What makes something ethical? Some people think that actions in themselves are good or bad no matter what (deontologist), and others believe that it really depends on the situation and whatever results in the greater good (utilitarian). Take abortion for example: Lots of Christians are deontologists who argue -passionately, and I think rightly- that abortion is always wrong because a human life is at stake. Most non-Christian feminists seem to be utilitarian, countering that abortion doesn't harm society at large and that it results in greater freedom for our culture, and especially women as a whole. One has a strict moral code that cannot be transgressed; the other shrugs their shoulders and mumbles that the ends justify the means.
And this brings us to the all-too-common phenomenon of Christians lying and manipulating to make converts - it's classic "Ends justify the means," utilitarian behavior, totally inconsistent with the way Christians approach the abortion debate. We see this kind of thing in every lazy apologist who lies rather than doing the proper research that they should be doing, in every camp speaker who has ever capitalized on the emotional vulnerabilities of children, and in Christian missionaries who withhold food from the hungry until they can extract a confession of faith.
A Stroll Down Imagination Lane
Okay, let's stop for a second. Let's imagine that you believe people can choose whether or not they want to follow God (the term for this is Arminianism). You also believe in Hell, a place of ongoing torture which lasts forever, and you believe that everyone who chooses not to follow God ends up going there, and you don't want that for anybody! Right? So, maybe, if you have to lie and manipulate to get someone to accept Jesus, that's just what you'll have to do. Sure it goes against your moral code, but it ends up serving the greater good. The ends justify the means. Maybe you hope that by the time your manipulation has worn off, or the lie has been found out, that person will have found some more solid reasons to believe in Christianity. So you go ahead and lie to the poor sap and exploit his need for friendship, and by the end of the month, he's a baptized member of your adult Bible study.
Deceit, Inconsistency, and Arminianism
These kinds of things happen all the time. A Christian council in Geneva recently had to issue a ruling against this sort of behavior, according to The National Post:
"A coalition representing most Christian churches around the world launched a rule book on Tuesday for spreading their faith that aims to reduce tensions among themselves and with followers of other faiths... It reaffirms their right to seek converts but also urges them to abandon 'inappropriate methods of exercising mission by resorting to deception and coercive means', saying that such behaviour 'betrays the Gospel and may cause suffering to others'. Christian missionaries have long been accused of offering money, food, or other goods to win converts in poor countries, either from other faiths or from rival churches."
The truth is, this is one of the practical problems with the belief that people can choose to follow God (Arminianism). If people were free to choose, and deceit could get them to that point (and out of danger of Hell), it would be difficult to say no to indulging a couple of well-meaning fabrications every now and then. The ethical situation would be a jumbled mess of deontologist values and utilitarian pragmatism. On the other hand, the Bible says that no one can come to Jesus unless God makes them do so (John 6.44), and thankfully, the Reformed Christian belief that God chooses to make some people Christians (Predestination) rescues us from having to be a religion of dishonest, shifty religious hucksters. It shows us that it's useless to lie to people to make converts anyways, because God is the one who does the real work of bringing people to faith. The truth is Christians do lie to make converts. The more comforting truth is that, if we understood conversion better, we wouldn't have to. Practically, Arminianism not only has some Biblical holes but creates some ethical ones as well, with the confusion over whether or not it's okay to cut ethical corners in sharing our faith. But I'm thankful that, also practically, the Calvinist belief in Predestination helps keep things ethically together. If you have ever had a Christian try to manipulate you into belief, then I apologize. If you are one of those Christians, then knock it off.
*I need to include a note here, just in case there are people who aren't Christians reading this: Ahem. God doesn't have to change you because you're unable to follow Him (in which case you'd be faultless); He has to change you because you're unwilling to follow Him (which means you're not faultless, though Jesus does offer the way to forgiveness). This isn't meant to sound accusatory because we're all in the same boat: it wasn't too long ago that I was mocking God and writing "Jesus was the Antichrist" on my school binder, so I feel where you're probably coming from. Hopefully you at least appreciate my honesty.