December 2017 Credo
Reader’s Question: How can I be a faithful witness for Christ to my sceptical friends and colleagues?
In 1 Peter 2:9, we have one of the most remarkable descriptions of the Church in the New Testament. Writing to Christians who were dispersed in various parts of Asia Minor (present-day Turkey), Peter reminds them of their true identity as God’s people by using some of the most evocative imageries from the Old Testament.
‘You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession’, writes Peter. Christians are chosen and called by God to be his own people and possession. They must therefore reflect the holy God whom they worship and serve.
In this verse, Peter also makes it quite clear that Christians are set apart by God for a purpose. The English Standard Version translates the rest of verse 9 thus: ‘that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light’. The NIV puts it differently: ‘that you may declare the praises …’
I personally prefer the way in which the King James Version renders this verse: ‘that ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvellous light’. The reason for my preference will be revealed shortly.
Whichever translation we use or prefer, the main point of this verse is clear. As God’s chosen people, Christians are also witnesses of God’s grace, mercy and love. To be a Christian is to be a witness for God.
But how are Christians to be good witnesses in a society whose outlook and values are often inimical and even antithetical to the Gospel?
In his book entitled To Change the World (2010), James Davison Hunter advances the notion of ‘faithful presence’ to depict how Christians should conduct themselves in the world. Although Hunter’s book addresses a number of important issues related to culture and society in late-modern America, I would like to commandeer this concept to respond to the concerns of the reader.
What does Hunter mean by ‘faithful presence’ and what does this concept suggest?
Faithful presence refers to the particular way of being in the world that Christians should embrace, a kind of presence that makes them the true embodiment of the divine love and mercy they have by grace received, and therefore faithful witnesses of God.
‘Faithful presence’, Hunter explains, ‘means that we are to be fully present to each other within the community of faith and fully present to those who are not. Whether within the community of believers or among those outside the church, we imitate our creator and redeemer: we pursue each other, identify with each other, and direct our lives towards the flourishing of each other through sacrificial love’.
Faithful presence, therefore, presents a very simple idea: that Christians bear witness to God simply by being who they are – God’s holy people. But at the same time, faithful presence also presents a great challenge to Christians because it insists that Christian witness has to do, not just with what Christians say, but by the way in which they conduct themselves in the world.
This is the reason why I prefer the KJV rendering of the second half of 1 Peter 2:9. God’s chosen people are not simply to ‘proclaim’ or ‘declare’. They are to ‘shew forth’ the praises of God, that is, they are to glorify God with their manifestly doxological lives. Christian witness has to do with much more than the words that we speak.
The New Testament repeatedly emphasises the importance of Christian conduct. How Christians behave and the values they uphold play an important part in shaping the unbeliever’s view about Christ and the Christian faith.
Christians are therefore exhorted to let their light shine ‘before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven’ (Matthew 5:16). And here in 1 Peter the apostle writes, ‘Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honourable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation’ (1 Peter 2:12).
Hunter suggests, quite helpfully, that Christians should be witnesses within their own spheres of influence. ‘[F]aithful presence in the world’, he writes, ‘means that Christians are fully present and committed in their spheres of social influence, whatever they may be: their families, neighbourhoods, voluntary activities, and places of work’.
But in bearing witness to the Lord by being faithfully present with their family, friends, colleagues, etc., Christians must always be careful to conduct themselves with humility, gentleness and respect.
Even when the Christian is explaining and clarifying his faith, or, as Peter puts it, making a ‘defense’ to those who enquire about his hope, he should always do so with ‘gentleness and respect’ (1 Peter 3:15). He should always be civil and patient, and he should never be aggressive, boastful or quarrelsome.
This means that in explaining and clarifying his faith to the unbeliever, the Christian is not at all interested in just winning the argument. His supreme concern is to make a clear and faithful presentation of what and why he believes.
Even more profoundly, the Christian wishes to share with the unbeliever his redemptive and transformative relationship with God in Christ. The Christian faith is not just a concept, an idea or a system of thought; it is a relationship.
In addition, as the expression faithful presence stresses, Christian witness has to do with more than words – it is fundamentally about how the Christian lives his life in the world, in the presence of those who have yet to experience the saving grace of God.
Finally, the Christian who witnesses for Christ to friends, colleagues and members of his family should always remember that God is with him. God himself is faithfully present and at work in and through the life of his obedient witness.
By being faithfully present in this way, the Christian allows God’s love and grace to be made manifest and mediated to the people around him.
Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor at the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.