Maybe you’ve seen it. Or maybe you’ve been it. To my shame I have certainly been ‘that guy’ too many times, especially as a younger Christian. What am I talking about? I’m talking about a type of apologetics that, even if right in argument, is wrong in tone and words.
Our apologetics might dominate others but at the cost of Christlike witness.
It’s a defence of Christianity, or of certain doctrines, that might win the argument but lose the person. It can drip with smugness and self-righteousness at times. Lacking humility, it might dominate and decimate the points of others but at the cost of Christlike witness. Because, lacking pastoral concern and genuine love, it cultivates false listening: letting the other person speak only so that you can then send off your witty repartee or point like an exploding missile.
The Tone of our Apologetics Matters
The first article in this series located healthy Christian apologetics under the umbrella of discipleship. This remains simple and key. Any defence we carry out must be situated in that greater context. In other words, we’re not ‘apologists’ foremost but disciples of Jesus.
That means both the content we proclaim and how we live matters, which was the concern of my second article. This most definitely includes our words, tone, and manner when engaging in apologetics. That is the focus of this article. Even a brief reflection on 1 Peter 3:15 implies not so much us going out ‘doing apologetics’ but people coming to us. Why? By virtue of the difference of life we present as those in Christ.
One of the worst scenarios is faithful content but an ungodly manner.
One of the worst scenarios is when our content is faithful but our manner of life or words is ungodly. What a jarring experience for those around us! And what an overall unfaithful way of presenting and living out the good news of Jesus.
“With Gentleness and Respect”
While earnest ‘defenders of the faith’ might have 1 Peter 3:15 mentally tattooed into their motives, 1 Peter 3:16 needs just as much meditation for our hearts and words. It reads: “‘Do this [giving a defence when asked] with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that when you are accused, those who disparage your good conduct in Christ will be put to shame”. This verse is important for at least two reasons.
1. How We Say It Matters
Good content with bad manner does not honourably witness to Jesus.
Our content is around the hope we have in us, obviously because Jesus is Lord and our Lord. But the manner in which we communicate that matters; the tone of apologetics is crucial. Peter commands us to speak with gentleness and respect. So, even if somehow we imagine ourselves as the Lord’s top apologist in content, if our manner oozes ungodliness then we decompose at the bottom of the pile. By God’s grace, we must allow gentleness and respect to saturate and dominate our apologetics. Otherwise we must remain quiet. Good content with bad manner does not honourably witness to Jesus.
2. We May Still Be Ridiculed
1 Peter 3:16 also reminds us that even if we get the manner right, we might still face ridicule. Does that surprise you?
Let their hostility come from rejecting the gospel, not from us being annoying idiots.
For even if we communicate the hope of Christ in a godly way, we cannot expect hugs and kisses. Fortunately, that’s not our primary motive for gentleness and respect. But if we carry ourselves with faithfulness in both content and communication, then our consciences can rest clear. We should expect those hostile to Christ to overflow in hostility to us. But let their hostility come from rejecting the gospel and the God of the gospel, not from us being annoying idiots.
Love People Not Arguments
I wonder if sometimes the reason why we can be so unloving in our apologetic speech is because we love the argument, not the people. We want to win our point, not the soul. Often our apologetics may demonstrate towering logic while lacking a truly Christian tone.
I’m currently reading 1 Corinthians in my devotional times, and I was struck by the placement of 1 Corinthians 13 between chapters 12 and 14. It’s clear from the letter that the Corinthians loved spiritual gifts. It puffed them up. It put them on levels, leading them to look down on others. But smack-dab in the middle of Paul’s section on spiritual gifts is a chapter on the superiority of love. That love should significantly influence our tone when it comes to apologetics.
Smack-dab in the section on spiritual gifts is a chapter on the superiority of love.
Read these words describing the kind of love we know in Christ and are to reflect: “Love is patient, love is kind. Love does not envy, is not boastful, is not arrogant, is not rude, is not self-seeking, is not irritable, and does not keep a record of wrongs. Love finds no joy in unrighteousness but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends” (1 Corinthians 13:4-8).
If those enamoured with spiritual gifts and gifting needed rebuking about the centrality of love, then I wonder if many of us modern defenders of the faith need the same. We might link our speech under the domain of a love that “rejoices in the truth”. But we may also need to double click on that love being patient and kind; not boastful or arrogant, or rude and self-seeking.
And surely, if this love gripped us because of Jesus, think how much better our speech to outsiders, or Christians we disagree with on certain doctrines, would be. Lord, have mercy!
Set the Truth on Fire with Love
Now don’t get worried here. Love according to the Bible bears no resemblance to the love the world vainly holds. For the world ‘loving’ consists of tolerance and acceptance of wishy-washy ‘truth’. Whereas God’s love is robustly firm, while also spaciously gracious. It can declare us as sinners who can only be saved through Christ, which God does so through the Jesus who came in humility and tears.
The ‘doctrines of grace’ are easily on our lips but not as securely in our souls.
It’s right to love the truth. But sometimes our love of the truth leads to a knowledge that puffs us up and spoils our speech. We speak as those with heads full of right teaching, but hearts lacking time and love fashioned humility. Our brash communication can betray our hearts. We might have certain knowledge, but not one that has led to godliness (Titus 1:1). In other words, a lack of grace might show that the ‘doctrines of grace’ are easily on our lips but not as securely in our souls. Our hope? Repent and believe the good news. And perhaps cultivate slowness in speech while we watch our hearts.
The manner in which we communicate truth matters. One of the last things we want is for the tone of our apologetics to not match the infinitely beautiful God we proclaim. Instead, we’re encouraged to speak the truth in love—to insiders and outsiders, in-person and online.
Apologetics in Proper Christian Context
Over the last three posts we’ve examined Christian apologetics in Christian context. But in closing let me add two caveats:
- Please, let’s aim to grow in our proficiency and skills and knowledge related to apologetics. There can be a right and godly responsibility and zeal here which not only matures us, but also better equips us in making disciples of Christ (Matthew 28:19). But in that, aim to be not so much an expert in apologetics as much as a servant of Christ. Any discussions we have or defences we mount should come from and return to the news about the Saviour.
- We will mess up! The aim with the material above isn’t to silence us under the weight of our potential imperfections. The intention was to focus and shape us as Christ honouring witnesses. But when we mess up, we must own it. Own it with repentance before God, and with apologies before people. And I think you’ll find that even our apologies can be a faithful apologia—also used as a witness to the grace we know, and the secure identity we hold in Christ.
I realise I may have overstated certain points in this series of articles, in order to make the points. But in my opinion, Christian apologetics would be much healthier and prayerful and godly if we reflected on the proper location, content, and tone of apologetics.