A Witnessing Church - Part 3
Andrew Borland, Irvine
It is not to be marvelled at that Christian witness both by communities and individuals has achieved wonders in many directions, at home and abroad. To make an impressive survey, it would be necessary to record the triumphs of the gospel not only in our homelands but also in every land where the missionary pioneers have ventured with the good news. It would make an interesting study to trace even in a most general fashion the changes which have taken place during the two thousand years of Christian witness. The paganism of the Roman Empire had to succumb to the advance of the Christian faith, and the morals of the people were uplifted. Cruel sports endangering human lives in the arena were abandoned. However only superficially was there a civilizing influence wherever there was a witnessing Christian community. The Pilgrim Church by E. H. Broadbent should convince the sceptic of the truth that Christians living on the plane of New Testament teaching are both the salt of the earth arresting moral corruption, and the light of the world penetrating the spiritual darkness. Missionary enterprize is the most wonderful feature of modern Christian witnessing. May we quote at length a paragraph from Dr. W. H. Fitchett's book, The Unrealised Logic of Religion.
"The Christian missionary is a phenomenon without parallel in history. He has the scantiest of equipment. He carries no arms; he is clad with no civil authority; he has very little money; he is usually alone. He has only a message and a motive. The message is the story of Christ, and the motive is the love of Christ. And, somehow, he succeeds everywhere. He works a miracle which all the resources of science, and literature, and civilization without him could not do. To create a new moral character ... is a miracle beyond the wit of man to accomplish. But the missionary does it! ... he reproduces, on such strange soil, the best morality civilized lands know ... he somehow develops many of the qualities of saints, and, not seldom, something of the temper of martyrs."
The truth of those words would be amply verified in some of the darkest habitations of cruelty, in the South Sea Islands, in the heart of Africa, among the Aborigines of Australia, in the jungles of South America, in the villages of upper Burmah. Transformations almost incredible have been the result of the witness of faithful men and women. Converts in the most remote places themselves become messengers of the truth, raising up other witnesses to spread the good news. The reading of a missionary magazine like Echoes of Service will readily supply corroborating evidence, while one of the finest stimuli to witnessing at home is the reading of a book on modern missionary enterprise. The pilgrim church becomes the witnessing church.
Moreover, Christians have been in the forefront in works of social reform, and one of the most moving testimonies to the witnessing church is the record of men and women who have devoted themselves to the service of others. William Wilber-force and the Clapham Sect gave time, talent and money for the liberating of slaves, as Earl Shaftesbury spent a lifetime for waifs and chimney sweeps, for factory and mine workers. Prison reform was undertaken by John Howard and Elizabeth Fry, while Florence Nightingale is remembered as The Lady with the Lamp who set the example for nurses the world over. Müller, Barnardo, and Quarrier, and others with Christian principles, are known for the rescue work they commenced. Their works follow them as a witness to their faith in God and their confidence in the transforming power of the gospel. Those workers and others, too numerous to mention here, were all members of the witnessing church. So should each reader witness as opportunity serves.
One of the finest examples of a witnessing church is to be found in the New Testament itself. It is the Church of the Thessalonians to which Paul most affectionately refers. The witness of the Christians in the city was to the saving activity of the gospel. Herbert H. Farmer, writing about preaching in his book The Servant of the Word, remarks that "bearing witness to the unique saving activity of God in Christ is seen not merely as an adjunct, even an indispensable adjunct to, but as indispensably part of, the saving activity itself". Witnessing like that is both an individual and a communal activity, and of the latter the church of the Thessalonians is a splendid first-century example. Observe these features.
1. The church was born and nurtured in an atmosphere of fierce opposition. The story told in Acts 17 is intensely moving. On three successive sabbaths Paul reasoned with the Jews "out of the scriptures, opening and alleging, that Christ must needs have suffered, and risen again from the dead; and that this Jesus ... is Christ", 17. 2-3. The results were dramatic. There were numerous converts, and such was the resentment of some fanatical Jews that they hired fellows of a baser sort to create disturbance. Such was the danger to which Paul and Silas were exposed that the new converts smuggled them out of the city under cover of darkness. A good example is always worth following, and the Christians, profiting by the courage and example of the missionaries, carried on the witness.
2. The sterling quality of that witness stemmed from the genuineness of the conversion of the believers. Good news cannot keep, and the Thessalonians were inspired to continue the testimony. Happy is that church which has had energetic and faithful preachers whose manner of preaching and living is an example that all may follow.
It is worthwhile reminding ourselves of the qualities which characterized the members of the Thessalonian church.
i. By turning to God from idols they gave evidence that they had abandoned the manner of life to which they and their compatriots had been accustomed. They were enthused by a new experience, deriving from a knowledge of, and contact with, the true God. No church can bear effective witness whose members have not had, and do not continue to have, such experience.
ii. That new enthusiasm expressed itself in the devoted service that they rendered to God. The language of the first Epistle leads to the conclusion that the members were unanimous in their new ventures in serving God. The people of the city doubtless felt the impact of their witness. And it is always true that a witnessing church most exercises its influence when there is concerted effort by all the members, be their numbers large or small.
iii. Their service was controlled and conditioned by the attitude that they adapted to the future. They had been convinced that a day of judgment and wrath was coming, and the only deliverance was through Jesus, the Son of God. They believed He would come again, and their witness was all the more pertinent because it was given under the conviction that the second advent was near. Has that fact no lesson for churches to day? Is it not true that witnessing is the more fervent when the truth of the second coming grips the minds of believers? In the days in which we live that message is most provocative of thought. The zeal of the Thessalonians is attributed to the fact that the "gospel came not ... in word only but also in power, and in the Holy Ghost, and in much assurance", i Thess. 1.5. Reception of the gospel after that fashion must produce effective witness. Preachers of the gospel should be concerned to produce converts of that calibre.
3. The witness of the church in Thessalonica was valid and valuable for these three features:
i. They became followers of Paul, and he had taught them to become followers of the Lord, 1 Thess. 1. 6. To be such makes unremitting demands upon every aspect of life.
ii. They became examples to others. Their lives spoke louder than their lips, and far beyond the limits of their city their testimony was known.
iii. They sounded out the message of the gospel. What they had learnt from Paul they re-echoed, and the gospel travelled far, 1 Thess. 1. 7-8.
The crying need for the present situation is a multiplication of local churches like the one in Thessalonica, churches in which members are enthused with the love of God, devoted to the spread of the gospel, and activated by the knowledge that "Jesus is coming again".