The Witness of the Local Church (1)

Tony Renshaw, Heald Green, Cheshire

Part 1 of 2 of the series The Witness of the Local Church

Christian witness is usually thought of as involving the various forms of gospel outreach undertaken by believers and local churches. It is thought of as including personal evangelism, tract distribution, door-to-door work, open air preaching, Sunday School and children's work, eventide home visits, camp work, tent work, and so on. Such forms of outreach are legitimate and desirable. The assembly which relies solely on a Sunday evening gospel meeting can hardly be said to be evangelizing its district.

There are, however, features of a local church which make a vital contribution to its witness without that being their intention. They are not primarily evangelistic, but they powerfully enhance an assembly's evangelism. If these features are absent from a local church, then any positive evangelism in which it engages is doomed to failure. In reviewing them, we shall see that we may witness for Christ without realizing it. We may evangelize without intending to. We may influence people for the Lord without knowing it.

1. The Witness of Christian Love, John 13. 34-35. In these remarkable words of the Lord Jesus to the disciples in the upper room, we find (i) the Edict-"A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another"; (ii) the Example-"as I have loved you, that ye also love one another"; and (iii) the Effect-"By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another".

Notice that the Lord issued an edict, a commandment, an order. He did not make a request, offer a suggestion or tender His advice. We are under orders to love one another. If we exclude only one believer from our love, our interest and our prayers, we are guilty of glaring and flagrant disobedience. How searching it is to learn that the standard required in our love for one another is that of Christ's love for us! Let us consider the characteristics of His love for His own. They include the following:

(i) Loyalty. In the Gospels, it is noteworthy that when men proceeded to criticize the disciples, the Lord would intervene and defend them. This was so on a certain Sabbath when the disciples were plucking and eating corn as they went through the corn fields, Mark 2. 23-28. The Lord knew the weaknesses and failings of His followers better than anyone did, but He was loyal to them and always ready to defend them from their critics and enemies.

Are we like that? How do we respond if we hear our fellow-believers being maligned, criticized or slandered? Do we defend them and stand by them? Or do we join in, or remain silent? Disloyalty is a negation of love.

(ii) Constancy. The Saviour's love for the disciples was unchanging and unwavering. It did not ebb and flow like the tide, nor wax and wane like the moon. It did not vary with their devotion or obedience. "Having loved his own which were in the world, he loved them unto the end", John 13. 1. Is our love for one another like that, dependable in its constancy and unceasing in its prayerfulness, whether reciprocated or not?

(iii) Impartiality. The Lord Jesus had no favourites. The fact that the fourth Gospel refers to "the disciple whom Jesus loved" does not mean that there were disciples whom He did not love! We may confine our love largely to those who share our temperament, outlook, attitude or convictions, but the fact is that such love is very substandard and unacceptable to the Master. Our love should reach all believers wherever they are to be found.

(iv) Faithfulness. He loved the disciples too much to ignore their failings and sins, and rebuked them when their conduct deserved it. "Open rebuke is better than secret love. Faithful are the wounds of a friend", Prov. 27. 5-6. Love should be the motive for any rebuke, enabling us to avoid causing unnecessary pain, and to help rather than to hinder one another.

(v) Self-sacrifice. "Hereby perceive we the love of God, because he laid down his life for us: and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren", 1 John 3. 16. Church history is not lacking in accounts of some who have literally fulfilled this obligation. In the meantime, it is ours to lay down our lives in unremitting and selfless toil and service for our fellow-believers. If the standard seems exacting, the related promise is amazing, teaching us that this form of unintentional witness always works, "by this shall all men know that ye are my disciples", and that it works everywhere, "by this shall all men know that ye are my disciples". It is not that we parade our mutual love, or that we set out to draw attention to it. It is rather that we simply show it in an active and ongoing concern for one another. For it is inherently a form of witness which is likely to be most effective when we are least aware of it.

2. The Witness of Christian Fellowship, Acts 2. 41-47; 4. 32-37. These staggering verses reveal that among the believers in the Jerusalem church there was an incredible spirit of disinterested generosity and self-sacrifice. It was spontaneous, unrehearsed, joyful and infectious. It was not that the Christians convened meetings and agreed a carefully-worked-out programme of mutual support and charity. They certainly did not speculate about whether something would enhance their reputation and impress the unbelieving society in which they lived. They seem, and how this challenges us today, to have enjoyed being non-materialistic. G. Campbell Morgan observes that some commentators on The Acts have referred to the generous behaviour of the Jerusalem saints as "the first apostolic mistake", on the specious grounds that, among other things, it caused the poverty in the church which called for the subsequent financial support of Gentile churches, Rom. 15. 25-27. It is said that, being convinced of the speedy return of Christ, they became irresponsible about their possessions. But there is no scriptural support for this, and it would be a serious slander on those first-century Christians to impute it. It may indeed be arguable that a literal following of their simple example is impracticable today, but would we not be the better were we freer from the love of material things, and more willing to help one another in times of hardship? We might then enjoy the experience referred to in Acts 2. 47, "praising God, and having favour with all the people"; a favour which was unsought.

3. The Witness of Christian Standards, Acts 5. 1-10. The story of Ananias and Sapphira makes intensely solemn reading. They wanted to be esteemed for their devotion to the Lord and for their sacrificial giving. Barnabas' example seems to have prompted their action. They sold a possession, and Ananias gave part of the price to the apostles for distribution to needy believers. He did not say that the gift was the full price they had received, although he hoped by saying nothing to convey that impression. He and his wife wanted credit for a degree of generosity they had not practised. Peter was enabled to discern the truth of the matter. He asked Ananias four questions that he could not answer, and added one brief statement, w. 3-4. Shortly afterwards, he dealt similarly with Sapphira, v. 9. The instant deaths of the two shocked both the assembly and the community, for "great fear came upon all the church, and upon as many as heard these things", v. 11. Luke describes graphically the impact of the incident on Jerusalem at large: "And of the rest durst no man join himself to them: but the people magnified them. And believers were the more added to the Lord, multitudes both of men and women", vv. 13-14. No one dared join, but many were added! People were awed because what seemed like a harmless attempt at deception attracted the death sentence. Perhaps such events were confined to the apostolic period, but the abiding principle is that where church life is regulated by a sensitive awareness of the presence and power of God, the surrounding community is likely to be more impressed than we think possible.

(to be continued)