You Shall Be My Witnesses

08 Dec

Acts 1:8 of the New Testament records that, shortly before his ascension to heaven, the Risen Lord Jesus Christ spoke these words to his apostles:

but you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth.

Non-Christians are all-too-familiar with the Christian compulsion to “witness,” to “share their faith,” to “give their testimonies” to anyone within earshot. I’m sure that all of us have, at one time or another, dealt with Jehovah’s Witnesses on our doorsteps, Mormon missionaries on their bicycles, Salvation Army bands in our parks… (full disclosure: I played in such bands on more occasions than I can possibly enumerate). Sometimes these people are offensive, sometimes they are merely annoying, sometimes they are mildly entertaining. One thing all such groups have in common is their conviction that they have access to a truth that non-believers lack. They believe that they have higher moral standards than non-believers. And they believe that the lives of non-believers will be enriched if only they will accept the gospel they present and join the Christian fellowship to which they belong.

Many believers of these and other Christian faiths do, for the most part, live the lives they profess to live: they are generous with family, friends and strangers; they are ethical in all of their personal and business relationships; they actually do believe the things they say they believe. Unfortunately for the church at large, it seems that, every week, such “testimonies” are contradicted by examples of profoundly wicked behavior on the part of Christian leaders and/or their followers. Recent examples that come to mind are Earl Paulk, Richard and Lindsey Roberts, Don LaRose/Ken Williams and Ted Haggard. Dozens of other examples great and small can be found by the truckload at Deep Thoughts.

Whenever stories like these erupt, Christians everywhere are quick to ask non-Christians not to judge the whole body by the misdeeds of a few and to consider the substance of their doctrines rather than the content of their characters. This plea is not entirely misplaced, for any group contains subsets of those who deviate from group norms. But there is another group of believers that, with regard to the persuasive power of their witness, is far more problematic for the Body of Christ than the egregious examples cited above. These are the believers with whom people rub shoulders every day: the gossips, the hypocrites, the domineering, the selfish….

LeoPardus recently completed a series at entitled, Reasons I Can No Longer Believe. The final installment of that series was subtitled: Unchanged Lives. Throughout this post, the author discussed his disappointment that, when observing the lives of ordinary believers, supposedly empowered by the Holy Spirit of God himself, it is difficult to distinguish between the faithful and the non-faithul. He quoted a comment that Karen, another contributor at that site, had written sometime earlier, in which she said:

The bible tells us that Christians who believe in Jesus and have received the Holy Spirit have access to God’s guidance, comfort and presence. If that’s true, it seems to me that there should be some way to detect that special influence in individual lives and in the corporate “life” of the church and history of Christianity. After all, people who have a member of the trinity living in their hearts should manifest that at least somewhat consistently – right?

And yet it seems like the history of the church, and the individual lives of believers, bears no distinctive stamp of that indwelling of the Holy Spirit. The atrocities, the horrors, the corruption, the wars fought in the name of Christ, the individual selfishness, suffering, immorality – where’s the divine spark that separates Christians from followers of other religions, or from non-believers?

I don’t see it. There are great churches doing good, and great individual believers living sacrificial lives. There are also great secular organizations doing much good, and great atheists living sacrificial lives. There’s not a pervasive difference that I can see, and it seems if the promises of the NT are true, there should be.”

Karen articulated beautifully one of the reasons why LeoPardus no longer believes in Christianity. The comment that I added to that post was this:

I know believers don’t like non-believers to point to their imperfections as reason to question the validity of faith, but they can’t have it both ways. Either their religion and the indwelling presence of a Holy Spirit make a difference in the way they live or they don’t. Whether believers like it or not, their lives are the most significant points in this world in which the work of God can be displayed. Those of us who question religion have a right to say, “Show me the money. Show me indisputably how God’s activity makes any difference in this world.” If he makes little or no difference in the lives of his followers, one has to question either his power or their faith. After all, if he can’t even significantly affect the lives of people who have surrendered completely to his will, what possible chance can he have against overt rebels like Satan or the impersonal forces of nature, which don’t yield to anything except stronger natural forces? If the problem is not God’s weakness, than it has to be flaws in Christian’s faith. Another option, of course, is to question whether there is any “there” there.

I, for one, am not insisting that believers must bat 1.000 on issues of morality and lifestyle. It is not out of line, however, to expect that believers will be consistently above average when compared with non-believers who don’t have the advantage of perfect, supernatural guidance. Some believers are above average in integrity, etc. So are some non-believers. Some non-believers are below average in morality, etc., So are some believers. Overall, however, the lives of believers should be noticeably different than the lives of non-believers. Alas, that is not the case at all.

I am not suggesting that one should reject Christianity solely on the evidence of failed Christian lives. There are oceans of scriptural, historical and creedal documents that one should also examine when evaluating Christianity. But, whether they like it or not, Christians themselves have established the twin standards by which their claims should be evaluated. They claim that, in addition to their scriptures and doctrinal traditions, God’s providential influence in human affairs has been evident historically and continues to be evident in the holy lives of the faithful. That being the case, it is not wrong, when evaluating Christianity’s truth claims, to consider the strength of the correlations between believers’ spoken and lived testimonies, and their written testaments and creeds. I have examined textual and lived evidences for Christianity, and I have found them insufficient to justify faith beyond a reasonable doubt.


Posted by on December 8, 2007 in deconversion, religion


14 responses to “You Shall Be My Witnesses

  1. athinkingman

    December 8, 2007 at 5:48 pm

    I came to a similar conclusion about the ineffectiveness of Christianity myself. I started to realise that despite surface changes in my life, deep-down inside I still had similar desires and longings to most non-Christians. I also knew from working as a therapist with a number of long-establish church leaders (i.e. ‘senior’ Christians) that they too were doing things that in some cases were criminal and in many cases would have been an embarrassment to some non-Christians. If Christianity was working in depth in a way that couldn’t be explained by conformity to social norms and involved some radical, deep, spiritual, and lasting change, I just couldn’t see the evidence in my own life, or in many of those I got to know in depth as clients.

    To me, the lack of change argument feels similar to the lack of evidence for answered prayer. According to traditional faith, the evidence ought to be there for both of them, but when you start to seriously look at it with a more critical eye, the supposed evidence appears to evaporate.

  2. Spanish Inquisitor

    December 8, 2007 at 6:51 pm

    What really stands out is the hypocrisy. When you hold out a high moral standard to compare to the actual life you live, you make the hypocrisy stand out even more. Maybe Christians are not any more hypocritical than non-believers, but in contrast to their professed morality, they sure appear to be.

  3. the chaplain

    December 8, 2007 at 7:03 pm

    Thinking Man – I agree with you about the connection between unchanged lives and unanswered prayers. The lack of evidence in both cases eventually leads one to wonder whether there is anything to observe.

    Spanish – Hypocrisy does tremendous harm to those who are looking to others as exemplars and mentors. The old “look to Jesus” mantra is lame. I can’t look directly to a man who died 2,000 years ago. His ongoing presence is supposed to be evident in the lives of his followers. They are the windows through which we are supposed to look and see Jesus. When the windows are grimy, the view is not enticing.

  4. John Evo

    December 8, 2007 at 7:32 pm

    Chappy says: I am not suggesting that one should reject Christianity solely on the evidence of failed Christian lives.

    True. But, also, it should not be judged on the evidence of successful Christian lives. Here’s what I mean –

    Let’s say we had some tangible evidence that overall Christians lived marginally better (more moral, in a “Golden Rule” sense) lives than non-believers. In both of our estimations, it could not possibly be more than a “marginal” difference. If it were, we would certainly notice it. But, for arguments sake, let us say there was credible evidence to “marginally better”.

    This might convince me that religion wasn’t such a bad idea – for others. After all, if it could be shown that religion was keeping bad people in line, it would be hard to be against it – for them.

    But it would really do nothing to prove the facts behind the religion. It still is either “true” or it is not.

    So, in reality, religion has both things working against it. People are people, and don’t show me any improvement due to their religious beliefs. On top of that, there is absolutely no evidence for the facts of nature and the universe that every religion claims access to.

  5. the chaplain

    December 8, 2007 at 8:43 pm

    John Evo:

    Regarding Christianity, you said:
    “it should not be judged on the evidence of successful Christian lives.”

    I agree with you. Evidence based on the way lives are lived is difficult to measure and interpret. Moreover, the benefits that some people accrue from believing something does not prove the belief is true, it merely demonstrates that the belief is effective for that person. All that explains why I felt it was important to say this: “There are oceans of scriptural, historical and creedal documents that one should also examine when evaluating Christianity.”

    I believe the historical and textual evidences are more reliable than “personal testimonies.” Nevertheless, we should not let Christians off the hook when their own lives fail to measure up to the standards they seek to impose on others. While it is difficult to pinpoint why good Christians are good, it is not at all difficult to identify when Christians’ deeds do not bear the marks of the Holy Spirit that should be evident. These standards are not imposed by non-believers, they are imposed by the tenets of Christianity itself. Christians have only themselves to blame if they don’t like the rules.

  6. The Exterminator

    December 8, 2007 at 11:36 pm

    Chappy, I think your argument in this post probably carries much more weight with people who have de-converted at some point than it does with a lifetime atheist like me.

    As far as I’m concerned, I would never hold up “bad” Christians as negative exemplars of their religion. I don’t even think it’s a “fair” attack to challenge their behavior as being “un-Christian.” Unless they claim to be informed by the “holy spirit” in every single thing they do, their actions are representative of nothing. Since their religion is equally representative of nothing, I’m not shocked when they fail to fulfill its alleged precepts.

    Which is not to say that I don’t rub my hands in glee every time I read about immoral and criminal acts perpetrated by priests and pastors. Those people are hypocrites of the highest order, and should be exposed as such — if only to help catalyze further de-conversions.

  7. Ebonmuse

    December 9, 2007 at 12:20 am

    Also, it seems to me that if Christians truly had access to the mind of God, then the moral beliefs defended by Christianity should have remained more or less constant over the ages. They haven’t.

    Instead, Christians in general have changed their opinions on things like racism, slavery, free speech and holy war, and they’ve done so pretty much in sync with the rest of society also changing its opinion on these matters. I find this difficult to explain under the assumption that Christian behavior is informed by the will and desires of an unchanging deity outside human history.

  8. the chaplain

    December 9, 2007 at 10:48 am

    You note correctly that this post is directed to people who are questioning their faith or deconverting rather than to confirmed non-believers. My point is not to encourage such people to evaluate the sincerity of other Christians, particularly those who fail. It is, rather, to urge them to evaluate the efficacy of the Holy Spirit.

    You said,
    “Unless they claim to be informed by the “holy spirit” in every single thing they do, their actions are representative of nothing.”

    This is precisely the point. Christians do claim such guidance. The Holy Spirit is supposed to be guiding them all the time. He’s their 365/24/7 Invisible Friend.

    Years ago, I heard the sister of a US president claim that the Holy Spirit helped her buy precisely the right number of ketchup bottles she needed for an important dinner. If the Spirit cares about ketchup, surely He urges people to keep their filthy hands off of little kids. If He can’t prioritize any better than that, what good is He?

    Your comment is right on target. During periods of significant cultural and social change, Christians often have gone with the flow. After the fact, they point to their involvement and claim to have led the way, often singlehandedly.

    If the Holy Spirit had been guiding them all along, why didn’t He save everyone a whole lot of grief by guiding them to do the right things in the first place? Instead, He allowed bad things to happen that needed to be corrected later. If you ask me, that’s a highly inefficient method of operation.

  9. phillychief

    December 10, 2007 at 12:06 pm

    Although I wouldn’t claim the OK bombing was a fault of christianity because McVeigh is a christian, I would say that it certainly didn’t help to make him moral. In that case and in similar cases I’d say if it can’t stop people from doing bad things then it’s superfluous. Aside from just making someone feel better, being superfluous is really the best religion can esteem to. At worst, well, we know what that’s like and in those cases where people act in what they think is their god’s wishes, then generally I will have no problem blaming the religion.

    I also would like to say that Ebonmuse’s comment is nothing short of a brilliant observation.

  10. DaVinci

    December 10, 2007 at 12:15 pm

    Seems like we’re throwing God out with the bath water here, does anyone have a problem with the idea that today it is much more difficult to live Christian lives than it was a mere 100 years ago. Today there are so many multi media assaults of traditional Christian morality than ever before. Porn is easy to get, language has been corrupted, and entertainment often includes ‘sin’ items like drugs, alcohol, and sex. In order to hold to Christian values as folks did 100 years ago, you almost need to be an isolationist. We call those folks fundamentalists these days. We don’t like them for good reasons, but at least they are attempting to stay true to what they believe. There are many problems with Christianity, and certainly religion plays a major role in those problems. I do not want to be misinterpreted as a supporter of Christian or any other kind of fundamentalist religion. In fact I think religion these days is just as likely to refer to wealth, community support or just plain ego building that anything to do with God at all.

    It seems that one line by Jesus, while speaking to Peter, when he said, “upon this rock, I will build my church,” which I believe referred more to what Peter said than Peter himself, was misinterpreted years later to mean “I’m going to make a church and Peter is gonna be the head of it”. Any attempt to form an organized religion will take away any dynamics of God’s working in our lives. Be that as it may, there are any number of reasons to not believe in the Christian God, at least the way it is presented these days, but more than that, I believe that the run of the mill Christian is not even close to a state where he can expect anything from his God except the bare offer of salvation.

    We so often judge God, when we should be judging religion instead. What would be the view of God, if religion were not around? I think it might be a lot better.

  11. phillychief

    December 10, 2007 at 5:36 pm

    What would be the view of God, if religion were not around?

    1) It wouldn’t matter much at all
    2) I’d love to see that world
    3) I’d love to see a world that didn’t take god belief seriously more though

  12. Robert Deidrick

    August 30, 2009 at 6:10 pm

    Da Vinci,

    You make some good points in your comments. I have attended church for almost 30 years and what you have to say makes sense in these days.

  13. cl

    August 30, 2009 at 6:36 pm

    My point is not to encourage such people to evaluate the sincerity of other Christians, particularly those who fail. It is, rather, to urge them to evaluate the efficacy of the Holy Spirit…

    This is precisely the point. Christians do claim such guidance. The Holy Spirit is supposed to be guiding them all the time. He’s their 365/24/7 Invisible Friend. (chappy, to Ex)

    Even if we grant that the Holy Spirit guides “Christians” all the time as you claim, such would not logically preclude “Christians” from failing to follow the guidance, so it seems what’s really being evaluated here is the efficacy of individual “Christians,” not the Holy Spirit.

  14. Karas

    February 21, 2010 at 10:57 pm

    Hello just thought i would tell you something.. This is twice now i?ve landed on your blog in the last 2 weeks looking for totally unrelated things. Strange or what?


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