Monday, July 04, 2016

Evangelism, individualism, conversion, and cradle Christianity

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.


Vishal Mehra said...

Shouldn't proselytizing.efforts be better spent on non-Christians? Why try to convert the already baptized? There are billions of non-Christians who have not been saved yet. I don't see why the Baptists or Adventists leave Russia to the Orthodox Church and focus their efforts on India, for instance..

John said...

To all of this a hearty Amen! As Peter wrote to the Christian wives of unbelievers, this activity took place in a culture where women and children were expected to follow the religion of the family patriarch. This enhanced his honor in the community, and to go individualist would show him weak and mark him for shame. The chief virtue of the home was harmony, and evangelism of individuals has the propensity to disrupt. Yet Peter subversively urges Christian wives to, if possible, convert their husbands using every advantage offered by their gender! Monica, mother of Augustine, is a stellar example of success with this strategy. By promoting such activity Peter placed himself in great danger from any irate husband who caught on to his instigation. Little wonder we find this communicated by epistle and at some safe distance rather than in local preaching!

Lydia McGrew said...

Vishal, several answers:

1) Many small Protestant denominations, rightly or wrongly, have a theological view that includes one's needing to accept Jesus personally as Savior. Many Orthodox haven't gone through this process, so members of these denominations believe their souls are in genuine danger or, to put it more bluntly, that they are almost certainly going to hell forever. You can disagree with that theology if you want, but it's just ridiculous and totalitarian to try to forbid them to try to get Orthodox people to accept Jesus.

2) These denominations may be wrong about the *specifics* of their theology, but they are biblically *correct* that nobody is going to heaven just because his parents baptized him in some particular denomination, if he has *no* commitment to Christ himself. Regardless of whether or not he has to "accept Jesus" in a specific prayer, no atheist (for example) goes to heaven because he was baptized Catholic or Russian Orthodox or whatever. The mainline denominations *do* have problems with complacency and sometimes massive failure to raise followers of Christ. While I disagree with the Protestant groups who teach that _devout_ and _committed_ Orthodox and Catholics are hell-bound because of the theology of their denominations, I _agree_ with them that purely nominal "Christianity" saves no one. Hence, evangelism of some kind needs to take place among many in such denominations.

3) It should be a source of sheer incredulity that these purely theological questions should be decided by draconian government edict. What? Have prostitution, human trafficking, abortion, organized crime, and millions of other such *genuine* crimes been eradicated in Russia so that that virtuous state has manpower left to micromanage the theological conversations of every individual in a country of millions to protect the Orthodox church from Baptist "poachers"? These laws are, frankly, despicable. Nobody could be more harmless than the missionaries and enthusiastic "proselytizers" against whom these laws are aimed. The thought of the incredibly corrupt government of Russia pursuing them in a heat of faux outrage over their "terrorist" missionary activities makes me positively ill and should have the same effect upon all sensible people.

Jeffrey S. said...


Really, at the end of the day, your point (3) to Vishal is just perfect and the ultimate answer to every paleo that might cheer this foolish, nay, despicable legislation. I say this as someone who finds Orthodoxy congenial (what can I say, I have a soft spot for traditional liturgical worship) and finds Russian culture fascinating and worthy of respect and veneration. But at the same time to say that Putin and his government are anything more than corrupt gangsters is a stretch -- I'm sure there are some folks in the Duma and in the federal government power structure who really are trying to do good, but they are far and few between. And as you say, it is not like Russia is free from more pressing problems that the government and the Russian Orthodox Church could direct its energy toward. Finally, it always drives me crazy when people on the right praise Putin. Anyone who really wants to read about Putin's crimes can do so with just a little bit of Google research -- he makes me sick.

Vishal Mehra said...

3) They are not purely theological opinions. Witness the history of Protestant revolution in Europe. All theological opinion against the Catholic Church carried the implication, often explicit, that th e Church should be poor. Thus, there was always attacks on the property of the Church and its place in the State.
Too many Protestant sects carry the baggage of liberalism, that underlies even their theology. Frankly, their theology, based as it is on the attack on the notion of authority itself, is as politically suspect as the theology of Islam and it is no wonder that some nations wish to contain its spread.

Vishal Mehra said...

(2) To be sure,there are lukewarm among the baptized people, but I should have thought that the local established Churches could be relied upon to do what could be done for these people. Unless of course, one believes that the local Church is not really Christian, on basis of very suspect theologies.
So, my reading is that for those poaching among the baptized people, the local people are regarded as non-Christian as much as a Hindu and in equal need of a Protestant missionary.

Lydia McGrew said...

This vague association of Protestantism per se with all manner of ills is something that, frankly, I have zero patience with. For some reason the Russophiles and Russia defenders believe that they can just make bare, sweeping _assertions_ about the vague _baaadness_ of Protestantism and its bad effects and that these assertions, which frankly are absurd on their faces require an answer. You go so far as to say that Protestant theology is as "politically suspect as Islam," which is so crazy, given the plethora of Islamic terrorist attacks and the utter absence of such from 7th-Day Adventists, as to show that (to put it charitably) you have a massive blind spot in this area. I don't consider that your comment on that matter requires any further answer, especially since it is not backed up by any argument but the (also false) assertion that Protestantism attacks "authority itself." (Ever asked a fundamentalist about the Bible?)

As to your other comment, it's pretty clear by observation that the local established churches _can't_ be counted on to do what can be done for lukewarm people, and indeed they often scarcely try. This is often part of a misguided notion of sacramentalism--that it "does the work" all by itself regardless of belief, knowledge, or commitment. Indeed, some will teach this explicitly.

As to your final comment, yes indeed, some doing the so-called poaching _do_ believe that all Orthodox are as unsaved as Hindus. I believe I acknowledged that myself in my initial response to you (or something like it). I think they are incorrect to believe this about Orthodox _per se_, including the well-catechized and not-lukewarm. But so what? It's still utterly tyrannical and absurd to try to block them (including, by the way, native Russians, not just foreigners) from inducing others to become what _they_ deem to be "real Christians" by bizarre laws that permit the micromanaging of all private communications, handing out materials, and inviting to church.

I realize that you are an authoritarian at heart (based on your comments) and just _like_ the Russian laws. But they are indefensible.

Lydia McGrew said...

One could scarcely say that Roman Catholic theology is intrinsically against authority, but the antics of many and many a Catholic bishop and Cardinal and parish in the U.S. coddling the homosexual agenda just show that there is no connection per se between an "authoritarian" theory and conservatism on social and other political issues. Meanwhile, heroes like Kim Davis and Ken Miller *go to jail* for their quiet opposition to the homosexual agenda. From facts like these (and the cossetting of the gay lobby by many in the U.S. Catholic church is shameful) I could make a _better_ case that Catholicism is "politically suspect" and has bad effects than anyone can _begin_ to make against the groups that want to "poach" in Russia.

But I don't do so, because I know that would be cherry picking and because I know that all such sweeping claims about vague connections between contemporary politics and Protestantism vs. non-Protestantism per se are far too broad to be defensible.

The problem is that the defenders of the Russian laws have no such sense of what constitutes a good or bad argument. Probably they have been used for too long just to talk with people who agree with them about how Protestantism "leads to" bad things. They don't realize a rigorous argument could even be asked for or needed and are unable to evaluate the vague associations they present.

Vishal Mehra said...

Please note that I have not said a word about the Russian law. My first comment began
"Shouldn't proselytizing.efforts be better spent on non-Christians?"

"the utter absence of such from 7th-Day Adventists"

It was not always so. The Protestant sects were directly responsible for a great deal of disorder in their heyday e.g. Munester 1534, the English Civil War and beheading of the King of England, are only two examples.
And the disorder being directly traceable to their theology.

Lydia McGrew said...

I see. So you denounce the Russian laws as tyrannical impositions on the important value of religious freedom and just neglected to say so through several comments on how wrong the Protestants are to be evangelizing and even comparing Protestantism to Islam in is alleged danger to order? Gotcha. How could I possibly have misunderstood you to be defending the Russian laws?

If you have to reach back to the 17th-century wars of religion to defend your sweeping, present-tense statement that Protestant "theology, based as it is on the attack on the notion of authority itself, is as politically suspect as the theology of Islam," you're straining. All the more so since many of the sects involved here didn't even exist at that time.

Lydia McGrew said...

Maybe the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 means that Catholic theology is as "politically suspect as the theology of Islam." Or we could go back to the Catholic plots to assassinate Queen Elizabeth in the 1500's. The people of the day had no difficulty "directly tracing" the disorder in those cases to Catholic theology, such as their allegiance to the Pope, who declared in 1570 that no Catholic was truly subject to the Queen of England.

But in point of fact it would be _ridiculous_ to bring that up _now_ as an argument that Catholic theology causes public disorder.