The central role of witness

Witness is perhaps the most key aspect in the life and work of a Christian organization and its people.  Witness points the way to God.  Witness has been described as the first form of evangelism.  If the ultimate goal of Christian mission is to make God known to all people and nations so that they may have an opportunity to enjoy fullness of life as God intended, then personal and corporate witness to the living God is the means to do so.  Witness also means giving an honest reflection of what you understand, believe and personally live out – you cannot give a truthful and sustaining witness to something you are not.


Now the primary responsibility of a witness is to tell what they know.  Herein, then, lies the huge responsibility of knowing God...  YHWH entrusts his uniqueness and universality to the witness of his people.  How will the rest of the world come to know these great truths about YHWH?  This essentially missiological question receives the remarkable answer that YHWH entrusts his intention for the nations to the witness of his own people.   (Wright 2006, p62,63)


The first form of evangelization is witness.  People today put more trust in witnesses than in teachers, in experience than in teaching, and in life and action than in theories. The witness of a Christian life is the first and irreplaceable form of mission: Christ, whose mission we continue, is the "witness" par excellence (Rv 1:5; 3:14) and the model of all Christian witness. The Holy Spirit accompanies the Church along her way and associates her with the witness he gives to Christ (cf. Jn 15:26-27).


The first form of witness is the very life of the missionary, of the Christian family, and of the ecclesial community, which reveal a new way of living. The missionary who, despite all his or her human limitations and defects, lives a simple life, taking Christ as the model, is a sign of God and of transcendent realities. But everyone in the Church, striving to imitate the Divine Master, can and must bear this kind of witness; in many cases it is the only possible way of being a missionary.


The evangelical witness which the world finds most appealing is that of concern for people, and of charity toward the poor, the weak and those who suffer. The complete generosity underlying this attitude and these actions stands in marked contrast to human selfishness. It raises precise questions which lead to God and to the Gospel. A commitment to peace, justice, human rights and human promotion is also a witness to the Gospel when it is a sign of concern for persons and is directed toward integral human development.


Christians and Christian communities are very much a part of the life of their respective nations and can be a sign of the Gospel in their fidelity to their native land, people and national culture, while always preserving the freedom brought by Christ. Christianity is open to universal brotherhood, for all men and women are sons and daughters of the same Father and brothers and sisters in Christ.

The Church is called to bear witness to Christ by taking courageous and prophetic stands in the face of the corruption of political or economic power; by not seeking her own glory and material wealth; by using her resources to serve the poorest of the poor and by imitating Christ's own simplicity of life. The Church and her missionaries must also bear the witness of humility, above all with regard to themselves-a humility which allows them to make a personal and communal examination of conscience in order to correct in their behaviour whatever is contrary to the Gospel and disfigures the face of Christ.  (Paulus 1990, sections 42 & 43)


The testimony of Israel concerning Yahweh is always of two kinds, one to reorder the internal life of the community in ways faithful to Yahweh, the other to invite the world out beyond this community to reorder its life with reference to Yahweh.  Both enterprises are preoccupied with the recognition that the acknowledgement of Yahweh at the center of life (the life of Israel or the life of the world) requires a reordering of everything else.  (Brueggemann 1997, p747)


For the command to witness is not based on the assumption that we are in possession of a universal truth which others must be shown they already "implicitly" possess or have sinfully rejected. If such a truth existed then we would not be called upon to be witnesses, but philosophers. Rather the command to be a witness is based on the presupposition that we only come to the truth through the process of being confronted by the truth.


The command to be a witness does not entail a priori judgments about the beliefs and life of others—e.g., what is right or wrong with Hinduism or Islam—though such judgments after time may be appropriate. Rather, witness is derived from no other source than "look what manner of life has been made possible among us by the power of the cross and resurrection of Christ." The invitation to join such a life is made, not on the assumption that there is something wrong with the others' beliefs, but because we are all sinners, and through participation in this community we have the possibility of finding redemption. We are not a sinner because we are a Hindu, Muslim, secularist, or Christian, but because like all people we live as though we can be our own creator and redeemer.

In the terms used above, therefore, the task of Christians is to be the sort of people and community that can became a real option and provide for real confrontation for others. Unless such a community exists, then no real option exists.  (Hauerwas 1980, p71)


In the first place, the church is called to bear witness to what is to be seen with eyes and heard with ears – namely, God’s mighty deeds in the cause of renewal. Peter made this clear in the first Christian sermon – Acts 2:22-24.  (Wolterstorff 1980, p10,11)


For the church to engage society towards transformation, the church must inculcate in the laity a biblical worldview.  This will be the most significant paradigm shift in the life and mission of the church today...  The model of transformation must begin in the church and present the message – in word and deed – to society.  (Vencer 2002)


Probably the most famous definition of all bears out this sense of passing on a life-giving piece of news: “Evangelism is witness.  It is one beggar telling another beggar where to get food.”  (Niles cited by Kirk 1999, p60)


Christian witness is a never-ending interplay of repentance and remembrance, condemnation and celebration, proclamation and practice.  Word and deed are held together, above all, in the formation of a multicultural community of men and women that is growing into the likeness of the True Human.  The world does not set the agenda for the church (pace some ecumenical theologies), nor does the church set the agenda for the world.  Rather, the church, as the body of the risen Christ, is the agenda for the world.  It is the eschatological community, modelling a different understanding of humanness, embodying both the indictment of the world and its eternal hope.  It is here that the redemption of our humanity is taking place.  The church influences the world most when it seeks to be truly church, and not a political or evangelistic organization.  If we want to discern God’s purposes for the nations, it is not at the “blood-stained face of history” that we look, but at a blood-stained cross.  The latter reveals a God whose will is nothing less than the formation of Christ in us: the healing of a fractured humanity and the glorification of a spoiled creation.  Compared to this, every other vision of the world appears bleak, narrow, escapist or simply sick. (Ramachandra 1999, p171)


The witness to Jesus Christ needs to be obvious and transparent - in truth, in love and in faith.  A witness that is out of sight is not a true witness, a witness that contains falsehoods is not a true witness, a witness that is motivated by things other than love is not a true witness, a witness that is out of loyalty to the organization rather than out of faith is not a true witness.


There are many situations that may deter an organization from witnessing.  The more obvious stem from a real concern for the safety of people, and for the security of the programmes.   In the process and action of witness there may be a fear of:



These may be valid reasons, but ultimately they cannot defend a non-witness stance.  Witness by its very nature will entail risks, witness may mean making sacrifices, witness may mean suffering – interestingly, one derivative of witness is from the Greek word “martys” -  martyr (Douglas 1962, p1335).  Situations demanding that Christians give everything have been confronted by believers throughout history, starting with the early Christians who underwent indescribable torture and put to death for their witness and confession of faith.  Christians are called to be an authoritative witness in the knowledge that God has gone before them and will continue to lead them and be with them - whatever the uncertainties, whatever the reservations.  Suffering is not incompatible with the glory of God (John11: 40):


For the Christian, dialogue is a fundamental aspect of bearing witness to the truth of Christ...  All witness, and thus all true dialogue, is a risky undertaking.  Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also (2 Cor. 12: 26).  It is not the missionary who carries Jesus to others; on the contrary, it is the crucified and risen Jesus who leads us in our witness into places where we fear to venture.  (Peskett & Ramachandra 2003, p198)


Jesus changed history through his suffering – much more than through his miracles.  ... The sign of Christian development and social change is not the New Jerusalem but the cross...  Isn’t it easier to see blessings and success as signs of belonging to that final kingdom?  Isn’t it easier to see demonstration of the kingdom’s presence in miracles and other events beyond our control?  Isn’t it easier to identify right entirely with our cause and to go forward in an uncompromising crusade?  It is much more difficult to see God at work in suffering, in a situation that is ambiguous and provisional because of our involvement.  Yet we have the promise that just because God is in it this work is not ultimately futile.  (Samuel & Sugden 1999, p190,191)


We were challenged to follow Jesus’ footsteps, remembering that His compassion led Him to death (John 13: 12-17; Phil. 2:6-8; 1 John 3:11-18).  (Wheaton statement 1983, section 27)


Mission never has progressed without suffering or martyrdom. (Scott Moreau 2007, p146)


...the church is called to serve all human beings everywhere, working and praying for healing, liberation, and fulfilment in all of life – in politics, in science, in social structures, in technology, in art, in recreation – willing undergoing sacrifice and suffering where necessary.  (Wolterstorff 1980, p11)


So our mission on God’s earth is not only authorized by its true owner, it is also protected, nurtured and guaranteed by him.  We go in his name.  We act on his authority.  There is no place for dualism either.  We know of course that the Bible also affirms that the evil one exercises a kind of lordship and power over the earth.  But he does not own it.  His claim to do so, and to have the right to give it to those who worship him was exposed as fraudulent by Jesus in his wrestling with temptation in the wilderness.  Whatever authority Satan exercises is usurped and illegitimate, provisional and subject to the final limits set by the earth’s true owner and Lord, the Lamb who reigns from the throne of God (Rev 4-7). (Wright 2006, p404)


We must also emphasize that Christian mission leads us again and again to the foot of the cross: all Christian mission must be shaped by the cross; the cross must never be behind us, but always in front of us.  For this reason, we have drawn attention again and again to mission from the underside, to the connection between mission and suffering and even martyrdom, and to the importance of mission out of weakness, which has always been the way mission has been conducted through most of the history of the church. (Peskett & Ramachandra 2003, p13)


In Father Xavier’s view, it is relatively easy to be a Christian but much more difficult to follow Christ, because the latter path, in his view, is to be willing to die for those who are voiceless and oppressed. (Miller & Yamamori 2007, p180)

In 1989 my wife and I walked in a park in Beijing with a Christian Chinese professor who had been exiled for 22 years to the far north of China, only being released soon after his wife had died. “One should not speak evil of Communists,” he said.  “When you open your mouth you should bear witness to God,” Repeatedly the good news has been spread by those on the underside, those of no account, those who have been despised, underestimated and rejected: Filipina housemaids in the Gulf; Sudanese refugees in other parts of Africa; black students in Russia or China; and by the Western churches who are again being pushed to the margins of society.  (Peskett & Ramachandra 2003, p141,142)


Whatever reason offered for non-witness, however logical and reasonable from a relief and development standpoint - the activity undertaken or service offered, no longer fits with integral mission.   The work becomes indistinguishable from that undertaken by other organizations – whilst it may be worthy, of extreme value, of import in poverty reduction efforts, it cannot be called integral mission, since it excludes the essential component of Christian witness.


The problem of true witness often surfaces when working with other faiths, but witness in these situations is still called for, whatever the cost and even if it leads to so called “failure” from a human perspective:


To all peoples, in spite of difficulties: the mission ad gentes faces an enormous task, which is in no way disappearing. Indeed, both from the numerical standpoint of demographic increase and from the socio-cultural standpoint of the appearance of new relationships, contacts and changing situations the mission seems destined to have ever wider horizons. The task of proclaiming Jesus Christ to all peoples appears to be immense and out of all proportion to the Church's human resources.


The difficulties seem insurmountable and could easily lead to discouragement, if it were a question of a merely human enterprise. In certain countries missionaries are refused entry. In others, not only is evangelization forbidden but conversion as well, and even Christian worship. Elsewhere the obstacles are of a cultural nature: passing on the Gospel message seems irrelevant or incomprehensible, and conversion is seen as a rejection of one's own people and culture...


Internal and external difficulties must not make us pessimistic or inactive. What counts, here as in every area of Christian life, is the confidence that comes from faith, from the certainty that it is not we who are the principal agents of the Church's mission, but Jesus Christ and his Spirit. We are only co-workers, and when we have done all that we can, we must say: "We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty" (Lk 17:10). Encyclical letter: (Paulus 1990, sections 35 & 36)


We acknowledge and affirm that authentic witness to Jesus Christ should be carried out in a spirit of respect for the beliefs and devotion of others. It can never simply be “telling” but also be a sensitive “listening”.  It must, furthermore, always respect the freedom of others and should not be coercive or seductive in any way.  We acknowledge that God has not left himself without witness anywhere (Acts 16:17) and we joyfully recognize a knowledge of God, a sense of the transcendent, among many human communities including many faith-communities.  (Stuttgart consultation 1987 p286)


In our service to those of other faiths we must speak quietly, by life as well as by word.  But a civilized society is not one in which there is no permission to speak in the public square of those beliefs which affect us most deeply.  A civilized society is one in which courtesy, politeness, respect and hospitality are extended to the views and experiences of our fellow-citizens and we are free to express with enthusiasm and eagerness the good news we have discovered in Jesus Christ.  It is not a society where the threat of offended sensitivities paralyses interreligious discourse, but a society where differences of belief can be expressed vigorously and debated with the rational opposition of goodwill.  We cannot abandon mission if Jesus has truly risen from the dead: “It is finally the abeyance of mission which would be the supremely damnable egoism – for this would be to keep to ourselves privately what belongs to the whole world (Cragg 2000, p182)


The commission to disciple all nations stands at the centre of the church’s mandate and the church that forgets this, or marginalizes it, forfeits the right to the titles catholic and apostolic (L Newbigin, International bulletin of missionary research, April 1988 p 50)  (Peskett & Ramachandra 2003, p180)


The Holy Spirit, the gift of the Kingdom, works in society strengthening the wills of people who may not be Christian to turn God’s way.  Such empowerment does not guarantee that all will be able to live out the Christian ethic, but it enables them to see the possibilities and make their choices.  Kingdom activity unmasks the activity of the evil one, convicts people and strengthens their wills to act (John 18:8-11).  It conserves society and clarifies people’s choice.  This makes the invitation of the gospel of the Kingdom relevant in every situation. (Oxford statement 1996, p377)


God fights for us, not we for him. We are called to witness, to struggle, to resist, to suffer.  But the battle is the Lord’s as is the final victory. (Wright 2006, p178)


People from most avowedly non-Christian families experience opposition when they turn to Christ: those from atheistic families may be mocked and marginalized; those from Jewish families may be considered traitors, and even be expelled from home and have funeral rites read for them; those from Muslim families may be expelled from the family and, in extreme cases, be killed; those from Hindu families may be seen as breaking family tradition and insulting their parents.  This is not only because of spiritual obduracy or enmity to Christ, but also because of the anticipated disruption of household, tradition and community and the loss of family honour.  The New Testament sees such opposition as normal (e.g. Matt. 10:34-6): it is the cost of following Jesus.  (Glaser & Niringiye 2008 p225,226)



Different types of witness

Evangelism can be seen a process, rather than an event.

It starts with preparing the ground - where the personal witness of the church physically caring for its community is often a starting point - and peaks at the harvest when a person accepts the Gospel message.  The message is often carried in a combination of ways, with personal witness having a particularly sustained impact on others.


The Christian message is not a disembodied piece of information that just needs to be circulated in massive campaigns, through print, film, video or broadcast media.  It is the good news embodied and shared in the changed lives of individuals and communities that constitutes authentic witness.  Without this embodiment, Christians are vulnerable to the charge of propaganda, with the resistance and distrust this commonly evokes.  It is the life of a school teacher, day after day, that makes most impact on the pupils she lives among.  In southern Sudan Christians commonly lack all the apparatus of modern communication; yet the church has grown as Christian demonstrated a different quality of life in the midst of disaster, degradation and despair. (Peskett & Ramachandra 2003, p101)


Three types of witness are illustrated here: public, personal and social action.  While each may exist in their own right, the overall impact will be greater in co-existence.


Often the transformational development process begins with witness through good deeds.  As relationships develop, the way we live our lives and treat people becomes a witness of life.  (Myers 1998, p134)


Public witness relates to the Gospel coming to the public from most often anonymous sources.  It could be messages in print, on radio or TV, in public meetings or hearsay comments from those with whom we do not have a personal relationship.  When a society has Christians who present a “voice” that reflects the Gospel message, principles and values, the people of the nation are being made aware of the truth of Scripture. 

The Personal Witness comes from people with whom we have some kind of personal relationship.  In Personal Witness, the Gospel story or truths are not only shared, but the recipient of the message has the Gospel flowing through the life of the messenger.  The Public Witness creates awareness while the Personal Witness shapes the attitudes and convictions to the message.  A crucial element of the Gospel is the social dynamic.  Not only does the Gospel call us to respond to Jesus Christ, but it calls us to reconciled relationships and identification with the people of God. 


Social Action comes from people who are serving the community in one way or another, but who may not be sharing the Gospel message per se in Word – rather with a focus on sacrificial Deed and illuminating a lifestyle in keeping with Christian values and ethics.  Social action on its own will have little overall impact and the process unlikely to be sustained if it is not supported by the sharing of the Gospel message.


Prayer is a continuous thread throughout the process – it begins with prayer, often long before social action or witness is present or planned.  It continues with prayer – unending. (Edmonds 2003 & 2004)


Social action has been likened to “pre-evangelism”.   However, evangelism as a process will by its very nature have various stages and events, and can embrace the whole course of action.


CRESR (Consultation on the Relationship between Evangelism and Social Responsibility) attempts to make a distinction between pre-evangelism and evangelism.  Pre-evangelism may take the form of social development and involvement and this may make conditions more favourable for evangelism.  The present writer believes that if the term evangelism is used, the other two terms are rendered superfluous.  Evangelization may begin among a particular people with the arrival of Gospel values embodied in faithful Christian care and service, or it may begin with the proclamation of the “Kerygma” followed by “love in action”.  Evangelization is the exposure of an individual or a group of people to the demands of the Gospel and their gradual transformation as a result of this exposure.  Evangelization in its truest sense would affect every area of life.  (Nazir-Ali 1987, p89)


There is no set formula for witness: but there are certain demands on Christians regarding witness, namely it must be clear that the witness is to Christ Jesus, and that ultimately the process of witness must include the proclamation of the Word of God. 


Mission may not always begin with evangelism.  But mission that does not ultimately include declaring the Word and the name of Christ, the call to repentance, and faith and obedience has not completed its task. It is defective mission, not holistic mission. (Wright 2006, p319)


Central to living and serving with a passion for the Kingdom of God is the proclamation of the Good News of the Kingdom and teaching the ethic of the Kingdom...  There is none that can perform it but the people of God.  (Taylor 2002, p75)


Any Christian understanding of transformational development must keep the person of Jesus and the claims and promise of the kingdom central to the defining of what better future we are working for and for choosing the means of getting there...  The biblical story, of which the Jesus story is the center, is a transformative story.  The story of Jesus can heal our story and can heal the story of any community or society by giving it hope and life, if we will accept God’s offer of redemption.  Failure to share this story is to withhold the only story that Christians believe brings real hope.  No other story leads to life.  This is the only story that has good news, transformative news, for human sin and for dominating human systems.  There can be no better human future apart from this story.  For this reason, transformational development done by Christians must include sharing the biblical story in a way that people can understand and that calls for a response.  (Myers 1998, p50)


The witness and proclamation of the Gospel message are demands on the Christian, while the aid offered to the poor remains totally unconditional.  At the end of the day, whatever the reaction of the person to the Gospel message, the aid should always be there for them, whatever their beliefs.  God’s love for all people is never diminished.


Finally, the active words here for Christians are witness and proclamation: not transformation or conversion.  Christians can’t change others, Christians can’t transform people, and Christians can’t convert others to the Christian faith.  This is the work of God, and God only - albeit Christians are involved.  God, in the person of the Holy Spirit, can bring about change, transformation of individuals, communities, of society.  Thus the church and Christian development workers are not in the business of transforming people but are called to be true and faithful witnesses to the living God, in order to promote a setting which will help bring about a change in others.


This is not a call for proselytism; neither is it a call to coercive, manipulative, or culturally insensitive evangelism.  It is not even a call for all development practitioners to become evangelists.  After all, no one knows the moment when someone is ready for faith, nor is God limited to the staff of a particular Christian development agency in bringing God’s good news.  Rather, it is a call to be sure we do our development with an attitude that prays and yearns for people to know Jesus Christ. (Myers 1998, p205)


The great missionary hope is that when the gospel is preached in the power of the Holy Spirit, God himself does what man cannot do – he creates faith which saves. (Piper 1986, p195)


Taking this reasoning one stage further, transformation and salvation should be seen as separate entities.  Transformation can occur without necessarily there being salvation, although transformation will always be of a temporal nature without the salvation element.  Everyone is on a journey, and God is able to work through all people, without them necessarily acknowledging him or accepting Christ Jesus as Lord. This should give Christian relief and development organizations encouragement that significant change can take place as people journey.  Such a change in people will be fulfilled to its wholeness and have an eternal significance when the Lordship of Christ Jesus is accepted by the individual.


In the confession of Jesus as Lord, which is the heart of the kingdom experience inspired by the Holy Spirit, there is freedom for Christ’s lordship to operate, to be expressed, and to be experienced in its fullness.  On the other hand, Christ’s lordship may be evident in many other areas of life – in the struggle for economic justice, for example – though it cannot be confined to any one of them.  The Holy Spirit’s activity of applying the lordship of Christ may begin with economic justice, but it breaks through to infuse all of life with the lordship of Christ so that all people will profess his name and bow to him as Lord of all.  (Samuel & Sugden 1987, p142)


Biblical teaching looks forward to a new heaven and a new earth. (Isaiah 65). It describes the components of this transformed creation – reconciled and restored to God’s purposes for it. The Bible also pictures transformation as from one degree to another (2 Corinthians 13:18) till completeness is reached. We must attempt to recover the Biblical vision of Transformation recognizing that Biblical teaching embraces the universal and the particular that reinforce each other.  The Gospel does not impose one narrative of Transformation but creates room for diverse testimonies to it, all originating from a common source of enlightenment and empowerment by the working of the same Holy Spirit. (Samuel 2008, p4,5)





Disclaimer: the views or opinions expressed in this publication and website do not necessarily represent those of the Oxford Centre for Mission Studies or Tearfund.LAIMER: The views expressed on this website do not necessarily reflect those of the Oxford Centre for Mission Studies or Tearfund

  Site Map