I saw a tweet in the week reflecting something said at a conference, to the effect that 95% of church was focussed on worship and well-being and only 5% on witness. This rant is not about what was said at a conference I wasn’t at, nor a speech I didn’t hear, nor the intention of the tweeter in relaying it. But the way I read that tweet has set me off.
As an intransitive verb, witness is a pretty awful piece of religious jargon. “Have you been out witnessing?” “Yes, I’ve witnessed to lots of people today.” But not only is it the sort of Christianese which sets my teeth on edge, I think it turns the language of the New Testament upside down.
As no doubt people will be reminded through this time between the feasts of Ascension and Pentecost, Jesus is narrated as saying things like:
Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things (Luke 24:46-48)
You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8)
A witness is first and foremost something a person becomes by virtue of what they have seen, heard, experienced or known. That is the way we use the language in typical everyday usage, but it is also the way the New Testament uses the language. Very often there is an underlying sense of being on trial: sometimes metaphorical, sometimes actual. Witnessing is not some kind of separate activity done to others. People give evidence because they have witnessed – witnessed someone or something. The verb is transitive: witnesses see things, hear people, are present at events.
And that brings me back to the tweet that made me go pop. Christians are witnesses. Period. The choice is whether they are good witnesses or bad ones, whether they purvey mainly secondhand and hearsay testimony, or their own experience and knowledge.
One of the features of the early church that countered accusations of superstition and immorality seems to have been their reputation for charity and pastoral care. Despite the fractious disputes that divided Arian from Nicene Christian through the fourth century, it was the generosity and care of the Church even for those who were not its members that Julian the Apostate tried (with little success) to encourage pagans to emulate. Care for the well-being of others was, to put it no more highly, something that gave Christian witnesses credibility when they talked about the love and benevolence of God.
The author of 1 Peter tells his listeners:
Always be ready to make your defence to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence. Keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who abuse you for your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame. (1 Peter 3:15-16)
It is the communal and ethical life of the church which is the primary evidence Christians have to offer in support of the story they tell. The early Christians were not expected to run round grabbing passers-by and selling them a story; they were expected to live a life, and answer questions when people noticed how they lived it.
A good witness is a real person, not a religious activity.