Sunday, October 09, 2011

On offering worldly inducements to Christianity

I'm blatantly using W4 as a jumping-off place for a post here, since I have been neglecting this personal blog lately. I hope that my esteemed blog colleague Jeff Culbreath, whose post and discussion prompted this, will not mind.

Jeff and I have been having a very interesting discussion of varying methods of evangelism and the ways these might divide along, on the one hand, Protestant-Catholic lines and, on the other hand, "individualist" vs. "group conversion" lines.

In the course of the discussion, Jeff said,
The indomitable warrior-monks who Christianized Europe, South America, the
Philippines and elsewhere were aiming to bring entire societies into the Christian fold. That meant converting pagan kings, who exercised real authority, and securing their favor and protection. It sometimes meant promising worldly advantages to prospective converts, such as the temporal benefits of Roman civilization.
Later, in responding to someone else, Jeff said a bit more about "worldly advantages."
I suspect that Steve, a libertarian, is prone to equating social incentives and disincentives with "force". For many of Steve's persuasion the individual human will must act totally without outside influence in order to be considered "free". For instance, if the old pagan religion is no longer sanctioned, if Christians are favored for certain positions in the kingdom, etc., then all conversions are deemed "forced", or at least "coerced" and unfree. Such a view is profoundly mistaken.
I addressed the question of worldly incentives to Christianity at some length in a comment.

[T]he question of social incentives is an interesting and delicate one. I should say here that Protestant as well as Catholic missionaries have had to deal with this question. Indeed, the anti-conversion laws in India are (this may interest you) premised on the assumption that most conversions from Hinduism to any form of Christianity are not "truly free" for exactly the reasons you give. Ironically, this results in the bullying of new converts by the authorities with repeated insinuations that they have not converted freely, that they were offered incentives, and that they therefore should return to Hinduism. So actually, of course, the force is on the other side--from the state against the convert. Apparently one of the incentives is that they get out of the caste system if they are Christians, which is naturally attractive to those of low caste.

It seems to me that there are going to be incentives that arise fairly naturally. Right at the beginning in the Book of Acts we find that the Apostles had money distributed to the widows who were part of the early church. I can just imagine people's asserting (though the Bible doesn't say that they actually did) that some widow converted to Christianity just to get on the Christian dole!

The very fact that Christians (rightly) give special consideration to fellow Christians in the distribution of charity (the Bible expressly enjoins this) is going to be seen as a form of incentive.

In the old days (this is probably not true anymore), including those allegedly individualist 19th century days, Protestant missionaries sometimes had an entire enclave of "mission natives" who built up a Christian community around the missionaries and formed a compound. This could sometimes be defended against, say, marauding Masai. Nowadays I suspect all missionaries, Protestant and Catholic alike, would consider that highly inappropriate, not culturally sensitive, offering the wrong kind of incentives, causing insincere conversions, etc. But I've always thought that I could see exactly how it could happen naturally. For example, the Christian natives naturally want to associate with other Christians. The missionary understandably wants Christian employees. If they are in a region surrounded by dangerous people they want to band together for mutual assistance. So even though that sort of arrangement is now "politically incorrect," I could never get het up about it.

All that being said, it seems to me that from a strictly theological point of view it is ultimately very important that we seek God for the sake of God and that those who are accepted as converts genuinely do want to follow the Lord Jesus Christ. Of course the full realization of that longing after God is a state that many of us struggle after for years and years and do not achieve. But since, in the final analysis, the sincere desire for God and love for God is central to what Christianity is about, I do balk at *deliberately* offering *direct* worldly incentives to people to convert. If the incentives are just there "in the situation," having arisen in some natural way, then so be it. But I do think that in that case one should proceed with special caution in admitting new converts to try to make sure they are sincere and not just cynically "out for what they can get."

And the following Catholic argument could be made: If these people convert, they are going to be taking the Sacrament, so the last thing one wants is for them to be doing so after an insincere conversion, made for reasons of worldly gain. One should avoid that for their own sake!

We have it directly from the mouth of the Apostle: The gifts of God are not to be sold for money.

It's a bit difficult to tell whether the "worldly advantages" Jeff envisages are the kinds of things that would, in the categories I was using, "arise naturally." For example, I'm not entirely clear on what it means to "offer" someone the advantages of Roman civilization. And what would it mean to offer this on condition that the ruler convert to Christianity? I would have thought it might mean offering Roman citizenship, but perhaps that isn't what's in view.

I'm also not completely certain that Jeff was expressing approval of offering worldly advantages, though from the follow-up comment it seems that he was. I apologize if I have misunderstood on this point, though.

As for preferring Christians in government positions, that gets us into the whole question in political philosophy as to whether that is ever a good idea. But if it is ever okay to do, presumably it is so for reasons entirely separate from the consideration that this will induce people to convert to Christianity. That might even be an argument against such preferential treatment. Moreover, if one sets up such a formally Christian country for some independent reasons, one needn't be directly offering a position in government to prospective converts as an inducement.

If there are, naturally, worldly advantages to being a Christian in a particular cultural context, advantages that have been put in place for other good and sufficient reasons, then all this does (as I said in the above comment) is to place an added burden on the pastor, priest, or missionary to make sure that the would-be convert is sincere in his Christian intent and commitment.

The bulk of my negative opinion here rests on the phrase "promising worldly advantages to prospective converts." That definitely conveys to me something like a direct bribe or worldly argument, made to the prospective convert: "Become a Christian, because you will gain social status, a better job, prestige, or money."

And I'm sorry, but that's bad news.

In addition to what I've already said, there is the sheer fact that any such approach as a deliberate missionary tactic would be unbiblical. Consider the following:

The Lord Jesus Christ said,

If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me. (Luke 9:23)

No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon. (Matt. 6:24)
For whosoever will save his life shall lose it; but whosoever shall lose his life for my sake and the gospel's, the same shall save it. For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? (Mark 8:35-36)

Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad, for great is your reward in heaven, for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you. (Matt. 5:11-12)
The Apostle Paul wrote,
I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me. (Gal. 2:20)
It is a faithful saying; For if we be dead with him, we shall also live with him. If we suffer, we shall also reign with him. If we deny him, he also will deny us. If we believe not, yet he abideth faithful. He cannot deny himself. (II Tim. 2:11-13) (This passage in the epistle to Timothy appears to have been a hymn or a bit of liturgy in the very early church. )
James tells us,
My brethren, count it all joy when he fall into diverse temptations, knowing this, that the trying of your faith worketh patience, but let patience have her perfect work, that ye may be perfect and entire, wanting nothing. (James 1:2-4)
The Apostle Peter:
That the trial of your faith, being much more precious than of gold that perisheth, though it be tried with fire, might be found unto praise and honour and glory at the appearing of Jesus Christ. (I Peter 1:7)
And these are only some of the examples that could be given. The entire message of the New Testament is inextricably bound up with the notion of being willing to sacrifice all for the sake of Jesus Christ. Bonhoeffer wasn't exaggerating when he said, "When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die."

It is entirely at odds with this Gospel message deliberately to offer a man worldly gain or advantage as an inducement to become a Christian. Indeed, on reflection on the above Scriptures and others like them I am inclined to say that the Apostles and even Our Lord himself would have been shocked and angered at any such recommended method of evangelism.

It may be replied that people's motives for acting are complex and that we should not demand more purity of motive than a would-be convert can be expected to attain. Well and good. But to use that as an argument for anything that could plausibly be described as "promising worldly advantages to prospective converts" is rather like saying, "Legislators are going to have complex motives for voting for a particular law, so it is legitimate to bribe them outright."

Note that my argument here isn't at all about freedom. I suppose that a legislator who takes a bribe is free. But he is still doing something wrong. He should vote for a law because he thinks it is, all things considered, a good law or a law worth supporting, not because he will personally receive money from someone for supporting it. A legislator who accepts bribes is free. He's free and corrupt. Corruption in government is bad enough. Corruption in religion is an even more serious matter. Let's avoid it like the plague.

1 comment:

Jeff Culbreath said...

Hi Lydia. You make some great points, as usual. I've answered briefly at W4.