Thursday, June 25, 2009

Jesus Calls Us to Bear Authentic Witness of Him

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; and 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”, and 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 who 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.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

A Few Misconceptions about Being Christ’s Witnesses

Kirk Cameron is probably most famously known as Mike, the teenage son on Growing Pains, a popular sitcom of the mid-80s. Cameron is better known today, however, for his zealous Christian ideas and his association with Ray Comfort, an evangelist who, with Cameron, seeks to convert people to Christianity.

Both Cameron and Comfort call what they do witnessing. It seems to me, however, that while they may be passionate about what they are doing, and they certainly believe they are right in doing it, they are more than anything being confrontational and condemning to the extent that they may do more harm than good. Their approach is certainly not new, for many Christians consider this kind of proselytizing as being faithful to Jesus’ commission for his followers to go into the world and share the gospel with all people.

I don’t doubt the passion of those who believe in this kind of evangelism, and I don’t necessarily want to judge the motivations of the hearts of folks like these. But I am concerned that this kind of witnessing, and the passion that seems to fuel it, is misguided and may not be what Jesus envisioned when he voiced the command for his followers to be his witnesses.

For too long we have believed certain misconceptions that have been energized by our zealousness and our desire to be what we believe to be faithful to Jesus’ call for us to be his witnesses. I would like to challenge a few of these misconceptions in order to lay the ground work for I think is a more faithful definition and description. These are beliefs and strategies that many have practiced in their efforts at evangelism that do not, in my mind, reflect Jesus’ own practice and instruction. Indeed, while these may have limited success in converting people to the Christian religion, they may do more harm to our witness of Christ.

Misconception No. 1: Witnessing is converting people to the Christian religion. This is simply not true for a number of reasons, but two are crucial for us to understand. First, we do not convert people; only God can change the hearts and minds of people. Our Bible thumping arguments, though we think they are eloquent, do not convert people. Second, nowhere does Jesus say for us to convert people to our religion. He says to share the good news and to call people to follow him, but he does not call us to convert people to our religion or to our theological doctrines.

Misconception No. 2: Witnessing is telling people they are morally corrupt without God. First of all, human morality is not dependent on humans believing and following God. People can certainly be moral people without being religious and without believing in God. As well, many people who claim to be Christian have demonstrated that they are not very moral. Second, witnessing is not convincing people that they are sinners. I have heard many purported experts in witnessing say that in order to get people saved, you must first convince them they are morally corrupt sinners. But this assumes that Christianity is morally superior to other religions and the non-religious.

Misconception No. 3: Witnessing is convincing people that Christianity is the only true religion and that all other religions are false. There is no way to prove this. Although religions are different in their belief and practice, we cannot legitimately say that one is truer than the others. In fact, if truth is determined by the goodness of something, then Christianity, as it has often been practiced throughout history as a means of oppressing and subjugating others, is in a bad position to prove it is more truthful than other religions.

Misconception No. 4: Witnessing involves threatening others with the judgment of God, like saying, “If you die today without being saved, you will spend eternity in hell.” First of all, we are not God and we do not determine who and how God judges. Second, scaring people out of hell and into heaven is not very biblical, and it is not faithful to Jesus’ call for us to share the good news. Besides, escaping a place called hell in order to get into a place called heaven is not what it means to follow Christ.

I am convinced that these methods are neither faithful to the gospel nor effective in reaching people with the gospel. But if these are not the ways of being Jesus’ witnesses, then what does it mean to be Christ’s witnesses? While we may shrink away from the practices and methods that those like Cameron and Comfort use, we cannot ignore Jesus’ clear and straightforward command to be his witnesses. Therefore, in upcoming columns, I will seek to lay out a biblical model of evangelism that is harmonious with Jesus’ primary emphasis on love for one’s fellow human beings.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Rethinking the Inspiration of Scripture

One of the fundamental tenets of Christianity is the belief in the inspiration of scripture. The author of Second Timothy writes, “All scripture is inspired by God.” The word translated as “inspired” literally means “God-breathed,” and although the author of these words would have been speaking specifically about the Hebrew Scriptures, Christians have long recognized that inspired scripture also includes the New Testament.

Most seminary students can list for you the various theories that have been proposed to describe the action of divine inspiration. From those theories that view the scriptures as produced by gifted human authors, to the idea that God gave a message to the author, who then used his own words in writing the text, to the theory that God dictated every particular word of the text, each hypothesis has been debated by theologians across the spectrum of Christian thought.

While the verse from Second Timothy clearly states that “All scripture is God-breathed,” this does not mean that we must accept the idea that every word was dictated by God to the human author, who then recorded those words. Many may hold to the idea that God inspired every word of the text, but this is a matter of one’s personal faith. It is certainly not compulsory to believe this, and one’s critical approach to scripture or to any theory of divine inspiration does not in and of itself negate one’s faith in God. To suggest that the text is as much a human creation as a divine one does not make one less faithful in one’s belief in God.

In fact, the texts of scripture actually give more evidence of human involvement in their production than they do of divine inspiration. This does not mean that we need to throw out divine inspiration altogether. But a very crucial question must be asked if one is to define, at least at some level, the idea of inspiration. Why did the writers of the books of the Bible write and why did they write what they wrote?

Those holding to verbal or literal inspiration would answer that God led these biblical authors to write what they wrote. This may be true, but there is no way for us to know this. However, it might be helpful for us to answer the questions about why these texts were written, and why the authors wrote what they wrote, by considering why the two communities that produced the two portions of the Bible would have done so.

Obviously, we must speak here in generalities when we talk about ancient Israel, from whom we received the Hebrew Bible, and early Christianity, from whence comes the New Testament. Across the time and space of both of these communities, but particularly ancient Israel, there was much diversity that is part of the text of scripture.

The people of Israel viewed themselves as different from the other nations that surrounded them. Indeed, they were distinctly different from these nations particularly when it came to religion. There is no known ancient civilization that was not religious, but Israel seems to have been the only ancient people who were monotheistic. They believed their God was supreme over other gods, and that their God had created the physical world from nothing and had chosen them as a covenant people. This belief certainly influenced their understanding of the world and other peoples.

To put it succinctly, the text of scripture came forth from the people of Israel in response to what they believed about God and what God was doing. In other words, they were theologically interpreting history and they were telling their history from a theological point of view. Their understanding of God and the world influenced the way they told their stories, from the creation story, to the flood story, to the Exodus story, to the stories of conquering the land of Canaan through violence, and the stories of their Exile and their return.

In approaching an understanding of the writing of the New Testament books, we must remember two things. First, the earliest followers of Jesus were Jewish, and hence any faith that would develop from their experiences must have some connection to ancient Israel and its texts. Second, because these earliest followers of Jesus believed him to be God’s Son, the promised Messiah of Israel, they must be able to explain this in relation to God’s working in the life of ancient Israel as expressed in the Hebrew Scriptures.

In holding onto these two important ideas, the authors of the books that would become the New Testament searched the Hebrew Bible in an attempt to understand and explain Jesus. While we like to think that the Old Testament foretold the coming of Jesus, it is probably better to say that those earliest believers in Jesus saw in him what they believed was described about the Messiah in the Hebrew Bible. They then formulated their stories about Jesus to define his life, teachings, death and resurrection as the new actions of God in the world. Thus, their experience of Jesus influenced their reading of the Old Testament and their writing of the New Testament.

What all of this means is that the text of scripture, what we call the Bible, is the Word of God in the sense that it contains the stories of how God’s ancient peoples believed God to be working in the world. The Bible is the explanation of the mysteries of God envisioned by these historically situated humans. But the various texts written by these humans reveal God and God’s will differently and thus we must approach these texts critically in order to assess how the Spirit speaks through scripture today.