Conversion Factors

People who think they've found the best spiritual path have a right to proselytize, but sometimes it's kinder to refrain.

Is it right to proselytize?

Now there's a loaded question. "Proselytism" has as many appealing connotations as "root canal." It's not just "evangelism," sharing the Gospel with any and everyone. Proselytism implies dynamiting an existing faith to clear ground for a new one.

People who think they've found the best spiritual path have a right--maybe even an obligation--to share what they've found. Those who listen can decide for themselves if they agree. It takes an itchy sensitivity to find this offensive, and a paranoid one to find it coercive. Expressing a belief, even with persuasive intent, is a First Amendment right, not coercion. I can taste your shrimp-chocolate-chip cookies and decide for myself whether they're heavenly. You can visit my church and decide the same.

But it's not always kind to proselytize. There are times when it's merciful to refrain, particularly when a sister faith is struggling to recover from persecution. That's the case with Protestant missionaries in formerly communist, historically Orthodox countries.

I feel some sympathy with missionaries who go with the best intentions and at personal cost to share the Gospel, only to be greeted by hostility and even legal action from native Orthodox. They are understandably surprised and angered by this. They wonder: Why can't the Orthodox live and let live? Are they just jealous, afraid of competition?


To the Orthodox, of course, it seems very different. Protestant missionaries look like poachers, cruel opportunists bent on kicking a suffering church while it's down. They believe they must struggle to fulfill their responsibility to preserve the faith of historically Orthodox lands.

The concept of a "historically Orthodox land" will seem strange to Americans. The closest analogy I can think of is Italy as "historically Roman Catholic" or Sweden as "historically Lutheran." In Orthodox countries, however, this sense of being a spiritual parent to a land is even stronger--a responsibility acquired when Orthodox missionaries were the first to evangelize there. It doesn't mean that Orthodoxy is the only faith within those borders, any more than Lutheranism is the only faith in Sweden. Orthodox don't object to Protestant missionaries caring for their own indigenous congregations. Resentment springs up, rather, over attempts to convert people of Orthodox lineage to Protestant faiths.

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