This week’s lesson is brought to us by Good Word from Walla Walla. To listen to the audio conversation, please visit the Good Word website.
Leading Question: Is it possible to be consistently “winsome” in our witness, or is it inevitable that believers must sometimes face heavy weather?
In approaching this week’s topic, the official study guide lists three key “witnesses” as examples for us, two of whom we presented last week as “extroverts,” namely, the healed demoniac who went back to his countrymen to tell them what Jesus had done for him (Mark 5) and Paul in his testimony to Agrippa (Acts 26). The third witness or cluster of witnesses, focuses on the women who witnessed Christ’s resurrection (Mark 16).
In each of these cases, it is easy to use the word “winsome” to describe their testimony. Their stories were exciting, even riveting. But there are other forms of witnessing that have quite different effects, namely, those driven by personal fears and those driven by more hard-driving, even belligerent motives. For practical purposes, let’s focus of each of those types of witness.
A. The Winsome. Those who stand in a free-will theological tradition are committed to the principle of winning people for God, not threatening or commanding them. As an over-arching principle, I am committed to that approach. We can evaluate each of our three “winsome” witnesses in that respect, and they all come out with flying colors: the healed demoniac witnessing to his fellow citizens (Mark 5), the women who witnessed to the power of the resurrection, and Paul, who told his conversion story to Agrippa (Acts 26).
B. The Fearful. Here our emotions are more complex. I can think of at least three reactions that could explain why we may be reluctant witnesses:
1. Fear of forceful rejection. The door slammed in one’s face would typify this reaction. I don’t think anyone would consider it “fun” or “joyful” to be on the receiving end of such an experience. Yet having said that, New Testament writers make it quite clear that following Jesus is not all fun and games. 2 Tim. 3:12 declares: “Indeed, all who want to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” (NRSV) and Romans 8:17 promises us that we can be joint heirs with Christ—but with a catch: “if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him” (NRSV).
2. Fear of being mocked. The sneer, the mocking laughter, are no fun at all. In fact, they can easily undermine our faith. C. S. Lewis points to this kind of experience with these words: “The society of unbelievers makes Faith harder even when they are people whose opinions, on any other subject, are known to be worthless.” – C. S. Lewis, “Religion: Reality or Substitute?” Christian Reflections (Eerdmans, 1967), 42. Being surrounded by a crowd of mocking teenagers doesn’t help our faith at all, even though such a crowd has no credibility at all.
3. Fear of the shrug. The fear of being ignored has a withering effect on our good intentions.
Quite frankly, I haven’t decided yet which of these three fears is most deadly. But any one of them or any of their near cousins can leave us with a less-than-persuasive witness.
C. The Belligerent. The power of this type of witness is remarkably tenacious. It typically is driven by the conviction that God is on my side and that I speak for God. One could perhaps draw a contrast between the “anthropocentric” perspective and the “theocentric.” The former would include the Arminians (the followers of Jacobus Arminius) and the Wesleyans (the followers of John Wesley). The Calvinists and Augustinians would be the best-known adherents of a “theocentric” approach. A good Calvinist doesn’t need to “win” anyone—God simply speaks the truth. End of discussion.
From a practical point of view, belief in an eternally burning hell heightens the power of the theocentric approach, for if one rejects the divinely mandated truth, one is consigned to the fires of hell forever.
In the Old Testament, the theocracy argument for God’s violent behavior is part of this same framework. It assumes that Israel was directly under a theocracy, which is said to validate divine violence. To me, that has always seemed a strange position. For those who believe that Jesus was God in the flesh, one has a forcible argument for a gentle and winsome God.
Ellen White seems to argue that the predominance of the “belligerent” actually works against faith. Here is one of her more striking statements to that effect:
The errors of popular theology have driven many a soul to skepticism who might otherwise have been a believer in the Scriptures. It is impossible for him to accept doctrines which outrage his sense of justice, mercy, and benevolence; and since these are represented as the teaching of the Bible, he refuses to receive it as the word of God. – GC 525
Question: Is it possible to choose to be a more “winsome” witness? And if so, how can that happen?
Question: On balance, what does your class see as the predominant perspective of Scripture? The predominant perspective of the church?
Comment: Two of the best-known door-to-door witnessing communities, the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Latter-day Saints (Mormons), successfully maintain a strong, authoritarian approach, one that has won many adherents. A 2012 on-line list of the twenty most-translated books in the world puts the Bible as #1, What Does the Bible Really Teach? (JW) as #3, the “Watchtower” (JW) as #5, Steps to Christ as #9, Awake! (JW) #16, Book of Mormon (LDS) #17. http://www.ehow.co.uk/slideshow_12249316_top-translated-books-history.html#pg=1 . The highest JW book (#3) has been translated into 244 languages, and their Watchtower magazine has a circulation of 42 million copies a month. Clearly, a firmer, more highly structured approach has a wide appeal.
This commentary, by Alden Thompson, originally appeared on the Good Word website, created by the Walla Walla University School of Theology. Reproduced here by permission.
We invite you to join our community through conversation by commenting below. We ask that you engage in courteous and respectful discourse. You can view our full commenting policy by clicking here.