I’m not just referring to apologetic arguments themselves or to every Christian’s calling to defend the faith. I’m talking about the world of public apologists—those who garner acclaim for their poise in the art of persuasion. Perhaps you, like me, grew to admire such famous apologists not just as brilliant thinkers but also Christian role models.
But now, it’s 2021, and we’ve all seen how far a Christian celebrity can fall. And in some ways, that’s a good thing—a reminder that our trust should be in God, not men.
How should Christians think about apologetics now, moving forward? The answer is that the discipline can benefit a lot from missionaries. And the reason is found in the seminal apologetics verse.
Apologetics in 1 Peter 3:15
The Apostle Peter’s words in his first letter are often used to ground Christian involvement in robust, intelligent defense of the faith:
“But in your hearts revere 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. But do this with gentleness and respect.” (1 Peter 3:15, NIV)
In context, Peter is exhorting believers to endure suffering for good, and he expects that they will face opposition designed to repudiate their beliefs. Amidst such attacks, the apostle encourages his readers not to bend or break but to continue speaking truth in love. We too, in our “post-truth” age, must be ready to contend for the faith once delivered to the saints.
We cannot miss Peter’s foundation in the first sentence: “[I]n your hearts revere Christ as Lord.” In our celebrity culture, apologists are tempted to ignore this first step—the step of inward devotion—and instead chase applause through their eloquence. But we dare not elevate human approval over holiness. As one Christian author remarked, “If we came [to faith] through the door of argument, then all it will take is a better argument to cause us to leave by another door.”1
Rather than well-crafted arguments, sharp minds, or silver tongues, it is a deep, abiding commitment to Christ as Lord that must be the starting point of public witness.
Apologetics is not lacking in bright intellectuals brimming with “lofty speech” (1 Cor. 2:1) and the “wisdom of the age” (1 Cor. 2:6). But we have a dearth of reverent servants passionate to impart the “secret and hidden wisdom” of Christ (1 Cor. 2:7) to others.
The question is: who can lead this reform? Not the academy, but missionaries. Consider these three reasons why.
1. Missionaries’ Heart of Humility
The Anglican clergyman John Newton once warned a fellow minister preparing to engage in debate, “What will it profit a man if he gains his cause and silences his adversary, if at the same time he loses that humble, tender frame of spirit in which the Lord delights, and to which the promise of his presence is made?”2
The warning is still apropos to today’s climate of public Christian debate. Even if an argument is won, if it comes at the cost of behavior antithetical to the gospel, then the apologist has lost.
Newton’s warning was really only echoing Scripture: “Watch your life and doctrine closely . . . if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Tim. 4:16). Our salvation and the salvation of our hearers depends not only on our words but our lifestyles too.
Newton also wrote to his friend, “You were both equally blind by nature. If you attend to this, you will not reproach or hate him, because the Lord has been pleased to open your eyes, and not his.”3
Apologetics needs a missionary spirit because those who revere Christ in their hearts know that they too have sinned and fallen short and are recipients of grace. This realization produces humility—the attitude required for every believer witnessing on the mission field or the debate stage.
2. Missionaries’ Commitment to the Local Church
The lack of accountability among Christian celebrities can be largely resolved through a biblical insistence on church membership—a commitment missionaries understand.
In an investigative article on Ravi Zacharias, Christianity Today noted that he “was not a member of a church and did not submit to a local pastor.”4 This is unsurprising, since Zacharias traveled the better part of a every calendar year for nearly half a century.
Itinerant apologists who forsake gathering with the saints have no brother to lead them back to truth when they wander (James 5:19). True accountability is found not in a parachurch ministry board but in church membership and submission to a local body and its pastors.
For an itinerant apologist, this lesson can be hard to learn. But a healthy missionary, as an ambassador sent by the local church (Acts 13:1-3), should have a deep sense that the local church is his or her lifeline and the heartbeat of the Great Commission.
This point bears application. Missionary-apologists should use public discussions as platforms to strengthen the body of Christ. Apologists should leverage their public engagements to serve nearby churches, giving local congregations opportunities to sponsor and follow-up with more evangelism. Apologists come and go, but the church stays. If anyone is to encounter Christ, they need to be connected to a local church.
3. Missionaries’ Desire to Win Souls, Not Arguments
We believe in missions because we believe in winning the lost to Christ. Yet much of apologetics has become more about winning arguments, not people.
Atheists like the late Christopher Hitchens, noted for his antagonism in debate, make it their aim to either “destroy the man or the argument.”5 Not so for the Christian apologist. We are not permitted to slander our fellow image-bearers. It is not even enough to win the argument. We must also call our opponents to repentance and faith in Christ. But the heat of debate can obscure this aim. We’re tempted to see our opponents as philosophical constructs rather than souls.
As lost souls, these people must be brought face-to-face with the gospel. Healthy missionaries understand this intuitively in ways academicians may not.
Returning to 1 Peter—we derive our word “apologetic” from Peter’s use of a Greek word meaning a reasoned defense. A defense of what? Our faith—centered on the gospel message itself. Apologetics that does not culminate in a clear gospel presentation is, thus, undeserving of the name. Yes, apologetics is distinct from evangelism. But the simple message of Christ crucified and resurrected must reign supreme in both disciplines.
I’m not advocating an overly simplistic evangelistic approach that devalues higher learning, philosophy, or the intellectual rigors of debate. But to defend the gospel, an apologist must be most passionate about the gospel.
This same zeal for the gospel that drives missionaries to the most remote and hostile places on earth should also compel apologists to the lecture hall or auditorium.
The Way Forward
Celebrity apologists exert undue influence on us, and we should be grateful when their failure causes us to realign our hearts. But the apologetic discipline should not be abandoned.
Only a humble, church-focused, Christ-centered missionary spirit can save apologetics. Let’s pray that God would raise up apologists who are, first and foremost, missionaries.
Editor’s note: This post originally appeared at the AWBE blog.
4. Daniel Silliman, “Ravi Zacharias’s Denomination Revokes Ordination,” Christianity Today, February 19, 2021, https://www.christianitytoday.com/news/2021/february/ravi-zacharias-cma-investigation-revoke-ordination.html