Campus debates, academic conferences, scholarly journals—these are some of the places where apologetics is engaged by the Church’s well-equipped defenders. These contexts lend to the structured, sophisticated arguments that have the power to persuade the most determined atheist and unsure agnostic, but are also useful in local coffee shops, family dinner tables and local school board meetings. We are called to give an answer for the hope within wherever we find the truth of God’s word being challenged, wherever Christianity is under assault, whenever Christians are persecuted for their allegiance to Jesus.
yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. (1 Peter 3:15-16 ESV)
It’s easy to forget the second half of the charter verse for apologetics ministry. Our defense of the faith is to not only be true and reasonable, but gracious and kind.
How we give an answer isn’t ancillary to the nature of our defense, though sometimes it seems that aspect of Peter’s charge is missed or ignored. The nature of our interaction is as important as the meat of the answer because it is difficult for those on the receiving end to separate the message from the messenger. I believe this is what motivates Peter to write that we take on the moral aspects of the gospel in giving an answer. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to give expression to the “hope within” if it manifests in the form of aggression or hostility. This establishes a contradiction between God’s love and the requirement of his followers to love others which, ultimately, undermines any otherwise reasonable defense of the faith. If not motivated by a love for God and for others, it will be quickly known.
With gentleness and respect—it would seem there is no other way to present the truth of Christianity to the unconverted because the gospel cannot be understood apart from grace in the first place. So, with every bit of caution and courage, our answers should be presented in such a way that our personal integrity is unharmed and God not held responsible for our words in the minds of the unregenerate.
In apologetics ministry, how we speak is as important as the depth and precision of our arguments. Of course, this is true no matter the ministry role we in which we serve, but it’s helpful to remember that apologetics arguments in particular can come across as cold and unfeeling by virtue of what they are. Tending toward the realm of the factual and objective, they typically don’t touch directly on the individual circumstances of a person’s life like a divorce, job loss, or familial estrangement, though obviously they can connect with their intellectual needs. And when we offer moral arguments in defense of Christianity, very often we can strike a personal chord of disagreement with our “opponent.” Let’s not forget to be gentle while being truthful.
This week, I am actively seeking to be a more gracious defender of truth. A gracious apologetic isn’t new to me, but perhaps it’s new about me to those I engage. This may be worthy of reflection for every one striving to be effective in making a defense. So I encourage you to consider not only the meat of your defense, but whether there is any relationship between your effectiveness and your general disposition. If you are perceived as lacking respect and gentleness, it really doesn’t matter how good your argument is.
Sarah Flashing is a freelance writer and speaker in the areas of theology, apologetics and Christian ethics. She is the author of “Preparing Women to Walk Worthy of the Call” and writes at SarahFlashing.com. She has written for The Gospel Coalition, Solid Reasons, Servants of Grace, Christianity Today, and the Christian Apologetics Alliance. Sarah is a graduate of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School with an M.A. in Christian Thought (2005).