Evangelical Questions: Do Evangelicals have “a testimony”?
by Jennifer Roach, MDiv, LMHC
Welcome back to Come Follow Me with FAIR: Faithful Answers to New Testament Questions. My name is Jennifer Roach and today we’re going to talk about testimonies. As you know we’re going through the Come Follow Me readings and addressing common questions that Evangelicals ask about our faith as we go along. Our purpose here is not to fuel debate but to help you understand where your Evangelical friends and family are coming from so that you can have better conversations with them, and perhaps even be able to offer them a bit of our faith in a way they can understand.
Okay, so today we’re going to talk about scripture as a concept. We get our jumping-off verse from Acts 22:1:
Brothers and fathers, listen now to my defense.
And really this is just one example from the Book of Acts of people bearing their testimonies. And you might not realize this, but Evangelicals and Latter-day Saints use the word, “testimony” in rather different ways. Let me talk you through some of the variations.
We’ll start in a general sense. Evangelicals very much have the concept of having a testimony, but they use it in a very specific way. “Bearing one’s testimony” for an Evangelical usually follows a formula (all groups actually follow a bit of a formula, its just different depending on the group) but the Evangelical formula follows 3 steps that are….Before; How; Since. They talk through what their lives were like before they came to Christ, how it is that they came to trust Christ, and what their life has been like since. If you’re like me the immediate question that comes to mind is about how that works for children who were born into their church.
There will be some slight variation here, but the thing you have to understand is that Evangelical children are understood to be born into the world as sinners. From the second they are born they are headed toward eternal separation from God unless they make a profession of faith. That’s the theology. In practice it works out a bit softer – they have an understanding of the “age of accountability” which is said to be anywhere from age 8 to age 15 (the higher end of this range happens in churches where confirmation is practiced.) So if a child dies before the age of accountability people will comfort each other by talking about this concept – but at the same time, Evangelicals fall exactly in line with the broader Protestant theology that says anyone who has not made a public profession of faith will be damned to hell for all eternity. This is one of the reasons the practice of infant baptism, or pedobaptism, developed. Most Evangelicals don’t practice paedobaptism, but those who do see it in a similar same way that Latter-day Saints see the status of a child born in the covenant – they have a level of protection while they are young and unable to reach up to God. Infant baptism is seen as God reaching down to them before they are able to reach up to him. Catholics (and EO and a few others) are doing something different in paedobaptism, but Evangelicals are basically conferring to their child the same idea that we confer to all children under age 8.
So when an Evangelical learns to give a testimony, and they were born into a church family, it usually says something like: I was born into a church family and didn’t even realize I needed to do something about my faith, but at age 8 (or similar age) I learned that I should invite Jesus into my heart so I did. And now I am much happier and I know I’m going to Heaven when I die. Before, How, Since. Obviously, the people who convert to Evangelicalism later in life have a wider variety of stories depending on their circumstances.
But that’s pretty much where “bearing your testimony” ends for them. It is almost exclusively about how they came to faith and got saved from Hell. An Evangelical is just never going to say, “I have a testimony of the Bible,” or “I have a testimony that this church is true.” That’s not what testimonies are about for them. For them a testimony is the simple story of how they came to know Christ and be adopted as God’s child. This is an aside, but for them the word “adopt” is a huge theme – they don’t see themselves as being born as “children of God” they see themselves with the Devil as their true father, but God adopts them into his family despite how wretched they are. It’s more complicated than that, and I’ve got 2 previous episodes on this topic, so I’ll leave it at that for now. In summary, Evangelical testimonies are about how they “got saved.”
Latter-day Saints on the other hand are likely to say they have a testimony of all kinds of different aspects of faith. And we are taught, pretty consistently, that bearing one’s testimony should be focused on Christ – but we use all kinds of different tools to do that. You might hear someone say, “I have a testimony of repentance and how it lets me see Christ more in my life.”
Also, the mechanism of what a testimony is supposed to be doing is vastly different. For Evangelicals it’s mostly just a public (or semi-public) telling of how they came to be saved (“saved” from hell) and the function is to participate in a public declaration of faith.
Latter-day Saints come at it differently because a different mechanism is being used. For LDS a testimony is talking about how a belief was solidified through the exercise of faith. It’s faith-in-action that results in a deeper faith – called a testimony. For example, a person has faith that God really cares about them. And that faith is good, but maybe a little shaky sometimes. The person goes through an experience where they must put action into that faith – they must act on the fact that God cares about them in this example – and at the end of the process, their belief is built stronger. This is gaining a testimony of something. Their belief is made stronger through the process of trusting in what God has already revealed to them.
And something you will never hear Evangelicals say is, “I don’t really have a testimony of…..this or that.” They’re not going to say, “I don’t know that I really have a testimony of tithing right now.” Or, “My son really needs to develop his testimony of repentance.” For Evangelicals you either have a testimony that you’ve been saved, or you don’t.
How testimonies are expressed is also really different. Evangelicals will express their testimony almost exclusively for trying to convert other people. That’s the whole point – so that the other person can be saved from Hell too. But Latter-day Saints express a testimony for different reasons – certainly missionary work is in there, but we express testimonies in front of our families and loved ones so that they can know how we feel and that more faith and trust in God can be inspired in them too. Evangelicals have very limited opportunities to express a testimony publicly – their worship services just don’t make room for it. While Latter-day Saints are given the opportunity to do so in the church service every few weeks.
Now, Latter-day Saint friends, I know….Fast and Testimony meeting can be a grab-bag where you never know what you’re going to get. And I’m sure everyone listening can think of times where Fast and Testimony meeting got weird. My best 2 examples of this are…1) The time when the police had to be called in the middle of F&T meeting. But that was not nearly as interesting as my very first F&T meeting when I was investigating the church where a very old man went to the podium and talked about how disappointed he was that polygamy has not come back. I was sitting with a friend who just reached over and grabbed my hand and said, “We can talk about this later.” So, yeah, it goes weird sometimes. But I wouldn’t get rid of the practice if I could – and that is because of the mechanism that is driving it. We are able to see how putting faith into action works to bring us closer to Christ. And while we love reading about that in the scriptures, we’re still human and need to see how that is worked out in the lives of other human beings. That does something for us that is encouraging and inspires us toward our own acts of faith.
My biggest goal in telling you all of this, Latter-day Saint friends, is to help you understand that you’re using the word “testimony” differently than Evangelicals use it. “I bear my testimony that….” makes no sense to them. I’m not saying you should avoid that phrase, I actually was really drawn in by that phrase when I was investigating the church. I’m just saying that it might help to have some language for understanding how Evangelicals use that word, and how we’re using it differently. Because the concept of putting faith into action – which results in more faith and a closer relationship with Christ – that’s pretty compelling. But you have to be able to explain what you’re doing to them. If you say, “I have a testimony of having a Prophet to lead our church,” your Evangelical friend is going to mishear that as, “I believe our Prophet is how you gain salvation,” because for them baring a testimony really is only about talking about how you obtained salvation – which isn’t even really a category we talk in.
Shorter episode today – but it’s summer. So. I know some of you are coming to the FAIR conference this week, or you’ll be listening online. Still time to register for online streaming if you want. I think in-person registration is closed by now because they needed to get a head-count for meals. But if you will be there in person please be sure to find me and say Hi. I’d love to meet you. Next week the Come Follow Me readings move into Romans. And I could do a year’s worth of these episodes just on Romans alone. But it will fly by and we’ll just grab the most relevant stuff. See you then.
More Come, Follow Me resources here.
Jennifer Roach earned a Master of Divinity from The Seattle School of Theology and Psychology, and a Master of Counseling from Argosy University. Before her conversion to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints she was an ordained minister in the Anglican church. Her own experience of sexual abuse from a pastor during her teen years led her to care deeply about issues of abuse in faith communities.