Truth in Evangelism

In preparation for a couple of lectures I’m giving for a class this fall on evangelism, I was asked to read Elmer John Thiessen, The Ethics of Evangelism: A Philosophical Defense of Proselytizing and Persuasion.

Some in chaplaincy want to distinguish between “evangelism” and “proselytizing.” Thiessen refuses, saying, “Let’s accept that these terms mean the same thing: what we need to focus on is distinguishing between ethical and unethical means of persuading people to change their religious beliefs or affiliations.”

And truthfulness is one of his ethical criteria. Any deception in “evangelism” is counter-witness, and will diminish the effectiveness of the witness in the long run. You can’t mix truth and falsehood. You can’t present Biblical truth using deceptive means.

Sadly, some Christians still encourage this, practice this, and teach this.

Some in my own denomination do so.  Some evangelists won’t say they are Seventh-day Adventists.  They won’t mention the Adventist name on their flyers.  They’ll meet in hotel conference rooms instead of churches.  And then surprise!  After talking about the Sabbath, they’ll say, “There is a church that keeps it!”

Back in the 1980s, my father was a new Adventist, though he had hung around Adventist churches because of my mom.  The church they attended was holding a prophecy seminar at a local Holiday Inn.  The pastor told the members, “Call me ‘Sam,’ not ‘Pastor.’” He told them not to use the Adventist name.  But then, after that lesson on the Sabbath, surprise!  “We’re Seventh-day Adventists!  I’m the pastor.”  And they brought into the seminar room potted plants to make it look more “church-like,” Adventist hymnals, offering plates, etc. My dad was disgusted, and talked to the pastor about what seemed blatant deception. But the pastor defended the practice as “necessary” for the people to get beyond “prejudice.”

Another Adventist pastor, Loren Seibold, wrote an article a number of years ago about an Adventist evangelist in Grand Forks, ND, who attracted attention from the local media, and from a Catholic priest, for being evasive on what denomination he represented.  “To me it’s just truth in advertising,” Goodwin (the priest) said. “Just tell us who you are.”

This issue was raised with Adventist leaders back in the 1950s by evangelical leaders Donald Grey Barnhouse and Walter Martin.  The Adventist leadership said of course evangelists should be honest; they promised all radio and TV programs would be identified as Seventh-day Adventist productions.

I’ve seen articles defending the practice of withholding the Adventist name, but I don’t buy it.  Let’s be forthright.  Tell people, we are the church of Desmond Doss, Barry Black, Ben Carson, John Harvey Kellogg, and Ellen G. White.  Put out commercials and videos telling the story in a positive light.  Let them know we have nothing to hide, and that we feel our beliefs can stand rigorous investigation.

Anything else smacks of the used-car lot.  And thoughtful people will rightly cock their head and ask, “What are you trying to hide?”