Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

The Proselytism "Problem"

Dennis R. Hoover


September 14, 2007 

The July 19 kidnapping of 23 South Korean missionaries, two of whom were murdered shortly thereafter, by Taliban rebels in Afghanistan put the issue of proselytism and religious persecution back in the spotlight of national and international media.

The brutal actions taken against these missionaries are emblematic of the rising tide of religious persecution targeting Christian missionaries and other Christian workers. The problem has become especially severe in conservative Islamic societies where foreign Christians are being accused of using unethical means of proselytism.

Fortunately, the Taliban released all of the remaining South Korean captives by August 31. But the cost of their freedom was high. In addition to South Korea paying a ransom and agreeing to withdraw troops, the Taliban received an unprecedented concession: a pledge from the South Korean government to cease all missionary activity in Afghanistan.

It is difficult to say if the behavior of these missionaries while in Afghanistan was unethical or merely unwise. Media reports suggested they were reckless in going to a war zone rife with Islamist fanatics and making conspicuous targets of themselves. On the other hand, if anything is unambiguously unethical it is the barbaric actions of the Taliban.

However one chooses to evaluate these particular missionaries, the practical effect of the bargain struck for their release is the same: a worldwide increase in the risks faced by Christian missionaries. Hence the margin for error in missionary work is getting smaller, and the need for ethical clarity and consistency in evangelistic practice is urgent.

It is in this context that we should applaud recent developments in an international campaign to develop a new voluntary code of ethics for proselytism by 2010. On August 9-12, the World Council of Churches and the Roman Catholic Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue sponsored a consultation in Toulouse, France entitled “Towards an Ethical Approach to Conversion—Christian Witness in a Multi-religious World.” Particularly significant was the fact that, unlike previous consultations, Evangelicals participated this time: three representatives of the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA) and an American delegate from the Church of God.

Although, as the website of the WEA was quick to point out, the participation of a few evangelical delegates in a single meeting is no guarantee that the final product will be endorsed by Evangelicals, just the possibility of an evangelical imprimatur gives the project more credibility. After all, it is the missionary work of traditional evangelical groups that is at the heart of most of the current controversy.

A new code endorsed only by mainline church representatives—who usually do not support proselytism, and in some cases do not even regard conversions to Christianity as a desirable outcome of interfaith encounters—would be beside the point. In explaining his participation in the consultation, Thomas Schirrmacher, a German theologian who chairs the WEA's International Institute for Religious Freedom, said that the new code “will only make sense if it is not directed against Evangelicals and Pentecostals but written together with them.” And he added, evangelical input and approval is crucial in order to win over the “black sheep” among Evangelicals and Pentecostals for “a respectful kind of evangelism.”

Given recent trends in religious persecution, we should encourage an accelerated pace of development for the new code, and a broadening and deepening of evangelical influence on its formulation. Again, to be relevant this code must be acceptable not just to religious relativists but also to the doctrinally orthodox. If it is genuinely pan-Christian, the code could help ensure that the universal right to freedom of evangelistic speech is exercised responsibly by Christians, and could challenge other proselytizing faiths—including Islam—to develop parallel codes defining the rights and ethics of proselytism.

—Dennis R. Hoover, Editor
    The Review of Faith & International Affairs

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”