Question: What role (if any) does “personal testimony” have in the Christian church?
Answer: A boy once asked his grandfather why he had three different kinds of ﬁsh bait in his tackle box. The grandfather answered, “Depends on where I’m ﬁshing and what I’m ﬁshing for.”
Personal testimony has an important role to play in the life of the Christian church. However, like the bait in the grandfather’s tackle box, its beneﬁt is tied to where and how Christians use it.
Testimony in a private setting
On one hand, as believers sanctify the Lord God in their hearts, they are to “always be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you, with meekness and fear” (1 Peter 3:15, NKJV). Believers in Christ constantly seek opportunities to share their faith in Christ. Peter describes that sharing as a “defense,” explaining what we believe and why we believe it “to everyone who asks.” Peter assumes that people will ask you about the hope that you have in Jesus Christ. Having seen how that hope has changed our lives, they will want to know more.
Then, when the questions come, we can make a case for Christ “with meekness and fear,” gently and compassionately leading people to see both their sin and their Savior Jesus. The private, personal gospel testimony of one person leading another to Christ as one beggar leading another to ﬁnd bread has always had an important role in the life of the church.
Testimony in a public setting
Public personal testimony also has a role, albeit more limited. The Christian congregation in Corinth provides an excellent example. In those days, the Holy Spirit’s special gifts of prophecy and speaking in tongues were still in effect, but the people were not using those gifts in an orderly way. If one person got up to prophesy, many others also felt the need to do so. It became a matter of one-upmanship and pride. People began to talk over one another. So, in addition to calling those Christians to repentance, the apostle Paul instructed them to “Let all things be done decently and in order” (1 Corinthians 14:40).
The church still strives to do everything “decently and in order.” It presents several problems to allow someone who has no call from God to speak during the worship service. First, as it did in Corinth, it can become a free-for-all. If the church allows one person to share his testimony, then what about everyone else? Second, what if getting up and “sharing my story” becomes a matter of sinful pride and one-upmanship, where each person tries to outdo the last one? Most importantly, what if someone would give a false testimony or teach falsely, whether they meant to or not?
This need for order is one of the reasons why the Lord established the public ministry of the Word. Through the divine call, God provides a man who can bear witness to the truth of God’s Word publicly on the church’s behalf. Public testimony is what the pastor is called to do, especially in church.
Yet that doesn’t mean public testimony by a layman has no place at all. At a recent youth rally of our sister synod, one of the keynote speakers was an Army helicopter pilot who had been wounded in his service to our country. Together with his wife, he shared the story of what happened to him and how the Lord protected him from danger and pointed his hearers to the gospel of Jesus Christ. His words ediﬁed all who heard them. A similar thing happens at mission rallies, where both missionaries and, on occasion, the people they serve share their experiences with those who attend. In the context of a Bible class, a mission rally, or a youth rally—under pastoral guidance—a personal story of how Christ touched someone with the gospel may be quite appropriate and uplifting.
It depends on where we’re ﬁshing.
And what we’re ﬁshing for.
Rev. S. Piet Van Kampen
Christ The King Lutheran Church
Green Bay, WI