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The crowd swelled on the patio outside Colgate University’s student center. That was the venue we’d chosen for JAWS, “Jesus Awareness Week (Seriously!),” an outreach we’d planned for Holy Week 1998. Hundreds of students passed through several times daily on their way to or from classes. This day a couple hundred were already standing around, listening to InterVarsity® staff worker and open-air evangelist Mike Hernberg raise the question, “Who is Jesus?”
The students at Colgate in upstate New York were hosting JAWS to raise the claims of Jesus as a topic for discussion on campus. Over the course of the week, each day held significant events, some planned as public outreach, some as personal worship opportunities, others simply as fun ways to spend some time together.
One of the more public presentations was a two-day outdoor evangelistic discussion, led by Mike. He began each day’s discussion with a brief presentation of who he was and why he was there, and then opened the floor for a question-and-answer time on the theme of Jesus’ identity. We estimated that a couple of thousand students caught at least part of each day’s two-hour session. The discussions were great, and Mike was respectful, bold and at times, quite funny!
The feedback from the campus was intriguing. By far, most people were fine with the idea of publicly discussing religion. A large number of people on campus assumed, however, that simply because Mike was out there speaking in public, he was intolerant. I know, I know, that word is the kiss of death on the secular campus. Ironically, the backlash against this open-air dialogue came not from the non-Christian population on campus, but from the university’s chapel community!
The idea that stands most prominently among the comments we’ve received is that evangelism is by its very nature intolerant, and therefore has no place on the secular campus. This is a very serious charge, and it has significant bearing on much of what InterVarsity does. We seek to build witnessing communities on campus, so this question of tolerance deserves some serious attention from every student leader approaching the idea of outreach.
To answer that question, we can first look at the definition of tolerance, then look at the nature of our outreach and see if there are ways to ensure that our evangelism is as ethical as possible.
What is tolerance?
The classic definition of tolerance can be found in any dictionary. Webster’s defines tolerance this way: "a. sympathy or indulgence for beliefs or practices differing from or conflicting with one’s own. b. the act of allowing something: toleration." Tolerance does not require agreement or acceptance, merely allowance. People can tolerate many things, even things they considers foolish. For example, many students in my fellowship love Pauly Shore movies, most of which I find execrable. I exercise tolerance by allowing them to enjoy their movies, while not agreeing with their assessment of the quality of those movies. Tolerance requires that the tolerant person respect the rights of others to make their own decisions.
Over the past few years on campus, however a new definition of tolerance has emerged that requires the tolerant person to do more than “put up”—even cheerfully and politely—with others. This new tolerance is what evangelist Josh McDowell calls “positive tolerance.”
This distinction comes out quite clearly in the issue of homosexuality on campus. Classic tolerance would require that the tolerant person recognize a person’s right to be a practicing homosexual, whereas positive tolerance would require the tolerant person to affirm the other person’s choice as being just as good, just as valid, as any other sexual choice they could have made.
Christians are people who follow the man who said, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6, NIV) and who charged his disciples, “Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned” (Mark 16:15–16, NIV). When it comes to the beliefs of other religions, Christians can certainly be tolerant in the classic definition, but cannot affirm the rightness of other religious faiths. We can affirm the truth in other religions, but we cannot affirm the truth of other religions.
Christ’s ambassadors—what does that mean? It helps to think of some characteristics of ambassadors in general:
The Message of Reconciliation
The gospel is not our message to modify as we see fit. Rather, it is the news that our King is offering citizenship to all those who would be naturalized.
As Christians and ambassadors, we must share that message with the citizens of this world. We must embody the values of the Kingdom of God in our witness, but we are not free to change the message itself.
If bringing this message requires that we be branded intolerant, then so be it. In the end, we have no choice in the matter. The message itself cannot be compromised. It is of utmost importance, paramount significance, to the people God loves. However, if it is our conduct that brings shame on the Kingdom, then we will answer to our Lord for that.
A Code of Ethics
Central to my strategy in preparing Colgate students for JAWS was to stress the importance of ethical, principled evangelism. I introduced students to “A Code of Ethics for Christian Witness,” a document adapted by InterVarsity regional director Doug Whallon in 1989. We put it up on our chapter web page, I spoke on the code, and I handed out copies to all of our fellowship members. If I could have my way, every Christian in college would memorize the “Code of Ethics.” It’s that good and that important. (Readers should read this document before continuing.)
Central to the ethos of the “Code of Ethics for Christian Witness” is the distinction between persuasion and proselytism. Let’s go through the affirmations in order:
There is no separation in the ethical imperatives for Christians in their witness from those in the rest of their lives. All aspects of the Christian’s life are subject to the Lordship of Jesus Christ, including our evangelism.
Evangelism is central to the redemptive purposes of God himself—not simply an aggressive preference of angry Christians determined to prove that they are right.
Evangelistic techniques that depersonalize undercut the very purpose and essence of the gospel. Method and message are thus inextricably intertwined.
The code affirms the Christian value that every person deserves the chance to hear and respond to the gospel of their own free will. That means that each person is just as free to reject the gospel as to accept it.
We reject proselytism, any attempt to force a person to make the choice to follow Jesus by undermining the very faculties which allow them to make a free choice.
But not only do we reject proselytism, we affirm persuasion. Persuasion requires free and open dialogue, conducted with honesty, integrity and full candor. The Christian witness should be the person fighting the hardest for openness, truth and free expression of religious beliefs. Christian witnesses should also eschew what the code calls “personal aggrandizement.” In other words, no painting silhouettes of converted seekers on the side of your airplane! The code also affirms the value of public discourse about religion. If the campus is truly a marketplace of ideas, why must Christianity be sold under the counter?
Active, sensitive listening is a critical step in any process of persuasion.
It is the task of Christians, not just non-Christians, to police those who would seek to witness for Christ on campus. Christians should be at the forefront of insisting that other Christians follow guidelines like these.
The Value of the Code
The code can also be of great value in relieving the worries other campus entities may have about our efforts in evangelism. Campus administrators, fellow Christian groups, and other student organizations may be concerned about proselytism on campus, and agreeing to abide by the code can help allay those fears.
This brings up another area in which the code can be handy. There are many groups on campuses around the country which claim to be Christian but are coercive and aggressive. Our commitment to integrity in witness can be an effective way of putting some conceptual distance between our activities and theirs in the mind of the campus.
Whether welcomed or not . . .
Even so, there will be people on campus who are opposed to any efforts towards religious persuasion, no matter how ethical and respectful. As InterVarsity regional director Bobby Gross noted ironically to me over the telephone recently, the same people who fight for the right of students to hear all perspectives and make up their own minds in political matters turn around and deny the same rights to students in religious matters.
Advocates of positive tolerance tend to be intolerant of religious faith that acknowledges the existence of objective religious truth. Nevertheless, this intolerance should not stop thoughtful and faithful Christians on campus from being effective ambassadors for our King, the majestic and triune God of the Scriptures. It is our right, it is our imperative, and it is our privilege as children of the King.
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Denes House graduated from Hamilton College in 1993 with a Bachelor of Arts in studio art (computer science minor). He is an InterVarsity® Staff member working with undergraduate students at Colgate University and Hamilton College in Eastern New York. In his spare time, Denes enjoys reading, kayaking, illustration, movies and more.
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