The Scandal of Evangelicalism

A Biblical Study of the Ethics of Evangelicalism

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Elmer John Thiessen
  • Eugene, OR: 
    Cascade Books
    , April
     274 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Philosopher and ethicist Elmer John Thiessen wrote this book as a follow-up to his 2011 monograph The Ethics of Evangelism: A Philosophical Defense of Proselytizing and Persuasion (IVP Academic) to provide his readers with a thorough treatment of the ethics of evangelism from a strictly Christian perspective. In contrast to his earlier work, Thiessen writes as a Christian for Christians, rather than as a philosopher for both non-religious and religious (i.e., Christian) adherents on the ethics of evangelism. Thiessen contends that all religious and non-religious belief systems have uniquely inherent intellectual resources to fund their respective practices of proselytism (or the lack thereof), and thus the Christian religion should be mined for its resources to develop an ethics of evangelism. Because Thiessen is a Protestant Christian in the Mennonite tradition, he turns firstly and ultimately to the Bible to provide a theological justification for a Christian ethic of evangelism. Once he provides a biblical-theological grounding for a Christian ethic of evangelism, he turns to discuss various difficult issues that arise in developing that ethic: evangelism in the context of humanitarian aid, secular professions, amongst non-Christian children, and amongst other Christians different from one’s tradition/denomination. Thiessen argues that this book is not concerned with ascertaining what is the best method/mode of evangelism, but with providing the church and Christian academy with a set of critical tools to evaluate all methods/modes of evangelism to see if they are ethical or not.

The book is divided into two parts comprised of twelve chapters. Chapters 1 and 2 are the introduction to the book, which include Thiessen’s account and definition of biblical ethics and the ethics of evangelism. Part 1 focuses on the ethics of evangelism as evidenced in the writings of the New Testament. Chapter 3 begins with the canonical gospels and the teachings and examples of Jesus in his interactions with “tax collectors and sinners.” Chapter 4 continues in the canonical order by focusing exclusively on the Acts of the Apostles and how the primitive church and its apostles evangelized the Greco-Roman world. In chapter 5, Thiessen looks at the Pauline corpus, drawing out didactic principles that these letters conveyed to further formulate a Christian ethic of evangelism. Thiessen then concludes his biblical survey in chapter 6 by looking at the general epistles and the book of Revelation before summarizing his findings into thirty guidelines which he categorizes into multiple sections. These include: foundational guidelines, guidelines for divine-human relations, guidelines for freedom and coercion, guidelines for the content of evangelism, guidelines regarding the delivery of content and persuasion, relational guidelines, guidelines for resistance and rejection, guidelines for motivation, and guidelines for means, ends, and success.

Part 2 focuses on applied topics with chapter 8, looking at how to evangelize children in an ethically Christian way. Chapter 9 sees Thiessen draw upon his decades of experience as a professor of philosophy in a secular college and how he used formal and informal opportunities to share his faith in a professional, academic context. Chapter 10 looks at the relationship between Christian evangelism in the context of providing humanitarian aid and the issues involved thereof. Finally, chapter 11 sees Thiessen look within the walls of the universal church and the perennial issue of Christians proselytizing other Christians, or what is colloquially known as “sheep-stealing.” Chapter 12 concludes the book with Thiessen reiterating his central thesis that the church and her academy need to think better about how to evangelize more ethically in an increasingly complex world.

Elmer John Thiessen has provided an excellent and accessible work on the Christian ethics of evangelism that is sure to edify and challenge Christians in the church, and its academy, on how to evangelize in a more ethical way. Thiessen writes in a clear and succinct manner, providing real and stimulating stories at the beginning of the chapters to set the tone and topic of discussion. He offers clear definitions of terms while interacting charitably and critically with the sources he draws upon. His survey of evangelism in the New Testament is commendable, even though he is not a New Testament scholar, and he is not afraid to tackle some very tense topics on evangelism in the second part of the book. We appreciate his sober realism regarding the current cultural flippancy and careless corruption of terms like “tolerance” and “proselytize,” along with Thiessen’s correction and redemption of these terms for a Christian understanding of the ethics of evangelism. Moreover, Thiessen helps Christians regain a courageous necessity for the practice of evangelism, which is first and foremost a verbal act before it is a non-verbal act. Although Thiessen believes evangelistic words must be complemented with works of charity to give them plausibility, he in no way views them as identical or synonymous, nor does he believe that deeds can and should replace words. Our only quibble with this work is that because it is a subsequent volume to his earlier 2011 work—which Thiessen references profusely in this work—the reader is left wondering if they should read that earlier work first and/or that they will misunderstand his arguments if they do not read both books. Ultimately, we believe that the reader does not need to read both books—as advantageous as that may be—because Thiessen’s argument is clear and complete enough in this work; therefore, we can recommend it as a stand-alone text for undergraduate courses in Christian evangelism and/or ethics in the confessional context of a Christian college or university.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Bradley M. Penner is Adjunct Professor of Theology at Briercrest College and Seminary.

Date of Review: 
October 23, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Elmer John Thiessen is Adjunct Professor of Philosophy at Emmanuel Bible College. He is author of The Ethics of Evangelism: A Philosophical Defense of  Proselytizing and Persuasion (2011).

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