Should Christians Proselytize?

Scripture Readings: John 14:1-7, Matthew 28:16-20

At the end of the gospel of Matthew the risen Jesus gathers his disciples on a mountain in Galilee and sends them out to "make disciples of all nations." (Mt. 28:19) Earlier in the gospel account, when Jesus first sends his disciples out to minister on their own, he explicitly says, "Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel." (Mt. 10:5-6) Now, however, the risen Jesus sends his disciples out to witness to the "nations," which in the Hebrew Bible refers to all the peoples who are not descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

In the past century scholars have wondered if the disciples actually heard the risen Jesus say these words, or if late in the first century the church attributed to Jesus words that explicitly endorsed the mission to the Gentiles. The command in Matthew 28:19 to baptize "in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit" sounds like it comes straight from a church service. Also, we know from Paul’s letters and from the Acts of the Apostles that many Jewish Christians opposed the Gentile mission, and the gospel of Matthew seems largely to address Jewish Christians.

In the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7, Jesus says, "Do not think that I have come to abolish the law [of Moses] or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished." (Mt. 5:17-18) As the law of Moses requires that Jews not enter the homes of Gentiles or eat food prepared by a Gentile, strictly keeping this law would not allow Jewish Christians to witness freely to the Gentiles of the "nations."

Nonetheless, whether or not Jesus actually said these words, for almost two millennia the Great Commission in Matthew 28:19-20 has called Christians to mission. In our generation, however, many Christians and probably most of us have begun to question this calling. We may have friends who are Jewish or Hindu, we may have been impressed by what we have read about Buddhism, or we may simply believe it is unreasonable to claim that all non-Christians are outside the saving love of God. We respect the freedom of others, and we recognize the limitations of our understanding. So, we are reluctant to try to convert others to our Christian faith.

Can our experience be reconciled with the call to witness in the gospel of Matthew? This gospel tells us that Jesus and his disciples went only to the Jews, but that the risen Christ sent the apostles to the Gentiles. The gospel of Matthew also says the Jews who did not accept Jesus as the Messiah will not be saved. Yet, the parable of the Great Judgment at the end of the gospel of Matthew indicates that being saved has very little to do with simply having the right beliefs about Jesus. In this parable Jesus says that "the righteous" who helped others in need will be saved, whereas those who failed to help the needy will "go away into eternal punishment." (Mt. 25:31-46)

So, witnessing to Christ is not merely about baptism and having the right beliefs about Jesus. It is about living righteously. This is how we should interpret John 14:6, which quotes Jesus as saying: "I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me." Often, this passage is used to argue that only those who profess their belief in Jesus Christ will be saved. However, the text does not explicitly make this claim, for it says nothing about confessing our beliefs or about baptism. The text affirms that the way to the Father is through the Son, but leaves open how we are to understand Jesus as "the way, and the truth, and the life." We might well take this to mean observing the Greatest Commandments: to love God and our neighbor as we love ourselves (Mt. 22:34-40), whether or not we are baptized.

Certainly, much of the mission work of the church has been done in the spirit of the Good Samaritan, who without any obligation to do so or any professed belief in Jesus helped another person in need. (Lk. 10:25-37) Presbyterian schools in Pakistan that were confiscated by the government and recently returned to the church are an example of this kind of mission work. These schools were not proselytizing, but were educating poor Christian and Muslim children. Mission work like this is surely a way of following the one who we believe in as "the way, and the truth, and the life."

Yet, the Great Commission is also a call to witness in the name of Jesus. Even if our witness to the love of God in Jesus Christ is primarily through service in mission, we are called to share with others not only our willingness to serve but also the reason why we are willing to serve. Those we serve have a right to consider and evaluate the faith that brings us to them and into their lives.

Such witnessing need not mean criticizing the religious beliefs of others, and it should not mean impugning their motives or morals. We can say who we are, and why, without arguing that we are bearers of the truth to those who are ignorant of what is true. Witnessing to our faith is not about proving that the faith of others is wrong or less worthy. Witnessing to our faith is about explaining why we continue to be Christian in a world offering a choice of many other beliefs and ways of living.

After almost two millennia of Christian mission, we stand in a very different place than those who first read the gospel of Matthew. We know that Christians, who felt called to convert "all nations" to Christ, have often mistreated people with diverse religious and cultural traditions. History has revealed to us that Christian beliefs do not guarantee righteousness, that people with other religious beliefs are often as righteous or more righteous than Christians are, and that we are always limited in our understanding of God's will — and also limited in our awareness of how others understand and seek to follow God's will.

A distinction made by the World Council of Churches and the Vatican between "witnessing" and "proselytizing" reflects some of these lessons from history. In 1956 the Central Committee of the World Council of Churches stated that: "Witness is corrupted when cajolery, bribery, undue pressure, or intimidation is used – subtly or openly – to bring about seeming conversion.” Also, Vatican II held that: "Proselytism is a corruption of the Christian witness by appealing to hidden forms of coercion or by a style of propaganda unworthy of the Gospel." Both the World Council of Churches and the Catholic Church condemn proselytism, but endorse witnessing that presents the Gospel to others in ways that are consistent with its message of God’s love and forgiveness.

The Great Commission should not be read apart from the rest of the New Testament. In Matthew 7:21-23 Jesus is quoted as teaching: "Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?’ Then I will declare to them, 'I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.'" Faith is not having the right beliefs. Faith means trusting in God and manifesting that trust through righteous living.

If witnessing through service leads someone to seek baptism, we should not think we have "won a soul" that otherwise was damned. Baptism is not a magic ritual that saves. God saves. Our faith is that God in Christ has saved all those who respond in faith. So, if someone is converted, we should be welcoming, thankful, and humbled. Conversion and baptism are not "good works" that reflect the strength of our faith, but instead are the work of the Holy Spirit reflecting the steadfast love and reconciling justice of the God we know in Jesus Christ. Amen.

May 26, 2002 © Robert Traer 2016