Book Review: The Scandal of Evangelism: A Biblical Study of the Ethics of Evangelism
Is “evangelism” a word that has evaporated from the lexicon of mainstream ecclesial discourse in New Zealand? A survey of documentation issued, for example, for recent Anglican synods, national and local, suggests that perhaps it has – even if the wider catch-all word “mission” might be said to include (or avoid) it. There are assorted embarrassments and uneasiness with the word itself and with the surplus cultural meanings that attach to it. The volume under review has three helpful dimensions that might commend it to Stimulus readers and their libraries. Thiessen is a philosophy academic and brings the same clarity and rigour to writing that was visible in his The Ethics of Evangelism: A Philosophical Defense of Proselytizing and Persuasion (2011 – and favourably reviewed in Stimulus, 19.3, Sept 2012). He is Canadian, and so writes from a setting that is secular and post-Christian in ways not unlike New Zealand culture. And one further advantage: his Anabaptist credentials as one who is “very much committed to evangelism” and “also committed to peace and reconciliation, and … particularly sensitive to ways in which evangelism can become coercive and even violent” (6-7).
Thiessen begins with a senior Canadian High Schooler repeatedly suspended – with his graduation threatened – because he often wore a T-shirt with the slogan “Life is wasted without Jesus.” The school’s Vice-Principal declared it “hate talk.” In today’s multi-cultural and multi-religious world, attempts at evangelism are liable to be seen as misplaced or worse by those opposed to any religious persuasion, including some fellow-Christians. Thiessen’s response is to re-examine both the biblical foundations for evangelism and the major questions and critiques its contemporary practice provokes. His Introduction is mainly concerned with the definition of evangelism; after a survey of recent discussion, he opts for: “Evangelism is the verbal proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ, having as its goal the conversion of another person or group of persons, conversion being understood as involving a person’s belief, behaviour, and sense of belonging” (15-16).
The rest of the volume is divided into two Parts, the first of which has four chapters that survey evangelism across the New Testament. The first of these chapters is a fairly comprehensive examination of “The Gospels and Jesus” – although this reviewer was disappointed to see no references to Jesus’ healing interactions with Gentiles such as the Centurion and the Syrophoenician/Canaanite mother, and only brief comments on Samaritans. (On the face of it, Jesus’ interactions with these groups, and his healings and exorcisms, don’t quite match Thiessen’s definition of evangelism). A final chapter in Part I offers a creative and valuable summary in terms of thirty summary “guidelines” gathered from his inductive study of the biblical foundations. Some titles indicate the range and flavour: “God and Christ as Lord,” “Incarnational Witness,” “Dignity,” “The Great Commandment,” and “The Golden Rule”. The remaining guidelines cover the interface between the human and the divine, freedom and coercion, the content of evangelism (emphasizing truthfulness and integrity), delivery and persuasion (including humility), relationality, responding to resistance and rejection, motivation and success. Thiessen’s tone is holistic and appropriately critical at times – for example, of ways in which “the gospel has all too often been reduced to personal salvation … The good news is about God’s will being done in all of creation. The good news is about a way that leads to life and wholeness and shalom for individuals and society at large” (43). Thiessen finds that in the gospels, there is “nothing about a triumphalist proclamation … Evangelism inspired by the cross is not conquest-minded or militant. Instead, ethical evangelism will be characterized by vulnerability …” (55).
Thiessen is distinctly unhappy with what he calls the simplistic reductions embodied in the “four spiritual laws,” “good news – bad news” binaries, and appeals that are starkly presented in a “things go better with Jesus” wrapping (e.g. 121). He wants to replace them with the art of committed dialogue and the “inspired persuasion” he sees as essential to human flourishing; he argues for an ethically practised evangelism that is both respectful of hearers (including opponents) and concerned to preserve the truth and integrity of Christian faith. He approves of Jamie Smith’s notion of persuasion as “a mode of convicted charity” (68) but warns against aggressive or intolerant attitudes towards other faiths. One of his thirty summary guidelines appeals to the example of Paul in both Athens and Ephesus: “Ethical evangelism is tolerant. … While it does not preclude fair criticism of other religious or irreligious beliefs, it treats the same with respect” (127). The first half of the book is, then, a summary of the NT understanding of evangelism; not since Michael Green’s Evangelism in the Early Church, and Walter Brueggemann’s Biblical Perspectives on Evangelism – each now several decades old – has there been such a comprehensive and balanced account of the biblical foundations.
Part II considers specific contexts that might challenge the ethical practice of evangelism, beginning with chapters on the evangelism of children, and on “Evangelism in Professional Life” (including the academy). The following chapter on “Evangelism and Humanitarian Aid” is the longest in the book and offers a balanced discussion of the well-rehearsed tension between evangelism and Christian social responsibility (making good use of the writings of Ron Sider and some British authors). “The Ethics of Proselytism” (chapter 11) – understood in the narrow sense of sheep-stealing – begins with the story of a family’s conversion into Orthodoxy from another denomination: a nice touch given the acute sensitivities of global Orthodoxy to what they see as their own community as the constant targets of proselytism.
However, despite the book’s title, the scandal of evangelism is a distinctly muted theme. (In fact, “scandal” and its cognates are absent from the book’s detailed and comprehensive index and is only mentioned in the opening High School story and then briefly on 224-25.) The contextual realities of multiculturalism, personal autonomy and freedom, not to mention contested notions of theological truth in a pluralist and postmodern context world, are underplayed by the author. Discussion of them would have given opportunity to elaborate the scandalous dimension of the book’s title but Thiessen has only incidental comments on these issues. There are ten or so pages devoted to pluralism (in the discussion of evangelism in professional and academic settings) but there is not the kind of attention to an irretrievably pluralist setting that is found in, for example, another volume also published this year: Bryan Stone’s Evangelism After Pluralism: The Ethics of Christian Witness (Baker Academic, 2018). Nonetheless, this is a volume that could both enlarge and challenge any reader’s understanding of the “proclamation” dimension of mission, and its usefulness is enhanced by an extensive bibliography and a comprehensive index.
Bob Robinson is Senior Fellow Emeritus of Laidlaw College; his most recent book is as co-author of: ‘Without Ceasing to Be a Christian’: A Catholic and Protestant Assess the Christological Contribution of Raimon Panikkar.