Early in my ministry, I had to go to court for a member of my congregation to give testimony in a custody situation. I was taken aback when I was told I needed to sit in a room outside the courtroom until my time was called. All I was doing was acting as a character witness, but the lawyer said that if I heard the others before me, it might shade my testimony, and, of course, it was the law.
After that experience, I began to look into the topic of witness. In Christianity, witness is a central aspect of how we develop our relationship with God. In many churches there is actually a time in the service which is dedicated to formally witnessing God’s presence. In our tradition, we would say that the service as a whole is a witness to God.
Unfortunately, there is a real problem with witness. In recent years, many studies, including famous ones from Stanford and Harvard, suggest that witnesses in legal matters are neither accurate nor consistent. In fact, one can change or modify testimony without even realizing the change. While we are not looking at witness from a legal standpoint, the witness that we work with in the church is just as valid and maybe even more important, because when we give witness and it turns out not to be accurate, it will affect the way that others approach their relationship with God.
In reality, this is a big reason why so many people have a problem with Christianity¾they have a perception that there is no consistency and a lot of hypocrisy. Honestly, it is a fair critique, especially in a time when we are more and more certain that we can ascertain the fundamental truths of life, particularly as we continue to get closer and closer to learning ways to create life. We live in a time that expects the witness to be right or wrong, to prove something beyond a reasonable doubt.
Again, the problem is, doubt and faith are two sides of the same coin. It is doubt that makes us explore our faith, and faith that often brings us to places where we doubt. All of that shades the way in which we witness, and makes every individual witness both incomplete and unreliable. It would be like reading the gospel of Mark while ignoring Matthew, Luke, and John. You would have a very different and very incomplete understanding of Jesus.
We often forget that the four gospels represent four different and unique gospels. And even though there is overlap and repetition, the construction and layout of each reveals a very different side of Christ. With all four gospels, and even many of the writings that did not make it into the canon, we get a fuller picture of Christ, and can begin to understand both his complexity and power.
For the Christian, witness is not a one-time thing, but something that evolves. Over and over, Christ reminds those who follow him that the real blessings come to those who have not seen yet come to believe. And why is that important? Often, it is because when you truly listen to all of the witnesses, you can get a much better picture than you would working solely from your own perspective.
This is why witness is so important in churches. Unlike the court, we are not just looking for facts in a testimony or witness; rather, we are looking for better understanding. When we combine the witness of many people together, all of a sudden we have a much clearer picture of God, even though it may still not be complete.
This was what went on in the courtroom when I was asked to give the character witness. As I listened after I finished my testimony, I began to see how my understanding of the person was only a part of the whole, and, as the judge let me know later, gave a very important missing piece to who this person was at that point in their life. The judge did not base the decision on just one witness, but used testimony from many to come to the best decision, just like we all need to listen to each other and witness to each other to better understand God.
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Rev. Dr. Bryan James Franzen