Remember the Old Spice viral marketing campaign? The one with the guy with impossibly chiselled abs standing in a shower and cooing instructions with his Barry White-esque voice: “Look at your man. Now look at me. Now look at your man. Now back to me…”? (Apparently it boosted sales of Old Spice somewhere in the order of 107%.)
Well, that’s pretty much how most of my ‘water cooler’ conversations seem to go. Someone lobs a hot potato my way—asylum seekers, same-sex marriage, funding cuts to the Humanities and Social Sciences Faculty (hey—it’s a big deal at La Trobe University where I work). But all I seem to be able to manage to stumble through is a half-coherent version of the Old Spice ad: “Look at your question. Now look at Jesus. Now look at your question. Now back to Jesus…” And that’s on a good day.
Anything I can usually think of on the spot feels awkward and artificial. Imagine watching the football with some mates—hoping and praying to get an opportunity to talk about Jesus. Then substitution gets called. And, desperate to say something Christian, I exclaim: “A substitution! Did you know that Jesus died as our substitute?” Crash. And. Burn.
Thing is, I should be better at this. Not only do I long to give enticing and distinctively Christian responses to people’s questions—something gracious and seasoned with salt (Col 4:6)—but I also feel I should be better equipped to do it. After all, I’ve read my fair share of books on the art of Christian apologetics (i.e. making a defence or giving an account of our faith). I’ve taken part in plenty of training seminars. I’ve even run a few of those seminars!
And yet I still find myself fumbling my way through these conversations. Never quite sure that I’m doing justice to the questions being implicitly or explicitly thrown at me. And never fully satisfied that I’m saying something worthwhile—something that points to Jesus without hijacking the conversation, and something that might move my conversation partner closer to taking Jesus seriously (rather than getting lost in obscure technicalities about the fine-tuning constants of the universe or whatever).
My guess is that I’m not alone in this. In fact, I think this could be the problem of apologetic conversations.
On the one hand, we want to avoid being apologetic about our faith, in the sense of awkwardly feeling we need to apologize for it—being always on the back foot, having the content dictated by our conversation partner’s questions rather than by our confident trust in our living Saviour.
And on the other hand, we also don’t really want to end up clumsily shifting gear mid-conversation into a technical apologia—a rehearsed defense of the kind you might hear in a Hollywood courtroom, a Royal Commission, or a high school debating club. Not only does this savour of the too-slick salespitch, but it puts us in exactly the wrong relationship with our conversation partner—namely, having a debate with them, where most debates are zero-sum games with clear winners and losers, aggressive point-scoring, and defensive attempts to shift or avoid blame.
Why so many conversations prove unfruitful
Unfortunately, most of the ‘experts’ in apologetics don’t really help us much here. The rock star apologists like William Lane Craig, John Lennox, and Alister McGrath are tremendous servants of the gospel and the church. Their gracious and deeply-informed engagement with Christianity’s public detractors often grabs people’s attention—not to mention building our own confidence. And they all helpfully write books and publish articles to help us understand and employ their strategies and arguments.
But I’m still not convinced we can (or should) imitate their style of engagement in our ordinary conversations. I suspect that, even if we did manage to memorize their best arguments and wheel them out like heavy artillery whenever a question or objection presented itself, this wouldn’t necessarily help take our conversations where we’d like them to go. Many of us would give the impression that we’re experts on things we know next to nothing about: big bang cosmology, carbon chauvinism, or bubble universe theory (all of which I had to look up on Wikipedia). And those few of us who could pull it off while still sounding like appropriately chastened non-experts, may well end up being far more combative and adversarial—and far less constructive—than we intend to be.
Most traditional apologetic methods, strategies and tactics often move us into a combative stance. Greg Koukl’s Tactics, for example, commends what he calls the ‘ambassador model’ of apologetic engagement, consisting of things like asking questions in the manner of a TV detective on a relentless hunt for the truth. Although he explicitly rejects a combative approach, I find it hard to see how these tactics and the mindset that the underwrites them can result in anything other than turning every conversation into a competition where the challenge is to gain and maintain control and ultimately to ‘win’. In fact, this is the book’s stated aim:
I am going to teach you how to navigate in conversations so that you stay in control—in a good way—even though your knowledge is limited. You may know nothing about answering challenges people raise against what you believe. You may even be a brand new Christian. It doesn’t matter. I am going to introduce you to a handful of effective manoeuvres—I call them tactics—that will help you stay in control. (p. 20)
I’m not saying that all of Koukl’s tactics are necessarily bad. Nor am I questioning the value of his basic model of listening carefully and giving incisive responses. Quite the contrary. I am also very glad for his robust take on the power of argument and disagreement to express respect and strengthen relationships rather than undermining them (pp. 33-35). These are very important points to make. And I can certainly think of numerous examples from my own experience of conversations—either with Christians or with non-Christians—that have featured robust disagreement without cost to the relationship.
Nevertheless, as I cast my mind back over numerous conversations I’ve had where I tried to give a reason for my hope in Christ, I have to confess that most of the time I’ve been driven by the desire to win. In God’s kindness, some of the things I’ve said have occasionally also helped clear away objections to the gospel. Yet more often the effect of the combative stance I constantly slide into has been quite toxic and counter-productive, like the time my atheist friend and I had the conversational equivalent of trying to put out a brushfire by throwing petrol on it. What started as a pleasant conversation quickly spiralled out of control. After we’d sat in a cafe shouting at each other for half an hour, my friend asked loudly if I was only continuing our relationship because I wanted to convert him. Fruitful? Hardly.
Of course, sometimes the deck seems stacked against us from the start. Some of the people we end up interacting with—either face-to-face or more typically on online discussion forums and blogs—seem determined to turn friendly conversations into full-scale wars, with the relational equivalent of mutually assured destruction as the result. Whether it’s unleashing a tsunami of snide questions in the wake of a natural disaster, whether it’s an innocent-seeming question about what the ‘Christian position’ is on some topical issue like same-sex marriage that blows up in your face as you stumble unsuspectingly into a minefield of highly-charged personal investment… We’ve all had our fair share of these conversations (and no doubt they are part of the reason why we go looking for some conversational tactics of our own).
Of course, this kind of hostile questioning is nothing new for Christians. It seems something along these lines was the very thing that motivated the apostle Peter, to pen his famous words about being prepared to give a reason for the Christian hope:
Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good? But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts honour Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defence to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who reviled your good behaviour in Christ may be put to shame. (1 Pet 3:13-16)
When we set this famous ‘proof text’ for apologetics in context, we can see that Peter is commending a very unusual approach to what we might describe as apologetic conversations: a non-combative approach.
Non-combative conversations are anchored conversations
The key to such non-combative conversations is simple to say and much harder to do: remain anchored in Christ.
How do we do this?
Well, instead of approaching every conversation as a battlefield—perhaps especially those that our conversation partners are treating that way—we need to take seriously what Peter has to say about sanctifying Christ as Lord in our hearts. Even (or especially) in the face of hostility, honouring Christ as holy must remain our main game—whether we ‘win’ or ‘lose’ in conversational terms. In fact, I would go so far as to contend that only conversations that flow from a life and heart anchored in Christ can succeed in being non-combative.
Because an upfront and above-all-else commitment to honour Christ anchors our conversations by anchoring our lives.
If you’re in a boat that isn’t anchored, one of two things will inevitably happen. Either you’ll find yourself first drifting then ultimately heading for some distant shore, uncertain of how you’ll ever get back to where you started. Or, aware of the constant tug of tides and currents, you’ll thrash around, desperately paddling to ensure you never stray far. But if you’re anchored, you’re free to go with the tides and currents as far as your anchor rope will allow because you’re confident in your secure mooring.
I think the same dynamics apply to our conversations. Only a settled and habitual focus on honouring Christ in everything we say and do can enable us to drift with the current stirred up by someone’s questions. For this is the only thing that will give us confidence not only that we’ll never get so far away from the living centre of our faith that there’s no way to get back, nor that we might need to strain ourselves by desperately trying to stay within earshot of the gospel.
And that’s not all. Something even more significant is going on beneath the surface of conversations that are properly anchored in Christ. Not just the content is different. Much more significantly, the attitude we bring with us is different as well. You see, if our lives are anchored in Christ then we’re free to respond to hostile questions without either striking back (one of the most common fear responses) or checking out (physically or emotionally).
So how do we do this? How do we remain Christ-anchored as Peter calls us to be?
According to Peter, apologetic encounters that result in a fruitful non-combative stance are characterized by three things: readiness, respect, and integrity. And in each case, it’s being anchored in Christ that proves crucial.
Honour Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defence to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you. (1 Pet 3:15)
It’s worth noticing the scope of this first dimension of Christ-anchored conversations. Peter wants his readers to be ready all the time. He wants them to be always prepared for potentially hostile questioning.
So far so typical in a primer on Christian apologetics. Now I need to tell you how to always be prepared, right? I need to outline an infallible method. Or point you in the direction of the best books and resources to plunder for facts, figures, and entire chains of knock-down argument. That’s what you’re expecting, isn’t it?
But Peter says nothing about preparing specific, predetermined content for our defence. That’s not the kind of readiness he’s talking about. The kind of readiness Peter has on view isn’t the result of study or of memorizing a set of culturally-specific tactics (as helpful as these things may be). Intellectual credibility—the fruit of the kind of ‘readiness’ that Peter is usually assumed to be talking about—is just not the main game for Peter.
For Peter, the main game is living in such a way that Christ’s holy reputation is honoured and the message about him isn’t compromised or contradicted by the lives Christians lead. That’s the theme Peter returns to again and again in this middle section of his letter—running from 2:11 through to 4:6—over which the opening two verses stand as a kind of descriptive heading:
Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honourable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation. (1 Pet: 2:11-12)
Understood like this, ‘readiness’ is about having lives anchored in authentic, obedient trust in Jesus the Messiah. That is why the thrust of Peter’s instruction is not about preparing specific, predetermined content for our defence.
Consider what Jesus displays in his ministry (Jesus’ pattern-setting example as our ‘cornerstone’ is a big deal in 1 Peter). When asked loaded questions, his consistent practice is to respond in a manner that turns the tables on his accusers. So when asked about paying taxes to Caesar (Mark 12:13-17), for instance, he challenges the premise upon which the trap is set: that the Creator God’s universal claim to people is somehow on a level playing field with Caesar’s claim to a cut from your weekly paycheque.
Responses that exhibit this kind of readiness will hardly sound like pat exam answers memorized and rehearsed with a more or less consistent degree of detail. They’ll have more of the ‘relaxed insistence’ of a parent recounting their child’s recent exploits—oozing love with a kind of unsystematic combination of expansiveness (as a parent I’m aware that I can go on and on about my child) and thematic concentration (I’ll often return to the same territory over and over again, relating the stories that seem to capture best my child’s emerging character and personality).
Perhaps, as a friend of mine has suggested, a non-combative apologetic conversation characterized by this sort of Christ-anchored readiness would go something like this:
Q: “Why do you bother to sort your recycling? Don’t you Christians believe that the world’s all going to burn anyway when Jesus comes back or something?”
A: “Well, actually, it’s funny you mention that. Christians often seem to discuss this too. But I guess I believe the world belongs to Jesus—that’s kind of the punchline of all those miracle stories (calming the storm, walking on water, etc.) that you probably see as folksy fairytale stuff. But because it’s all his, I’m responsible to him for how I take care of the bits he’s entrusted to me. So that’s why I bother with the minor inconvenience of sorting my recycling…”
Honour Christ the Lord as holy… with gentleness and respect. (1 Pet 3:15)
The second dimension of non-combative, Christ-anchored conversations that Peter identifies is ‘gentleness and respect’.
The word translated ‘respect’ is just the ordinary word for ‘fear’—the same word Peter uses in verse 14 when he says, “Have no fear of them, nor be troubled”. Its object can be other people—whether legitimately or illegitimately (e.g., in John’s Gospel, it is often used of the way people bow to the Jewish religious leaders rather than putting their trust in Jesus). Often, however, its object is God, an angel, or—most commonly in the Gospels—Jesus.
Instead of fearing others, or the things they fear—the pressures of life, surrendering power or influence, or being rejected by others—Peter urges his readers to act with gentleness and fear. I think it best to understand this to mean that in the sorts of interactions with those who oppose us and throw unfounded accusations at us, we ought to be people who honour Jesus by imitating him.
Remember the model of Jesus himself, from the previous chapter:
For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. (1 Pet 2:20-23)
For Peter, imitating Jesus is how we honour the Lord as holy. When he was reviled he did not revile. When he suffered he did not threaten but continued trusting God. In other words, Jesus was gentle, respectful of others, and appropriately fearful of his Father.
Our manner should be Christlike in such situations: gentle and respectful when persecuted; humble and fearful of God as we do so.
I don’t think it’s too hard to imagine how such ‘respect’ might play out—even in the most highly-charged interactions with hostile questioners.
Honour Christ the Lord as holy… having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behaviour in Christ may be put to shame. (1 Pet 3:15-16)
Integrity in all our interactions with questioners is the final dimension of the non-combative approach to apologetics opened up by remaining anchored in Christ.
Peter is clear that we may not be able to prevent people bad-mouthing and attacking us verbally—whether because of misunderstanding or something more malign. But in so far as we maintain our integrity—preserving a teflon-coated conscience—we will not suffer lasting shame when this happens.
Keeping a clear conscience like this requires us to break the deadly circuit of winning and losing that characterizes too many conversations about the Christian faith. We need to realize that we’ve already lost if a conversation degenerates into a heated argument, or leaves the other person feeling humiliated or like they’ve had one put over on them. On the flip-side, Peter points out that we can ‘lose’ and Jesus still win. So long as our lives dovetail with what we say we believe, Peter insists that when we are slandered, it is not our reputation but that of our accusers that will ultimately suffer.[1 Remember, the winsome potential of Christ-honouring behaviour is a recurring motif in this part of the letter (see 2:11-12).]
I’m convinced that the only sure path to this sort of integrity is to learn to make our relationship with Jesus rather than with our conversation partner the deciding factor in any interaction.
Let me try to be clear before we move on. I am not suggesting that we give up on trying to pepper our conversations with incisive, Christ-centred content—especially in responding to any questions or objections to faith that get thrown our way. Nor am I suggesting that it’s wrong to put effort into relating well to inquirers—even hostile inquirers. It is not wrong to be credible, appealing, or winsome. Rather, it’s about where our primary focus is. Is it on proving ourselves before others (either by ‘winning’ every argument or by so desperately striving to be ‘winsome’ that we may even let go of our Christian integrity, fear of God, and consistency)? Or is it on pleasing and honouring our Lord? This difference will no doubt become visible more in terms of style and flavour (and possibly timing) than necessarily in the content of our responses to people’s questions.
The everyday benefits of non-combative conversations
What practical difference will it make day-to-day if we strive to keep ourselves and our conversations anchored in Christ—that is, focused on honouring and pleasing Jesus rather than trying to ‘win’ by steering every conversation in the direction we want it to go or proving our conversation partners wrong?
Briefly, I believe that cultivating a non-combative approach can deliver us from the three most common distortions that creep into our apologetic interactions (although perhaps I’m just airing my own dirty laundry here).
This approach delivers us from playing the expert. As we train ourselves to let the holy reputation of our Lord loom largest on our personal horizons, we can begin to admit that we’re not self-contained and haven’t necessarily done lots of thinking or had lots of experience with every issue or objection that gets thrown at us. We are free to humbly involve other Christians—as individuals or as whole communities—in interacting with people who have questions.
This non-combative approach delivers us from prioritizing rationality, evidence and arguments. There is a place of course for making a case for the rational and intellectual credibility of our faith—and even for exposing the inconsistencies of many objections and alternatives. But when we pour all our effort into these things, it’s all too easy for everything to start orbiting around me—my (superior) rationality and intellectual credibility—rather than around the Lord, whose most characteristic actions (like dying on a cross for his enemies) defy rational human expectations.
And this non-combative approach delivers us from prayerlessness. Although it is often the advocate of rationality and evidence in defending the faith who is accused of prayerlessness, it is just as much of a hazard in a more ‘relational’ approach—for we have as little power to love someone into the kingdom as we do to argue them in. Ultimately, it is only the Lord Jesus—who meets us ‘clothed in his promises’ in the gospel—who can grab people and make them his. He must be the goal and gravitational centre, the anchor, for our conversations—just as he is to be for our lives.