Conversion by Coercion?

It is common to hear or read today someone telling believers, “Don’t force your beliefs on others.” While this may sound ‘noble’ to some, and is often stated in conjunction with some statement about their belief in ‘freedom of religion’ and/or some argument for ‘the separation of church and state,’ it seems the plea or demand would be more correctly stated as “Don’t force your moral standards on others.” Some do, in fact, add, “Don’t try to legislate morality.” [In other words, stop trying to control the behavior of others by making laws that prohibit or criminalize certain behavior.]

      I will grant that there are obviously people and organizations out there who are striving to do just that, but I will also point out that they are approaching immorality in a way Jesus never did, and never intended us to attempt. It should be obvious, from even a cursory study of the nation of Israel [and our own], that people are not going to follow laws they don’t like, and will do what they want to do. We will only get others to desire and then practice what is morally good and right only if we convince them it is what they should do. It has to be a conviction of the heart, or it is merely superficial ‘obedience.’

      In the case of the nation of Israel, God was the Lawmaker, and His laws were all for the good of the people, though they may not have understood the reasoning behind every one of the laws. The point of the laws God gave His people — some which specified certain things and some that prohibited certain things — might not have made sense to them [or to us], but were intended to (1) make them a holy people and (2) teach them about who God was.

      More than once, God told His people, “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy” (Lev. 19:2); the nations God drove out of Canaan were decidedly unholy, so God’s commands were intended to distinguish the Israelites from those nations (Lev. 18:24-30). When the apostle Paul argued for the fulfillment of the Old Covenant in Christ and explained the purpose of the Old Law [that which was given specifically to the Israelites], he noted there, “the law was our tutor to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith” (Gal. 3:24). That is what God said about its intent, but man turned into something markedly different when the religious leaders added their traditions and turned it into a list of do’s and don’ts, and then condemned anyone who did not measure up to their standards. Religious service and ‘faithfulness’ became a matter of outward appearances, rather than a matter of the heart, as God intended.

      To make that point, Jesus once said of the religious leaders, “(T)hey bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers” (Matt. 23:4), and, “They make their phylacteries broad and enlarge the borders of their garments. They love the best places at feasts, the best seats in the synagogues, greetings in the marketplaces, and to be called by men, ‘Rabbi, Rabbi.’” (Matt. 23:5-7). He had earlier said of some of these same religious leaders, “Hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy about you, saying: ‘These people draw near to Me with their mouth, and honor Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me. And in vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’” (Matt. 15:7-9). It was all about the outward show, and their hearts were not in it; they did not actually seek to honor God. And if that was not bad enough, they simultaneously tried to impose their rules on others, as if demanding and practicing this strict ‘obedience’ rendered them pleasing to God. It did not.

      Contrast this superficial ‘righteousness’ of the religious leaders and the belief that imposing commandments on others would please God with the practice and teaching of Jesus. Take the example of the adulterous woman who was brought to Jesus: In this case, these same religious leaders sought to condemn the woman to death, reminding Jesus, “such should be stoned” (John 8:3-5). Were they correct? Yes (Deut. 22:22), but they really were not interested in this woman’s soul (John 8:6). Jesus was concerned for her soul, though; in the end, she was not stoned, but Jesus said to her, “go and sin no more” (John 8:11). Could He have condemned her to death? Yes, but the law was not there to simply punish; again, it was to lead them to holiness and to teach them about God. Jesus taught the woman and these religious leaders something about God: He is merciful (Luke 6:36).

      And when Jesus taught, He did not berate His audience or try to shame them into obedience, but simply taught the will of the Father and left it to those who heard. He would remind the hearers that they should do more than just hear (Matt. 7:21-27), but He did not beat them over the head with the message to try to get them to see and obey the truth. He would sometimes encourage the audience to heed His words by telling them, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear!” (Matt. 11:15), but if the audience did not respond as He would have liked, He didn’t pull out a bullhorn and start shouting it again in their ears until they submitted.

      Jesus did not overlook or ignore those who would not listen, though. Just a little while later, Jesus would rebuke the cities of Chorazin and Bethsaida for having failed to repent though they had seen His mighty works (Matt. 11:20-24). But Jesus also made a compassionate plea to the people, saying, “Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light” (Matt. 11:28-30). Yes, He wanted them to heed and, yes, He wanted them to repent, but He did not condemn them to an eternal hell while He walked the earth; as Jesus noted in His rebuke, the condemnation will come in the final Judgment.

      So, today, when we go out into the world to tell the lost souls of Jesus Christ and the salvation made available to all men, let us follow the example of Jesus and teach, yes, but do it in a way that teaches them God is love (1 John 4:8), God is merciful, and that God seeks their salvation (1 Tim. 2:3, 4), not their condemnation. There will be some who only see God as harsh, unjust, and unloving, but only because they choose to ignore the whole picture of who God is and what He has done and what He has promised. Let us show them the God they do not know, as did Paul (Acts 17:22ff).

      The faith we hold and teach is not something we should — or even can — ‘force on others.’ This is evident in the words of Jesus when He sent the apostles out into the world to teach the gospel; when He sent them out and commanded them to “preach the gospel to every creature,” He then told them, “He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned” (Mark 16:15, 16). In other words, some will believe and some will not, but those who choose not to believe will have to one day answer for their disbelief; it is not our part to ‘force our beliefs on others.’ Preach and teach the truth, but leave it at that; if the love of God and Christ does not reach them and move them to obey, we have no other message to offer, but they will one day answer to Christ (John 12:48).

            Conversion comes from conviction, not coercion.     — Steven Harper