Darakjian was the former pastor of the Armenian Evangelical Church
Illinois, and the former pastor of the First Armenian Evangelical
Church of Glendale, California. He is the former editor of
the official monthly
publication of the Union of the Armenian Evangelical Churches of the
Near East, and the past editor of the Armenian Evangelical Union of
North America's quarterly publication, The Forum.
versed in the history and literature of both the Armenian
Apostolic as well as Evangelical Churches. This
by Rev. Darakjian was published in the
Spring 2000 edition of the AEUNA Forum.
Evangelism or Proselytism?
Rev. Barkev Darakjian
Evangelism and proselytism are both biblical terms. The first is almost entirely confined to the New Testament. The second, proselytism, is found both in the Old and New Testaments. "Evangelism" is derived from the Greek word euangelion which means "good news." According to William Barclay, euangelion "is so specifically and characteristically a Christian word that it has not a long history outside the NT." In short, evangelism means the act of spreading the good news of salvation in and through Jesus Christ.
The word "proselytism" is derived from the Greek word proselutos which is the translation of the Hebrew word guer, and it means "sojourner," "visitor" or, "pilgrim." By the time of the Jewish post-exilic period this word meant a convert to the Jewish religion. Gentiles who lived with the Jews, those who employed or were employed by them, those who sojourned in Israel and married Jews, eventually embraced the Jewish religion, and were called proselytes. They could not be considered Jews before the law, and would always be treated as alien residents. This practice continued in the early Jewish-Christian community. Non-Jewish Christians were considered proselytes by many apostles, with the exception of Paul.
A hasty generalization on our part will put no distinction between evangelism and proselytism. Yet a tension is evident between these two words. The nineteenth century missionary and evangelistic thrust and global enterprise increased this tension. Old Churches accused the missionaries of proselytizing, i.e. seducing or stealing their flocks.
What relevance do these two words, evangelism and proselytism, have to our Armenian Evangelical ethos? In this article I will attempt to show the relevance of these two words to our church and community, and to consider the strategy which we Armenian Evangelicals have been pursuing within the wider Armenian community. I will begin by raising the following questions in order to provide some background to my position:
Going back to the beginnings of Armenian Christianity, and considering the mass-christianization of Armenians, how would we characterize the activities of Gregory the Illuminator, and King Tiridates of Armenia. Did they evangelize our people, or, proselytize them?
Some of us Evangelical Armenians still have unhappy feelings about the separation of our evangelical forefathers from the mainstream Armenian Apostolic Church. Were the Armenian Evangelicals evangelized, or proselytized?
What strategy did our Evangelical forefathers, including the foreign missionaries, adopt vis-ê-vis the large majority of our people, and what is our strategy for today? Do we evangelize our people, or, we proselytize, or, do neither of these?
The space limitations for this article will not allow me to engage in an in-depth study or presentation of these issues. However, I'd like to state my position as clearly as possible, and without apology.
When we put aside all the pious legends, which we deeply cherish, about the christianization of Armenia, about St. Gregory the Illuminator and King Tiridates, we are confronted with some sober facts. A critical evaluation of these facts will reveal the true nature of that dynamic thrust of christianization which was pioneered by our most venerable churchman and king. When we do this, we shall realize that the Armenian people were more proselytised by Gregory and Tiridates than they were evangelized, even though that was not their intention, at least for St. Gregory. The latter did what was humanly possible to evangelize his people. However, according to Leo, the great Armenian historian, if it were not for the sword of Tiridates, state coercion, and punitive measures taken against the pagan institutions in Armenia, and added with natural allegiance to the throne, Christianity would hardly have had a chance of succeeding in our homeland. It is interesting to note that both Gregory and Tiridates belonged to pagan priestly families. In order to win the pagan priestly dynasties over to the Christian religion, they were obliged to accommodate pagan rites and traditions in their new religion. Overnight, many pagan high priests changed hats and became priests and bishops in the newly established church. One significant consequence of the christianization of Armenia, and nationalization of Christianity later, is that Christianity became, and remains to this day, subservient to Armenian nationalism. Another consequence of nationalization of the Christian religion is that the majority of the Armenian people display today the characteristics of a proselyte rather than the characteristics of a truly evangelized Christian. Among our people today, we have more "alien residents" than truly evangelized and committed Christian citizens of the Kingdom of God.
The Armenian Evangelical movement was one of the facets of the nineteenth century Armenian renaissance in Istanbul, Turkey. We had the treasure and the light of the Gospel entrenched and smothered under our national sacred traditions waiting to be discovered and rekindled. Throughout the past centuries attempts were made to rediscover our "hidden treasure" by some very devout and charismatic monks and churchmen, such as Moses and Gregory of Datev, Nerses the Graceful, Gregory of Nareg, and others. However, because of the political situation in our homeland, the efforts of these saintly figures failed to get their message through to the masses. Having lost their independence and national homeland, our people had to struggle for their physical survival and thus their religious leaders were unable to give time and serious thought to spiritual reform. The Armenian Church had found herself engaged in battles fought against enemies both from inside and outside throughout the second millennium.
At this point a question rushes into our minds in regard to the work of those foreign missionaries who went to Turkey in the middle of the 19th century and through their activities became instrumental in the founding of the Armenian Evangelical Church. Did those missionaries proselytize, or evangelize our people? We firmly believe that what they did was evangelizing our forefathers by helping them to recapture the message of the Gospel. It was a process of enlightenment and conviction regarding the biblical concept of salvation. There was no coercion on the part of the missionaries to convert the people from one religion to another. Nor did they persuade their listeners to adhere to the foreign church denominations which they represented. What the missionaries did was to faithfully carry out the Great Commission of our Lord Jesus given to his disciples to go and preach the Gospel to the end of the world. They knew nothing about the Armenians until they discovered them through providential guidance. Soon the missionaries learned of their centuries old Christian history and heritage and saw the potential to further their mission among the non-christians of those alien lands by the help of Armenians living in the Middle East.
The primary objective of the missionaries was to convert the Jews to the Christian religion, because they believed that the conversion of the Jewish people would expedite Christ's second coming. Yes, right or wrong, the foreign missionaries were there to proselytize the Jews and the Moslems by converting them to Christianity. As for Armenians, they were already Christians and did not need to be proselytized. What our people needed was to rediscover their historic faith. Our Evangelical forefathers were not coerced into changing their religion; neither were they asked to leave their Mother Church. Their separation from the Mother Church was not their own choice, but was the result of the disciplinary measures that were taken by the Patriarch of the Armenians, Matteos Chouhajian, against the members of the Society of the Pious who demanded spiritual reform within the Armenian Church. The leaders of this society were students of the theological seminary of the Patriarchate in Istanbul. The political and civil status of the Armenians living in the Ottoman regime (the millet system) contributed a great deal to this tragic separation. Under a democratic regime such a separation would have been inconceivable. No, our Evangelical forefathers were not proselytized; they were re-evangelized. They were graced to discover the Gospel within the walls of the Armenian Church and with prophetic and Josiahthic cry they prayed for the spiritual reform of their beloved church. The Evangelical Church of Armenia was born to the Armenian people as an unwanted child, yet when it grew up it began to be tolerated, yes, even appreciated by a number of most distinguished Armenian Apostolic clergymen. Now, after 154 years, we feel that we are accepted by our people, and have even won their confidence and respect.
What has been, and is now, the strategy of Armenian Evangelical Church (Evangelical Church of Armenia) vis-a-vis the larger Armenian community?
Throughout its history of 154 years, the Armenian Evangelical Church has never resorted to proselytization. Let me once more emphasize the fact that Evangelicalism is not a new religion. It was not intended to be a new denomination either. Denominationalism was forced upon us. However, the name we took upon us is peculiarly Armenian, and it cannot be identified with any of the existing denominations. Our Evangelical forefathers preached the Gospel of the crucified and risen Lord, the Bible being the only authoritative canon for their faith and life, and the Holy Spirit their only guide and source of inspiration. They called for personal repentance and salvation which could be acquired only through the grace of Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior. The reason for our being accused of proselytizing is the false assumption by our compatriots that we ourselves are proselytes. Subsequently, all those who had found new life, and witnessed to it, were labeled Protestant proselytes, porods, tavanapokhs, and so on. Our mission has been, and still is, to evangelize our people in accordance and with an obedience to our Lord's Great Commission which he gave to his disciples: "Go to the whole world and preach the gospel to all mankind." Such a mission transcends all consideration of proselytizing.
Evangelicalism is not an end in itself, neither do we consider the Armenian Evangelical Movement to be a guarantor for man's salvation. The sole motive behind this Movement, its raison d'etre, is to help our people know Jesus Christ and his wonderful salvation and be reformed spiritually, having been liberated from the bondage of old and useless traditions. The Armenian Evangelical Church is an Armenian community of evangelizers. We have no justification for our remaining separate from the Mother Church except for the freedom that it gives us to personally rely on the saving grace of Jesus Christ only and by personally repenting of our sins to experience a new life in him. This new life, which is God's free gift to every repentant, needs to be nourished through our faithful reading of the Bible, conducting a personal prayer life, and by witnessing to the saving grace of Jesus Christ to others, especially to our compatriots. In short, our faith, life, and witnessing should have their source in the evangel of our Lord Jesus Christ. We learn from him and try to follow the blueprint of Jesus' evangelistic program which he drew for us. It is prophetic, universal, and existential. Jesus himself derived it from the immortal vision and words of the Prophet Isaiah and adopted it:
because he has anointed me
to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom
for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to release the oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord's
(Luke 4:18,19; Isaiah 61:1,2)
Of course we feel the pain of being cut off from the Mother Church, but we are not bitter against anybody. What Patriarch Matteos Choukhajian did 154 years ago was regrettable, but we have no regrets for what we have been doing since then. I cannot help seeing an analogy between our position and the biblical story of Joseph, the son of Jacob. Joseph's aspirations and his intimate relationships with his parents made his brothers turn against him, and they cast him out of their family roof. Joseph had inadvertently hurt his brothers yet he should not have been treated in the way they did. Joseph never considered himself an alien but kept thinking of his parents and brothers, and of himself as part of that patriarchal family. He proved himself to be a loving son and brother.
We consider our Evangelicalism to be a mission, and not a denominational exercise to divide our people and proselytize them. For we believe that evangelization will unite our people, but proselytization will divide it. So let us keep on evangelizing our people by that same spirit and method that our Lord did throughout his earthly ministry.