2020-09-21 Ethical Code for Evangelists

In 1985 International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA - then called American Family Foundation) put together a special issue of Cultic Studies Journal, entitled "Cults, Evangelicals, and the Ethics of Social Influence." The topic of this special issue and many of the articles contained in it are still relevant.

The special issue was stimulated by ICSA's discussions with leaders of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship (IV), an evangelical campus ministry. These IV leaders recognized that their youthful and enthusiastic campus evangelists sometimes lost their ethical bearings and were accused of acting like cultists. To help address this problem, the IV leaders brought together a team of evangelical leaders, most of whom contributed to the special issue.

Among the contributions of the IV team was "A Code of Ethics for the Christian Evangelist," which is reprinted below. Interestingly the late Rev. Dr. Robert Watts Thornburg, Dean of Marsh Chapel at Boston University, used the IV ethical code, modified so that its language was more gender sensitive, to stimulate a discussion among the theologically liberal and conservative members of his chapel staff. He told me that the discussions about the ethical code enabled him to facilitate among his staff members a level of substantial and meaningful discussion that they had never had before. Theologically liberal staff members tended to be reluctant to criticize a "new religious movement's" belief system, while theologically conservative staff members were not reluctant. However, when they focused on the ethics of a group's behavior, liberals and conservatives could agree on condemning unethical behavior, regardless of their opinion of the group's theology.

I think that Rev. Dr. Thornburg's experience highlighted the underlying ethical substrate of the cultic studies field. Cultic studies professionals and scholars understand the techniques by which individuals can be manipulated into doing things that they ordinarily wouldn't do. Some might argue that the ethical propriety of those techniques depends upon whether the manipulation is in the service of a good cause. Most of my ICSA colleagues and I would disagree and argue that ethical propriety demands that the person be treated as an autonomous subject to be respected rather than an object to be manipulated, regardless of the cause. In other words, noble ends do not justify ignoble means-- most of the time.

I added the qualifier "most of the time" because one may conceive of situations that may justify manipulative measures. If, for example, a suicidal person is threatening to jump off a bridge, a sensitive passerby might say whatever it takes to move the person toward the desired end of not jumping. The IV team wrestled with such grey areas, reflected in the qualifications of point 5 below.

I encourage you to review the ethical code below and other articles in the special issue. If this subject especially interests you, consider writing about the ethical dimensions of cultic studies. You'll find author guidelines for ICSA Today here and for International Journal of Coercion, Abuse, and Manipulation here.

Michael Langone, PhD

Executive Director - ICSA

Editor-in-Chief, ICSA Today

A Code of Ethics for the Christian Evangelist

1. As Christians called by the Living God, we seek first of all to honor Him and His ethical standards in all of our private and public lives, including our efforts to persuade others to believe the good news about Jesus Christ.

2. As Christian evangelists, we seek to follow the mandate, motives, message, and model of our God who is always pursuing and reclaiming those who are lost in sin and rebellion against Him.

3. We believe all people are created in God's image and therefore endowed with certain inalienable rights, critical faculties, and moral obligations in relation to their Creator and Redeemer. Hence, we disavow any efforts to influence people which depersonalize or deprive them of their inherent value as persons.

4. Respecting the value of persons, we deem all people worthy of hearing the gospel of this loving Lord Jesus Christ. We equally affirm the inalienable right of every person to retain his own belief system, and the freedom of every person to survey other valuable options and convert to or choose a different belief system.

5. We believe the “rightness” or “wrongness" of persuasive means is determined largely from the way they are used in context and from the intent of the speaker. For example, the so-called “testimonial" device, the “card-stacking” device, the “bandwagon” device, the use of suggestion and pathos, and the appeal to recognized authorities and personal needs may all be decidedly ethical depending on how they are used.

6. However noble the gospel of Jesus Christ and the goal of the Christian evangelist may be, we believe that does not justify whatever means might be employed to that end. Hence, we disavow any coercive techniques or manipulative appeals which bypass a person’s critical faculties, play on his psychological weaknesses, undermine his relationship with family or religious institutions, or mask the true name of Christian conversion and related issues.

7. Insofar as it depends on us, we will also protect a prospective convert from making a decision for Christ based on ulterior motives, such as fulfilling a need to be accepted, developing new connections, escaping other responsibilities, or creating a psychological dependency on another person.

8. While respecting the individual integrity, intellectual honesty, and academic freedom of other believers and skeptics, we seek to proclaim Christ openly. We reveal our own identity and purpose, our own positions and sources of information, with no hidden agendas. That means no false advertising, no overpromising the by-products of the Christian life, and no personal aggrandizement from successfully persuading others to follow Jesus. Respect for human integrity also means no overly emotional appeals which minimize logical principles, publicly observable evidence, and personal authentication in coming to term with truth.

9. As Christian evangelists, we embrace people of other religious persuasions in true dialogue. That is, we acknowledge our common humanity as equally sinful, equally needy, and equally dependent on the grace of the God we proclaim. Furthermore, we seek to listen mutually and sensitively in order to understand, and thus divest our witness of any false stereotypes or fixed formula, which are barriers to true dialogue.

10. As Christian evangelists, we accept the obligation to correct one who represents the Christian faith in any manner incompatible with these ethical guidelines or who violate the legal statutes set forth by our federal and state authorities.