Imagine you have gone to an automobile show. Been there, done that: Most of us have endured that materialistic orgy where a person pays money to be admitted into a huge convention center to subject himself to advertising from every car dealership in town.
There, prominently baking under a hundred spotlights is a shiny black Lexus®, surrounded by fast-talking sales people. They look like they just stepped out of Gentlemen's Quarterly or Vogue. There are glossy brochures in abundance, glitzy photographs everywhere, even a sophisticated multimedia display showing every angle of every Lexus® available. It is an advertiser's feast, a collage of colors and sounds that all say, "Buy Lexus®!" None takes exception to the king of crass.
To draw foot traffic, they sell popcorn. Not just any popcorn, you understand, but popcorn with a special "butter" on it, one chemically formulated to produce an appealing, almost addictive aroma. People go out of their way to buy it. You walk among the alluring displays, munching your popcorn.
Almost mesmerized by the noise, the movement, the color, the dazzle, you make your way past the "Buy Lexus®!" display, with its gaudy emphasis on ostentatious luxury, to the nearby "Buy Audi®!" display, with its obvious accent on racing—pictures everywhere of Le Mans. A little further down the aisle is the "Buy Jaguar®!" display. Be sure you stress that u in Jaguar®—we must be very proper. But, if you have a big enough line of credit, the salesman will accept any pronunciation. The king of crass meets his queen.
By this time, your materialistic instincts have no need for steroids. Human nature is in the driver's seat.
Over there, in a corner near the service entrance is another display. You almost walked past it, so plain, so unobtrusive. No lights. No music. No pictures. No brochures. No multimedia. You cannot even smell the popcorn this far from the action. Only one salesman, plain-faced and plain-dressed, stands near one lack-luster automobile. He looks almost as if he does not want you to approach. Maybe he thinks you are just another lost soul looking for the restroom.
"What kind of car is that?" you ask, noting the lack of blinking neon sign announcing the make.
The salesman looks around sheepishly. "It's a Buick®," he whispers, offering no more information.
"Is it a good car?"
"I like it."
"What's it have on it that the black Lexus® over there doesn't?"
"Oh, sir," the salesman, obviously alarmed, says, "it's illegal for me to compare this car with any other car."
"Oh, okay. Well, how much does it cost?" That is a fair question.
"Sir, please, if you keep asking questions like that, we'll both get in trouble. You know, I can't possibly sell you a Buick®. If you are really interested in buying an automobile, you will probably have to go to one of the other displays."
Almost stunned, you back away. Are you about to be arrested? You break into a quiet jog as soon as you can collect yourself, gaining speed as you put distance between you and the evidently illicit Buick® salesman, running past the glitzy displays, sprinting past the popcorn vendor. On your way, you notice a few other darkened displays, in the corners, almost hidden from sight, staffed by forlorn bodies, lonely, empty—everything but successful.
Is that any way to run a car show? Obviously, not from the viewpoint of the Buick® salesman. Yet, that is exactly how mankind is organizing the market place of ideas. That market place has many venues: the newspaper, the periodical, the library, the television, the schoolroom, the Internet. The liberals—and, make no mistake about it, the traditionalists in third world nations as well—have glitzy displays indeed, of every size and description, for every taste and educational level. "Buy Evolution!" shouts one display. It comes in a number of formats. "Buy Abortion!" roars another. The displays are everywhere. "Buy Global Warming!"
What about religion? Any glitzy "Buy Christianity!" displays around? What about "Buy Islam!" or "Buy Buddhism!"? This article explores the phenomenon of proselytism—which the dictionary defines as "the act [or] practice . . . of making converts to a religion."
Lawrence Uzzell ("Don't Call It Proselytism," First Things, October 2004, p. 14) asserts that current human rights specialists define proselytism "to mean any attempt by any religious believer to win converts from other religions or from irreligion." Proselytism, therefore, refers to the attempt to persuade others to change beliefs—to replace their former belief system with a different one. For our purposes, we will use the terms proselytism, evangelicalism, and missionary activity interchangeably.
What does God's Word say about proselytism? What does modern law say about it? What about the practice of proselytism today? How does all this affect the true church of God?
Old Testament Proselytism
The Hebrew language lacks an exact equivalent to the Greek noun proselyte, which means a newcomer (Strong's number 4339). However, in the Old Testament, God's law does allow the ger (Strong's 1616), usually rendered "stranger," to become a full-fledged citizen of Israel. To do this, he needed to become circumcised. Exodus 12:48 addresses this changing of belief system in reference to the Passover:
And when a stranger sojourns with you and wants to keep the Passover to the Lord, let all his males be circumcised, and then let him come near and keep it; and he shall be as a native of the land.
The stranger "wants to keep the Passover." There is no hint of God expecting Israel to seek converts among the heathen by actively preaching to—or, at—them. Here, there is no coercion, subtle or otherwise; the Gentile convert voluntarily gives himself to come under the Old Covenant. Deuteronomy 4:5-7 states the dynamics of this conversion. Moses is speaking:
Surely I have taught you statutes and judgments, just as the Lord my God commanded me, that you should act according to them in the land which you go to possess. Therefore, be careful to observe them, for this is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples who will hear all these statutes, and say, "Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people. For what great nation is there that has God so near to it . . . ?"
Gentiles' observing the results of Israel's obedience to God's law would be drawn to reject their pagan belief system in favor of God's true religion. There is no reference to God's calling these people. Rather, conversion is treated as a fully rational and voluntary choice made when thoughtful pagans recognize the superiority of God's way over their own satanic practices.
In other words, Israel's role was to be an example. God did not command missionary activity on the part of ancient Israel. Israel's proselytism was to be non-verbal, as distinct from the overt verbal action of preaching through the written or spoken word.
Not proselytism through words, but through works, is the God-sanctioned method for ancient Israel. Israel was not so much to preach as it was to obey and to teach. Obeying God's law was an individual responsibility; teaching that law was a parental duty. Notice verse 9, which stresses both roles:
Only take heed to yourself, and diligently keep yourself, lest you forget the things your eyes have seen, and lest they depart from your heart all the days of your life. And teach them to your children and your grandchildren. . . .
The Old Testament is replete with examples of Gentiles who were won over to Israel by witnessing the unquestioned superiority of God's way of life, and subsequently becoming convinced that His way was for them. One early example may be "Eliezer of Damascus" in Abraham's day, the chief servant in his household. Other examples, certainly, are Ruth in the period of the judges, Uriah the Hittite in David's day and Ebed-Melech in Jeremiah's time. All these quickly come to mind as Gentile converts.
New Testament Proselytism
Later on, however, Hellenized Jews caught missionary fever and discarded the approach sanctioned by God. Active—and far-flung—evangelism became the order of the day. Indeed, the first New Testament occurrence of the word proselyte appears in Matthew 23:15 where Christ chastises the scribes' and Pharisees' for their hypocritical approach to spreading their corrupt religion:
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel land and sea to win one proselyte, and when he is won, you make him twice as much a son of hell as yourselves.
Proselytes were common in those days. Acts 2:10 records their presence, with the Jews, in Jerusalem on Pentecost. Nicolas, "a proselyte from Antioch," is numbered in Acts 6:5 as an original deacon. Finally, Acts 13:43, mentions "devout proselytes" who followed Paul in Antioch. In context, these clearly refer to Gentile proselytes to Judaism.
Indeed, Paul's problems with the circumcision party had its roots in the widespread Jewish practice of proselytism in those days. The members of this party—almost certainly (misguided) members of God's church—followed Paul from city to city, telling Gentile converts of their need for physical circumcision. They took their cues from Exodus 12:48 and other scriptures. These Jews were men of their age, and therefore took no exception to the practice of proselytism. Also, they apparently accepted the validity of Paul's commission to carry Christ's "name before Gentiles" (Acts 9:15). Their only issue was physical circumcision. As a result of this controversy, the apostles had to redefine circumcision in its proper New Covenant terms.
In the New Testament, God clearly commissioned some to preach the gospel of God's Kingdom actively. Paul received such a commission, as Acts 9:15 clearly relates. Christ also commissioned His other apostles to "go therefore and make disciples of all the nations . . ." (Matthew 28:19). These commissions have their parallel in the commissions received by the Old Testament prophets. Examples include the prophets Isaiah (Isaiah 6), Jeremiah (Jeremiah 1) and Jonah (Jonah 1).
It is important to recognize, though, that neither the Old Testament commissions to the prophets nor the New Testament commissions to the apostles remove the responsibility on the part of the people to be examples. God has always used this means—the example of His people—as a fundamental method of reaching others. As one excellent New Testament example, notice I Thessalonians 1:7-9, where Paul lauds the converts in Thessalonica, pointing out the breadth of their example to other church congregations and to the world at large:
. . . so that you became examples to all in Macedonia and Achaia who believe. For from you the word of the Lord has sounded forth, not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but also in every place. Your faith toward God has gone out, so that we do not need to say anything. For they themselves declare concerning us what manner of entry we had to you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God. . . .
So strong was their witness that Paul needed not "to say anything." These people certainly did not hide their light under a basket. Example can speak louder than preaching.
Proselytism and Man's Law
In today's world, international law protects the reasonable practice of proselytism. Article 18 of the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights, signed in December 1948, reads:
Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.
These rights were elaborated and further delineated by a United Nations subcommittee in 1954. Following is a summary of the pertinent parts of this subcommittee's determination on religious discrimination. Notice especially point 3:
1. Everyone shall be free to adhere, or not to adhere, to a religion or belief, in accordance with the dictates of his conscience.
2. No one shall be subjected to material or moral coercion likely to impair his freedom to maintain or to change his religion or belief.
3. Everyone shall be free to teach or to disseminate his religion or belief, either in public or in private.
4. No one shall be compelled to receive religious or atheistic instruction, contrary to his convictions or, in the case of children, contrary to the wishes of their parents and, when applicable, legal guardians.
5. No group professing a religion or belief shall be prevented from training the personnel intending to devote themselves to the performance of its practices or observances, or from bringing teachers from abroad necessary for this purpose.
Furthermore, human rights specialists recognize that the right to evangelize (proselytize) entails the right to be evangelized. These are two sides of a single coin. This is the nexus between the right to engage in proselytism and the rights of free speech and of peaceful assembly (entailing as it does a right to disseminate and receive information). As Dr. Bert B. Beach ("Evangelism and Proselytism: Religious Liberty and Ecumenical Challenges," at www.irla.org) puts it: "Any strict anti-proselytism regulations cut off the supply of new and different information, restricting both the dissemination and receiving of ideas." This aspect of proselytism is addressed in Article 19 of the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights:
Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.
Clearly, international law recognizes proselytism as an integral part of an individual's right to choose whom he worships, and to change, or not to change, his habits or worship. Next month, we will see that theory and practice are two vastly different things.