Welby: witness gently for Jesus, and wait until you're asked (most of the time)


There’s always a danger when you pick up a comment piece from a newspaper that you glance at a headline and form an opinion from a crass summary of a journalist’s apprehension of what a person actually said. Did they actually speak those words? Do the quotation marks surround a verbatim report or a compacted version? Did they actually mean what they said? What was the context? Who were they speaking to? When? Why?

John Bingham in the Telegraph reports the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby as saying: “Don’t speak about your faith unless you’re asked to.” At least that’s the summary headline. But it isn’t in quotation marks. The caption beneath the Archbishop’s picture reads: “The Archbishop of Canterbury said Christians should not actively ‘proselytise’ non-Christians.” But the only word in quotation marks is ‘proselytise’, which may or may not be because the word was used. And then we come to the body of text: “Christians should not talk to people about their faith unless they are actively invited to do so, the Archbishop of Canterbury has insisted.” But that isn’t in quote marks either, so it isn’t exactly clear what the Archbishop said or precisely what he meant.

The context was a reception at Lambeth Palace for faith leaders – a kind of Archbishop’s Garden Party of multifaith fraternity and fellowship – which certainly wouldn’t be an occasion to bash people over the head with Jesus. You don’t invite the Chief Rabbi and prominent Muslim, Sikh, Buddhist and Hindu representatives into your home to tell them their faith is deficient and they all need Jesus and if they don’t accept him as their personal Lord and Saviour they’re all going to hell. That’s just not very polite, is it? Indeed, it wouldn’t be very polite in any meaningful relationship: it is always preferable to witness in deeds rather than words.

So, the assumption must be that John Bingham has taken the Archbishop’s words to a specific people in a specific place at a specific time, and universalised them to define a preferred approach to mission to all people for all time. The only extensive verbatim quotation is in response to a question about the distinction between evangelism and proselytism:

“I draw the line in terms of respect for the other; in starting by listening before you speak; in terms of love that is unconditional and not conditional to one iota, to one single element on how the person responds to your own declaration of faith; and of not speaking about faith unless you are asked about faith.

“That’s a shorthand but I could go on.

“I draw a pretty sharp line, it is all based around loving the person you are dealing with which means you seek their well-being and you respect their identity and their integrity.”

When probed on Twitter, the Archbishop graciously responded, and did so by quoting Scripture, which is the mark of the man:


‘..but sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence‘ (1Pt 3:15f [NASB]. The phrase ‘gentleness and reverence’ is also used in the RSV. The NIV prefers ‘respect’ to ‘reverence’; the KJV translates as ‘meekness and fear’). Whichever translation you use, St Peter’s focus is manifestly on witnessing with humility and graciousness out of respect for the person. But he didn’t say: “Don’t speak about your faith unless you’re asked.” But nor, perhaps, did Justin Welby, for his tweet does not say ‘wait’ to witness, but rather he exhorts Christians to witness with gentleness and reverence, as St Peter does.

And if the Archbishop did say: “Don’t speak about your faith unless you’re asked”, he plainly did not mean always, in all circumstances and forever, which is rather the inference of the Telegraph headline. Not least because he has previously encouraged Chinese Christians to share their faith, urging them to be “martyrs” (or “witnesses”), and he did so with the same exhortation to gentleness, graciousness and respect:

Peter was very clear that the heart of witness lay not in aggressive shouting at people or any other form of manipulation or disruption, but in lives that were lived so clearly that people would ask why the Christian lived in such a way and that the Christian would ‘always be ready to give an explanation for the hope that is within you, but with gentleness and grace’.

The context of 1Peter is the persecuted Church scattered throughout five Roman provinces, equating roughly to the greater part of modern Turkey. Peter most probably wrote it from Rome, where his evangelistic mission was being confronted with the reality of appalling suffering under Nero. The exhortation to talk about one’s faith with gentleness and reverence is made sensitively to those believers for whom the day-to-day reality was slander (allegations of incest, sexual orgies cannibalism), torture and death. In such a context, the quality of Christian character speaks far more eloquently than words. If you must use words, make sure you do so with love and respect, and that might entail waiting to be asked about the joy and peace you radiate.

Jesus’s approach was not always to wait until he was asked: he spoke the truth and proclaimed the gospel in a variety of settings, and he adapted his witness to the individual and his audience, as we all must do if we are genuinely seeking to save those who are lost. When the Pharisee Nicodemus comes to Jesus, it is Nicodemus who initiates the conversation: ‘Rabbi, we know that thou art a teacher come from God: for no man can do these miracles that thou doest, except God be with him..‘ (Jn 3:2). And this provides Jesus with the opportunity to respond directly: ‘Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God‘ (v3). And the questions of salvation ensue, and the gospel is shared: ‘Ye must be born again‘ (v7).

But in the next chapter, talking to the Samaritan woman, she does not ask him about spiritual matters. How could she and why would she if she does not have knowledge of who he is? It is Jesus who initiates the conversation with the mundane: ‘Give me to drink‘ (Jn 4:7), to which she enquires: ‘How is it that thou, being a Jew, askest drink of me, which am a woman of Samaria? for the Jews have no dealings with the Samaritans’ (v9). Her question is concerned with matters of prejudice, sex and race, which Jesus turns, gently and reverently: ‘If thou knewest the gift of God, and who it is that saith to thee, Give me to drink; thou wouldest have asked of him, and he would have given thee living water‘ (v10). Her question about drinking water is transformed into an opportunity to witness to the life-giving water of eternal salvation. She didn’t ask about faith: she was bound by historic enmity, sex inequality, ceremonial uncleanness and social convention. Jesus didn’t wait for her to ask him about his faith: he spied an opportunity and went for it.

Nicodemus approached Jesus, and the witness was immediate. Jesus approached the Samaritan woman, and his request was for assistance. He didn’t bash her over the head with doctrine or give her a gospel tract: he asked of her a favour. How many Christians win a soul by first humbly asking for assistance with something? Aren’t social contact and meaningful relationship preferable to the noisy gong and clanging cymbal of public declaration? Is it not better to witness for Christ by a life of humility and holiness rather than words?

But what about the prophetic ministry? Are prophets called to be gentle, respectful and reverent? Should they ‘wait’ to be invited before they speak what God has told them? It is worth observing that Jesus was rather abrupt, if not rude to the Samaritan woman: ‘Jesus said unto her, Thou hast well said, I have no husband: For thou hast had five husbands; and he whom thou now hast is not thy husband: in that saidst thou truly‘ (v17f). Now this might be a certain cause of offence, now as then, for the conviction of sin is rarely received with gentleness and grace: ‘Who on earth does he think he is, judging my chosen lifestyle and condemning my personal morality?’ We might even call it discrimination, prejudice or ‘hate’. And yet the insensitive challenge illuminates a soul: ‘The woman saith unto him, Sir, I perceive that thou art a prophet‘ (v19).

The prophet is called to foretell the will of God and forthtell the word of God. In speaking about the omniscience of the Godhead or matters of truth, justice, morality and authority, the prophet will not wait for secularists, atheists, fascists, Marxists or totalitarian regimes to invite him to speak about his faith: he will proclaim that he saw Satan fall and Christ exalted, and his witness may lead to martyrdom, for holiness with zeal can be a bit prickly, and humanistic utopias aren’t conducive to the myths of eternal salvation. Not all are called to be prophets, of course. But all saints are called to be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks about the reason for the hope that we have. For the pastor and evangelist, it is far better to wait for and listen to others before we expound the primacy of the freedom of the gospel over legalistic justification. For the apostle and prophet, there is no waiting: political corruption, judicial malfeasance, violent and sexually perverted entertainment, widespread criminality… these shadows will be subject to the light of God’s judgment, and the prophetic testimony is urgent: repent of sin and come to Christ by faith for justification by his covenant grace. You just don’t say it at a Lambeth Palace Garden Party.