2018-05-14 The Scandal of Evangelism

SAR/ICSA will consider reviews of the book described below.

The Scandal of Evangelism: A Biblical Study of the Ethics of Evangelism

Elmer John Thiessen

May 14 2018


Contact Information: Elmer John Thiessen ejthiessen@sympatico.ca (519) 746-2821


The Scandal of Evangelism: A Biblical Study of the Ethics of Evangelism

by Elmer John Thiessen Cascade Books, an imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers

978-1-5326-1788-1 / paperback / $33


The Scandal of Evangelism: A Biblical Study of the Ethics of Evangelism

In today’s multi-cultural and multi-religious world, evangelism is often viewed as scandalous, not only by those who are opposed to anything religious, but also by many Christians. In this book, Elmer Thiessen provides a response to those who find most or even all Christian evangelism objectionable. He does this through a careful analysis of what the Bible says about the ethics of evangelism. Based on this inductive study, mainly of the New Testament, Thiessen proposes thirty guidelines for ethical evangelism. Part II examines some specific contexts that pose unique challenges for doing evangelism ethically— evangelism of children, evangelism within a professional context like the secular academy, evangelism within the context of humanitarian aid, and finally the problem of proselytism, understood in the special and narrow sense of sheep-stealing.

Elmer John Thiessen taught at Medicine Hat College (Alberta, Canada) for thirty-six years. He is currently Adjunct Professor of Philosophy at Emmanuel Bible College. He is author of The Ethics of Evangelism: A Philosophical Defense of Proselytizing and Persuasion (2011).

Why your interest in the ethics of evangelism?

I have been writing about the ethics of influence and persuasion for some 25 years now, starting with the problem of indoctrination in the family and in schools. So the ethics of evangelism is simply an extension of this interest in the broader issue of the ethics of influence and persuasion.

This is your second book on the ethics of evangelism. Why a second book?

In the concluding chapter of my previous book, The Ethics of Evangelism: A Philosophical Defense of Proselytizing and Persuasion (2011), I argued that resources for encouraging ethical evangelism must be found within each of the religions that engage in evangelism. It is within this context that I declare my intention to write another book which will deal with the ethics of evangelism from an explicitly Christian perspective. The Scandal of Evangelism is an attempt to keep my promise!

So, what is different about this second book?

  • My first book was philosophical in nature. The Scandal of Evangelism is more theological inorientation.
  • My first book was written for both religious adherents and those skeptical of religion. My second book is written specifically for Christians.
  • My first book is more academic in nature. I am hoping that my second book will appeal to a more general Christian readership. Academic discussions are for the most part relegated to footnotes.
  • There is one other important difference. Given that my first book was written for both believers and those skeptical of all religion, I had to start with an ethical framework that hopefully all (or at least most) readers would accept. So, the starting point for the first book was a liberal ethical framework focusing on the dignity and freedom of persons. The Scandal of Evangelism starts with a biblical ethical framework.

But doesn’t a biblical ethical framework also assume the dignity and freedom of persons?

Yes, but the foundation is different. Christians believe in the dignity and freedom of persons because we are created in the image of God. Within a Christian worldview, human dignity is a borrowed dignity. It is God who gives us dignity. There are also limits to human freedom, as we are called to submit to God’s norms.

Are there any other differences between your two books?

Yes, there is another significant difference. An important objective of my first book was to answer some standard objections that are often raised against the very idea of evangelism. Indeed, some writers consider evangelism unethical by its very nature, arguing that evangelists are arrogant, meddlesome, and intolerant. In my first book, I argued that these objections are in the main unwarranted. Although The Scandal of Evangelism touches on some of these issues, its orientation is more constructive – trying to articulate some biblical guidelines for ethical evangelism.

But in your first book you also tried to articulate some criteria of ethical evangelism. How does your present book differ from the first in this regard?

For one, in my first book I identified and defended 15 criteria of ethical evangelism. The Scandal of Evangelism has 30 guidelines for ethical evangelism. Further, these guidelines grow out of an inductive study mainly of the New Testament. As already mentioned, the criteria of ethical evangelism in my first book were grounded in a liberal/pragmatic ethical framework.

How practical are your books?

It should be noted first of all that my books are not “how to” books. My aim is not to articulate methods or strategies for doing evangelism. Instead, I focus on ethical evaluation of methods and strategies of evangelism. In both books I try to give many examples of ethical and unethical forms of evangelism. Part II of The Scandal of Evangelism goes further and provides a detailed examination of four specific contexts that pose unique challenges for doing evangelism ethically – evangelism of children, evangelism within a professional context like the secular academy, evangelism within the context of humanitarian relief, and finally the problem of proselytism, understood in the special and narrow sense of sheep-stealing.

How long did it take you to write The Scandal of Evangelism?

I started working on this book even before my first book on the ethics of evangelism came out in 2011. Given the biblical orientation of this book, I thought it was important to read the entire bible, looking for any passages that I thought were relevant to the ethics of doing evangelism. (Well, I’ll admit I skimmed through parts of the bible!) Serious writing on this book began five years ago. I also benefited from presenting drafts of some of the chapters of my book at international conferences and consultations.

Did you run into any significant difficulties in your writing?

Yes, on my third draft, I began to have serious doubts about my working definition of evangelism. Should evangelism be defined simply in terms of verbal proclamation of the gospel, or can there be proclamation in word and deed? In the end, I stayed with my original definition. While deeds are important in giving concrete expression to our faith, deeds alone can’t proclaim the wonderful story of Jesus Christ. Good news need words and people to proclaim these words.

Is there anything that stands out for you from your study of the ethics of evangelism?

Yes, ethical evangelism loves enemies of the gospel.

Finally, why the reference to “scandalous” in the title?

There is an ambiguity in the title. The gospel is in fact scandalous as Paul and Peter note on a number of occasions, and there is no way that we can eliminate the scandal of the gospel message despite its being good news. But sadly, there are many Christians today who view evangelism itself as scandalous. Indeed, many Christians raise the same kinds of objections to evangelism that are made by those who are skeptical of all that is religious. The Scandal of Evangelism provides an answer to Christians who have become skeptical of all evangelism. There is nothing to be ashamed of when evangelism is done in an ethical manner.

Excerpts from the Book

When Jesus gave his instructions for mission to his disciples, he not only anticipated that people would reject the disciples’ message, he goes on at length to instruct the disciples on how to respond to resistance and outright hostility. “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves,” Jesus says (Matt 10:16–31). You will be handed over to local councils, flogged in synagogues, and arrested. You will face betrayal even in your families. All men will hate you, just as they hated me. If I was called Beelzebub, you can expect name calling that is even more derogatory. Indeed, you as my disciples might face the same ultimate fate I will be facing—death.

So, how are Jesus’ disciples to respond to such hostility? Again, we need to listen to the ethical overtones in Jesus’ instructions to his disciples. “Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.” The disciples, when they evangelize, are to be wise, open, honest, and even simple, when it comes to interaction with the enemies of the gospel. Ethical evangelism does not resort to deceit. It does not involve hidden agendas or rely on elaborate scheming. Jesus goes on to advise the disciples not to “worry about what to say or how to say it,” when they are brought to trial because of their witness (Matt 10:19). God’s Spirit will tell them what to say. Indeed, evangelism is finally God’s doing, for it is “the Spirit of your Father speaking through you” (Matt 10:20).

Another ethical aspect of Jesus’ instructions to his disciples is already evident in his analogy of sending them out like sheep among wolves. Sheep are defenseless when it comes to attacks by vicious animals. Jesus also predicts men “will hand you over to the local councils and flog you in their synagogues” (Matt 10:17—my emphasis). There is no indication the disciples will be fighting back in self-defense. Instead, they are reminded of Jesus, their master, who did not talk back or retaliate when he was on trial, but who entrusted himself to God. Servants should be like their master (Matt 10:25). In all this, Jesus is reinforcing a teaching that runs throughout the gospels and the epistles—we should love our enemies.

What does it mean to love our enemies when doing evangelism? Jesus’ instructions are pretty straightforward when opposition to gospel-preaching becomes physical or political or even violent, but there are also implications for the language we use in evangelism. We need to recognize words can be used as weapons and to incite violence. Such evangelism is not in line with Jesus’ instructions to his disciples. There is no room for demeaning or hateful language as we counter beliefs with which we disagree. We need to practice tolerance. Ethical evangelism is expressed in the language of love.

There is an additional detail in Luke’s account of Jesus sending out seventy-two … disciples that is worth noting and has some implications for ethical evangelism (Luke 10:1–24). After the seventy-two returned from their missionary journey, they enthusiastically reported to Jesus, “Lord, even the demons submit to us in your name.” The disciples were enamored with their success, maybe even a bit conceited about the new powers they had. Jesus responds by reminding them it was he who gave them the authority over demons (v. 18). Theirs is a borrowed authority. And then Jesus shifts the focus of their rejoicing: “Do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven” (v. 20). Jesus was reminding them and us that having our names written in heaven is due to grace, not personal effort, or success in evangelism. What Jesus is also suggesting here is that success is not the fundamental objective of ethical evangelism. Our preoccupation should instead be focused on our belonging to Jesus and being faithful to him.

Praise for the Book

“In a world awash with political correctness Thiessen rehabilitates the art of committed dialogue and inspired persuasion as essential to human flourishing. His careful analysis of New Testament teaching and his discussion of contemporary contexts suggest a positive future for ethically practiced evangelism—more gift than goading, more mutual discovery than manipulative diatribe. Thiessen is clear, helpful, and hopeful.”—Mark Oxbrow, International Director, Faith2Share

“In The Scandal of Evangelism Professor Thiessen sets out and develops a biblical and theological basis for explicitly ethical forms of evangelism that are modelled on the beliefs, values, examples, and practices of the early church as recorded in the New Testament. . . . This is an excellent book that all interested in Christian mission, broadly conceived, should read. It is a book that shows us how to engage in evangelism in ways that respect the dignity of others, while preserving the truth and integrity of Christian faith.” —L. Philip Barnes, Emeritus Reader in Religious and Theological Education, King’s College London

“Since the publication of the document ‘Christian Witness in a Multi-religious World: Recommendations for Conduct,’ published in 2011, world Christianity has been waiting for this book: a detailed discussion of the major questions involved. Elmer Thiessen’s biblical study of the ethics of evangelism provides such discussion, and the result is superb. Thoroughly considered for years, taking up the relevant international discussion, and tested in discussions with the highest level of representatives for the major branches of Christianity, The Scandal of Evangelism is a compendium of the major problems and questions involved. Both friends and foes of evangelism have much to learn here. This book will open a new chapter in the discussion.”—Thomas Schirrmacher, Professor of the Sociology of Religion, University of the West Timisoara, Romania