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Interfaith dialogue ponders global conversion issues


NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–Evangelicals should take a cautious view of a proposed code of ethics banning “unethical” efforts to persuade people to accept Christ, two Southern Baptist professors have said.

In August, the World Evangelical Alliance joined the World Council of Churches and the Roman Catholic Pontifical Council in a dialogue at Toulouse, France, aimed at creating a code of conduct targeting “undue pressure” on people to change religions.

While the initiative affirms the “fundamental, inviolable and non-negotiable right” to spread one’s faith, delegates to a May 2006 gathering of the study group also called for religious people to “heal themselves” of the “obsession of converting others.”

That 2006 gathering included representatives of Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, Jewish and indigenous religious traditions, as well as Roman Catholic and World Council of Churches delegates. The group was convened, at least in part, to address complaints about the number of people in those traditions affiliating themselves with evangelical churches.


The rapid growth of evangelical Christianity worldwide has sparked persecution and anti-conversion laws where authorities believe they have a prior claim to religious loyalties, said Hal Poe, professor of faith and culture at Union University in Jackson, Tenn.


“In many parts of the world, religion is seen as a cultural thing -– this is your religion because this is your culture,” Poe said. “By the same token, conversion is conceived as more of a cultural, ethnic matter, not a matter of faith. People are seen as belonging to a religious group simply because of their geographical location.”

The World Evangelical Alliance hopes a code of conduct condemning unethical methods of evangelism will persuade governments to back away from laws that punish people who change their religious affiliation -– and those who encourage them to do so.

The code’s promoters expect it “to fulfill several goals: to be an advocacy tool in discussions with governments considering anti-conversion laws, to help advance the cause of religious freedom, to address other religions’ concerns about Christian proselytism and inspire them to consider their own codes, and also to help ease intra-Christian tensions,” according to a statement posted on the WEA’s website, worldevangelicalalliance.com, in mid-August.


The World Evangelical Alliance’s joining the dialogue could help draw attention to places in the world where radical Muslims are forcing people to submit to Islamic law and persecuting Christians who refuse, said Greg Thornbury, dean of Union University’s school of Christian studies.

“I think the WEA’s involvement must be seen against the backdrop of resurgent Islamism and its coercive methods of conversion that stem from the texts and traditions of the Koran and the Hadith,” Thornbury said. “The World Evangelical Alliance has been the leading voice in drawing attention to the persecution Christians are suffering in many Muslim majority lands. Perhaps an ethical code for evangelism will draw contrasts between the Muslim and Christian understandings of conversion.”

While Christianity has a history of using force to expand its influence, Christians today have largely turned their backs on coercion in missions, Thomas Schirrmacher, director of the WEA’s International Institute for Religious Freedom, told the group assembled in August.

“Christianity and its churches as a whole have taken the right course in the last hundred years, abstaining more and more from violence, from being involved in wars or civil wars, and from using political means or economical pressure for missions,” Schirrmacher said. “There is just the opposite development in Islam, where the Islamicist’s acceptance of violence to conquer the world makes inroads into the Muslim community, even where they lived peacefully with other groups for centuries.”


In fact, evangelical Christians are the least likely group to pressure people into religious decisions because they believe authentic faith is a personal choice, Poe said.

“The problem with the idea of bribing people or some way enticing someone into ‘joining’ the Christian group -– like some companies offer inducements to take out a credit card -– is that it doesn’t work,” Poe said. “An evangelical’s driving concern is that people come to know the Lord Jesus Christ as their Savior, and that only happens through faith.

“A methodology aimed at tricking or luring someone to ‘become a Christian’ would not be valid from our perspective. We believe that sort of ‘conversion’ doesn’t count.”

A code of conduct intended to advance, rather than restrict, the mission of evangelism would be fine, Poe said, but the Vatican/WCC initiative lists outreach efforts like schools and hospitals as examples of enticing people to become Christians.

“One of the concerns that seems to be driving this effort seems to be a desire to end any kind of tangible mission or involvement in the world –- hospitals, hunger relief, schools, agricultural missions -– all the tangible things that tend to the physical needs of people,” Poe said. “Jesus was constantly moved by compassion, healing the sick and feeding the multitudes. I would be very concerned with any attempt to restrict what was at the heart of His mission.”

While many people can agree that bribes, harassment and threats are unethical means of “converting” people, a code of ethics would face the serious challenge that each group always believes others are the ones overstepping, Schirrmacher said.

“We will have to discuss whether we can name the problem just in terms of [good] evangelism and mission and [bad] ‘proselytism,'” he said. “I doubt whether this will really help as long as we do not resist the temptation to always call what we do ‘evangelism’ and what others do ‘proselytism.'”
Mark Kelly is a freelance writer based in Gallatin, Tenn.