world today.
It is the magazine of Christians Solidarity Worldwide. This
organization is dedicated to awakening people to the evils of

One example is found in the country of Laos.

There are about 60,000 Christians in Laos and there is a sustained
campaign of enforced proselytism by the authorities to make Christians
sign forms to renounce their faith. They read the following: 'The
undersigned together with their family, do formally request to resign
from Jesus' religion and will stop:

1. Praying , singing, reading the Bible 2. Praying for the sick 3.
Praying before meals.

'If I violate this undertaking, I request higher levels to punish me.'

And the punishment is severe.

In Dongphoon, Savannakhet, all 133 heads of families were taken to the
cemetery at midnight, had guns held to their heads, and were told to
sign forms renouncing Christianity.

In Huay Tao, the authorities forced Christians to drink the blood of
chickens and a pig. Others have been forced to go to the temple, bow to
an idol and make an offering.  Believers have been poisoned and their
houses burned to the ground. Local leaders refuse to allow them to
plant crops. Christians who refuse to recant have been imprisoned in
appalling conditions, where they are denied food (some have even been
forced to feed on cockroaches) and there is not enough room to lie down
and sleep. Some are kept in solitary confinement while others are held
in wooden stocks.

In a disturbing new development, those who renounced their faith are
being forced to prove it by practicing animist rituals, including
animal sacrifice and drinking blood.

That is proselytism of the most disturbing sort.

In Indonesia, systematic persecution and proselytism has been going on
for some time. Christians are being forcibly circumcised by the Islamic
holy warriors in the Moluccas Islands of Indonesia, as the jihad
against believers continues. Women and children, as well as men, have
been forced to convert to Islam on penalty of death. Rites of
circumcision using a razor blade is then carried out to complete the
process. This is done without anesthetic. The same blade is used
repeatedly and 'converts' are then sent into the sea for

That is proselytism of the worst sort.

What, then, is evangelism?

First it owes nothing to force, everything to love. It is not forcible
conformity but radiant Good News. The Christian knows that God has done
great things for him. He is the Creator who has made him. He is the
Incarnate One who has come to find him. He is the Savior who has
rescued him. He is the Risen one who accompanies him throughout life.
He is the Reigning one, who will one day have the last word, and will
welcome his followers into his companionship forever.

The Christian is assured of these things. They are not fairy tales.
They are rooted in history. Indeed, history is split in two by them.
The coming, dying and rising of Jesus is the assurance and the first
installment of God's ultimate victory. Christian hope is not,
therefore, whistling in the dark. It is counting on the final chapter
of the book that has already been more than half written.

That is the evangelist's message. He offers it to all, of every faith
and none. How can he do less? But he never, if he has proper integrity,
attempts to apply emotional or other pressure. Not only does he know it
is wrong, but he is well aware that only the Holy Spirit of God can
draw anyone into the new life, which is authentic Christianity. All we
can do is this. We can and must love people with a reflection of the
love of the God we profess to serve. We must take every appropriate
opportunity to bear humble but joyful testimony to what the Lord has
done for us and offers to all. And we must be ready to explain the way
to faith and welcome those who want to take it.

This is entirely different from proselytism. Proselytism seeks to
enforce. Evangelism seeks to woo. Proselytism relies on force.
Evangelism relies on love. Proselytism is bad news. Evangelism is Good
News. Proselytism applies the whip. Evangelism holds forth the carrot.
There is all the world of difference between them.

Now there is an old fable of the North Wind and the Sun? They were in
competition to see who was stronger. They decided to try out their
powers on a man walking down the road. The North Wind blew and blew and
blew - and the freezing cold only served to make the man draw his cloak
more tightly around him. The Sun shone, and before long the heat was
such that the man threw off his cloak. That is evangelism. In the end
is it not only infinitely preferable to proselytism, but much more
powerful in its lasting impact. If we are followers of Jesus, it is
incumbent on us to be his evangelists, his Good News people, wherever
we go - but we leave the results to God.


Canon Michael Green is consultant on evangelism to Dr. George Carey
Archbishop of Canterbury and to the Archbishop of York. He has written
numerous books on the evangelism, his most recent ASIAN TIGERS FOR
CHRIST looks at the remarkable growth of the Anglican Church in
Southeast Asia.

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