Apologetics is an often misunderstood Christian discipline. The first time I head the word I thought it was related to being apologetic; apologizing for being a Christian. And I was not interested in that. But I came to learn that it means something quite distinct from that.
Apologetics comes from a Greek word that means ‘speaking in defense’, and is the discipline of defending a position through the systematic use of information. This term is most often applied in a religious context, referring to providing a verbal defense for ones faith.
Some believers would like to delegate this discipline to preachers and scholars, but scripture really assigns this task to all of us.
Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander.1 Peter 3:15b-16 NIV
All of us are instructed to be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks us to give the reason for our hope. This is not an instruction to go and share with people, although you can find that elsewhere. Instead, we are told here to be ready to share why we believe with those we encounter who ask about it. Do you know why you believe? I hope so, although many seem not to really know the reason. And I hope you are willing and able to share that reason with those who ask you about it: that you have taken the time to work through those reasons and are comfortable enough with them to be willing to share them.
And I also hope you are able to share it with them in a way that is understandable to the one inquiring. Imagine someone sees you offering a prayer over a meal, and asks you about your faith. Can you explain to them what you believe, and why you believe it? And do it in a way that they would be able to understand, even if they do not agree with you.
If you can, then you are an apologist; one who is able to practice apologetics. You do not need a seminary degree or any other intensive training to be an apologist. All you need is a willingness to share with those who inquire, know why you believe, and be able to share it in an understandable and logical way.
So now that you are an apologists, Peter goes on to give some tips for your apologetic practice. Do it with gentleness and respect. The person who inquires about your faith may have a variety of motives. He may actually be attacking your faith, trying to confuse you or convince you that you are a misguided fool. Or she may be seriously interested in knowing what you believe and why. Or anything in between.
But whatever the motives of the questioner, we should respond to them with gentleness and respect. And that can be hard to do when you feel like you are being attacked. But you should remember the proverb “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger“. Responding to a verbal attack with a verbal counter-attack only makes the situation worse, as well as justifies the initial attack, at least in their own mind. But responding with gentleness and respect will generally, although not always, make the questioner much more open to your response.
The other thing he tells me to do is to maintain a clear conscious. That may seem strange at first, but is very important. If my life does not match my ‘defense of the faith’, how seriously will the other person take that defense. Most likely it would do little other than fuel a charge of hypocrisy and justify their rejection of your faith. But if you are keeping a clear conscious, practicing what you preach, then you may find your ‘attackers’ coming to have a grudging respect for you and your faith. And at the same time toning down their rhetoric and becoming more willing to listen.
I spent a number of years actively engaged with militant atheists in a discussion forum. As far as I know I never convinced one of the rightness of my position. But most of them were at least willing to engage me with respect and openness. And these same folks would attack other believers without mercy. Why the difference? I tried to always be respectful of them and their right to believe what they did, even if I disagreed. Others treated them as foolish losers, and got the same in return.
The Cliff Notes version of how to be an apologist:
- Know what you believe.
- Learn to express your beliefs simply and clearly.
- Be willing to share with those who ask.
- Share with gentleness and respect.
- Let your life match up well with your beliefs.