The Ethics of Evangelism

InHungarianButtonWhen I was a Jehovah’s Witness, I thought evangelism or preaching was bad if it was not Watchtower-based. For many years as an ex-JW, I was convinced that any kind of religious proselytizing was nothing more than unethical persuasion.

So I was intrigued, while at a 2012 ICSA (International Cultic Studies Association) conference, in Montreal, Canada, by a session addressing the pros and cons of evangelism. I attended the one-hour meeting facilitated by a retired college professor, Elmer Thiessen, and his insights proved to be a real eye-opener for me.

What was particularly impressive was Thiessen’s list of Fifteen Criteria that one could use to determine the ethics of a church group’s proselytizing methods.

Now, with no editorializing on my part, I am going to post those fifteen criteria to help you decide if Watchtower or a religious group that you might be associated with engages in ethical or unethical evangelism as follows:


The attitude towards all people must be to treat everyone with dignity. Each person must be valued as a person in their own right whether they want to learn more or not. It is unethical as soon as the potential recruit becomes an object to gain status or becomes nothing more than another drone whose sole purpose is to recruit more members to the group.

Care-CriteriaEthical care for a person means caring not only for some future life but caring for the whole person NOW, in this present life. It needs to include their physical well-being, their emotional, psychological, financial, and social well-being, not just their spiritual welfare.

Physical-CoercionThe use of physical coercion or threats should never be a part of ethical evangelism. “Obey us or die” does not honor the dignity of the person. True freedom means that at any time they have the freedom to walk away with dignity.

Psychological-CoercionWe live in a world filled with psychological persuasion. We see it in commercials and advertisements. So at what point does it cross the line to unethical persuasion? Thiessen points out three things to watch out for. Ethical persuasion means:

  1. Not using repetitive, intense or programmed methods to psychologically manipulate people.
  2. Not exploiting a person’s vulnerabilities. This includes children and young people, people in crisis, vulnerable adults and the elderly, people with disabilities, new immigrants and anyone else who has little or no support system.
  3. Not using fear or other emotional tactics to manipulate people.

Social-CoercionIn all relationships there are degrees of power and control. Hopefully they balance out, so that one individual is not always in a position of power. Exploiting power or using that power to manipulate people is not ethical.

Inducement-CriterionEvangelists often offer physical, medical and/or psychological aid to those who need help. They must be very careful so the aid they offer is in no way connected to whether a person accepts the belief system the care-givers offer. People need to believe there are no strings attached to accepting whatever assistance is provided.

Rational-Coercion-CriterionThere is no way to get around this. The purpose for evangelism is to convert people to a new belief. Ethical evangelism provides sound reasoning without attempting to side-step certain questions or to avoid answering those questions.

Truthfulness-CriterionEthical evangelism must be truthful. Not just what it teaches, but what it reports about other religions. There should never be hidden agendas, lying, deception or misrepresenting the group’s intentions. One must never lie.

Humility-CriterionArrogance, dogmatism and condescension are not the marks of humility. Saying you are humble is not being humble.

Tolerance-CriterionEthical evangelism treats all people with respect, especially when people hold differing beliefs. We all have the right to disagree without it affecting our right to respect and dignity.

Motivational-CriterionA person needs to be sure of their motive for evangelism. Is it because one truly cares for the other person? Or is there some ego-centric motivation behind the preaching? Preaching for the welfare of the church, to increase ones status in the church or in front of others, because it gives them power or status over the convert are unethical reasons for evangelism.

Identity-CriterionIt is unethical to try to separate a person from their social and cultural identity. People are people first and that needs to be respected before individual beliefs.

Cultural-Sensitivity-Criterion_300x29People need to be comfortable about accepting new ideas that feel right for them, and to ignore ideas that do not. There is no one body of religious, social or cultural beliefs that are better than others. People should free to accept what works for them without the fear of rejection based on beliefs.

Results-CriterionThe numbers of converts should never be proof of a religion’s correctness. Church growth is a by-product, not an end product. Conversion should never be the sole reason for friendship with an individual, dropping them or labeling them as unworthy if they fail to convert.

Golden-RuleEvangelism needs to adhere to the Golden Rule, which is to treat others as one would want to be treated. If one is going to preach to someone else, they need to be open to hear what the other person believes. To ignore or refuse to listen to another person’s perspective is disrespectful and unethical evangelism.

So now you decide. Does the Watchtower or your church group engage in ethical evangelism or unethical evangelism?


Elmer Thiessen moved to Waterloo, Ontario in 2007, after having retired from teaching philosophy and religious studies at Medicine Hat College, in Alberta, for more than 35 years. His official position now is that of a “roving philosopher”, open to short-term teaching and research positions anywhere in the world. His most recent teaching assignments include a philosophy or religion course for seniors at Wilfrid Laurier University, and an introductory philosophy course at Meserete Kristos College in Ethiopia.

He has published numerous articles and book reviews, both in professional journals and religious magazines. His research specialty has been the philosophy of education; here he has published two books, Teaching for Commitment, and In Defence of Religious Schools and Colleges (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1993; 2001). His most recent work is entitled The Ethics of Evangelism; A Philosophical Defence of Ethical Proselytizing and Persuasion published in 20122 by Paternoster Press and IVP Academic.

The-Ethics-of Evangelism-Thiessen


Posted on by June 10, 2016

About Lee Marsh

Ex-JW. DFed. A survivor of child sexual abuse, physical abuse and emotional abuse. Survivor of spousal abuse - sexual, emotional and financial. Survivor of sexual assault. And one last one - survivor of ethnic/political abuse. Left the first husband (JW) and lost my home. Left the second husband (never a JW) and lost my home. Wound up homeless for 9 months living out of one tiny room at the YMCA. But I still survive and thrive.


The Ethics of Evangelism — 5 Comments

  1. “True freedom means that at any time they have the freedom to walk away with dignity.” Great statement

    By one estimate about 65% of Jehovah’s Witnesses derive from the Baptist faith. If this is true, how many of these can say “I was punished by Babylon the Great for seeking truth. My family was taken from me, I am viewed as a serpent with a mental disease, and no one will speak to me, associate with me, or care for me.”

    Manipulative corporate behavior seeks to confine. Little does the new Witness understand that the last independent religious decision he made was the decision to be baptized.

    Only when it is too late does he learn the extent to which he is contractually enjoined to the organization. His freedom to seek truth is hindered.The Spiritual Captive is not leaving the Baptist church this time; he is escaping the Watchtower.

    Once loved and cared for, the now dissident Witness will forfeit all dignity. The price of escape is reprisal. Relegated now as mentally diseased, a serpent, and unfit for association, his family will be held hostage and his life will never be the same.

    • I don’t know that you could say making the decision to get baptized was the last independent decision JWs make. I think long before that they are being conditioned and unduly influenced to begin to change. They change the way they dress, how they talk (swearing for example, what they do (smoking, drinking too much, gambling, avoiding anything that might be demonized, attend meetings, go door to door, etc.), who they associate with (perhaps even shunning family members who may oppose their choice, no longer have friends who are not JWs), maybe a job that isn’t in line with acceptable JW beliefs and a lot of other things. If those things hadn’t already been changed they would never have been permitted to get baptized. They would not have even been permitted to go door to door.

      I think the last free choice they made was to begin to study with JWs to begin with.

  2. What a superb article. It touches on the theological as well as the sociological but in a way that is very readable. I think we all need to be reminded of the Golden Rule whatever our religious persuasion or none.

    • Usually when “religious” discussion about JWs(or any cult) come up the discussion is around the specific beliefs rather than on the guiding principles that underlie those beliefs, like the Golden Rule. As a kid going to other churches that was a common theme all the time. Never heard that as a JW though.

      As a kid my parents would beat me and say, “I am doing this because I love you”. No Golden Rule there. If you are physically violent towards a person there is no respect. And without respect there is no love. They can’t say “JWs have the only true religion because we have true love among ourselves” and then allow children to be abused, or shun those who refuse to be quiet about their abuse, or just shun people at all. People you are supposed to have true love for. It isn’t ethical, or dignified or tolerant or socially acceptable or any one of the other things listed.

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