Christian Understandings of Proselytism

By Kerr, David A. | International Bulletin of Missionary Research, January 1999 | Go to article overview
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Christian Understandings of Proselytism

Kerr, David A., International Bulletin of Missionary Research

Like the chameleon, proselytism displays itself in many shades of color. The word has different nuances in individual languages and among languages. Importantly from the point of view of this article, it is used variously among different sectors' of the Christian church. It refers both to the transfer of allegiance from one religion to another and to the transfer of allegiance between churches. Attitudes to proselytism are conditioned by political, social, and cultural considerations, and responses vary from one church to another, from one culture to another. I attempt here to clarify some of the issues, particularly as they have emerged in Christian thinking through the second half of the twentieth century. I argue that the hard-sought consensus that has emerged within the ecumenical movement needs to extend itself further to include new global realities of Christianity.(1)

To begin with English linguistic definitions, the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary considers "proselytism" simply as a synonym of "conversion." Derived from the Latin proselytus and the Greek proselytos, the proselyte is "one who has come to a place" - that is, a newcomer or convert. Use of the term in English literature displays both positive and negative characteristics. For Shakespeare, the proselyte's power of attraction was an evocative metaphor of female beauty; thus, of Perdita, he wrote:

This is a creature, Would she begin a sect, might quench the zeal Of all professors else; make proselytes Of who she but bid follow.(2)

By the eighteenth century, however, Enlightenment literature identified proselytism with intolerance. The leading philosopher of the Enlightenment in Scotland, David Hume, criticized an opponent for "his zeal for proselytism that he stopped not at toleration or equality."(3) Edmund Burke vented his dislike of the French Revolution in the carping criticism that "the spirit of proselytism attends this spirit of fanaticism."(4)

Reflecting this negative nuancing of meaning, Webster's Dictionary of Synonyms draws a plain distinction between conversion and proselytism: the former denotes "a sincere and voluntary change of belief," whereas the latter implies "an act or process of inducing someone to convert to another faith." In current ecumenical usage, this American English meaning prevails, coercive inducement being the attribute of proselytism that differentiates it from conversion.(5)

Biblical Perspectives

The proselyte is a familiar figure in both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament. The Greek proselytos was used in the Septuagint to translate the Hebrew ger, the "stranger" who sojourned in the land of Israel. The Deuteronomist taught that the proselyte-stranger (ger) was to be honored among the Jews, who had themselves been strangers (gerim) in Egypt (Deut. 10:19). The bulk of Talmudic literature welcomes the proselyte into the full fellowship of Israel, subject to the requirements of circumcision, baptism, and the offering of sacrifice. Jesus criticized what he deemed the Pharisaic tendency of making the proselyte a slave to the law (Matt. 23:15). From this it may be inferred that the matter of how a proselyte should be incorporated into Israel was a matter of controversy in Jesus' time. New Testament references to Jewish proselytes among the first Christians indicate that they were welcome members of the early church (Acts 2:10; 6:5; 13:43).(6) The postbiblical histories of both Judaism and Christianity continued to honor the proselyte until more recent times, when, roughly speaking from the eighteenth century, the term came to have the negative connotations we have noted in English literary usage. The present writer would speculate that the roots of the negative interpretation of proselytism as the overzealous or coercive expression of religion lie contextually both in post-Enlightenment ideas of freedom of conscience and in secular reactions to the rise of the modern Western Christian missionary movement in the colonial era.

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