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Fall 2021 · Vol. 50 No. 2 · pp. 224–226 

Book Review

The Scandal of Evangelism: A Biblical Study of the Ethics of Evangelism

Elmer John Thiessen. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2018. 265 pages.

Reviewed by Andrew Dyck

In The Scandal of Evangelism, philosopher and professor Elmer Thiessen aims to fill a void in the literature about evangelism by providing “a biblical and theological grounding for an explicitly Christian ethics of evangelism” (6). This book follows Thiessen’s earlier volume for readers of any religion: The Ethics of Evangelism: A Philosophical Defense of Ethical Proselytizing and Persuasion (Paternoster, 2011).

Thiessen begins his Christian ethics of evangelism with a definition: “evangelism is the verbal proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ, having as its goal the conversion of another person or group of persons, conversion being understood as involving a change of a person’s belief, behavior, and sense of belonging” (15-16). In chapter 2, Thiessen briefly shows that the Old Testament expects God’s people to love God and neighbor, and to be God’s witnesses through proclamation, not only ethics. Thiessen takes the reader deeper in the next four chapters, in which he examines the specific “rules, principles, stories, drama, and worldview” (27) of the New Testament to find overarching themes or lessons for the ethics of evangelism today.

In chapter 7, Thiessen presents these themes as a list of thirty guidelines (not rules) for ethical evangelism. These are grouped under nine headings, including “The Interface Between the Human and the Divine,” “Freedom and Coercion,” “The Content of Evangelism,” “The Delivery of Content and Persuasion,” “[Relationships],” “Responding to Resistance and Rejection,” “[Motivations],” and “Means, Ends, and Success.”

In part 2, Thiessen draws on these guidelines as he discusses ethical and unethical evangelism with respect to children, professional life (especially in the academy), humanitarian aid, and proselytism. These {225} four chapters are particularly interesting and insightful because they are experiential yet principled, and concrete yet nuanced. Here, Thiessen’s critical engagement is most effective.

In his concluding chapter, Thiessen reveals his primary motivations for writing this book. He is deeply concerned that Christians have become embarrassed about being evangelistic. As a result, they often become reductionist, whether by viewing evangelism as just saving individuals for heaven or by just caring for the poor. They have shied away from proclaiming God’s truths about sin, idolatry, ethical standards, and salvation. Even when Christians do embrace missional church theology—with its emphasis on holistic evangelism—proclamation tends to get dropped in favor of social action. In short, the conclusion reveals that Thiessen is doing more than providing Christian ethics for evangelism. With these ethical principles, definitions, and case studies he is making an argument for doing evangelism despite strong opposing currents of thought and culture, even within the Christian faith.

I commend Thiessen for his ambitious, interdisciplinary work, demonstrating that evangelism can still be a vital practice of the church. He engages the New Testament widely to support his insights. He is clear that people’s autonomy must be respected, that evangelism must be relational, and that there will always be power differentials in relationships. He gives many helpful definitions, thereby countering the argument that evangelism is inherently unethical. For example, proselytizing has to do with people changing churches or denominations, not with evangelism per se. He also defines what is and isn’t coercion. Thiessen uses stories and statements to support his claims, including the claim that the proclamation of the gospel must be integrated with actions of love (even though he separates proclamation from actions for the sake of his overarching argument). Thiessen’s many footnotes add helpful commentary.

While I appreciated the wisdom in The Scandal of Evangelism, I also found myself periodically frustrated. Thiessen’s methodology of developing and then applying a list of ethical principles undermines his purpose of nurturing ethical evangelism. Lists are insufficient as means for training disciples of Jesus and may even short-circuit such training by giving the impression that mastery of the list equals transformation of life. Offering a primary lens or framework through which to grasp these principles would have been more helpful. In a similar vein, Thiessen’s repeated definition of evangelism as proclamation is too artificial, as evidenced by the many times when Thiessen reiterates the inseparability of effective proclamation and loving actions. He even points out situations in which the ethical thing to do is to show mercy and give aid, before proclaiming anything of the gospel. In addition, Thiessen’s arguments {226} from Scripture would been more effective had he drawn on additional insights from biblical and theological scholarship—for example, the biblical scholar Christopher Wright’s monumental work, The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative; the Anabaptist theology that children are safe in Christ before the age of accountability; and the most recent edition of the New International Version of the Bible.

North American Christians have indeed become uneasy with evangelism, even scandalized, not least because of the church’s complicity in the sins of colonialism. I recommend that thoughtful readers follow Thiessen’s corrective argument by reading the conclusion and then the rest of The Scandal of Evangelism.

Andrew Dyck
Assistant Professor of Christian Spirituality and Pastoral Ministry
Canadian Mennonite University, Winnipeg, Manitoba

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