Can I get a witness -- again?

The permanent transition that characterizes American religious life offers an opportunity to revisit the word “witness” and its meaning for the future.

By Bill Leonard

This month Mercer University Press will release Can I Get a Witness?: Essays, Sermons and Reflections, a collection of materials that I have written during the last few years. Most are previously unpublished, except for a few excerpts from this Associated Baptist Press column of the same name.

As the 21st century muddles along, I continue to believe that the phrase “Can I get a witness?” -- a rhetorical interrogative common to many African-American congregations -- will sharpen our thinking about the current state of religion in American culture.

canigetawitnessIndeed, the permanent transition that characterizes American religious life offers an opportunity to revisit the word “witness” and its meaning for the future.

For my 17th century Baptist forebears the idea of witness seemed inseparable from prophetic dissent from the state-privileged religious culture that denounced and harassed them as preaching a false gospel.

That witness required all would-be church members affirm a direct experience of God’s grace, confirmed in believer’s baptism. They resisted the mandated baptism of infants, as well the authority of a state-church controlled by ministerial hierarchies.

Theirs was both “believers’ church” and “people’s church,” grounded in the idea that the people can be trusted to interpret Scripture aright in the context of a believing community under the guidance of Holy Spirit.

Quakers, too, took up a witness so public that New England Puritans sought to silence them with imprisonment and death, hanging Friend Mary Dyer in Boston in 1660 because she would not keep her gospel to herself.

Revivalistic Protestants often used the word witness to describe their evangelical and missionary duty to declare the gospel locally and globally.

Others, Primitive Baptists, for example, believed that their witness was to uphold the sovereignty of the God who needed no human intervention to save those elected before the foundation of the world.

The intensity of such diverse Protestant witnesses often led them to denounce each other as false churches outside the doctrinal boundaries of God’s grace.

Today, competing views on the nature of the Christian witness still abound. While diverse communions may claim a common commitment to Christ’s gospel, they often differ on its meaning and implementation.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, revivalism and a concern for direct evangelism led many Christian groups to emphasize “witnessing for Christ” as a hallmark of Christian discipleship. Clergy and laity were instructed in techniques for articulating the “plan of salvation,” calling the unconverted to personal faith in Christ.

Many Protestants, from Social Gospel liberals to Holiness Pentecostals, saw “witness” as inseparable from Christian action -- a life of holiness evident in moral rigor, challenging the material and spiritual inequities of the age.

Gospel advocate Walter Rauschenbusch called for “Christianizing the social order,” a prophetic witness offered to individual sinners and sinful corporations alike.

Many of the book’s essays address the changing religio-cultural environment now impacting American faith traditions across the theological spectrum -- a time of permanent transition in which old ecclesial systems are rapidly changing, reforming, declining and even disappearing from the religious landscape.

Denominations, once the primary means for organizing religious communities in America, are now only one of multiple options and venues for consolidating and coalescing around a specific theology and praxis.

In every era, the witness of the church remains a work in progress as congregations celebrate their shared identity through worship, instruction and care for those who are hurting, while refining other ministries in response to location, conscience or specific gospel mandates.

Through it all, Christian history abounds with spiritual guides, enduring witnesses of “good religion” in every era. Across the years, Catholic Worker founder Dorothy Day has been such a guide for me. Forging her own witness among the urban poor, she wrote:

Certainly the first time I went to jail -- when I was 18 -- I felt a great sense of desolation, a great identification with all the hopeless people around me. I didn't have the faith.... I never feel unsure in prison anymore.... I think I’m absolutely sure of these things -- the works of mercy and the nonviolent rebuilding of the social order. I think there has to be a sort of harmony of body and soul, and I think that comes about, certainly for a woman, through those very ... simple things of “feeding the hungry, clothing the naked and sheltering the harborless.”

At best, a Christian witness is both priestly and prophetic. As Baptist preacher Carlyle Marney counseled: “It is in the alleys where one ‘priests’ that one arrives at credentials for an occasional prophetic moment.”

Perhaps the question “Can I get a witness?” is worth asking and trying to answer again and again -- for life.

OPINION: Views expressed in Baptist News Global columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.