Speaking the Truth in Love:
The Role of Apologetics in Pastoral Ministry
By George P. Wood
A few years ago, Sherry, a woman who attended my church, handed me The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown and asked me to read it. Even though the book is fictional, it was raising troubling questions about the history, beliefs, and social practices of traditional Christianity. Sherry wanted me to help her sort out fact from fiction.
I procrastinated reading The Da Vinci Code for several months. I did not want to waste my time reading a mystery novel. But the book was a runaway best seller. Columbia Pictures announced plans to make a movie starring Tom Hanks based on the book. Scholars published books debating its factual assertions. Television news magazines produced hour-long specials regarding it. And more parishioners came to me with their troubling questions about it. So I finally read the book.
The Da Vinci Code’s fast-moving plot kept me interested from start to finish. The book, however, also incorporated self-proclaimed facts into the storyline that were obviously false and easily refuted. I could see why people with little knowledge of Christian doctrine and church history might be impressed, but I was a seminary-educated pastor, and I was not. To help set the record straight, I preached to my parishioners about The Da Vinci Code, and I wrote a blog series about it for my church’s Web site.
The Da Vinci Code taught me that apologetics is important. Radical skepticism about traditional Christianity pervades our culture. If the church does not offer a convincing response to skeptical arguments, no one else will.
Truth and Spiritual Maturity
Why does the church need to respond to skeptics?
In Ephesians 4:14,15, the apostle Paul draws a connection between truth and spiritual maturity: “Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ.”
According to Paul, spiritual maturity — defined as Christlikeness — is the end we pursue. The means by which we pursue it is truth telling. Falsehood is an obstacle to our pursuit of spiritual maturity. So if we want to be Christlike, we must be able to discern the truth and defend it against falsehood.
Unfortunately, our culture is rife with every wind of teaching. Radical skepticism about traditional Christianity is overt, covert, and multimedia. Consider a few examples.
Richard Dawkins is a well-known evolutionary biologist and militant atheist. He recently published The God Delusion. Although atheists represent a tiny fraction of the American populace, Dawkins’ book is a best seller. It offers a variety of arguments why belief in God is irrational.
Another best-selling author who challenges traditional Christianity is Bart Ehrman. At one time, Ehrman was an evangelical Christian; now he considers himself an agnostic. In Misquoting Jesus, he argues that the text of the New Testament is unreliable because scribes have altered the New Testament documents over the years. According to Ehrman, we cannot know what those documents originally said.
Dawkins and Ehrman’s books are nonfiction best sellers. But fiction best sellers also attack traditional Christianity. Their arguments, however, are covert, rather than overt.
Philip Pullman, for example, has written a best-selling, award-winning trilogy marketed to children. His Dark Materials consists of The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass. In these books, God (the Authority) and His church (the Magisterium) are evil, oppressive forces. Humanity is liberated when, at the end of The Amber Spyglass, God finally dies.
The Da Vinci Code incorporates attacks on traditional Christianity into its storyline. The book’s plot turns on the revelation that Jesus Christ married Mary Magdalene and fathered a royal dynasty. This dynasty promotes the gospel of the Sacred Feminine, which, according to Brown, a male-chauvinist, traditional Christianity works hard to suppress.
Books are not the only media in which traditional Christianity is attacked. Hosts from television and radio shows interviewed Dawkins and Ehrman about their ideas. Major movie studios released films based on both The Da Vinci Code and The Golden Compass. Time and Newsweek devoted cover stories to the controversies surrounding these books.
Because of its cultural pervasiveness, radical skepticism also seeps into the church. Christians cannot avoid wrestling with the questions culture is asking.
If belief in God is irrational, as Dawkins argues, why should we believe in Him? If the New Testament is unreliable, as Ehrman argues, why should we trust what it says? Radical skepticism becomes an obstacle to faith for unbelievers, and a temptation for believers to abandon the faith.
In the language of Paul, radical skepticism is a “stronghold” (2 Corinthians 10:4,5). What do Christians do with strongholds? “We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.” Apologetics refutes skeptical arguments so unbelievers can become believers and believers can mature spiritually. Therefore, in our cultural context, both evangelism and discipleship require apologetics.
The Pastor as Lead Apologist
Whose responsibility is apologetics?
In 1 Peter 3:15, the apostle Peter wrote: “But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.” The Greek word for answer is apologian, from which we get apologetics. Thus, every Christian is an apologist.
But pastors pull double duty concerning apologetics. We are the church’s lead apologists, and we train church members to become apologists. How do we become apologists? Three words: prayer, books, and dialogue.
Prayer prepares us spiritually for apologetics. When I am reading Dawkins, Ehrman, or some other skeptical author, I feel my own faith in God is being challenged. The challenge is not merely intellectual; it goes deeper. It is like hearing that your wife has cheated on you. Your mind processes the information, but your heart feels the pain. I know my wife is faithful, and God is more faithful still. But when someone questions your fundamental relationships, their questions mark your heart, even if you have a good answer.
Consequently, to meet the challenges of radical skepticism head-on, our hearts must be in the right place. Notice the order of Peter’s remarks in 1 Peter 3:15. First, he told us, “in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord.” The Greek word for “set apart” is hagiasate, which the King James Version translates as sanctify. Peter told us that only after we sanctify our hearts are we to “give an answer to everyone who asks you.” A pastor’s heart sanctity must precede his head apologetics, and prayer is the key to heart sanctity. So, “let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith” (Hebrews 10:22).
Reading widely prepares us intellectually for apologetics. The Bible is the ultimate source of and final authority for what Christians believe and how they live. It is God’s Word in human words (2 Timothy 3:16,17; 2 Peter 1:20,21). Because of this, the Bible is the book radical skeptics most often attack. Consequently, pastors need to understand what the Bible says and how to properly interpret it.
If a pastor wants to become a good apologist, reading the Bible alone will not be sufficient. Consider Jesus. He was well-versed in Scripture. In His debate with the devil, He quoted Scripture to refute the devil’s arguments (Matthew 4:1–11; compare Deuteronomy 6:13,16; 8:3). But Jesus was also well-versed in the arguments of His opponents. When Jesus quoted Scripture in Matthew 4:1–11, He introduced each verse with the formula, “It is written.” But in Matthew 5:21–48, He used a different introductory formula, “You have heard that it was said.” In these verses, He was citing the Pharisees’ traditional commentary on the Law, not the Law itself. He could critique the Pharisees’ misinterpretations because He was familiar with them. It is not enough for pastors to read their side of a controversy. We must also readthe other side, so we will know how to give an intelligent response to radical skeptics.
Pastors need to read widely in the literature of Christian apologetics. Many well-qualified theologians, biblical scholars, and church historians have written excellent defenses of traditional Christianity. Pastors need to read those books, and then share them with others.
Finally, dialogue prepares us rhetorically for apologetics. Pastors are accustomed to standing in the pulpit each Sunday and preaching to (in some cases, at) their congregations. Such proclamation is a one-way form of communication, from us to them. Proclamation has a legitimate role in pastoral ministry. But do not forget dialogue — a two-way form of communication between us and them. Dialogue is an ideal form of communication for answering questions and rebutting skeptical challenges.
Jesus utilized both forms of communication. The Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5 through 7) is a good example of proclamation. But Matthew 21:21–32 shows Jesus answering His critics’ questions and asking them questions in turn. I used both forms of communication to refute the false claims made by characters in The Da Vinci Code. I proclaimed an entire sermon about it one Sunday, but I also engaged in extensive dialogue about it afterward.
A Skeptic-Friendly Community
How do pastors train members of their congregations to become apologists? Two issues must be considered: environment and curriculum. Let’s look at the environment issue first.
Several years ago, I ate lunch with a man named Jack, an unbeliever who was respectful of the church. He had serious questions about the faith. To get answers, he joined a small group that was reading a book on apologetics. Unfortunately, when members of the group found out that Jack was an unbeliever, they hectored him about his need for conversion but never bothered to answer the questions that were an obstacle to his converting. He never returned to the group.
As Jack told me his story, I learned a valuable lesson: We must accept skeptics before we argue with them. Remember, according to Ephesians 4:14,15, “speaking the truth in love” (emphasis added) is how we overcome falsehood and pursue spiritual maturity. Many churches want to speak the truth to skeptics, but they do not want to love them. Most unbelievers I know reverse those priorities. They want the church to accept them before the church answers their questions.
Interestingly, accepting people is a means to answering their questions. I once led a small group of married couples. Most of them were believers, except for one couple. The wife was a Christian and the husband was not. His name is Mark. The group accepted Mark for who he was, and they encouraged him to ask probing questions about the faith. As the leader of the group, I never told him that his questions were out of line. Instead, knowing that these questions were potential strongholds in his life, I did my best to answer each one. If I did not know the answer, I researched it that week and shared my discoveries at the next meeting. For months, Mark asked what “you Christians” believed about a variety of topics. But I remember the meeting when he began to talk about what “we Christians” believed. By accepting Mark and answering his questions, the group had helped him come to faith.
The questions Jack asked were similar to the ones Mark asked. The answers I gave them were identical. But Mark is a believer, and Jack is not. The difference? Mark’s small group accepted him, and Jack’s did not. Pastors and their congregations must create an environment that welcomes skeptics and provides answers.
An Answer-Ready Church
What about curriculum? What kinds of questions do churches need to be ready to answer? Unbelievers usually ask two kinds of questions: what and why.
What do Christians believe about __________? You can fill in the blank with almost any topic: God, Jesus, miracles, suffering, gay marriage, and evolution. Answering these questions requires knowing what the Bible teaches about each subject. Pastors need to answer these questions every week in their sermons. Your Sunday School classes and small groups need to be studying these questions every week too.
Proper apologetics does not deal with the what question. It assumes that both you and the unbeliever know the answer already. Instead, apologetics deals with the why question. Why is Christian belief about __________ reasonable? Unbelievers — whether radically skeptical or not — do not merely want to know what Christians believe, they want to know why they need to believe the same things. Apologetics, to use Peter’s words, is offering an answer for the hope you have (1 Peter 3:15).
In our cultural context, I repeatedly see two specific why questions.
Why do I need to believe in God? Dawkins and Pullman raise this question in their books. They are symptomatic of a resurgence of atheism, which argues that belief in God lacks evidence, contradicts science, and encourages violence.
Why do I need to believe in the New Testament portrait of Jesus? Brown and Ehrman raise this question in their books. They doubt the reliability of the history, canon, and text of the New Testament.
Unfortunately, pastors cannot answer these questions merely by quoting the Bible. If someone challenges the authority or truthfulness of the Bible, quoting the Bible by way of response commits the fallacy of begging the question — that is, assuming what you want to prove. Instead, we must develop reasons why the Bible’s teaching is true, reliable, and authoritative.
Thankfully, many excellent resources answer specific skeptical questions. I recommend four books by Lee Strobel for a crash course on apologetics:
- The Case for Faith and The Case for a Creator rebut atheist arguments for the irrationality of belief in God. In the second book, in particular, Strobel uses scientific evidence that points to an Intelligent Designer of the universe.
- The Case for Christ and The Case for the Real Jesus rebut skeptical arguments concerning the historicity of Jesus’ life, ministry, and resurrection. In addition, Strobel argues that the New Testament canon includes the oldest and most historically reliable books about Jesus. Finally, he argues that we can have great certainty about what the New Testament authors originally wrote.
Many other excellent apologetics books are available. But Strobel’s books are especially good because he was once a skeptic himself. The evidence convinced him to become a believer. Moreover, Strobel’s writing style is dialogical. He structures each chapter around an interview with an expert on the issue under consideration.
People Matter Most
I began this essay with Sherry; so let me end with her.
As I mentioned, I procrastinated reading The Da Vinci Code. On several occasions, Sherry asked me about it, but I told her I had not yet read it. After a while, I noticed that Sherry was attending church increasingly less. I learned that she had cancer.
Although Sherry was a believer, it later became clear to me that The Da Vinci Code was important to her. Because I did not want to be bothered with a mystery novel, I never helped her sort fact from fiction in the book. As far as I know, she died without hearing good answers to her troubling questions. Thankfully, she is with Jesus now and has received His answers to all her questions.
My negligence troubles me to this day. Radical skepticism is a stronghold against faith for both unbelievers and believers. If people such as Sherry, Jack, and Mike are important to us, then we must speak the truth to them in love now. Do not lose an opportunity — do not procrastinate — to provide an answer for the hope you have in Christ. Apologetics matters because the people God loves matter most.