In my last article, I described four misconceptions we often have about being Christian witnesses. As I stated, these are beliefs and methods that many well-meaning believers practice that, in my opinion, are misguided and do not authentically represent what it means to bear witness of Christ’s love to the world.
But if these misconceptions do not accurately describe the type of witnesses Jesus calls his followers to be, then what does it mean to be Christ’s witnesses? This is an important question for all of us who claim to follow Christ; one we simply cannot ignore.
While we may shrink away from the zealous and arrogant evangelistic methods that some use, we cannot ignore Jesus’ clear and straightforward command to be his witnesses. It is there; he said it. There is no way of denying it. So what does it mean to be witnesses of Christ?
There are numerous passages from the New Testament that we could investigate to gather an understanding of what it means to bear authentic witness to Jesus. Of course, several of these would come from the Gospels, and most notably Jesus’ Great Commission in Matthew 28:19-20, where he commands his followers to go and make disciples of all peoples. But Acts 1:8 seems to me to offer a succinct and yet very rich definition of what it means to be a witness for Christ.
In Acts 1:8, Jesus tells his followers, “You will be my witnesses.” As I read these words, I hear Jesus speaking more about a state of being than anything else. In other words, while action is involved in being witnesses for Christ, in that we are called to speak and do, being a witness is really more a state of existence than an action. Being a witness for Christ is an identity; it is who we are that leads to what we do.
Thus, being a witness to Christ is not primarily an action; it is a vocation. The English word “vocation” comes from the Latin, which means “calling.” It describes not so much what we do, but who we are. Vocation does not describe our employment. Rather, vocation is our purpose and our way of life. Thus being witnesses of Christ is a way of life and a sense of being, and not simply an action through which we seek to convert others to our religious way of thinking.
But there is one very crucial point to make about our identity as witnesses. We must always remember that we are Christ’s witnesses. Jesus plainly says, “You will be my witnesses.” In other words, followers of Christ are not witnesses of theological doctrine or of religious practices. They are not witnesses of moral and political agendas. They are witnesses of the person of Jesus, with whom they have an intimate relationship.
And their intimacy with Jesus, which continues after his departure through the empowerment of the Spirit, flows over into their being witnesses of him. It is not through their utilization of methods and tactics that they become witnesses. It is not through their ability to force guilt onto others that they are witnesses. It is through their relationship with the crucified and risen Christ and their empowerment by Christ’s Spirit that they become witnesses of him.
There is a little comment in Acts 4 that demonstrates this very idea. As Peter preaches to those who have arrested him and John, the author of Acts tells us that those who heard Peter “recognized them as having been with Jesus.” Peter and John were not off doing their own thing. They weren’t creating their own movement. Rather, they were being faithful to their vocation and to their relationship to Jesus, and they were recognized as having been with Jesus.
One of the sad notes about Christianity is its long association with injustice, oppression, violence and war. From the time of medieval Europe, when the church carried out violence against so-called heretics, to the time when slavery in this country was supported by white Christians, to more recent days when a new poll indicated that the majority of evangelicals support torture, Christianity has often failed to be an authentic witness to the authentic Christ.
If we are to be recognized as having been with Jesus, then our lives and our messages must express to the world the transformative message about a Christ who loves and embraces all. But if our lives and beliefs express neglect, injustice, intolerance, exclusion, hate, violence and war, or the support of any of these, then we are false witnesses to a false Christ.
When we believe that we must stand for intolerance, hatred, violence and oppression in order to be true to what we think God desires, we are indeed more witnesses of a false Christ than the authentic Jesus.
What is shocking to me is that many evangelicals who practice witnessing as a confrontational approach to convincing people of their guilt and sin and their need to convert to Christianity, are often the most intolerant of people, whose intolerance and hate speech do not fit with having been with Jesus.
In their form of bearing witness, they have so changed the person of Jesus that they bear false witness to whom Jesus really is. If the church is to be the authentic witness to the authentic Jesus, then we must become recognizable to the world as having been with Jesus.
Assistant Director of the Honors College at Henderson State University in Arkadelphia, Arkansas.