In Evangelism in the Early Church, Michael Green highlights three Greek words used with the expansion of Christianity: martureo (and related words meaning “witness”), euaggelizomai (“telling good news”), and kerusso (“proclamation”).1 Of the three words, Green spends the least amount of time and attention on “witness.” This is understandable since the other words are used far more in the New Testament and dominate the narratives of Paul and other apostles.
Importantly for us, they also dominate our understanding of contemporary missions. Books and papers dedicated to missions outreach have for some time debated between the merits of a classic proclamation of the gospel and the emerging embrace of “incarnational” missions. Both address going out with Christ, but they function in different ways and have different presuppositions.
My study has led me to advocate for terms in the aggregate, which is less common in Western missionary circles. The terms I would like to flesh out are “witness,” “warrior,” and “exile.” While these three receive less attention in contemporary missions literature, they dominate key biblical texts that address the missions of the church. Biblical witness makes no sense without these terms. In this article, I want to focus on that biblical term and concept of “witness.”
First, however, a provisional note. It helps to understand the purpose of this. Having worked in global missions for over twenty years, I have become convinced that our common practices on mission fields differ significantly from those evident in the early church. By saying this, I am not idolizing the early church, nor do I believe we have finished learning. The early modern explosion of missions through to the present has produced remarkable fruit. My concern, however, is that we have forgotten earlier lessons and may have failed, paradoxically, to keep up with the world as it is now. I want to rediscover our past and connect it to our present—not the present of 1970 but 2020. I am concerned that the approaches we champion as postmodern Americans move us farther away from most of the developing world. I believe that recovering and embodying a sense of these three identities—witness, warrior, and exile—will connect us more effectively to the non-Western church. These churches are experiencing much greater expansion than the Western church, and I suggest we have a lot to learn from them as well as from our own past.
Understanding Where We Are and How We Got Here
While we do not have space to give a detailed history of Western missions leading up to this point, a little background information will be useful in order to understand the current state of missions and pinpoint changes that need to be made. A place to start is understanding who we are as twenty-first-century Christians, because twenty-first-century churches send out missionaries who reflect the milieu that raised and nourished them as believers. Having trained missionaries for many years, I can attest that a missionary is neither a race of humans nor an ethnicity. Missionaries come up from the ranks of ordinary Christians, and the only thing that sets them apart is their calling. People raised from infancy to be missionaries become them only when God calls them. So, speaking specifically of Americans now, what kind of people are being called into the missionary vocation? How would we sum them up?
There are several ways in which to describe them. Carl Trueman describes people in our time as “plastic” and “psychological.”2 Individual identity is not fixed but fluid. This fluidity and rapid shapeshifting are, according to Zygmunt Bauman, characteristic of our late stage of modernism; and he describes twenty-first-century Western culture as “liquid modernism.” He summarizes this as “a swift and thorough forgetting of outdated information and fast ageing habits can be more important for the next success than the memorization of past moves and the building of strategies on a foundation laid by previous learning.”3
Liquid modern people, including Christians, admire science and experimentation. They discard old practices and institutions; and structure, even as a concept, is suspect. Trueman’s plasticity makes sense in this context. People want to keep their options open regarding who they are, how they describe themselves, and so forth. This has important implications for missions. Late twentieth-century missions and evangelism has tended toward harmonizing with this plastic understanding. Insider movements and other heavily contextual missionary approaches attempt to “incarnate” Christ into other cultures and, crucially, into other religions. One can become a Christ-following Muslim if one thinks it best. In such a case, you customize your religious identity to suit yourself.
Two intellectual streams flow into this plasticity. One stream is psychology. Philip Rieff, in a seminal study of the gradual dominance of the therapeutic ideal, following Freud and others, describes the relentless assimilation into a religious life of therapeutic values and categories.4 In his view, religion was outmuscled by psychology. To survive, therefore, established religion, to include Christianity, became therapeutic. Counseling pursues therapeutic ends, and so eventually do sermons and the description of doctrine. Therefore, perceived self-benefit drives religious choices and identity.
The second stream is capitalist consumerism. The point is not that we shop; it is rather that consumers are what we are, not just what we do. In a liquid modern age, customization is the rage. The confluence of the dominance of psychology and rampant consumerism has spilled the banks, forging new ways of thinking about evangelism and anthropology. We can see this plasticity in every dimension of Christianity: theology, ethics, anthropology, evangelism, sexual identity, and missions. This ethos pervades everything we do.
Knowing Our Past and Our Future
As Christians, we know who we are and how we got here, because the Bible tells us. We learn of our creation, fall, redemption, and future; and it introduces us to our redemptive, covenantal identity as a people of God. These things play a critical role in shaping our understanding as Christians—followers of Christ. In Matthew 28:19–20, we learn of the Great Commission; and in Acts 1:8, we learn about the mission of God and how it commissions the church. Historically, Paul received his apostolic calling directly from the risen Christ and set out to take the word of life, the gospel, to the nations. His work focused on the Gentiles above all, and his letters are full of references to the proclamation of the word. Seemingly fearlessly but at ultimate cost, Paul took the word outside of Israel, beyond the boundaries of the church, and his example set the pattern for future missions expansion.
The missionary boom in the colonial period saw proclamation, education, and mercy move out from the West into new lands that had little or no Christian presence. Colonialism carried a cost when it merged with the brutality of imperialism and institutional racism. The late modern period—whether we refer to it as postcolonial, postmodern, or liquid modern—concerned itself, sometimes obsessively, with divesting itself of institutional colonial vestiges in missions. Positively, it has recognized the shift in gravity toward the non-Western church, already far larger than its Western predecessors; and there have been many initiatives to empower non-Western Christian leadership for national churches. Negatively, the church’s expansion at home and away has often come at the expense of the global church’s oneness, holiness, and catholicity.
This fragmenting of the growing global church comes as a consequence of liquid modernity. If we endlessly customize the Christian message, and Jesus himself, then the Christianity planted around the world loses its cohesiveness. It also means that Christians in the West have to work out their own problems without gaining perspective from Christians elsewhere. What sort of problems do Western Christians need help with? I suggest we need a great deal of help with the idols we have made of our consumerism and therapy. We need to revisit what the Bible says about who we are, about what should define and characterize us. For the moment, let’s take a brief look at one word that plays a powerful role with regard both to our own identity and to the church’s calling in missions.
“And You Shall Be My Martyrs”
This is a phrase drawn from Acts 1:8. Our English translations take the Greek word martures and render it “witnesses.” It is a key word in the book of Acts, occurring thirty-nine times, and it is integral to the description of the church’s expanding witness of Christ. The word martyr is a legal term. It occurs in the Septuagint, the Greek Old Testament, where it refers to “one who bears witness before a judgment is made, especially the witness for the prosecution.”5 It brings attention in the Bible to courtroom dramas. Only later with persecution does this word refer to the idea of suffering and even dying.
In The New Testament Concept of Witness, Allison Trites discusses an added dimension to “witness” that Luke brings out in the book of Acts. For Luke, “witness” is a living metaphor. Christians take Christ’s side in real courts of law when his claims are in dispute and when their loyalty is being tested by persecution.6 True witnesses maintain their testimonies to Christ’s life and resurrection, no matter what. There is a merging of character and words, providing authenticity to the witness itself.
Nothing shows the no-matter-what dimension of Christian witness better than the book of Revelation. We see it with the characterization of Jesus as “the faithful witness” in 1:5, in the testimony of the Christian martyrs huddled under the altar in 6:9–11, the two witnesses in chapter 11, the new song of the martyrs in chapter 14, the new song of Moses in chapter 15, and so on. Revelation shows the vital connection of faithfulness to witness after the manner of Christ himself. These are durable witnesses who are part of durable communities that suffer persecution but who do not abandon their testimonies.7
We can see the traditional connection of durable, character-based witness to the gospel everywhere in the early church and beyond. Tertullian noted that martyr-witness was just the normal state of affairs for ordinary Christians, living as they did in a hostile world.8 Clement of Alexandria, writing in the late first century, saw martyr-witness as the perfection of love that fused the words of truth with the practice of them. In doing so, they could distinguish Christians from those, such as the gnostics, who would rather resort to clever wording that masked them from persecution.9 Consider also the martyrs of Lyons and Vienne in AD 170. Eusebius, copying a letter from Christians in Vienne and Lyons (modern-day France) to Christians in Asia Minor, noted that true believers’ testimonies climaxed in every case with “I am a Christian.” Neither torture nor imminent death could dissuade the martyr-witnesses there.10
The same can be said of the medieval period, as Andrea Sterk has shown. In her study of the testimonies of Christians captured by the Persian Empire during its wars with the eastern Roman Empire, she in particular focuses on the testimonies of Christian captives and the impact their witness had on their captors, whether or not they died for their open expression of faith. While this history is full of executions and torture, it also speaks of an unstoppable witness this side of the grave.11 This same sort of unintimidated witness encapsulated by “martyr” was integral to the expansion and life of the church. It is crucial to note that the contemporary fascination for liquid or plastic identity, shaped by therapeutic needs and consumer choices, is a new thing. We, however, often find ourselves prisoners to the present, suffering from acute historical amnesia. Our own past, wedded to the testimonies of millions of martyr-witnesses in non-Western Christianity, provides us with “Ariadne’s thread” through our contemporary maze.
“You Must Be My Martyr-Witnesses”
What Acts, Revelation, the men in the fiery furnace, the Christians of Lyons, the North African Scillitan Martyrs, and myriad others testify to ultimately is our basic Christian identity. In his groundbreaking article “The Image of God in Man,” David Clines returned to the context of the Bible to grasp the significance of the “image of God” in Genesis 1:26–27.12 According to Clines, the image of God in humans is not to be found so much in common characteristics or qualities that human beings share with God. Rather, it consists relationally in humans mirroring God and his rule in his creation. To be an image therefore is to reflect him, to witness. This is how humans are described vocationally in the first book of the Bible and it is how the Bible ends.
The purpose of Revelation is to exhort the church to be what God created it to be: witnesses or mirrors to the world. In this book, seven churches are evaluated on the presence or absence of faithful, multifaceted witness. While no book has ever been the subject of speculation more than Revelation, let me make yet another bold proposal. Since Revelation comes canonically last, it is the last book in the Bible and it has the final word. While a plausible reason for its placement might be its dating, a better reason is that it ushers in the return of Christ and eternity. I would add a third reason: It is an intensely practical book, because it instructs Christians how to live in the real world of struggle, suffering, and persecution. It brings us back to who God created us to be: reflections of him in the world he created.
How can we go about our calling as missionaries without remembering who we are—unintimidated, faithful witnesses of Jesus Christ, the Son of God and God the Son—no matter what?
Basil Grafas is the pen name of an American missionary working overseas.
- Michael Green, Evangelism in the Early Church (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970), 70.
- Carl Trueman, “The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: And How the Church Can Respond” (February 25, 2020), https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/rise-triumph-modern-self-church/.
- Zygmunt Bauman, Liquid Times (Cambridge: Polity, 2007), 3.
- Philip Rieff, The Triumph of the Therapeutic , 40th anniversary ed. (Wilmington, DE: ISI, 2006).
- Allison A. Trites, The New Testament Concept of Witness (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977), 16.
- Trites, The New Testament Concept of Witness, 153.
- Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1997), 208.
- Joshua J. Whitfield, Pilgrim Holiness: Martyrdom as Descriptive Witnesses (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2009), 28.
- Clement of Alexandria, “Stromata, or Miscellanies,” in Ante-Nicene Fathers, eds. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, vol. 2 (repr., Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1994), 411.
- A New Eusebius: Documents Illustrating the History of the Church to AD 337 , ed. J. Stevenson, new edition revised by W. H. C. Frend (London: SPCK, 1987), 37.
- Andrea Sterk, “Captives in Late Antiquity: Christian Identity Under Foreign Rule,” in Sources of the Christian Self: A Cultural History of Christian Identity , eds. James M. Houston and Jens Zimmermann (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2018).
- David Clines, “The Image of God in Man,” 1967 Tyndale Old Testament Lecture, noted and expanded by Gerald Bray, “The Significance of God’s Image in Man,” Tyndale Bulletin 42.2 (November 1991): 195–225.