A Witnessing Church - Part 2

Andrew Borland, Irvine

Part 2 of 3 of the series A Witnessing Church

The fact that the Christian faith has survived and its adherents have increased century after century is evidence that God is stronger than His foes. The church is a witness to the truth about the living and true God manifested in, and working through, the revelation given in the triumphant life, death and resurrection of Him of whom it is written that in Him dwells all the fulness of the Godhead bodily, Col. 2. 9.

Despite virulent opposition in every generation and from all communities where missionaries have ventured, the Christian faith has spread to every corner of the world. In the first century spreading out from Jerusalem, amazing progress was recorded. Northwards pioneers went to Damascus and Antioch. From the latter centre the message spread westwards through Asia Minor and across to Europe. Onward the advance was made, to Rome and possibly to Spain. Perhaps too, the gospel early reached these shores, for at the beginning of the fourth century Alban suffered martyrdom. Southwards too, the message travelled into Ethiopia; and, if tradition is to be relied upon, the apostle Thomas carried the good news to India. Up the Rhone Valley pioneers came, while others settled in Wales. Patrick in Ireland, Ninian in Whithorn, and Columba need only to be mentioned to remind ourselves that the church in these Islands was a witnessing church sending out missionaries to preach among the pagans of northern Europe. And so the story goes on through succeeding centuries, the light never extinguished, noble torch-bearers arising where least expected. Great scholars kept alive an interest in the historical facts of the faith; monks in their monasteries preserved copies of the Bible, while ardent missionaries risked their lives to spread the truth. Take the case of Raymond Lull, the pleasure-loving youth of Majorca, who, after his conversion through visions of the cross, ventured among the Moslems of North Africa, making three journeys, on the last of which when he was eighty years of age he was foully done to death.

The Waldensees, or "The Poor Men of Lyons", whose first leader was Peter Waldo, were twelfth century precursors of the Reformation, in that they drew their inspiration from simple adherence to New Testament teaching. Their impact was all the greater because as a witnessing community they practised simplicity of living and church order.

However, much is owed to the impetus derived from the sixteenth century Reformation which had repercussions in many directions, the most far reaching of which was the establishment of the Puritan witness in North America at the beginning of the seventeenth century. It was not until the eighteenth century that the witnessing missionary spirit took hold of Christians in Europe, Britain and America. Count Zinzendorf, the converted Bohemian nobleman (i 700-1760) became the leader of the Moravian Society, and through his instrumentality, missions were sent to Greenland, to the West Indies and to Pennsylvania in America. It should not be forgotten that it was through contact with Moravian Christians that Charles Wesley and his brother John were liberated from their legalism and introduced to the liberty which free grace brings to believing sinners. Moravian missionaries, choosing often most inhospitable spheres of service, have set a most noble example to the witnessing church.

Around 1734-1735, there took place in North America the Great Awakening, which broke out in Northampton, Massa­chusetts, under the preaching of Jonathan Edwards. The movement of the Spirit gave great impetus to evangelical preaching, and had no small influence on George Whitefield and John Wesley. It ultimately affected William Carey, whose zeal in missionary enterprize has earned for him the title "Father of Modern Missions'*. At Serampore in India he settled along with Messrs. Ward and Marshman, translated and printed the Scriptures in several languages, and demon­strated again that it is by witnessing that the church survives and grows.

After the Reformation revival in Britain, which affected principally the Puritans in England and the Presbyterians in Scotland, there was a general lapse from vigorous effort to spread the evangelical truth and the church became moribund. Legalism and indifferentism gripped the people, and it was not until the middle of the eighteenth century that a new awakening took place. John Wesley and George Whitefield by their preaching and Charles Wesley by his hymns caused no small sensation in the ecclesiastical world. The gospel, vigorously preached and sung, created a new religious atmos­phere, and the establishment of numerous Methodist churches created deep impressions in various districts in England especially. At first Methodism was plainly a witnessing church, and the forming of class meetings and the "circuit" system indicate the value that John Wesley put upon individual and communal witnessing.

As one result of the Wesleyan revival, many men and women were fired with a zeal to propagate the faith which they had embraced. One method by which the church could witness in an extensive way was by giving to peoples in other lands copies of the Scriptures in their native tongues. So it was that in 1804, at the very time when Napoleon was marshalling his army of invasion at Boulogne, the British and Foreign Bible Society was born. A number of influential Christian men had met to discuss how best to procure Bibles for the natives of Wales when one of them faced the company with the question, "If for Wales, why not for the whole world?". Other Bible Societies followed, among the chief being the National Bible Society of Scotland, and the American Bible Society. The output from these Societies has been staggering, and is one of the strongest evidences that churches locally grow strongest when there is a steady witness to divine truth through adherence to the teachings of the Bible. That those Societies continue to function, and to issue annually an increasing number of translations of the Scriptures, proves that there is still a great host of Christians who believe that the best way to spread the gospel is by vigorous witness through the printed page.

Through the interest created by those Bible Societies, a new concern for the peoples of other lands was engendered, and during the past one hundred and fifty years there has been a growing momentum of missionary enterprize. The remotest places of the world have been visited, and despite many a rebuff the intrepid missionary band has witnessed the advance­ment of the cause of Christ. One example will suffice. James Hudson Taylor, inspired by the example of George Müller, embarked on the sea of faith, and was instrumental in forming the China Inland Mission, whose dedicated members saw marvellous changes in many a district of that country now turned to communism. The China Inland Mission was a witnessing society.

One of the most amazing features of modern missionary outreach is the work connected with simple assemblies of Christians who have been endeavouring to practise New Testament principles in a modern setting. Being such they could not be other than witnessing communities, and one of the fascinating stories of modern times has been the growth numerically of the missionary force operating, under God, from assemblies in all parts of the world. The most recent Prayer Guide issued from Echoes Office (September, 1971) contains over eleven hundred names of missionaries serving the Lord in some seventy countries. Few who read this article will know much about the pioneer work of Fred Stanley Arnot in Africa, Will Payne in Bolivia, Mr. Torre in Argentina, Dr. Norman Case in North Africa, Dan Crawford in Africa. Others opened up other countries. What remarkable triumphs! Africa has its Beloved Strip, so called because of the toll taken on missionaries by the inhospitable climate. Many of the assemblies on the so-called Mission Field are numerically stronger than many of the assemblies in the homeland. The "infant churches" have grown because they are witnessing churches.