This article first appeared in the Effective Evangelism column of the Christian Research Journal, volume 34, number 01 (2011). For more information about the Christian Research Journal, click here.
Witnessing involves more than testifying to unbelievers about Christ and what He requires of all men. Christians can and should share with other Christians what He is doing in our lives. Part of the way we grow in grace is to confess our sins to others, to ask them to pray for us, to encourage accountability, and to remind one another of Christ’s promises when we’re going through a rough patch.
Witnessing to others who profess Christ also helps us discern whether they understand the gospel and are truly saved. Such concerns may arise when discussing the faith with Christians who attend theologically liberal churches, for example. The doctrinal divide between theological conservatives and theological liberals can make for challenging witnessing encounters, to say the least.
While the word “conservative” typically is associated with politics, it applies to theology as well. In liberal theology, the Bible serves as a sort of guideline for living. Its truth claims are not absolute. Theological liberals tend to deny man’s spiritual condition and focus on social causes. Under a theologically conservative view, the Bible is much more than a guideline. It is the inspired, inerrant, and infallible Word of God. The creator of the universe reveals Himself within its pages, and we strive to handle His words rightly and reverently.
In his Christian Research Journal article, “Witnessing to Liberals,”1 Ron Rhodes, president of Reasoning from the Scriptures Ministries, discusses how to answer liberal Christians’ objections to the Bible and Jesus Christ. “Liberal Christians typically seek to adapt religious ideas to modern science. Their goal is to make Christianity ‘relevant’ to modern man. By elevating science to the supreme authority, they assume the Bible is a fallible human document, approach Scripture with an antisupernatural bias, and dismiss miracles as the fantasies of ignorant people in biblical times who did not understand the laws of nature. They also view humanity as fundamentally good, with no real sin problem.”
Conservative Christians who seek to witness to liberal Christians already face challenges. Witnessing to liberal black Christians may be more challenging. On top of the usual objections and sticking points, there’s the touchy subject of race. The following are suggestions for dialogue:
Don’t Get Bogged Down in Racial Discussions. Liberal Christians of any color sometimes view conservative Christians as unloving, uncaring, narrow-minded, and rigid. They perceive that conservatives don’t care about racial minorities and/or poor people. The best approach to witnessing to black theological liberals is to avoid getting bogged down in racial and “sins of the father” arguments. It’s true that some white Christians used the word of God to justify human bondage and discrimination, but unless you owned slaves or helped set up the Jim Crow system, you’re not accountable.
The “racial reconciliation” idea has made some headway in conservative churches. Reaching out to other Christians is rarely a bad thing, but I’d advise against apologizing for so-called white privilege or for the misdeeds of others. We are all sinners in need of a Savior, and we are all accountable for our own actions. We are called to be good servants, faithful witnesses, and, of course, reconcilers with a gentle spirit, but not necessarily to focus on being race reconcilers, for we are all equal before God: “For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise” (Gal. 3:26–29 NKJV).
Don’t Take Issue with the “Black” Church. The universal church is worldwide, the entire body of believers. Its purposes include bringing glory to Christ, building the kingdom, and edifying one another. Every day of the week, we are part of the church. What a privilege it is to call people who don’t share our skin color brothers and sisters. In Christ, it’s a reality.
This reality is part of the reason why some white Christians take issue with the idea of a “black” church. As a Christian who happens to be black, I do, too. Ideally, there would be no “black” church or “white” church. Today’s segregated Sunday mornings are voluntary; however, the foundation was laid during the days of government-sanctioned (and in some cases, mandated) racial segregation. What matters in any church is whether the teaching and preaching are biblical.
Historically, the church served as the center of political and social life in the black community. Once quite orthodox in its beliefs, the church lost its strong theological character, replaced by the secular. People are saved in black churches, as the Holy Spirit reaches anyone, anywhere, and anytime. In any theologically liberal church, however, the Bible may not be as preeminent as it should be.
Although liberal black Christians tend to be socially conservative on issues such as homosexuality, they have a progressive view of other issues. Many will dispute this idea, but the fact that ninety percent of black voters choose the liberal candidate tells a different story.
Lance Lewis, a black Reformed pastor at a Presbyterian Church in America congregation in Philadelphia, seeks to return the church to a Christ-centered foundation. He believes that errant teaching, such as the prosperity gospel, may end up causing the black church to turn away from evangelical Christianity altogether.
“I think it’s as much a threat to the historic black church as theological liberalism was to the evangelical church in the early part of the 20th century,” Lewis told byFaith Magazine.2 He seeks to spread biblical teaching among black Christians and encourage the kind of belief “where people no longer measure their lives by their circumstances, but seek to serve the Lord as an end to itself. That helps to provide a foundation for a growing, thriving, and flourishing walk with the Lord.”
The implication is that theologically liberal black churches shifted from a biblical worldview to one of personal and social causes. In this regard, your discussion with black liberal Christians likely will lead to so-called social justice issues. For example, some believe that bigger and “better” government programs are the “Christian” way to improve lives. As a result, a biblical way of seeing the world and dealing with social problems recedes.
Remind Him That Christ Didn’t Come to Liberate People from Social Injustice. The black liberal you encounter may belong to a church that preaches a “black theology,” which views Scripture through a racial lens. The man most associated with black theology is James Cone, currently the Charles Augustus Briggs Distinguished Professor of Systematic Theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. For the gospel to be relevant to blacks, according to Cone, it must emphasize liberation of the poor and oppressed, as Christ was liberator of the oppressed.
There are many problems with this view, namely that it downplays Christ’s real mission. If you encounter such a Christian, engage him in a discussion of the exodus. God liberated the oppressed Hebrew slaves from bondage in Egypt (a natural parallel to America ending slavery). However, this glorious deliverance was a sign pointing to the ultimate liberation: delivery from the bondage of sin.
Conservative Christians do care about social injustice; we part ways with liberal Christians on how we as Christians should act and think about these issues. The liberal Christian may inject politics into the discussion and imply that his view on social issues is more in line with Christ’s character than the conservative Christian’s. Rather than arguing about who is right or wrong, respond this way:
Remind Him That Christ Is the Bread of Life. The Gospels record Christ feeding thousands with bread and fish. By filling their bellies and satisfying their hunger, He was giving them a sign pointing to the real work He was ordained to do. “He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty” (John 6:35 NIV). Christians are to feed the hungry and show the way to spiritual nourishment.
Remind Him That Christ Came for the Poor in Spirit. When Christ said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:3 NIV), He obviously wasn’t referring to material poverty. The Sermon on the Mount spoke to spiritual poverty. Blessed are the spiritually poor who recognize their need for a Savior! Christ wants us to help meet the material needs of others, especially our brothers and sisters in Him, but not to the exclusion of showing unbelievers among them about the way out of spiritual poverty. To be without Christ has tragic eternal consequences.
Remind Him That Christ Came to Seek and to Save That Which Is Lost. Christ came to redeem a people for Himself, and He left us with a wonderful illustration of the lost:
Then Jesus told them this parable: “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Does he not leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.” (Luke 15:3–7 NIV)
Christ rejoices when the unrepentant turn to Him. He seeks sin-enslaved, spiritually hungry, poor, and lost souls. We are to follow Him in our dealings with unbelievers and with one another. Liberal churches have turned these plain and clear teachings on their head and instead deny man’s sinful condition and emphasize the political and social over what is biblical.
Filling bellies, alleviating poverty, and remedying injustice are only part of what we do. Our primary mission, our great commission, is to share with the world the good news of Jesus Christ and show the unrepentant how to partake in a blessing that reaches through hunger, poverty, and injustice.
—La Shawn Barber
La Shawn Barber is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in such publications as Christianity Today, Today’s Christian Woman, the Washington Post, and the Washington Examiner. Visit her blog at lashawnbarber.com.
- Ron Rhodes, “Reaching Liberal ‘Christians’ for Christ,” Christian Research Journal 18, 2 (1995): 8; accessible online under the title “Witnessing to Liberals” at http://home.earthlink.net/~ronrhodes/Liberalism.html.
- Melissa Morgan Kelley, “Seeking Revival within the Black Church,” byFaith Magazine, March 2010 http://byfaithonline.com/page/pca-people/lance-lewis-reforming-theology-inbaltimores-black-churches).