Sunday, 1 March 2009

Defining Evangelism . . .

In a democratic society like Greece, the co-existence of differing religious groups is crucial. Religious freedom is a long established human right. However, it should be examined under the local light of the peculiar pre-dominantly Orthodox Greek society.

Evangelism can be easily misunderstood by people to mean proselytism, and its post-modern face appears to be that of an arrogant colonizer who is a threat to the indigenous traditions of a certain community. This definition of evangelism, however, should not be allowed to “colonize” other ways of defining it, but should be brought into the light and examined more thoroughly, so that its flaws may be exposed. The 3 following fallacies should be pointed out:

1. Such a negative understanding of evangelism ignores the value of the free communication of conversion opportunities to the members of a community. It is identical to the obstruction of healthy competitiveness for the sake of feeding a monopolistic beast.

2. This negative definition of evangelism discriminates against small religions which rely upon adult converts, rather than traditional adherents, to expand. Again, this is identical to a first-come-first-served monopolistic mentality. Every religion should get a “fair” hearing regardless of size or “time of residence”.

3. Defining evangelism in this way is dangerously paternalistic. The State or the State church may be abusing its ability to decide FOR their own members thus denying them their basic right of individual autonomy.

I do not pretend to be treating an easy topic here, but I would go ahead and throw a suggestion out, always open to criticism and refutation. Instead of Tom trying to crash Jerry, and Jerry sneaking around Tom, an ideal situation would be for the majority church to allow its members some exposure to the existence of other beliefs. This can happen in an environment of trust and co-operation where a representative of each minority church is invited to present their views openly, answer questions and give their testimony. I have been loyal to a travel agency for years, until one day they presented me with all the possible options I should consider for my benefit. They took the risk of losing me as their customer by disclosing their competitors’ lower and sometimes higher prices. The choice was mine to make.

Maybe it is time to learn from our common ancestors and bring back a βήμα in Athens.

[see more, Peter W. Edge LLB, PhD (Cantab), The Missionary's Position After Kokkinakis v Greece].


  1. Myrto, it also needs to be said that Evangelism when defined as "proselytism" is simply someone proselytizing everyone to their own religious views. It's an exercise of power. Blessings, Marty.

  2. It is a power game. For this exact reason, when the Powers are already in place, it is primarily the obligation of the powerful one to fight for the right of the weak one to speak. This implies a Christian-value based society, however, not a survival-of-the-fittest jungle.

  3. Evangelism 'as' proselytism is a non-sequitur from the outset. It has nothing to do with the definition of evangelism but rather with its preferred mode of expression...

    Let's look at it like this. It is only when you take a beast into the wild - its true setting - that you see what its true nature is like... we must remember the meaning of the word 'evangelism' - it means good news. Either this 'good news' is an objective fact for all people (like a lion's jaws) or it is not. Regardless of the means and method (ie. proselytistic or otherwise), the first thing to establish is the 'nature' of the message - this is what defines what evangelism is or isn't. Is it in fact good news? If it is, then you can proceed with a discussion about evangelism.

    If it is good news then the fact that the person delivering the message is using it as a power play does not make it any less good news unless he or she ends up totally obfuscating the message in the process (which does often happen, it must be said). If this does not happen though, all it tells us is that this particular person shouldn't be sharing this wonderful news or at the very least should be going about it in a very different way.

    The content of the message must be established before any meaningful discussion about the delivery is attempted; if your message if flawed, you can go about it in the nicest way... but it is not 'evangelism', because evangelism is all about the "good news".

  4. Thanks Tim! Rightly put! Evangelism and proselytism is an unfortunate identification. We should all have a common definition of evangelism first.
    Evangelism is the message of good news which cannot and should not be divorced from "making disciples" or "baptizing in the name". The message is always clothed in these expressions given by Jesus himself and goes hand in hand with the introduction into the faith community. I think most people would agree with these expressions. The problem starts when one asks: Which faith community? And this again is an ancient problem, Apollos or Cephas? Yet again, it should not matter which community as long as the good news are preached.
    But, reality (for better or worse) is that the "good news" are defined through the lenses of "discipleship" and "faith community". Meaning and expression function as mutually interpretive.
    Is it possible to arrive at a common definition of what these good news are apart from its expression? One may see the good news as the ability to be grafted into the historic people of God through Christ, but you can suspect all the different ways one can read that and try to protect their flock from other "readings". I'd love to hear more of your opinion on this.

  5. I would say yes and no. The whole idea of a 'universal gospel' (for all people at all times) is that its expression, by definition, will vary (or else it is not in the end for all people) but its essence will remain the same.

    I've just finished reading a post quoting Stott, which in turn is simply a take on Paul's 'preaching Christ and him crucified'. Read the post (and share the awe I am currently feeling).

    But before you do, my two cents are these - I used to say all you need is the Bible and you then have a self-correcting theology... but I guess this was a bit naive since lots of people have the Bible but have different attitudes to it. I guess what I would say now is that you need to have the Bible PLUS the cross of Christ at the centre... only then will you have a self-correctly theology, a balanced missiology and true disciples. A 'faith-community' that is not Bible-based AND cross-centred is quite simply 'not' a "Christian" faith community.

    (And as a slight aside, I guess in this way I have been moving more to an Orthodox way of thinking in this area as the only way to have the Bible + a Christ/cross centred attitude towards it is through turning humbly to the Christians of the ages to analyse their emphases and balances, to witness their great battles and to learn from that, rather than thinking that we have it all worked out in our own little 21st Century evangelical bubble. As such, while I don't consider tradition to be authoritative as the Orthodox do, I do consider it to be helpful and even vital in working out these issues).