Mission, Evangelism, and Proselytism in Christianity: Mainline Conceptions as Reflected in Church Documents

94 Pages Posted: 8 Aug 2006

See all articles by Joel A. Nichols

Joel A. Nichols

University of St. Thomas School of Law (MN)


This Article arose in the context of a project at Emory University on "The Problem of Proselytism in Russia" - wherein a small gathering of scholars undertook an assessment of the impact and implementation of Russia's passage of a restrictive law on religion in 1997. The Article attempts to show that the problem of proselytism is not simply a legal issue, but also a theological issue. It is not limited to a discussion of methods of persuasion and conversion, but grows out of the differing theologies of religious groups. Thus, the Article undertakes to establish a theological framework for a discussion of the problem of proselytism by closely evaluating the authoritative documents of Christian groups.

The Article looks at four major segments of Christianity: Roman Catholicism, Evangelical Protestantism, Conciliar Ecumenical Christianity, and Eastern Orthodoxy. These various segments have differing emphases and understandings of "mission" or "evangelism," which leads to differing activities or methods of evangelism. Catholics stress that proclamation of the Gospel is a useful beginning point, but mission must also include social action, including the notion of liberation and the advocacy of political and economic freedom. All those born into the Church and baptized as infants are considered Christians, and it is the responsibility of the Church to nurture the faith of those persons as well as to spread the Gospel to other lands. Evangelical Protestants equate evangelism primarily with proclamation - in large measure because for evangelicals an individuals' relationship with God is considered primary, personal, and grounded in individual intellectual commitment to certain truths. Evangelicals take the Great Commission of Matthew 28 very literally and believe that every individual in every nation needs to be told the Gospel message, so that they will have the personal opportunity to make an individual commitment. The Conciliar Ecumenical movement (mostly typified by mainline Protestantism) focuses more on ecumenism and unity among Christian churches than proclamation. Evangelism is thought to occur through proclamation, but also through Eucharistic celebration, social action, and prayer. This movement especially decries any perceived "competition" among Christian groups for evangelistic candidates and places emphasis on working with existing and indigenous Christian groups. Eastern Orthodox churches have a well-defined theology that undergirds their stance on evangelism, stressing unity and Eucharistic celebration more than evangelistic proclamation. For Orthodox believers, membership in the church is often connected to belonging to a particular body of people, and frequently tied to ethnic or nationalistic groups. The Eucharist and social witness of the church are seen as the prime ways of sharing the Gospel, and proclamation is relegated to an equal or even subordinate role. Any interreligious competition is especially decried.

The problem of proselytism in Russia arises in part because of these contrasting theological beliefs. While Orthodoxy is dominant among much of the leadership and citizenry of Russia, Evangelical Christians undertook significant missionary efforts in Russia after the introduction of glasnost. This has led to a clash of theologies, which subsequently has been reified into more restrictive laws on evangelism, proselytism, and religious liberty - but which laws are highly reflective of the Russian Orthodox mindset. Thus, while legal dialogue must certainly occur about the effect of the new law, so too must theological dialogue, for the problem of proselytism cannot be resolved without open theological discourse between (and within) faith traditions.

Keywords: Human Rights, Proselytism, Evangelism, Missions, Religion, Christianity

Suggested Citation

Nichols, Joel A., Mission, Evangelism, and Proselytism in Christianity: Mainline Conceptions as Reflected in Church Documents. Emory International Law Review, Vol. 12, pp. 563-650, 1998, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=762467

Joel A. Nichols (Contact Author)

University of St. Thomas School of Law (MN) ( email )

MSL 400, 1000 La Salle Avenue
Minneapolis, MN Minnesota 55403-2005
United States
651-962-4827 (Phone)

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