Hi and welcome back! Off and on, I’ve mentioned a bit of Christianese that’s key to understanding the mask-wearing of evangelicalism. It affects and impacts their credibility level and power-base among people who know them (or at least know about them). They call this measurement their witness. And evangelicals value it enormously–or at least, they did once. Today, I’ll show you everything you’d ever want to know about this all-important concept–and why it’s bitten them in the butts in recent years.
Note: In Christianese, the word “witness” can be both a noun and a verb. In the verb form, it means hard-selling the evangelical product, as in “We went to Burger King to witness to that guy who took our tracts on Saturday and we planted tons of seeds!” It’s a shortened form of expressions like “a witness to the Gospel.” It goes hand-in-hand with the idea of “soulwinning.” Today, however, we focus on the noun form.
Also, Mormons have their own usage of the term “witness.” Several, in fact, it seems. Though specific to their flavor of Christianity, it bears many similarities to evangelicals’ use of it.
Calling a Witness.
The idea of having a good witness dominates evangelical thinking, or at least it did back when I was one of them. It still does, just not in the same way or to the same degree.
In Christianese parlance, evangelicals’ witness represents the sum total of their reputation, their credibility level, and how trustworthy others in and out of the tribe consider them. They utilize it like social capital, gathering it through tribe-approved behavior like Good Boy Points and then spending it when they want to convince others to believe something they say.
Building a witness takes time and energy, obviously, as well as behaving according to the tribe’s officially-stated rules. Damaging it takes only an instant. Once it’s damaged, fully rebuilding it might never happen.
Evangelicals value this concept so highly because it greatly affects their success in selling their product (which is membership in their respective groups). It’s not just their reputation. Rather, it’s about their reputation as it touches upon their sales success. So in a very real way, their witness represents a barometer of their effectiveness as Christians. Without a good witness, witnessing the Gospel becomes much harder.
A Short History.
This Christianese enjoys a much longer history than most of their lexicon does.
Like a lot of their thieves’ cant, evangelicals derive this notion from the Bible. In I John 5:9, we find this bit:
If we receive the witness of men, the witness of God is greater: for this is the witness of God which he hath testified of his Son.
In essence, this verse means that if someone’s willing to believe what regular people claim about regular stuff, then they should be willing to accept “God’s testimony” even more strongly and quickly because it’s his testimony, y’all, and Jesus totally confirmed it. (Tautological claims are tautological! Also, that’s the same nonsense illogic we can see operating in the dude we totally have 500 witnesses to the Resurrection claim.)
In the mid-to-late 19th century, we begin seeing the usage of the word “witness” in the modern form. For a while, a magazine/journal/newsletter called Christian Witness circulated around; on page 590 of this link to its 1851 edition, we see a complaint about its “decisive denominational character” and “interminable antagonism” to less hardcore Christians.
From an 1884 book, we find a familiar refrain in Moody’s Stories:
Now, don’t you know lots of Christian people who had a fine testimony several years ago, but they have lost their witness, and all they do now is talk, talk, talk, talk? Why? Because they are out of communion with God, and have lost their witness.
Funny how applicable that passage is to the modern day, isn’t it?
By the early 20th century, the phrase appears with more regularity. I noticed many mentions of it around the early years of World War II. By the 1960s, we see laments about how hard it is to maintain “a Christian witness” while attending college. And the phrase really took off after that.
From a 2016 sermon about the Book of Daniel (9:17 specifically):
“So now, our God, listen to the prayer of Thy servant and to his supplications, and for Thy sake, O Lord, let Thy face shine on Thy desolate sanctuary.” You see, his whole key here is not him, it’s his holy city, it’s his people who have lost their witness.
You might think Christians talk a whole lot about losing one’s witness, but very rarely about building a witness. But plenty of books exist on that topic too. Back when I was Pentecostal, we thought building a witness meant being seen doing Christian stuff like charity and kindness to others, as well as cultivating a reputation for not doing off-limits stuff. Some Christians today call that idea lifestyle evangelism, often with scorn and condemnation because it’s not in-your-face hard sales.
When I became a Christian myself, one of the earliest lessons imprinted upon me was the importance of maintaining a good witness before the world. It meant everything. If I got caught sinning, it would destroy my witness. And then people wouldn’t take my sales pitches as seriously. And that would literally be the worst thing ever. Sometimes, you’d hear Christians declare that having a bad witness was like being a stumbling block to lost souls. We could be single-handedly responsible for sending that person to Hell! OMG!
(So much for Jesus’ big divine plan, eh? It was always that easy for us mere mortals to mess up.)
Always. Be. Closing!
Sales were the issue at hand, not going to Hell or anything else. Literally everything we did that outsiders could see or hear about happened because we wanted to improve our sales. (Remember that next time you hear about Christian Right churches offering “free daycare” or “community service.”)
That’s why essays on the topic of losing one’s witness center on the loss of the writer’s credibility as a salesperson.
It only takes the right set of circumstances, on the right day, in the right season of life, to all of a sudden jump out of the silent, but familiar, and into the active and practiced. You have given into course [sic] talk, a sharp tongue, and you have lost your witness. (“I Lost My Witness At Work“)
Because I grew up in church, I knew what was meant by this expression, generally that you do not want your actions to show you acting in a way that does not honor Christ as others are watching. (“What Does It Mean ‘To Lose Your Witness‘?”)
. . . sadly, there have been times that I’ve lost my witness due to my behavior. . . As hard as it may be sometimes, we must display a friendly disposition — treating others with the love of Jesus Christ. You never know, you could turn a cold dislikeable heart, into a warm and loving heart — molding that individual into one who desires to serve God, because of your example. (Living the Word, p. 59)
Christians love to deploy Christianese as a shaming mechanism. This bit of it functions very well in that regard.
In fact, many Christians have turned to this Christianese to shame the overwhelming number of evangelical Christians supporting Donald Trump.
In the future, whenever Christians raise their voices to right a thing, they will be asked, “What about when President Trump behaved in the same manner or supported such behavior? Did you say anything then?” If the answer is no, they will have lost their witness. (HuffPost)
But I’d suggest the real reason for the breadth and depth of evangelical support is deeper and–perversely–even more destructive to its religious witness. That reason is fear. (Time)
There’s a very high cost to our politics for celebrating the Trump style, but what is most personally painful to me as a person of the Christian faith is the cost to the Christian witness. (The Atlantic)
And I distinctly remember some big names in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) sharing similar hand-wringing worries around and after the 2016 election. They were deeply concerned that in the future, when they thundered and screeched about imaginary harms, people wouldn’t take them seriously anymore as moral authorities.
(What sweet summer children! Oh, that ship sailed long long ago. Nobody was even surprised when, after the election, the “Christian love” flowed like sewage.)
Why It Won’t Work.
But for all this finger-wagging, it won’t work. Evangelicals long ago lost any sense of shame they might ever have had. Something much more important than making sales has taken hold of their hearts: a fight for survival as a cultural force. They’re so focused on grabbing as much power as they can, while they can that they don’t even care anymore about their credibility as a sales force.
And that scrabble began some years ago. I noticed well before taking up this blog that Christians online mistreated others in the most shameful ways imaginable. In fact, a hard encounter with some of that “Christian love” made me decide to take up blogging!
As the Bible itself says, the ways of people always seem right to themselves. Without the ability to take in outside feedback, evangelicals will always assume that Jesus super-approves of them and everything they want to do. And decades ago, they stripped that ability away from their worldview–then celebrated having done so. Oh, they gloat, of course everybody hates them for their Jesus Auras! That’s why! It’s never that they’re complete asshats.
Only very seldom will evangelicals even concede that sometimes, people might despise them for their utter hypocrisy. But nobody will ever be able to persuade them that that’s what’s happening. You’d have better chances of persuading them that one of their own doctrines is actually dead wrong.
Combine that inability to take in feedback with a firm conviction that a god super-approves of whatever they want to do, then sprinkle in intense egotism and narcissism, and you’ve got a recipe for a permission slip to abuse others.
The Failure of the Christian Witness.
Maybe these Christians realize that nobody wants their product anyway, so it hardly matters how well they behave. The few people who hear their trumpet will perceive that permission slip over and above their conduct, and really, hypocrisy sells that concept way better than adherence to the rules ever could.
So in a real way, their total loss of witness sings a siren call to predators and abusers of all stripes:
Here is a truly broken system. It doesn’t even halfway do what we say it does. Really, it just gives us an outlet to feel superior to others–and to hurt and control the people we despise. And whoa buddy, we sure LOVE feeling superior, and we sure despise a LOT of people! We don’t care about following our own rules, and so we won’t care if you join up and don’t follow them either. Rules are for suckers. Do you agree? Then here’s our church’s address!
Man, that’d make one heckuva tract, wouldn’t it?
I have no doubt whatsoever that what I described above was the real “Good News” that my ex-husband Biff heard when he joined Pentecostalism. It’s why so many husbands in evangelicalism abuse complementarianism to control and take advantage of their wives, as Al Mohler himself pointed out recently. And it’s why, when scandals erupt out of Christianity, they tend to erupt out of authoritarian flavors like evangelicalism way more often than out of mainline or progressive ones.
The System Works As Desired.
Most of all, that “Good News” represents a big part of why evangelicals seem so scared of changing anything about their tribe’s setup and operating principles. The system works exactly as they want it to work. It does for them exactly what they need. It works for them. Anybody who gets hurt by those operating within it is either someone they want to hurt, or collateral damage. Their intense sense of self-interest has always allowed them to ignore both groups’ suffering.
Oh, they definitely do want to regain their onetime power in the United States. They’d love to fill their churches back up again and get the tithe train rolling at full capacity without having to pretend sniveling nonsense like how they’d totally solve world hunger if only more Christians donated more money. They just want all that to happen on their terms, without changing anything at all about their broken system.
This understanding is why I worry about Christians somehow finding a way to make their religion mandatory again. Their witness never really helped sales on the grand scale; Christianity has only ever grown when it held coercive powers over others.
The moment they lost that power, everything fell apart. Everywhere people have a free choice about accepting or rejecting Christianity, they choose–more and more often, with every new generation–to opt out of it.
The deterioration of Christians’ witness only speeds that process along.
The Wreckage of Christian Witness.
So here we stand amid broken wreckage once again. Christians once considered their witness important enough to follow their rules to at least some extent. Now they largely do not. If anything, they’re only hurting their sales all the more, but they’re not worried enough about that to do anything about their wrecked witness.
The only people in Christianity who really care about their witness now are the ones who take the religion to heart and really care about it and take it seriously. Like me, once. Like a lot of folks here in the Commentariat when they were Christians themselves, probably, and indeed like the Christians who hang out here now likely do. And those people suffer enormously because of that caring.
Christianity itself makes a poor roadmap to learn to behave better. Thus, any Christians who care about such things will only continue to fail at that task unless they get directions from outside the religion.
On the plus side, it’s not like they’ll be hurting their sales either way.
NEXT UP: Lord Snow Presides–over a venerable evangelical trope. Tuesday: A Semi-Drunk Movie Review with a Tour De Franzia! It’s been wayyyyy too long and I’ve got the perfect movie in mind for that wine pairing. See you Monday! <3
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