Proselytism has become a bad word. Like fundamentalism or exclusivism, in today’s religious language, only the negative overtones of the term are retained and are used to convey a derogatory understanding of its meaning. In the original Greek, the word simply meant 'coming closer' to something. In the New Testament, a proselyte describes a non-Israelite who has come close to the Jewish faith (e.g. Matthew 23:15; Acts 2:10, 6:5, 13:43). In this sense, Christians have understood proselytism as akin to evangelism in the sense of calling all people to come closer to Jesus Christ.
However, the historical record of proselytism carried out by Christians is tragically marred with all kinds of manipulative and violent means, which have made the word itself contrary to what biblical evangelism and mission should be.
In today’s ecumenical climate there is a further element to be noticed. A 1995 World Council of Churches – Roman Catholic document said it clearly from the outset: 'Proselytism stands in opposition to all ecumenical efforts.' Today the real issue is not so much the right exposing of all immoral practices that can accompany evangelism, but rather a growing opposition to the fact that evangelism can be done by minority groups in places where the majority is nominally 'Christian'. The trajectory of the ecumenical meaning of the word 'proselytism' has moved from warning against immoral acts of a legitimate action to warning against all evangelism in already 'Christianized' contexts by labelling it as proselytism.
In practice, this means that Roman Catholics should not be evangelized by evangelicals because they are already members of the church; the Eastern Orthodox should not be evangelized by evangelicals because they are already members of the church; and so on. Evangelism has become unethical and is labelled as 'proselytism', not because it is carried out through immoral practices but because it targets those who have been baptized. Hence, ecumenism – i.e. accepting all people as Christians on the basis of a sacrament administered by a church, not on the grounds of personal faith in the biblical Jesus Christ – stands in opposition to proselytism. Those who do not accept the ecumenical premise are bad people, i.e. proselytizers.
The choice between being ecumenical or a proselytizer is both false and dangerous. It is false because it gives the idea that there are only two options available for Christians (which is not true), and it is dangerous because it warns against evangelism aimed at intentional persuasion addressed to all people regardless of their membership in a given church.
While clearly refuting all wrong methods of evangelism that betray the gospel itself (and therefore rejecting proselytism), Christians should treasure the privilege and the responsibility of presenting to all people the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ, expecting their response and being aware that conversion implies change. As the Lausanne Covenant (1974), the most important document of contemporary evangelicalism, puts it in paragraph 4:
Evangelism itself is the proclamation of the historical, biblical Christ as Saviour and Lord, with a view to persuading people to come to him personally and so be reconciled to God.
In other words, biblical evangelism needs to be faithfully practised everywhere and towards all people, rather than being stigmatized and abandoned by this new wave of ecumenical correctness. Neither ecumenical nor proselytizer: Christians must be for the Gospel to all people. This is a far better option.
Leonardo De Chirico