by Phillip Brown
Before my ministry partner and I started up True Faith Canada, we had spent a lot of time “on the ground” attending services at many different churches of many different denominations. It was amazing to see Christianity still thriving, but it was also eye-opening and in some ways disturbing. While many people seemed to have a passion for Christ, and seemed to be truly moved by The Holy Spirit, those same people also seemed to have a few, BIG problems. More often than not, not many could quote passages of scripture to you and they didn’t seem to view scripture in light of the whole Gospel story (what I like to call, over-arching biblical context). And what is almost worse, they had no clue as to how to deal with real challenges to their faith. When I had inquired as to how people came to their faith and what their reasons for believing were, with rare exception, I was met with vague almost non-responses, arrogant proclamations about how the bible says so, or how The Holy Spirit moved them, and at times I was even met with what seemed to be a sort of veiled hostility. I was really taken aback by the last type of response especially. In this article, I would like to address some of these issues and perhaps get people thinking about the relationship between churches, apologetics and apologists. There seems to be a fair amount of strain between these groups and herein, I would like to suggest of couple of potential causes for this dysfunctional relationship and hopefully shed some light on things and get people talking about the problem.
As evidence is an important thing when it comes to establishing something as being true, or false, I figure that it would be good to start off by discussing some facts. A study titled “Confidence Conversation and Community: Bible Engagement In Canada, 2013” (which can be found online here: bibleengagementstudy.ca/) suggests some interesting things about how Canadians view the bible. This study gathered data from a sample size of 4500 Canadians, including people from both English and French-speaking Canada. From the outset, the report states that a mere one in seven (14%) of Canadians read the bible at least once a week. This number has been cut in half since 1996 and the percentage seems to be the same across all age groups. The study goes on to show that the majority of Canadians, even self-professed Christians, seldom, if ever, read the bible. The study says that less than 20% of Canadians strongly believe that the bible is the word of God, 69% of Canadians feel that the bible has irreconcilable differences (by the way, only 2% of this group reads the bible frequently) and only 23% of Christians strongly agree that the bible is relevant to modern life. And probably worst of all, 60% of Christians in Canada feel that the scriptures of the world’s major religions basically teach the same thing. These numbers are just in the summary of the report. I highly recommend that you read the whole thing. I have to say that even though this is just one study, albeit a very comprehensive one, these are some pretty disturbing numbers. How can we, as the corporate body of Christ, even begin to follow Christ if only 23% of us believe that what He said has any relevance in our lives? And how would it be possible for us to give an account for the hope that is in us if the vast majority of us rarely ever read our best source of information on the reasons for that hope?
These are major issues, which needs to be addressed by church leaders nation-wide. But what has it got to do with apologetics, or apologists? A lot actually. First of all, a big part of apologetics is about defending the historical reliability of the biblical text. Many apologists tend to spend a lot of time investigating evidence for the bible to see if the claims made by the authors make sense given the historical setting in which the events of the Gospels and the early church are said to have taken place. Christianity is a religion rooted in real historical events. And those events are recorded in the bible. So the historical reliability of the text is absolutely essential for us to say with certainty that Christianity is true. And I would argue that we can be very sure that we have a reliable text. Now if we are to take into consideration the low number s of Christians who read the bible, believe it is the word of God, and feel that it is relevant in today’s society, we can immediately see how this issue presents a bit of a stop-gap, if you will, between scholars/apologists and the greater Church.
Secondly, many church leaders and pastors seem to have a different understanding of what apologetics is than many who are engaged in apologetics. In my experience, it seems that a good number of pastors -and parishioners for that matter – seem to think that apologetics is just about starting arguments and getting in peoples’ faces. And otherwise not showing “Christian love”. Now, without a doubt, we all get a little overzealous sometimes and there are definitely those out there who have a hard time displaying gentleness and reverence. But by and large, serious apologists approach their work tactfully and often go out of their way to be inoffensive and kind to whoever it is they are sharing their faith with. I do not know why this image of apologists, as being generally abrasive, continues to be held up by so many people within the church, but I think that, for the good of all of God’s flock, we really need to get people educated about what apologetics really is and why it matters.
Lastly, I think that, in many cases, we simply disagree on whether, or not, we need apologetics. Apologetics can be defined as the defense of the faith using reasoned arguments, biblical and extra biblical evidence. It’s really that simple. There are those, however, who believe in the notion of “Sola scriptura“, which is a Latin term that means by “scripture alone”. This is often interpreted as meaning that we don’t need anything other than scripture to share Christianity with others. I often hear Christians say: “Share the Gospel with people and let The Holy Spirit do the work” or “You can’t argue someone into the kingdom”. While we do believe that only The Holy Spirit can ultimately change the heart, it is demonstrably untrue that we are supposed to use scripture alone to engage in evangelism. In fact, scripture says:
“For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made…” (Romans 1:20 NASB)
So, clearly you can see that His invisible attributes (meaning the evidence in nature) are useful for helping us understand God. Also, if scripture alone were enough to bring people to Christ then we would probably have many more believers than we do. How often is scripture quoted, even in secular circles? The “Golden rule” is touted about constantly by people at all levels of spirituality. Matt 7:12 is probably quoted more often than any other universal teaching around the world. If scripture was all that we needed then without question, giving that the world’s population is increasing, people would be flocking to churches in record numbers. And furthermore, while it is true that you can’t argue someone into the kingdom, you can’t love someone into the kingdom either. Again, we must recognize that, ultimately, it is up to God to change our hearts. The need for apologetics is greater now than at any other time in history. While many people have been brought to faith through scripture, many have also opened their hearts to Christ because they were given good reasons and evidence to support the claims that Christianity makes. Both scripture and other evidence are needed. And the whole of the church needs to come to understand this, so that we can begin to work together more cohesively for the sake of God’s kingdom.
Faith can be a fickle thing. And you might say that people in the church just use different metrics to measure what is required to gain faith in Christ. But misunderstandings, such as the ones mentioned in this article, can create an almost toxic environment within the church. And apart from being antithetical to what Jesus taught, it just serves to break apart the church and weaken faith across the board.