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Evangelism on the Way Out, Part 1: Silent Witness

Tuesday, 4 October 2011  | Steve McAlpine

It’s a rare occurrence when not one, but two, religious stories compete for space in the Australian media these days. Rare, but not non-existent. First, it was announced that a WA primary school had dispensed with the Lord’s Prayer at assembly after parents complained.  The story was led by The West Australian, before couch surfing a range of media for several days. The supercilious hard left quoted Dawkins about the horrors of religion in the public square: The hard right grumped about the country going to the dogs without God.  

A second story, fertilised by the first, then sprang up.  A local Christian school was reportedly singing unauthorised Christian additions to the National Anthem at its assemblies. The practice was eventually cleared on a technicality, since when it was sung, the school did not announce it as the National Anthem. As such it was deemed a legally updated version of  the 1879 song Advance Australia Fair, not an illegal alteration of the official two-versed The National Anthem of Australia, itself an expurgation of the florid, colonial, and, let’s face it, bellicose four-versed original. Get it? Or rather, Girt it?

ABC radio’s Geoff Hutchison reasonably saw the difference between the two, despite protestations from both sides.  A secular state school, Hutchison argued, has the legal and moral obligation to challenge any religious preferencing in its public activities, whilst a Christian school is well within its rights to highlight the role of God in the nation’s life. The issue rumbled along for a few more days before losing oxygen.

There are any number of avenues we could take.  Why is the public square so hostile to Christianity?  What does it mean for the future of public funding for Christian education given the government’‘ commitment to the removal of workplace religious and sexual discrimination barriers? Does Australia have a Christian past that is accurately reflected in the additional verse anyway?  My interest lies in the ramifications for evangelism.  How should we evangelise when Christianity is “on the way out” of the culture?  How do we share the good news among those who once passively acknowledged Christianity’s role—in much the same way one accepts a strange, but harmless uncle within the family—but who have now grown suspicious of Christianity’s truth claims, and increasingly express practical and ideological hostility towards its ethic?  If Christianity is indeed “on the way out” of the culture how much evangelistic wiggle room do we have?

Ironically our best chance may be to mirror the church’s evangelism methods when it was “on the way in”, to be the closing parenthesis of which the church of the first century was the opening.  Despite the obvious differences, the chasm between church and culture then was fueled by the same hostility we face now, whilst, paradoxically, this chasm also provides similarly fruitful opportunities for evangelism.  The recipients of 1 Peter are a great example of a church “on the way in”, hence 1 Peter is a crucial text for understanding our evangelism practice “on the way out”, in particular the silent witness role of the Christian wife of an unbelieving husband.

In his celebrated essay, “Soft Difference: Theological Reflections on the Relation Between Church and Culture in 1 Peter,” Miroslav Volf states:

The community did not seek to exert social and political pressure, but to give public witness to a new way of life.


Even if they wished to, the early church was in no position to seek to exert such pressure when they were still “on the way in”.  A painful, personal example of how the social pressure worked against Christians was experienced by wives of unbelieving husbands. Social pressure dictated that households worship the gods of the household head; generally, those of the husband. How could a Christian wife remain faithful to her confession that Jesus is Lord in this setting?  Peter offers sage, but subversive advice:

“Likewise, wives, be subject to your own husbands, so that if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives.” (1 Peter 3:1)


Peter’s “likewise” continues the flow of an argument begun in 2:11 in which Christians are called to live honourable lives among the Gentiles for the sake of their witness to Christ and to give no room for valid complaint. He deals first with public realms of civic life and the workplace, before moving it to the private sphere.

Interestingly Peter validates both the silent witness of  wives and the spoken witness of the community (cf. 3:14-16.) Indeed Jeannine K. Brown (“Silent Wives, Verbal Believers: Ethical and Hermeneutical Considerations in 1 Peter 3:1-6 and Its Context”) highlights ten specific or similar words used in the two passages.  One word in particular stands out; “fear”.  The fear that might result in the community’s silence in the face of hostile questioning, is the same fear that might result in a wife’s words before an unbelieving husband.  Fear often silences us,  but it can also compel us speak out when we should be quiet!

What might it mean for us “on the way out” of the culture?  The Lord’s Prayer debate is a good test case.  In this instance we are the believing wife of the unbelieving husband.  The political, social and civic ground does not belong to us.  Government schools cannot by law preference any one religious perspective.  However all too often in the Twitter age the knee-jerk reaction is to give in to fear. So we phone talk-back radio, protest outside the school, write a letter, form a committee or appeal to a sympathetic MP.  In the Twitter age far too many words are having to be retracted, and many of those words are spoken out of fear or anger. Take the following for example: “This is the thin end of the wedge”.  “This used to be a Christian country”.  “If we give this up we will never get it back.”   Fear drives us to hard difference and a sense of cultural ownership that neither afflicted the first Christians nor affected their growth.

So how might we win our “husband” without a word?  Once again the Lord’s Prayer is helpful.  First we should let go of our hard difference “rights”. Our right to the Lord’s Prayer in schools is on shaky legal ground anyway. Then, having liberated ourselves from fear, we can start to actively be a Lord’s Prayer community before an often hostile, world. We start by hallowing God’s name in how we live. We then yearn for God’s kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven, rather than simply putting our energies into constructing a plausible empire. We could then display a financial contentedness and trust in God’s daily provision that belies and challenges the frantic and consumer-driven culture in which we live. And how about celebrating forgiveness and offering it in obvious ways to others? Finally, in a small and fractured way, we could begin to overcome all sorts of evil and injustice in our area with an active goodness that could only come from God.  The irony is that such a soft, silent witness may give rise to all sorts of opportunities to announce Jesus as Lord. Even though “on the way out” our gospel might be “on the way in” for someone who, in observing their fearless believing wife, is won over without a word.

Next time: Evangelism on the Way Out: Part 2 - Verbal Witness

Articles cited:
Jeannine K. Brown, “Silent wives, verbal believers: ethical and hermeneutical considerations in 1 Peter 3:1-6 and its context,” Word & World 24:4 (September 1, 2004)

Miroslav Volf, "Soft Difference: Theological Reflections on the Relation Between Church and Culture in 1 Peter," Ex Auditu 10 (1994) 



Gordon Preece
October 17, 2011, 9:47AM
Just heard from very positive feedback about this article from Dave Fuller, Youth Work coordinator for North-West regions in Melbourne Anglican Diocese
Warren Hodge
October 17, 2011, 3:54PM
This is so true. If only we gave priority to living out the Gospel (and the example here of living out the Lord's Prayer is so helpful), instead of speaking defensively out of fear in vain attempts to preserve a 'cultural Christianity' that no longer serves our communities well (if it ever did). Post-Christendom gives us the opportunity to re-present the Jesus of the New Testament in all his true wonder, and the silent witness of lives with integrity grounded in faith is certainly part of the way forward.
Nicholas Tuohy
October 29, 2011, 11:21AM
This is really helpful, thanks.

I wonder though about the constant refrain of 'post-Christendom'. This is true largely in the West, but it may well be that new 'Christendoms' will emerge in Latin America, large parts of Africa, and even China. While Western and European nations are 'de-Christianising', this is not the case for the geographic regions just mentioned.

The other thought that it raised for me is the level of the church's commitment to being liked and affirmed by the wider culture. While silent and 'soft' witness is a helpful image, persecution, marginalisation, mockery and disdain were factors for Jesus, and the early church. This, however, did not lead to a silencing of the Gospel message. As Volf concludes in his article cited here, “[the church] was sure of her mission to proclaim the mighty deeds of God for the salvation of the world, but refused to use either pressure or manipulation. Rather, she lived fearlessly her soft difference.”
John C. Smith
December 6, 2011, 12:36AM
+1 on Warren's comment. It's a simple fact that Christ-followers are more and more seemingly irrelevant in/to the Western World. Walk the talk is the answer, the Church seems to be more histrionic in its self-defence rather than demonstrating the Truth. Praise God, not church.
Robin Carter
December 7, 2011, 4:59PM
Appreciated the articles reminder to 'live out our faith' where ever we are or what ever the circumstances. I have just come back from visiting a 97% Muslim cuture where Christians are unashamedly living out their faith and 'loving their neighbours as they would love themselves'. People come to faith as they work harmoniously together with Muslim neighbours helping communities out of poverty.

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