For almost 200 years, testimonials have become a staple in many evangelical worship services or special events. It is generally foreign to my liturgical Lutheran tradition as the objective Word and promises of God are rehearsed without emotional fanfare or emotional expectations. This causes many to conclude that the Lutheran church is spiritually “dead”, and its an accusation we’re willing to bear to keep God front and center.
For evangelicals, these descriptions of how the love of Christ has brought about a changed life are often the proof that their way of believing is correct. Rather than the Word preached and Sacraments administered having a power unto themselves, the great goal of evangelical Christianity is “life change”, and testimonials are the emotional payoff. And as generic evangelical Christianity makes inroads among traditional Lutherans, might we ought to question if testimonials are a good idea?
Here’s the main reason Christians should be wary of using testimonials: while the Bible does not strictly oppose them, the historic faith is rooted in the preaching of the person and work of Christ, not our own experiences. Paul, in sharing his own Jewish bona fides and declaring how he was converted uses his own life, to some degree, to demonstrate the power of Christ. But in the end, those are evidences of the truth he is proclaiming: that Jesus was God in the flesh and that his death and resurrection are our only hope. So while testimonials might motivate or encourage, they cannot take the place of the objective Word and Sacraments, for that is where God has promised to be and to act.
Here’s a second reason Christians should be wary of using testimonials: they cut both ways. If a non-believer coming to Christ is supposed to prove that God is real and that he saves sinners, what do we do with a testimonial from a ex-Christian who is now a happy atheist or Buddhist or even Muslim? If testimonials carry equal weight, what makes a Christian’s testimonial especially compelling, especially if testimonials from non-Christians also include “life change” or even miracles? If a changed life (say moving from alcoholism to sobriety or adultery to faithfulness) is the lynchpin of a good Christian testimony, then wouldn’t anyone else’s testimony about a changed life that doesn’t include Christianity still be valid? After all, if life change and moral improvement are proof that Christianity is true, then those would also serve as proof that other worldviews are true if they produce the same results.
My fear is that so long as we use testimonials in our defense, we invite apostates to use them against us. Perhaps no one does this better than Bart Ehrman. The former Moody-educated evangelical Christian lost his faith over the question of suffering (not his textual study work as many believe), and he has used his past Christian bona fides as a bludgeon in debate after debate and book after book. It lurks behind his “I can’t be convinced otherwise” persona because he’s already been down the Christian road and found a dead end. So he comes across as both impervious to argumentation and he emboldens non-believers because they are confident that if he can leave Christianity behind, they can, too.
So I suggest we level the playing field. We offer no extra credit to an atheist for being a former Christian. We sacrifice our own testimonials to take away theirs as relevant. We acknowledge that our own life experiences – no matter how poignant or grand or inspiring – are nothing compared to the objective truths of God’s Word, to say nothing of our ancient rituals. Therefore, we will forsake them as part of our proclamation of God’s Word and demand the one who left Christianity do the same. If we are going to have an argument about Christianity, lets do so on a level playing field: your experiences as a former Christian are no more relevant than my experiences as a Christian. So now, let’s look at the questions again: what do you believe and why?
Am I saying there is never a time when we can offer a testimonial? Not at all. I do think there are relevant and appropriate times when we can share experiences of God’s saving work in our life. And if the circumstances are unique or extreme, perhaps they can offer hope and solace to other believers. I just think the scope and context of such testimonials should be limited. Here are, perhaps, some guidelines.
- Make sure they are not intended to “prove” anything about God. Do we really need to prove anything about God that the scriptures don’t already sufficiently prove?
- Remove them from a worship service. When combined with worship, they take on a legitimacy and importance they probably do not deserve. They may also contribute to emotions manipulation that is already an all-too-prominent part of modern worship services (if they are even worship services at all).
- Make them edifying for the whole congregation. It seems that testimonials can be instructive, and should be placed in the Education time slot, or as part of a Sunday School class. And even then, probably be somewhat rare.
- Bracket every testimonial with a reminder that God’s truth is sufficiently found in the Bible and that testimonials offer a glimpse of God’s work in the world today.
- Of course, that all assumes the testimonial is sane, sound, and biblically consistent. Just because someone has a story doesn’t mean its edifying for the Body of Christ. Having the testimonial written out and reviewed or at least heard by a pastor beforehand would be a good idea.
So I’m not in favor of getting rid of them at all costs. But we should contextualize and prioritize them appropriately. Because what’s good for the goose is good for the gander. If we build our faith on the testimony of men who came to faith because of their experience, there are a whole lot more who left Christianity because of theirs. I’d far rather debate or discuss the objective Word of God with an unbeliever than argue that Christianity is true because Jimmy is now sober, only to be met with a response that Rob was the victim of pastoral abuse. When testimonials clash, there is more than enough sin in the church and world to set us up for embarrassment. So let’s preach Christ and him crucified, and level the testimonial playing field.