The Problem with Proselytizing

No exaggeration, there was a time when I took Deuteronomy 6:7 to mean that the only form of truly godly education was home-education:

You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. - Deuteronomy 6:7

D.A. Carson is known to say, “My father used to tell me that a text without a context becomes a pretext for a proof text, so when I was still quite young I learned to look at the context." In my insistence on homeschooling, I was not applying Carson's piece of solid wisdom. I justified my view. I claimed that flowing from this verse a case is made for homeschooling only. Later, I expanded my view to include classical Christian schools or homeschooling only.

During those years I invested a lot of my time recruiting for these two methods. At one point, I gave a friend a book the premise of which was basically “homeschool at all costs.” I was so black and white about homeschooling that I offended my friend deeply.

As I've looked back on it over the years, I remember talking a lot about being more “godly.” It was always about becoming “holy” and being more “godly.” The things I had in mind to accomplish this holiness/godliness was a long list of what we used to call “distinctives.” Besides homeschooling or classical Christian school, this list included: no youth groups; no Sunday school; no church programs; women can read books together but not Bible study; singing Psalms and hymns only and preferably in 4-part harmony; communion every week (and must be with wine); healthy natural diet. I best stop here. The list is very long. It even contains things that are good, but upholding them as I did - especially in prideful opposition to brothers and sisters in Christ - was the opposite of holiness and godliness.

Believe me when I say I was able to justify all these things from Scripture, and to top it all off - as if this wasn't enough - I had a healthy dose of mockery and scoffing for those who were not “like-minded.” Maybe you have your own list.

I have tried to unravel what coalesced in my thinking and brought me to that point.

What are we sharing?

Over the last year or so I realized how much easier it is for people to become excited about something that works for them or has been a blessing in their lives. We want to share it with everyone we know. Except sometimes it's not just a simple sharing. There's pressure to go with the particular brand/idea/method that we're advocating.

In my experience, we are so often more excited and more pushy and more willing to talk about all kinds of things (e.g. cloth diapers vs. disposable, organic eating, natural baby birth, parenting and education methods) rather than sharing the gospel or talking about Jesus. I'm not casting blame. I had to confront this in my own heart.

There was a time when I was convinced that speaking theological truths to each other was actually out of bounds for godly, obedient Christian women. My rationale was that women should only learn the Scriptures from their husbands and spend their time with other women concentrating on being better keepers of their homes. Obviously, with this mindset, participating in organized women's Bible studies was out of the question, and I imagined that “sharpening” would come through organic relationships. I find it beautiful that in God's mysterious providence he has now put it on my heart to teach and lead Bible studies for women. I now long for women to make their greatest treasure Jesus and the Scriptures.

The Problem with Proselytizing

I understand that not everyone falls into, or has fallen into, this way of thinking. You don't have to take proselytizing to the extremes that I did to stumble in this way. Why do we find it more palatable, or even preferable, to spend more of our time “sharing” or talking each other into things that fall into the category of freedom in Christ, instead of investing our precious time with each other talking about the depths of the gospel? This is the problem with proselytizing.

In Unbelievable Gospel Jonathan Dodson has some hard truths to say about proselytizing versus evangelizing. These things can be just as easily applied to a group where all are Christians—proselytizing, instead of sharpening one another according to Scripture, instead of discipling one another.

Dodson sets up this convicting contrast:

“Proselytizing is motivated by recruitment. Those who proselytize try to recruit people to different things... The proselytizer puts faith in rational arguments and in social networks. Whatever is of greatest value to us motivates our proselytizing. Depending on your values, Christianity may have its strongest expression in a political party, a moral code, a view of the book of Revelation, form or denomination of church, or doctrinal stance. Notice that none of these are focused on Jesus. We all recruit to what we think is most important. Men recruit to sports teams; women recruit to fashion trends. In the case of the proselytizer, he recruits to faith in a messiah and lord other than Jesus. On the whole, faith is placed in the messiah of church and the lord of doctrine. This false gospel goes something like: 'If you join the right church and get the right doctrine, then you can be saved.' The true gospel simply says: 'If you join Jesus through repentance and faith, then he will save you.' Quite different.” (emphasis added)

And here's where it really hurt:

“The proselytizer’s good news is that you can swap out your inferior beliefs and community for her superior beliefs and better community (which is offensive).”

The Opportunity for Evangelizing

In my opinion, Dodson nails it. You can substitute any of your hobby horses for the examples he gives. The bottom line is that for one reason or another we all at times would much rather “recruit” someone in order that they be more like-minded with us, then to help them have the mind of Christ. In our prideful shallow hearts, we are all about our “kingdom of one,” rather than the kingdom of God, as Paul Tripp puts it.

It's helpful to ask how and why sincere Christians fall into the trap of proselytizing rather than evangelizing unbelievers or sharpening fellow believers in Christ. Here is a short list of what I learned when I searched my own heart. (There will be different rationales for different folks):

  1. I insulated myself and my children as much as possible from unbelievers, and from believers whom I considered to be not as mature of Christians as I would prefer. Obviously this led to absolutely zero evangelistic opportunities. It also led to a lack of discipleship. I didn't want to take the time with people who I considered to be less sanctified than I was. I only wanted to be around people who were “like-minded” with me and living their lives the way I thought “godly” people should. My reward for this type of living: gospel amnesia, isolation, lack of grace and compassion, judgmentalism, self-righteousness, and rigidness.
  2. I preferred to proselytize women to what I believed to be the high watermarks of sanctification defined by what I had read or heard instead of the actual Scriptures. This caused me to be more willing and excited to give out books that I believed would convince others of my view. (Of course I was operating out of blindness since I had not taken the time myself to read widely and compare these authors to the Scriptures and to other authors.)
  3. I was more excited about our life choices then I was about my Lord and Savior. That made it easier to talk about all the things we can “do” to be “better” or “godly.”
  4. I was more willing to recruit women to the things I was excited about because I sincerely believed that these were the things that could change their life for the better. Because I was not washing my soul with the gospel, daily, I put my faith and hope for transformation in something else—something other than Christ.
  5. I was more willing to recruit women to my way of things because it made me look like I had all the answers.

We need to take this Scripture to heart and not think it was just for all those foolish Pharisees two thousand years ago:

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves. —Matthew 23:15

Why would Jesus give such a rebuke? Because they were proselytizing in order to turn people to their way of living and being “clean” instead of seeking to turn the hearts of people toward God himself. As John Piper has said in God is the Gospel, even the blessings of God are not to be what we desire. Yes, God is the gospel! We are to desire God himself.

It wasn't until God opened my eyes and brought me face to face with Jesus again that I was able to start “gospeling” instead of recruiting—discipling and sharpening instead of proselytizing. The friend I gave that homeschooling book to forgave me for my pushy, immature offensiveness. But our relationship was never the same again. I had gone too far. We were able to say goodbye as sisters in Christ when I moved away, but I have thought about her often over the years—so many things I would take back if I could.

I am grateful that through the convicting and sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit, I am not that woman anymore, but these habits are hard to break. I need Jesus! I need a deep full-orbed understanding of the gospel. I need books like Unbelievable Gospel to wake me up. And I need loving brothers and sisters in Christ to model true evangelism and communal sharpening for me.


Luma Simms (@lumasimms) is a wife and mother of five delightful children between the ages of 1 and 18. She studied physics and law before Christ led her to become a writer, blogger, and Bible study teacher. Her book Gospel Amnesia is forthcoming on GCD Press. She blogs regularly at Gospel Grace.


For more insights on authentically sharing the gospel, check out Jonathan Dodson's Unbelievable Gospel. We're now offering a Print Edition.

For more free resources on gospel centered living, read: Stephen Witmer's Psalm 127 & 3 Ways to Live or Ben Connelly's A Child's Gospel.