Over at W4 I reported on the insane, repressive new laws just passed against "missionary activity" in Russia. Here's another article on them. I'm appalled but not surprised at the number of people who defend such laws.
This arises in part because some (most?) of the "paleoconservative" persuasion are in general Russophiles and are under some strange delusion that Russia represents "conservatism" in a recognizable sense. One thing that feeds this delusion is the fact that Russian law does not celebrate sodomy as does American law (driven by lawless American Supreme Court decisions), yet another counterexample to the dubious maxim, "The enemy of my enemy is my friend." The paleos prefer to keep the maxim and bite the bullet on the counterevidence. Their syllogism is "What Russian law does is conservative. Russian law represses missionary activity from non-Orthodox people. Therefore, repressing missionary activity from non-Orthodox people is conservative." The first premise, of course, is the bad apple.
But there's something else going on here as well, which came out the last time such issues were discussed at W4, many years ago. Lurking in the minds of some of those from what one might call mainline denominations is, frankly, a distaste for energetic evangelistic work and conversion. In that old thread, it was openly stated that evangelism should be aimed only at "heads of households." I guess that means if you aren't a head of a household, you're outta luck.
In the strongest possible terms, let me say this: Nothing could be further from the Great Commission and the teaching and action of both our Lord Jesus Christ and his apostles.
When Jesus called his disciples, he called them as individuals, not heads of households. He called James and John, the sons of Zebedee, not Zebedee. St. John, who lived to write in the late 1st century, was likely a "man" under Jewish law, but that isn't saying much. He must have been very young during Jesus' ministry and was certainly not the head of any household. Jesus' teaching is, if possible, even more emphatic and striking on such points than his action. He said that if you love your father and mother more than him you are unworthy of him. (Matthew 10:37) He taught that he came not to bring peace in families but a sword. (Matthew 10:35-36) He even used the hyperbolic language of "hating" father and mother. (Luke 14:26) He answered sharply when a man suggested coming and being his disciple only after first carrying out some burial duties toward his father. (Matthew 8:21)
However, precisely, one interprets each of these passages, they cumulatively pull strongly in the direction of individual discipleship, in the absence of familial unity and even in opposition to it. That includes individual discipleship even by those who are not patriarchal heads, as witness the repeated, explicit references by Jesus to being willing to pull away from and offend one's father and mother in order to follow him.
An example of this sort of thing in our own time would be Rifqa Bary, who became a Christian from a Muslim background at age sixteen and subsequently ran away from her parents at the age of 17 when she believed her life was in danger because of her conversion.
We have one example in the Philippian jailer where Paul apparently did evangelize the head of a household, and his entire household subsequently professed faith in Jesus. But in general, Paul just preached. So did Peter on the day of Pentecost. We have no evidence whatsoever that individuals were turned away if they weren't "heads of households." On the contrary, we have quite a few examples where women, specifically, became Christians without any mention of their husbands' conversion, and Paul even addresses specifically in the epistles the problem of believers who have unbelieving spouses. Peter makes it clear (I Peter 3:1) that this could include wives with unbelieving husbands. In that culture, individual conversion of wives against the preferences of their husbands is, again, strongly in contrast to any idea of converting people only in family groups through their heads-of-household.
Ad hoc and untenable principles such as "only evangelize heads of households" are, I will say bluntly, developed by partisans of sclerotic, mainline denominations who are afraid of or annoyed by competition from more vital, energetic groups with a strong emphasis upon individual belief and conversion. Unable to keep as much hold of their own nominal members-from-the-cradle as they would like because of poor catechesis, boredom, and population drift, they support draconian laws giving their own denominations a monopoly in particular countries. Then they support these laws by faux, anti-individualistic, anti-evangelistic principles.
Some American conservatives unfamiliar with this dynamic or psychologically uncomfortable with evangelism and witnessing (because they seem bourgeois or silly) may be tempted to go along with this for the additional reason that we are all (justifiably) freaked out by the aggressive proselytizing of the left against our children. But note: That proselytizing is most frightening in the setting of a public school where the force of truancy laws, combined with difficulties or fear of home schooling and the expense of Christian schooling, creates a captive audience. (Related, on how this works in Ontario, see here.) But the answer to state brainwashing of children isn't for the state to make it illegal for non-state actors to "direct" their messages toward minors or for the state to make this illegal except in the case of some state-favored religion. Indeed, one could argue that the problem with secularist brainwashing of children in public schools is precisely the establishment of a state "church"--namely, aggressive secular leftism. I don't want the state to outlaw Camp Quest, the secularist summer camp. I just don't send my kids there. And if some Christian parent is foolhardy enough to do so, that's on his head.
I'm all in favor of raising one's children to be Christians from the cradle. And I'm all in favor of being a protective parent, sheltering children, and even thinking very hard about what college to pay for them to go to when they are adults. But there is a great gulf fixed between a love of raising one's children in one's own worldview and a demand that the government outlaw the propagation of other worldviews, even other Christian denominations, simply as such. Some Christians demand that we buy into a kind of ecumenism that says that everybody who is a nominal member of some Christian denomination or other is going to heaven and that the only kind of evangelism that is right is one that doesn't "compete" with other Christian denominations. Well, Jesus says that there will be many who will say, "Lord, Lord" who will not enter the kingdom of heaven. That presumably includes Catholics, Orthodox, Baptist, Adventist, and all kinds of denominations. If you want to be ecumenical, try considering this possibility: Maybe some person who has been a cradle X, where X is your own denomination, has no relationship with Jesus Christ, isn't really a believer, is purely a cultural "Christian," and is going to hell. And maybe if that person is evangelized (aka "stolen") by that scruffy denomination Y that Russia wants to outlaw, he'll actually go to heaven instead. And yes, if I happen to prefer Y to X, it would be smart for me to consider that it could go the other way. But frankly, I know no Seventh-Day Adventists or Baptists who are looking to have their denomination established as a state religion and to outlaw "proselytizing" by Catholics, Orthodox, or other "stuffier" and more liturgical churches. This despite the fact that the less ecumenical among them actually do think people are likely to go to hell if they belong to those denominations! But even given that, they are willing just to witness and let the Holy Spirit do the work from there, as they see it. It's an example their more high-brow brethren would do well to follow, despite the presence of theological narrow-mindedness.
Moreover, we Christians want to start thinking very soberly about what is wrong with us when we start uttering the word "proselytizing" in tones of contempt. Or when we're standing up and cheering that the Russians are doing the same. That's a bad, bad move. Here are a couple of posts I wrote years ago about the concern that Americans are starting to demonize "proselytizing." The Great Commission is all about "proselytizing." Demonizing witnessing is the road to cutting off our own missionary efforts from soul-saving, turning them into mere humanitarian aid, at most. The Bible, and Christianity, are all about converts. They always have been. There is nothing infra dig about trying to make converts who weren't just comfortable "Christians from the cradle." Jesus told us to do it, in fact. So if you feel funny about Christian denominations that witness, maybe you should get over it and ask yourself why your denomination isn't doing more of it.
I realize that it's a problem for some conservatives, but Christianity has always been pretty individualistic. Sure, the leftists have twisted this emphasis, but they didn't invent it. No, that doesn't mean Christians should "go it alone," but a convert will become a member of the community of believers as an individual, and he may have to leave father and mother behind to do so. Moreover, those who have been Christians from their childhood actually face special dangers, of complacency, lukewarmness, and lack of zeal for spreading the gospel. It's therefore particularly ironic to see members of mainline denominations that suffer greatly from such problems trying to suppress other denominations. It's a little bit like public school lobbyists trying to outlaw home schooling. We shouldn't make a special virtue out of non-evangelism. There is no virtue in it. If the Russian Orthodox are concerned about the Baptists and Adventists (or for that matter the real heretics like Jehovah's Witnesses), I suggest they engage in vigorous debate against their tenets and present programs that will keep their own "sheep" within their fold while at the same time showing ardent concern for the individual catechesis of their own "sheep." Hey, for that matter they might try some straightforward counterevangelism directed at members of the other religious organizations. That rather than trying to use the state to enforce a monopoly. Somehow, I'm afraid that is unlikely to happen. But if you are open to reason on these things, I suggest to you that it should.