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How to handle converts

I have been pondering lately the following dilemma for Christian witness: On the one hand, when evangelizing or talking to inquirers about Christianity, we want to focus on a fairly circumscribed set of teachings that absolutely must be believed for one to be a Christian at all--mere Christianity, if you will. On the other hand, we don't want to give the impression that other Christian doctrines, such as Scripture's moral teachings on homosexuality or Scripture's teachings about the differences between men and women, are literally optional and unimportant.

If someone insists on arguing about homosexuality when inquiring about Christianity, it's perfectly legitimate to tell him, "Yes, the Scriptures do have teachings on that subject that are at odds with popular contemporary beliefs. But for the moment, let's stick to basics: Is Jesus God? Did he die for our sins and rise again? If those things are true, much else will follow, including some things that are nowadays politically incorrect, but since you are coming to me to discuss the truth of the theological claims of Christianity, let's discuss that subject first."

This sensible and moderate approach is far different from telling the person, "Oh, none of that is essential. I know lots of gay Christians," which gives the impression that there is no Christian position on the subject.

There are, however, both rhetorical and pastoral issues that can be difficult to juggle. Suppose that someone else evangelized the person with whom you are now talking. That convert may now believe that Jesus is God, that Jesus rose again from the dead, even every doctrine in the Apostles' and Nicene Creeds. That convert may even have confessed his sins (or what he sees as his sins) and sought forgiveness. But now, that convert may view it as his job to help the church to be more politically inclusive. Suppose that you are a pastor or the leader of a ministry. How do you deal with that?

The issues involved can range far. Feminism is another. Suppose a young woman claims to have been raised in a hyper-restrictive home and to be glad to have found out that Christianity does not really forbid women's wearing pants or getting a college education. Well and good. There really are such odd pockets of Christianity, and she may well have been raised in one such, and what they teach really does go far beyond any real Christian teaching about the differences between men and women. At the same time, such a young woman may well be voluble now about how the church needs to "show that it has something to say to women" and about how feminism is really a good thing, etc. I would say that she needs some pushback on that. It's true that male headship in the home isn't in the Apostles' Creed, but it is in the Apostle Paul. And that God created male and female, presumably with the intent that these are different from one another, is in the book of Genesis.

To some degree we can thread our way through the minefield by not giving what the Baptists call "baby Christians" positions of leadership. New Christians, especially adult converts, need time to grow and learn. And we Christians need time to break to them various politically unwelcome truths, if no one did that before. However harsh it may sound to the ears of moderns, fed self-esteem pablum from birth, the person who has just converted or reconverted to Christianity is probably not the person who should be telling us all "what the church needs to be doing differently to be attractive to people like me." It's tempting of course to think that that is exactly what we should be asking, but I submit that to think so is to bring a market model into the church where it does not belong. Much as I love the free market, the church shouldn't think of itself as selling a product. New converts or reconverts are not members of focus groups, and their job should be to learn and grow in grace, wisdom, and understanding of the truths of the Bible, not to tell us, "What did you like about our product? How can we sell it more effectively to others like you?"

The last thing a new convert or reconvert needs is a leadership position. Don't tell them to write a book or to go on the lecture circuit. No, not even if they have a striking conversion story that makes you feel really excited when you think about it.

But I think the problem runs deeper and really goes back to our approach to evangelization. I warned here about a bait and switch as regards homosexuality: The speaker there tells his audience not to say too much to self-professed homosexuals about the Bible's position on their activities, because that might make them feel unwelcome. As I pointed out in that post, there is a great danger, then, that such people will really never get it, that they will assume, since they have been told "come as you are," that the church welcomes their continuing in their lifestyle even after they have allegedly turned to Jesus. And it gets a little embarrassing to turn around at that point and say, "Well, yes, we did try to be a welcoming and gay-friendly church, but you have to stop that now. Didn't you know?" Chances are good that it is they who will change the church rather than vice versa.

Related to this is the erroneous belief that, if we evangelize, people will magically get all of their moral (now deemed political) views sorted out after they are saved. Protestants might say that this will happen through the teaching ministry of the Holy Spirit. Catholics might believe that the Sacraments will do the trick. Far be it from me to say anything against either the teaching of the Holy Spirit or the Sacraments, but they are no substitute for a morally informed and clear evangelistic approach. If you tell people, tacitly or even explicitly, "That doesn't matter" concerning their messed-up social and moral views, chances are they will believe you, which is going to make uphill going for the Holy Spirit after they consider themselves Christians. "Just bring them to Jesus and let Him do the rest" is a feckless approach and is likely to damage the church. This point is also related to the pietistic silliness one hears sometimes to the effect that we just need to preach the gospel and evangelize rather than "being involved in politics," where "politics" includes moral issues like abortion and homosexuality. Such a naive approach fails to reckon with the fact that, if we do not go out and challenge the world, the world will challenge and change us. The very success the world has had in changing Christian opinions on these issues is a sign that the churches need to be more outspoken, not less. We can't count on evangelism and conversion to do the hard work for us on these issues without our confronting them head-on.

Which brings me back to the dilemma I discussed at the beginning. It's a delicate task to discuss the basics with a prospective convert while not giving the false impression that there is nothing else to living as a Christian besides accepting those bare basics.

It's a delicate task, but somebody's got to do it. Perhaps one idea would be to make one's own opinions well-known in other contexts. If you are discussing conversion to Christianity with someone who can very easily look up your views on-line on various hot topics, he's going to have little doubt as to what sort of Christianity you are calling him to vis a vis those issues. For a pastor, this sort of thing could be done on a church web site with links to various position papers endorsed by the church.

Ultimately, there is going to be no getting around it: If your prospective convert makes his liberal moral and social views known in conversation, you have to give him some pushback. You have to make it clear that Christianity isn't going to leave him in a comfortable left-wing bubble on those issues. And if he insists on discussing them there and then, you have to be willing to do so. In this day and age, there is probably something wrong if that doesn't happen at some point along the way, because the kind of prospective convert I have in mind is almost invariably going to bring up such things. It's pretty likely that someone who has been influenced by the zeitgeist is going to think that it counts as an objection to Christianity that (he's heard) Christianity teaches that homosexuality is wrong, or that (hopefully) your church doesn't ordain women. So it behooves us to think ahead and work out a response that is both gracious and clear. Where it goes from there depends on a combination of divine action and human free will.

Comments (7)

The last thing a new convert or reconvert needs is a leadership position. Don't tell them to write a book or to go on the lecture circuit. No, not even if they have a striking conversion story that makes you feel really excited when you think about it.

This is a very good point. There was a certain degree of unseemlinees in the public goings on of some of the converts closely associated with Scott Hahn after he and they became Catholics, with holding positions of (if not authority) at least outspokenness on policies. Even aside from doctrinal errors, converts are often just plain ignorant of recent practical difficulties (that passed them by) and/or of ancient small "t" traditions that are perhaps less than perfectly universal but still widely accepted. And on the limits of teachings and authority (well, if the bishop says to paint your nails purple for Lent, you have to do it...) Even outside of religion, it is just good common sense as well as a kind of humble politeness for the new kid on the block to shut up and listen for a while.

that such people will really never get it, that they will assume, since they have been told "come as you are," that the church welcomes their continuing in their lifestyle even after they have allegedly turned to Jesus.

My pastor has a great line: "Come as you are...change when you get here."

Ultimately, there is going to be no getting around it: If your prospective convert makes his liberal moral and social views known in conversation, you have to give him some pushback. You have to make it clear that Christianity isn't going to leave him in a comfortable left-wing bubble on those issues.

As long as the prospective convert is not being direct or explicit about his non-traditional understanding of morals, I think it is sufficient for the evangelist to start the process by starting in on teachings that have the implicit but definite direction of true morality. This would include starting in (maybe a short time after "Jesus is God" and "Jesus died for our sins") on the distinctive Christian meaning of love: "God is love" is true but not a watery truth. It is a hard, difficult truth - a truth more filled with definite content than we are comfortable with (like C.S. Lewis's theme in The Great Divorce"). Real love implies giving up self-love and conforming our love to God - the same God who made man in his 2-fold nature of male and female and blessed them with the command to be fertile. You can see where it goes from there. While mostly talking about the nature of love itself, you set the ground-work for a later discussion that physical love and sexual love is designed by God for a certain context, and the context isn't anything like "what makes me feel good".

If, on the other hand, the prospect is outspoken on the matter (holding anti-traditional morality), that's a different story. No teacher can leave them in doubt that such a stance either is outright incompatible with Christianity, or at least the issue is going to be re-visited again later for further clarification. You CAN'T leave them thinking that those beliefs are fine for the Christian when they have made them a definite issue. Whether that drives them away or not, is not for the teacher / evangelist to be overly concerned about - as Christ could not be overly concerned about his teaching driving people away.

Oh, and did I forget to add the fact that the Trinity is imaged (faintly) by the family, as one of the important truths to start in on?

Yes, I think you have a good distinction there, Tony, between a person who doesn't come out and say anything explicitly and a person who does.

Hi Lydia,

It's been a while for me, but I drop by occasionally to both blogs.

Very interesting topic. I handle this by approaching evangelism as a covenant relationship. The essence of this is that Jesus gave His life for us, and the only reasonable response is to give our life back to Him. He took the Cross; we must bear our crosses in response. His death-for-us qualifies Him as our Lord, master. The dynamics involved insist that we answer that by becoming disciples/servants of His.

In my experience, achieving such understanding accomplishes the "heavy lifting" in the task of accepting personal change necessitated by Christian faith (2 Cor. 5:14-15). This is not unrelated to "sacraments." The covenant entrance ceremony is baptism (the mere suggestion of which still prompts howls of protest from "old perspective" Protestants, but is increasingly accepted by those of the "new perspective on Paul"). Baptism is an invited acceptance of the death of the old/self-directed person which results in the new-creation of a person in whom Jesus is alive in the Spirit. Btw, I just wrote a book that works to recover the salvific role of baptism, not only in sin-remission but as the entrance point of the Spirit into a Christian's life (Filling the Temple: Finding A Place For The Holy Spirit).

In the conversion process, I at least explicitly address hypothetical sacrifices that might be required of someone crucified with Christ. These hypotheticals would include common sins of our day: substance abuse, sexual issues, etc. If I am aware of any specific issue (premarital co-habitation, drug or alcohol involvement, homosexuality), these are addressed directly.

As I said before, if success is to be had it will be with the challenge to take up one's cross and follow. Not all of my evangelistic efforts are successful, of course. The Parable of the Sower sends each of us on longer or shorter trajectories of success. And, I cannot recall converting a single homosexual in decades of ministry. In part, it is because there really are so few of them. At present, I only know one person (a co-worker) who is gay. And the few that I do meet seem predisposed against seeking Jesus. There are dynamics at work, which the Scriptures discuss, that compel people against their own salvation.

All that said, the resulting church situation from this evangelistic approach is an effective screen against half-baked, half-converted "Christians" who drag their sin behind them into the fellowship. But, then again, the sin issues of any of us are not entirely visible (1 Tim. 5:24).

While I'm here, I really am enjoying Timothy's presentation on the historicity of the Gospels and Acts. I used to read in this area quite a bit, but lately have picked up on the observation that we sometimes get so focused on proving the historicity of the Resurrection that we fail to grasp and discuss the meaning of that event. So my current emphasis is there, but I must say that his presentation is well-prepared and compelling.

Servant of Jesus,

Thanks, John, for your comments. I have not researched the "new perspectives on Paul," but from the little I know I suspect I would have several disagreements with it. However, an emphasis on the importance of baptism as an entrance ceremony wouldn't be among those disagreements! In fact, for a long time I have mulled the idea that baptism is rather like public marriage vows. In theory it is possible for a couple to be even secretly married. We can make up extreme circumstances involving totalitarian governments or something where this might be the case. Or it would in theory be possible for a couple to marry each other on a desert island where there is no other person (besides God) to witness their vows. Adam and Eve were married when they were the only two people in the world. And so forth. However, there is a problem if someone shacks up with his girlfriend and says that they are "married in their hearts" or something stupid like that--if he's unwilling to take the public marriage vows and have a formal marriage, that's an indication that something is wrong. Love between man and woman should have a telos towards commitment, and except under the most bizarre of circumstances, that commitment should be public. Now, if one applies that to baptism, one's love for Jesus should have a telos towards, very early on, committing oneself to Jesus publically in baptism. If one doesn't want to do so, something is wrong. I think this comparison does give at least a quasi-sacramental meaning to baptism, without accepting baptismal regeneration as a doctrine per se.

I agree with your approach to counseling prospective converts, and I think it is useful and necessary to be direct in that way.

On the resurrection, I have thought for a long time that there is a very deep connection between the historicity of the resurrection and its theological significance. After all, if it didn't happen, it could have no theological significance at all! It places the deepest joy and highest hope offered to man on a strong, rational footing. I'm glad that you are finding the material on this subject valuable!


With the "new" perspective approaching a half century of age, let me put it in a nutshell. It is a vivid demonstration of the fact that the wheels of justice turn much more quickly than the wheels of theology!

The impact of Martin Luther has been so strong that it swerved popular understanding of Paul in a wrong direction. Luther battled "legalistic works" in medieval Catholicism, and it was immediately assumed that this was precisely the dark spiritual defect at work in Biblical Judaism, both in Paul's battle with Judaizers (Jewish Christians who compelled Jewish Christians to embrace the Law/Old Covenant) and in Jesus' earlier conflict with the Pharisees. Compounding the mistaken equivalence between Luther and Paul was the central place both gave to the term "works."

On the sure assumption that such "legalism" lay at the heart of Second Temple Judaism, E. P. Sanders undertook research of the relevant Jewish literature to document that legalism. He shocked himself and the rest of Christendom to discover that his search came up empty. Two vital implications result. First, it is clear that Judaism had been slandered by smearing it with the vices of a much later "church." This mistake has made a major contribution, sadly, to the Holocaust and to anti-Semitism generally. Second, the new perspective has busied itself, since Sanders, with the task of recovering the true issue that occupied Paul's polemic against "works." The results have, by and large, been very pleasing theologically. But the upshot is that is no longer acceptable to link the struggles of Luther and Paul; "legalism" (in Luther's sense) is not the quintessential dark counterpoint to true Christianity.

I have no time to go on, but would love to suggest the huge ramifications the new perspective has for recovering a salvific role for baptism (see my book!).

Oh, Lydia, you will find no stronger advocate than me for linking the theological significance of the Resurrection with its grounding in historical fact. My current inquiry, however and for the moment, is theological rather than historical.


Oops! Note to self: "should proof-read!"

Above, the reading should be: "(Jewish Christians who compelled Gentile Christians to embrace the Law/Old Covenant)

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