Why Apologetics Matters to Every Believer and Every Church
“Is that a class that husbands are supposed to take?”
“What is that?”
These are questions I hear frequently whenever I mention the study of apologetics. It probably comes as no surprise the word “apologetics” is foreign to most people, even who are a part of the Christian church. Evangelicals, who define themselves by their passion to follow Jesus’ command to “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations”(Matt. 28:17) will usually look quizzically at me whenever I begin discussing the need for apologetics, even though apologetics is an essential part of making disciples. Why would this be?[MP3 | RSS | iTunes]One of the problems is simply that the church doesn’t talk a lot about it. Apologetics is generally understood to be a specialty discipline– specifically engaging in defending the faith against skeptics, alternate religions, cults, and contrary worldviews. As such, many pastors feel that it can only play a very limited role in ministering to the needs of their congregation. How does apologetics help the man trying to feed his family after losing his job or the newly widowed woman?
I’ve said before that in many churches, a person telling his or her pastor of their desire to start an apologetics ministry results in an experience similar to a young man telling his Jewish mother he wants to be a proctologist. “Well, I glad you’re going to be a doctor,” she would say, “But why did you have to choose that!” Pastors are happy to have people desiring to get into ministry opportunities, but they simply aren’t sure where apologetics fits in their church. However, many times both church leadership and laity fail to understand the more holistic aspects of providing a strong apologetics ministry to the local congregation. In this article, I’d like to highlight two benefits of an apologetics ministry that applies directly to every member of the church, benefits that you may not have considered before.
A Biblical instruction to provide answers
Every apologist has his or her favorite passages in the Bible that command the believer to practice apologetics. Many point to 1 Peter 3:15 or 2 Corinthians 10:5-6, but a passage that I’ve found inspiring is Proverbs 22:17-21. There, as Solomon is addressing his son he writes:
Incline your ear and hear the words of the wise,
And apply your mind to my knowledge;
For it will be pleasant if you keep them within you,
That they may be ready on your lips.
So that your trust may be in the LORD,
I have taught you today, even you.
Have I not written to you excellent things
Of counsels and knowledge,
To make you know the certainty of the words of truth
That you may correctly answer him who sent you?
Just as Solomon was instructing his son, I believe our Father in Heaven is instructing us to apply our minds to His knowledge. He has written excellent things to us in His word, and we should be diligent to seek them out. Also, one of the outcomes of applying your mind to the wisdom and knowledge of God is found in verse 19: “so that your trust may be in the Lord.”
Apologetics guards believers against heresies
The word apologetics literally means providing reasons and evidence for the Christian faith. Part of this means defending the Christian faith from imposters or detractors, but it also means protecting those in the church from the wolves dressed in sheep’s clothing. One can define apologetics as theology properly applied and there is no greater need to apply theology properly than with new believers. The Burned-Over district is a good example.
Historian John Martin notes that in what was then a formidable frontier, the area of upper western New York in the early 1820s was attracting people coming from the more established eastern seaboard cities. New immigrant populations also flooded the area seeking land and jobs. Many preachers would travel throughout the area holding tent revival meetings, the most prominent of which was Charles Finney. Finney called many to repentance, but as church congregations continued to grow and revivals spread, these were accompanied by the establishment of such unorthodox beliefs systems as the Mormons, the Spiritists, and the Millerites who spawned both the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Seventh Day Adventists. Martin writes, “The traditional theology of Christianity was not of great interest to these seekers for answers, and they were susceptible to explanations which moved beyond the traditional Biblical basis of the various Christian faiths.”[i] Without a proper grounding for what orthodox Christian beliefs were and why the church held those beliefs, aberrant beliefs were able to grow and flourish, leading to lost souls not only in that generation, but for generations to come.
Apologetics, though, encompasses the study of theology, especially as it relates to orthodoxy. If we are to defend our beliefs with reason and evidence, then it follows we need to know just what we believe and the reasons why we hold to those beliefs. Just as many of the modern cults we see today got their start from a lack of theological training, controversial teachings are even now creeping into the evangelical church. The Barna organization reports that although four out of five people classify themselves as Christian, “most people say Satan does not exist, that the Holy Spirit is merely a symbol, that eternal peace with God can be earned through good works, and that truth can only be understood through the lens of reason and experience.”[ii] Clearly, the church is being infected with faulty beliefs today, and apologetics is one discipline that will help stem that tide.
Apologetics protects the Christian in times of crisis
In verse 19 of Proverbs 22, Solomon says that one of the benefits of studying apologetics is that “your trust will be in the Lord.” Apologetics is for the edification of every believer, regardless of one’s education, and this is nowhere more apparent than when Christians faces crises. It’s easy to hold to your beliefs when times are good. But when the storms of life present themselves—the loss of a job, the death of a spouse, the diagnosis of cancer—doubts inevitably arise. In those moments when you are praying and praying and it feels like your prayers are doing nothing more than bouncing off the ceiling, it’s natural to question your faith. “Is this real?” “Does God exist?” ‘How do I really know any of this is true?” are common questions people ask when facing difficult trials. However, this is exactly the wrong time to ask such questions! A person in this state is understandably highly emotional; he isn’t thinking clearly, given that worry, fear, and many other facets are tampering with his reasoning skills. He is at a terrible disadvantage to try and reason properly, especially about the biggest questions of life! It’s no wonder that James Spiegel shows many atheists have had severe traumatic experiences in their pasts. [iii]
This is why apologetics can be ministerial to the Christian in times of trial. I know in my own life I’ve dealt with some very difficult situations, including my wife facing a life-threatening condition. At those times, when I was praying and wondering why God would allow such things, I could hear the question of “Is God real? Is He really listening to you or are you just believing all this because you want to believe it?” creeping into my head. But I immediately remembered my apologetics training and said to myself “I don’t have to wonder about that. I know God exists; I know that Jesus really rose from the dead. I’ve already worked through those issues and I’m convinced of them. I may not know why God is doing this in our lives, but I can’t doubt that God exists. That question has been answered.” Apologetics was able to keep my trust I the Lord, even during the hard times. It is one reason why everyone needs to have an answer for their hope: everyone will face trials.
In his commentary on Proverbs 22, Matthew Henry writes:
“The excellent things which God has written to us are not like the commands which the master gives his servant, which are all intended for the benefit of the master, but like those which the master gives his scholar, which are are intended for the benefit of the scholar. These things must be kept by us, for they are written to us”
We should strive to seek out these excellent things written for our learning and edification. Apologetics is a great way to do this. Although such study may seem difficult, it is necessary. Church leaders need to encourage apologetics to become more effective in their evangelism, but also to become more effective in their discipleship programs and more effective in their ministry to those in crisis. Believers should pursue a foundation in apologetics for personal edification, for assurance of belief, and to protect against the attacks of Satan through faulty doctrine or through doubt.
Lastly, everyone should be able to rightly handle the words of truth so that, as verse 21 states “you may correctly answer him who sent you”. This verse isn’t saying that we must answer the unbeliever, but “him who sent you.” If we as Christians receive our calling from God, then it is the Lord who sends us and to the Lord we are accountable. So will you be able to answer Him correctly?
[i] Martin, John H. “Saints, Sinners and Reformers: The Burned-Over District Re-Visited” The Crooked Lake Review Issue No. 137. 2005 Accessed online at http://www.crookedlakereview.com/books/saints_sinners/martin9.html 3/17/2012
[ii] “Barna Identifies Seven Paradoxes Regarding America’s Faith” The Barna Group, at http://www.barna.org/barna-update/article/5-barna-update/87-barna-identifies-seven-paradoxes-regarding-americas-faith 12/17/2002 Accessed 3/17/2012
[iii] See James S. Spiegel The Making of an Atheist:How Immorality Leads to Unbelief
(Chicago: Moody Pub. 2010) 64-67