While many enjoy watching rival sports teams battle it out on the field, it used to be one of my favorite past times to watch intellectual sparring matches between well-known Christian apologists and the inevitably better-known atheists. When I first came to terms with my Christian faith, I was intent on meeting the world around me with an intellectual defense. So it should come as no surprise that I quickly became fascinated by apologetics proper—a word derived from the Greek apologia and which, in Christian circles, deals with providing a reasonable basis for our faith.
As a brief aside, I really must confess that I was, in fact, just as unbearably nerdy and pretentious in high school as it sounds. Many would argue I am still just as nerdy and pretentious, but I digress.
While I do find apologetics to be an immensely important study to this day, my overall approach has changed considerably. In the United States of 2017, the non-Christian population is much more concerned with why Christians seem to have such disgust for non-binary gender norms or a woman’s right to choose. For many of them, the ability to make the case for a Creator from the second law of thermodynamics probably holds very little sway. Not that such a discussion is without its time and place, nor would I suggest any Christian abandon such knowledge. However, it is safe to say that despite whatever scientific or philosophical doubts of Christianity persist, our present culture has largely placed its concerns elsewhere on ethical and cultural matters. That is to say, to the young individual who feels put off by Christianity because of hurtful responses to his sexual identity or the fact that she has had an abortion, regurgitated passages from popular apologetic books likely seem irrelevant.
Moreover, many apologetic enthusiasts have a nasty habit of destroying another’s intellectual framework, only to leave that person without Christ. One of my university professors likened this unfortunate phenomenon to pulling out an apologetic bazooka to make rubble out of the perceived opposition—only to leave someone standing in the ruins of defeat without extending an olive branch. Intellectually charged debates are all too often more about who sounds smarter than what is actually true and good. When the world already thinks we are judgmental and bigoted, coming off as haughty and highbrow can mean forever turning a person off to the Christ who should be motivating us to share truth in gentleness and respect—the often forgotten conclusion to that exhortation in 1 Peter 3:15. The time has come for a new apologetic ethic to meet our present culture.
When sharing the gospel, we start from a place of wanting to share the same grace that was first shared with us. Our motivation should be to share that which Christ has freely given us. If our approach to culture is rooted in a humble desire to share Christ, then our apologetic ethic, in turn, will be Christ-like. And that is what the culture around us needs to see.
Once we have our motivation firmly cemented, we can begin the approach. And I do mean approach, not attack. We need to be willing to encounter and interact with the issues and people that are contrary to our beliefs. We need to understand the other side before we rush to war against it. The proverbial them are not our enemies. They are people, men and women, created in the image of God with no less value than our own. Their hearts and minds are infinitely more important than the ideas and issues that might make us uncomfortable. When we have a better understanding of other people and other ideas, our approach can be one of compassion without sacrificing fidelity to truth.
Part of that interactive, compassionate approach is also going to mean recognizing that just because something is true doesn’t mean it should be blurted out right then and there. When famed journalist and religious critic Christopher Hitchens died in 2011, I wrote a brief eulogy for him as a man who had impacted my intellectual development. I was shocked and saddened by a number of Christians who immediately responded that he was not resting in peace because he died an atheist and went to hell. No matter how true that may have been, in the fresh wake of loss, statements like that can do so much more harm than good. As believers presenting a public witness, we have a responsibility to recognize the fallibility of human speech. From the tongue can flow blessings or curses (James 3:10). How and when we speak truth is just as important as what the truth itself is. Here’s to looking at you, social media missionaries.
The tone and platform of sharing truth can certainly vary, but recognizing the proper context is crucial. And more often than not, truth needs to be shared in a relational context. That can take time, so in pursuit of building that relational context, we need to recognize that not everyone needs or wants an intellectual sparring partner. But everyone needs a friend. Let us start by building a relationship with someone before we try tearing down their worldview. I think you’ll find that the best apologetic ethic has much less to do with having the best, finely rehearsed debate rhetoric, and much more to do with how you live life in the company of those who desperately need to see Christ reflected in you.
So put down that apologetic bazooka. The time has come for a new apologetic ethic.