Recently I had some discussion on Twitter on how we use the terms 'conversion' and 'convert' so I thought I should follow it up with a blog post. What does it mean to be converted? Is conversion the same thing as regeneration? We often use the term conversion without thinking. Here are some thoughts on why we should be much more thoughtful on this issue.
Bible on conversion
Modern English translations of the New Testament (I have only looked at NIV, ESV, NLT, and NASB) use the word ‘convert’ or its cognates to translate several different words (8 times in NIV, 7 in NLT, 5 in ESV, 3 in NASB). But a quick analysis of the Greek words that are translated convert or converted shows that the English words are being used in ways that do not match the Greek:
- In Matthew 23:15 and Acts 2:11, 6:5, and 13:43 the NIV and NLT use ‘convert’ to translate proseluton (from where we get the word proselyte), referring to a Gentile who had become a Jew. (The AV & NASB renders it as ‘proselyte’ in all four cases and the ESV likewise in the first three.)
- In Acts 15:3, Romans 16:5, 1 Corinthians 16:15, and 1 Timothy 3:6, rather than use the word proseluton, Luke and Paul use various expressions to describe someone who has come to Christ. They seem to be at pains to distinguish what has happened to someone coming to Christ with what had happened to someone converting to Judaism. So, they use words that would ordinarily be translated as novice or firstfruits. But both NIV and ESV render the words as ‘convert’, ‘converted’ or ‘conversion’ in all four cases. The NIV is making no attempt to distinguish the experience from that of those who joined Judaism. (The AV uses ‘conversion’ only in Acts 15:3; the NLT is like the AV; the NASB is as NIV and ESV except in 1 Corinthians 16:15.)
This begs the question why the translators of some modern versions have opted to render several different Greek words as convert. The NIV makes no attempt to distinguish the experience of those who have come to follow Christ from that of the proselytes to Judaism. I suggest that they have bought into a modern conceptual framework of religions.
The discipline of comparative religions emerged in the mid-19th century alongside that of anthropology, sociology and psychology. Till this time, the study of religion was largely construed of as one of reflection on one’s own religion. But the 19th century witnessed major advances in travel and trade, as well as the development of the modern missions movement. The unprecedented encounter with hitherto unknown religious traditions, coupled with the growing power of rationalist thinking led to the emergence of this discipline in the universities. Now the way societies thought, worshipped, lived their lives, in short, their traditions could be compared across the world. Religion became plural – religions. But how many are there and how are they distinguished from each other? Can we group them together and can we discover how it is that different groups believe similar things and carry out similar rituals? And what do we make of our own tradition? Are Roman Catholicism and Protestantism different religions or two versions of the one religion? Can we speak validly about conversion from one to another?
Probably the most obvious thing about religion around the world is that it is social: people do religious things together. So, are there as many religions as there are societies? The biggest challenge came in trying to sort out Eastern religions. Let me ask you a question: are you comfortable talking about Christian Hindus? William Carey was. But almost no one talks in such a way anymore. So, what has happened?
The whole development of the study of religions has led to the creation of religions. So, Christian and Hindu have become two mutually incompatible categories. And as social groups in South Asia as well as elsewhere are massively important to the people, religion must, of necessity, be a characteristic of a social group. And conversion must be the requirement to change from one social group to another.
But social change is not a requirement of discipleship to Christ in the Bible. Paul instructs the Corinthians thus: “…each one should retain the place in life that the Lord assigned to him and to which God has called him” (1 Cor 7: 17, 20, 24). And to make sure no one says, “Well that was just for the Corinthians,” the apostle adds, “This is the rule I lay down in all the churches.”
Even if the new believer does not say that he has changed religion or community, his actions will speak louder than words if he rejects his family traditions.
So, I argue, let’s be very careful how we use the word conversion. Maybe we shouldn’t use it at all—certainly not in situations where it will be misunderstood.
See a fuller discussion in Mark Johnson, “The Yatra in Christ”