Character and Christian Witness
Connecting our words with our deeds.
The Roman Emperor, Julian, reigned from 361-363 AD, nearly 25 years after Constantine the Great’s reign ended in 337. While Constantine is known for embracing Christianity, Julian is notable for advocating for Rome’s rejection of Christianity and for a return to the old ways of paganism. Thus, he is frequently called “Julian the Apostate.”
But Julian struggled to sway popular opinion towards rejecting Christianity, and it was his belief that the compassionate character of Christians was the reason why. Writing to a pagan priest, Julian complained that Christians “support not only their poor, but ours as well.” He went on to advocate that those who supported a pagan revival ought to emulate the character of Christians if they ever hoped to see paganism thrive again.
There are many stories like this from late antiquity which detail the rapid spread of Christianity due to the character of Christians. Christians were known from the earliest days as being people who not only cared for the poor and needy through acts of mercy, but also as people with character who treated others fairly and respectfully, who dignified women and lower class people, and who honored monogamous marriage vows. These things were certainly radical for their time, and one can make an argument that the character of Christians was just as important for the rapid growth of Christianity as the preaching of the Gospel itself.
Any serious student of the New Testament will also have noted that the apostolic writers frequently wrote about the importance of Christian character when it comes to Christian witness. Saint Paul, for example, instructs the Colossians to “Walk in wisdom amongst outsiders, making the best use of the time. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.” (Colossians 4:4-5). Saint Peter similarly admonishes the church in Rome to 'keep their conduct among the Gentiles honorable…so they might see your good deeds and Glorify God on the day of visitation.’ (1 Peter 2:12).
The Apostles understood that character and Christian witness were intimately tied together. Of course, this belief did not originate with them: it came directly from Jesus, who taught that “No good tree bears bad fruit.” (Luke 6:43). From the earliest days, Christians knew that the “fruit” they bore in the world said something about their faith. They knew that their outward character pointed towards their new inward reality; that they were called to bear good spiritual fruit (Galatians 5:22-23).
When you think about witnessing to others or sharing your Christian faith, does your character come to mind as being of the utmost importance? Because the testimony of both history and Scripture itself suggests that it is. Often when we think of sharing our faith, our minds immediately jump first to thinking about how we might be able to make compelling or reasonable arguments for Christian belief (what is often called Christian apologetics). But, as important as that might be, history and Scripture reminds us over and over again that our actual character is crucial for being effective witnesses to Christ. The fruit we bear really matters.
I want to suggest that this is a crucial lesson for us Christians to relearn in our increasingly polarized and often irritable age. In a time where people often are eager to engage in debates, to point fingers, and to pronounce judgments, how we Christians carry ourselves matters a great deal. As Christians, the way we treat people at work, in public, or online, really does impact the way people perceive the Christian faith. If we want to be effective witnesses for Christ, we must be people of character.
Let me leave you with this reflection from C.S. Lewis:
“Fine feelings, new insights, greater interest in 'religion' mean nothing unless they make our actual behavior better; just as in an illness 'feeling better' is not much good if the thermometer shows that your temperature is still going up. In that sense the outer world is quite right to judge Christianity by its results. Christ told us to judge by results. A tree is known by its fruit; or, as we say, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. When we Christians behave badly, or fail to behave well, we are making Christianity unbelievable to the outside world. The war-time posters told us that Careless Talk costs Lives. It is equally true that Careless Lives cost Talk. Our careless lives set the outer world talking; and we give them grounds for talking in a way that throws doubt on the truth of Christianity itself.”
Adam Smith is a Ministry Associate in Washington, D.C.