One of my students read an article “Conversion or Proselytization? Being Maasai, Becoming Christian” by Joshua Robert Barron. The article takes a very positive view of conversion and a negative view of proselytization. Since a lot of people (including myself) use the terms generally interchangeably, I was curious at what his point was. Conversion seems to be bringing people to the Jesus who is already among them. Proselytization is bringing people out of their culture into an outsider faith and culture.
My first question was why was he using these terms in these ways. A challenge I have for myself is reading into these descriptions. After all, bringing people to the Jesus/God who is already among them can be a reworking of the “Ministry of Presence”— where the focus is not on bringing people to Christ at all, but rather on identifying God’s work that already exists among them. At its most extreme, one is not seeking to lead people to declare Jesus as Lord, or repent before God, but rather “Be the best you can be within the moral principles and beliefs of your culture.”
But that does not appear to be what Barron is talking about. Clearly, Barron is speaking of leading people to Christ (particularly in this case the Maasai) without losing their own cultural identity. That is a noble task, but it still got me thinking about whether emphasizing the difference between “convert” and “proselyte” is useful.
Both proselyte and convert are old terms. The former is a Greek term in origin, and the latter is Latin in origin. The term “proselytos” is used in the Old Testament (Septuagint translation of the Hebrew Bible), and the New Testament. In the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible, proselytos is used as the translation of the Hebrew term “ger.” Etymologically, “proselytos” comes from two parts that come together to mean “come towards.” However, ‘ger’ probably translates best as “resident alien.” That is ‘ger’ means, from the Israelite perspective, those people who are not Israelite and yet live among the Israelites.
Over time, ‘ger’ began to develop into three different meanings.
- ‘Ger’ in itself does not necessarily mean conversion. They could be loyal resident aliens… living among Jews, and obeying the rules of the land, but not identifying with the Jewish faith.
- ‘Ger zedek’ or ‘Ger emet’ is a true and full convert to the Jewish faith. A person in this category sets aside his or her faith and unique cultural identity, and embraces not only the Jewish faith, but also its community and culture.
- ‘Ger shaar’ is proselyte “of the gate” or “Son of Noah.” This person can be thought of as a “semi-proselyte.” This person has identified with the Jewish faith more than simply a loyal resident alien (‘ger’) but not as completely as a true and full proselyte (‘ger zedek’).
In the New Testament, the term Proselyte is used for a complete convert to Judaism where their non-Jewish character is left behind (‘Ger zedek’). Another group is the “God-fearers.” These were Gentiles who embraced some aspects of Judaism (nature of God, worship, and general ethics) without fully identifying with cultural and ceremonial Judaism. God-fearers then align with ‘Ger shaar.’
In the church, the question of who was truly a Christian came up. Must all Christians share a common culture? The question of whether Gentiles must become Jews to become Christians, or in a more general sense, “Must all people who wish to become Christians lose their unique cultural identifiers?” As they come to Christ, do they come as ‘Ger zedek’ or ‘Ger shaar’?
Truthfully, none of the three categories of proselyte really work in Christianity. Becoming a Christian involves embracing a deeper commitment than simply being a ‘God-fearer.’ And it does involve some level of commitment and common identity as part of the Body of Christ. At the same time, the Body of Christ is to exist in Unity, NOT Uniformity.
Conversion has its roots in the Latin that essentially means “to reverse direction.” The term is broad. As such, it is hard to say that “Conversion” and “Proselytization” are clearly at odds. However, the term “proselyte” as it is used in the New Testament does suggest losing one’s own unique culture during conversion to the Jewish faith. Christians are not called upon to lose their own culture in becoming Christian. However, it is accurate to say that to follow Christ is absolutely a “reversing of direction” since no one follows Christ by accident or natural inclination.
Looked at this way, I would have to agree with Barron that we are called upon by Christ to develop converts NOT proselytes. And if one accepts this language, then we should not identify ourselves as proselytizers.
Jochanan H. A. Wijnhoven, “Convert and Conversion” in Contemporary Jewish Religious Thought. Original Essays on Critical Concepts, Movements, and Beliefs, Arthur A. Cohen/Paul Mendes-Flohr ,eds. (New York: Scribner, 1987) 101-3. Online Available HERE.
Joshua Robert Barron, “Conversion or Proselytization? Being Maasai, Becoming Christian,” Global Missiology, Vol. 18 No. 2 (2021), April. Online Available Here.