There are a number of “departments” in the organizational structure of the local church. At election time we call them “church offices,” and tend to keep them separate, letting the leaders in each office or department carry out their own obligations. This is good in itself, and actually is necessary if each is to do effective work for the church. No one can do everything.
But when it comes to soul winning, departmental lines break down. The leaders and teachers of the children’s Sabbath schools are to be soul winners; also the community services department, deacons, youth groups, and elders— everyone in the church, office or no office. Have we to some degree separated departments when it comes to soul winning and deposited the responsibility on the lay activities leaders, who in turn must appeal to all other officers and members to join them in soul winning? As soon as we have said this, it savors of something that isn’t quite correct in terms of who is to finish the spreading of the gospel message.
To put it in another way, the church elder has their work to do—on the platform, in the board meeting, in visitation of members, in assistance with church problems—and thus they could feel justified in permitting the soul-winning call of the lay activities leader to go unanswered, since their own office demands too much of them and their time.
There is, however, great danger in this attitude. Why? Because “witness” in its Biblical sense, does not necessarily take place when I give out fifteen truth-filled tracts in my neighborhood. I could do that simply in order to no longer feel guilty for not doing it. I may feel better afterwards if I go out and give Bible studies for the same reason. It might be nothing more than the fulfilling of an obligation rather than witness.
As elders, we may fulfill our office by visiting a newly baptized family and inviting them home for dinner, thus strengthening them in their new-found faith. Or we may visit a backslidden person and attempt to reclaim him and restore him to the fold. We may even visit a sick member in the hospital, and leave an encouraging tract with someone in the next bed. So many good things are done to which we attach the word witness, but we may have done these acts only to fulfill a responsibility placed upon us, which we have taken to be a part of our official duties.
You ask, Are not the items just mentioned—tract distribution, Bible studies, visitation of new members, backsliders, the sick—all witness? They may or may not be! We have already hinted at the difference. If we do them because our intense love for God must be shared—it is witness. If we do them only because we feel obligated to our office, or because we are members of the church and should do such things, it is not witness at all. They are then probably being done as an attempt to gain the acceptance of God by our own works.
Actually, a church member who has not yet formed a personal love relationship with Christ cannot witness. He can do missionary work, but such is not witness. When we accept Christ genuinely, the very act necessitates that we become witnesses for Him. We do not then witness to gain acceptance or reward. We genuinely witness about the Lord who loves all men as He loves us. Christ in us spills over, just like a glass sitting under the running water faucet. It is not difficult to tell others about the One we love. So many try to witness without a lifelong “first love” to tell about. In doing so they find only a trying and painful obligation.
One of the clearest Bible examples of real witness can be found in Christ‘s counsel to the demoniac “Go home to your own people and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.” (Mark 5:19). Luke adds this: “Now when Jesus returned, a crowd welcomed him, for they were all expecting him.” That man went everywhere telling everyone.
Ellen White makes the same truth clear: “Strive to arouse men and women from their spiritual insensibility. Tell them how you found Jesus, and how blessed you have been since you gained an experience in His service. Tell them what blessing comes to you as you sit at the feet of Jesus, and learn precious lessons from His Word.” (Evangelism, p. 486)
You may now be asking, Is witness confined to the act of talking to others about Christ and our love for Him? Is witness when you tell others about the commandments, the Sabbath, the nature of man, healthful living, the remnant, and the three angels’ messages? Are we not diminishing our emphasis on the great doctrinal truths today in favor of just talking about Christ?
Yes, witness is confined to the act of talking to others about Christ! But that includes presenting Christ in all of the great Bible teachings as we show others what the Christian life is all about. Think this through carefully—if we show that the commandments reveal love relationships, that the Sabbath is to be devoted to further learning about Christ, that healthful living serves to give us clearer minds in order that we might more fully understand God, His love and His way so that we might grow more like Him, that the three angels messages teach us how to truly worship Him and escape deceptions about Him—we then are witnessing about Christ as we should be, regardless of the particular phase of the Christian life that is being discussed. Sadly, many have never learned this vital point about genuine witness as they should have done, in spite of the abundant counsel given us.
Of course, the church must have departments and specialists and the church elder should be one of these specialists in their work. But departments cannot be compartments, locked off and separated from one another when it comes to soul-winning. The lay activities leader is not to be the only one who speaks out for help in the soulwinning program of the church. Rather, it is his work to specialize in organizing a church full of soul winners, made so by rebirth, into the most effective team possible. The church elder must be the one who leads the way.
Carl Coffman was chair of the Department of Religion at Andrews University when he wrote this article.