Why must Christian apologists argue?

by K.W. Leslie, 03 August 2021

To argue means to give reasons or cite evidence in support of one’s ideas, actions, or planned actions. Like when you argue your case in court: You’re trying to convince the jury, judge, or justices to take your side, and giving good reasons why they oughta. Sometimes they’re gonna challenge those reasons with reasonable questions, and we oughta be able to reasonably answer those questions. If we can’t, we lose.

Then there’s the other definition of “argue”: To fight. With words, although in these types of argument, what they’re really going for is a win. By any means necessary. Reason has little to do with it; in fact they’d much rather hurt your feelings than offer a reasonable response.

The biggest problem in Christian apologetics is the temptation to stray from reasonable arguments, and start fighting. ’Cause once we do that, we lose.

Fighting turns the person we’re just talking with, just having a discussion with, into the enemy. Now we’re no longer trying to win them over. Now we’re trying to win. And when we do that, we stop caring about their feelings, stop displaying love and patience and grace, turn into those clanging cymbals Paul and Sosthenes wrote about, 1Co 13.1 and stop worrying about whether we might hurt their feelings. An opponent with hurt feelings is never, ever gonna agree. Oh, they’ll call a cease-fire; they’ll stop fighting for a time, when they think things aren’t going their way. But that’s only so they can retreat and come up with better arguments. They never surrendered, and never intend to. Because they’re hurt.

And if they’re never gonna surrender, we’re never gonna win them over. So we lose.

That tendency to fight, to do battle for Jesus instead of share the gospel, is argumentativeness. It’s a work of the flesh. Ga 5.19-21 Unfortunately it’s a common reason why Christians get into apologetics: They wanna fight. They wanna “do spiritual warfare,” and think it means fighting skeptics instead of resisting temptation. Not study and share good reasons for why we believe as we do, and answer skeptics’ doubts; to fight them and defeat them and win.

There’s a proper form of arguing your case, and a wholly improper form, and too many Christians don’t realize there’s any difference. And don’t care either. Hey, Christian apologetics lets us indulge our fleshly desires to beat people up—and use words and scriptures to do it! Nice.

So why must Christian apologists argue? To offer reasonable explanations for why we believe as we do. And only that. Any other form of argumentation is unacceptable. If you catch Christians doing it, rebuke them.

And yeah, they’ll claim, “But I’m doing it for Jesus!” as if it makes the fleshly behavior all right. Does not; never does. So call ’em out on their fruitlessness. The unloving, joyless, angry, impatient, graceless, out-of-control, intemperate, and vengeance-seeking behavior is a sign they’ve gone way off the path, and are fighting for their own honor instead of for the gospel and God’s kingdom.

“Doing it for Jesus” justifies nothing.

In high school I had a friend in my youth group who dated a pagan. She didn’t want our pastor to know; she didn’t want anybody in the youth group to know, ’cause she didn’t want the criticism. But she was doing, it she claimed, because she figured she might get him to come to church with her.

“Missionary dating,” we youth group jokingly called this practice. It doesn’t work. Either you’re so serious about your “mission,” the relationship inevitably goes nowhere; or you’re only pretending you’re on a mission, and really you’re just trying to get with a hot pagan. My friend was more interested in the guy than the mission, and it wasn’t long before she set Jesus aside too.

“Doing it for Jesus” is a convenient excuse for lots of Christians who wanna indulge ourselves: We simply come up with some way where Jesus justifies our desires. We wanna buy expensive things, like a pricey phone or laptop or car or house; we defend it by saying we’ll do Christian things with it, like text people on the gossip prayer chain, study bible on the new laptop, do charity work with the new car, hold church functions in our new house. It’s how prosperity gospel preachers justify their private jets; don’t they do the Lord’s work in ’em?

“Following biblical principles” works much the same way. A nation leaps into war for a “just cause,” though it’s really just out for bloodlust, and doesn’t want peace. A society executes repentant criminals because “they did the crime and deserve their punishment,” but really society and the victims want sweet revenge. Yeah, it’s all hypocrisy: We do such things ’cause we’re evil, and we think we’ve found loopholes which make our evil okay.

So when Christian apologists get into debates and quarrels, we love to claim we’re “vigorously defending truth.” It’s spiritual warfare. We need to defend Christendom against those who wanna destroy, slander, or otherwise lie about it. We’re doing it for Jesus, and this magically makes it all right.

But really we’re doing it for ourselves. I was an angry teenager, and found apologetics was a great way to bash enemies and get away with it. I see angry partisans, who claim they totally love Jesus, do the very same thing on a daily basis. Because we’re not defending biblical principles and Jesus; we’re defending our values. Our beliefs. Our faith. Our stuff. Ourselves.

The average argumentative Christian apologist is selfishly defending their ego and self-esteem. Hypocritically disguising it as spiritual warfare, as defending truth and faith and Christendom, but really it’s just their own social and religious conservatism—as we can tell by the fact they spend just as much time, if not more, arguing in favor of traditional values instead of how God exists and why the bible is valid.

Claiming Jesus justifies all our immoral activities, is simply another way of taking his name in vain.

Stick to forensic arguments.

So if you’re gonna defend Christianity, but don’t wanna stray into the path of argumentativeness and fighting, you gotta stick to ground rules. Forensic rules. When lawyers and academics engage in debate, there are rules in place which are meant to keep things from getting personal, rude, harsh, or illogical. (And often a judge to make sure people keep following the rules.) Personal feelings aren’t meant to enter into the debate—although it’ll happen, ’cause we humans are biased. But the point of forensic debate is to pursue truth. Anything which might get in truth’s way is ruled inappropriate.

Y’notice every once in a while, someone will set up a formal debate between a Christian apologist, and someone with a differing view. Like a practitioner of another religion, or an atheist or skeptic. Sometimes they’ll get somebody to moderate. Thing is, most of these “moderators” moderate nothing: They’re the host, if anything. They introduce the debaters, maybe ask questions, and struggle to police the time limits. But unlike a judge or Supreme Court justice, they never, ever challenge the debaters for being illogical, for not answering the questions, for ad hominem attacks, and for even dropping unsupported facts and outright lies into their “evidence.” In fact if they dared try any of these things, they’d be criticized by partisans for “stifling debate”… ’cause really, people attend these debates because they want to see the debaters take potshots at one another.

Can Christians engage in formal debate? Sure. Should we? Not always. Some of us really can’t control ourselves. I’ve seen too many debates where the participants forget to be patient and charitable. Forget it’s not about truth; they wanna win! And in order to win, the truth gets bent. Half-truths are offered. Lies are told. Attempts are made to derail the debate, to steer away from the real subject, and go after their opponents. I can’t tell you how many debates I’ve seen between Christian apologists and skeptics, where the Christians tried to change the subject so they can rip on the skeptic’s inconsistent ethics and morals: “If you don’t believe in absolute truth, I don’t see how you have any solid basis for ethics and morals.” Yep, Christians engage in such tactics. Which, as an ad hominem attack, is mighty illogical and immoral of ’em.

Because your average Christian apologist only follows forensic rules up to a point. Sometimes they never follow ’em, and leap straight to, “You’re not gonna believe anything I tell you because you believe your father the devil, the father of lies.” Other apologists only follow forensic rules till they feel like they’re losing the argument; then they ditch the impersonal, rational arguments and start knifing ’em in the kidneys. Others will drop all civility the instant they think their opponents have dropped civility. And still others actually do follow the rules, and main civility, all the way to the end. It all depends on their own personal maturity level, and varies from Christian to Christian. Although the more argumentative they are, the more immature they’re gonna be—and remain.

Antichrists know this, and love to bait us. We like to imagine we’re upright, moral Christians, but antichrists love to get us to drop this pretense and get in the mud with ’em. That’s why so many of them are jerks. It’s fun, and why not treat Christians like the fools they think we are? And sad to say, Christians take the bait, and act like jerks right back.

Every Christian is inevitably gonna come across someone who mouths off about Christians, or Christianity, or Jesus, or God, or some odd point of theology they don’t understand. Way too much of the time, we Christians will foolhardily try to defend ourselves… and next thing you know we’ve been sucked into one of these time-wasting, morale-destroying arguments. So before you dive in, keep two proverbs in mind.

Proverbs 26.4-5 NLT
4 Don’t answer the foolish arguments of fools,
or you will become as foolish as they are.
5 Be sure to answer the foolish arguments of fools,
or they will become wise in their own estimation.

Yes I know these proverbs contradict one another. They do so deliberately. Verse 4 applies to some circumstances; verse 5 applies to others. You gotta use wisdom to determine when to use what verse. Keep your head, then use your head. So are you dealing with a fool who’s trying to bait Christians into a fight? Verse 4. Or are you dealing with a fool who’s searching for truth and open to correction? Verse 5.

Half the time (and on the internet, more like 99 percent of the time) you’re dealing with trolls: Someone wants to pick a fight, and you’re the dummy who’s about to punch back. In these situations, you’re utterly wasting your time. You’re throwing pearls to pigs. Mt 7.6 Some Christian apologists realize this and don’t waste their time; others don’t, and do. They think they’re righteously fighting the good fight. But it’s a stupid fight. Trolls have no intention of listening. They’ll just mock, blaspheme, stomp on the Christian’s balls, and see how long it takes before the Christian loses all sense of propriety and starts acting like a lowlife—exposing the Christian as the hypocrite which the trolls always suspected they were.

I have enraged fellow Christians by refusing to take the bait. I tell this story maybe too much: I once stopped a “friendly debate” with a pagan at a coffeehouse because I knew it was going nowhere, and a Christian friend who observed this was outraged. “You gave up an opportunity,” he fumed. “There was no opportunity,” I pointed out.

And sometimes there is an opportunity. You can usually tell these cases by how open-minded the other person appears to be. A person might ask “Why do Christians believe [SUCH-AND-SO]?” because she’s legitimately curious. So feel ’em out. Offer an answer. See whether they wanna fight, or whether they’re truly looking for a better understanding of God.

Look for fruit of the Spirit. When the Holy Spirit provokes people to ask the right questions, he usually primes them with the right attitudes. They’re gonna be patient with you. They’re gonna be peaceful, not violent. No, they’re not gonna be as patient or peaceful or kind as a Christian (or as a Christian should be, anyway) but they’re gonna show some evidence the Spirit’s been nudging them in Jesus’s direction, and here’s a chance for us to nudge them further. Keep your ears open.

Pay attention to the fruit, or lack of fruit, in yourself. When someone pitches a question, how do you react? Do you immediately feel a burst of adrenalin, ’cause it’s time to start wrestling against flesh and blood? (Intellectually, of course; or “spiritually,” or however you wanna phrase it.) Are you trying to recall clever canned answers as fast as possible? Or do you have the patience to listen to them, see where they’re coming from, figure out their real concerns, and try to help? Are you kind, or do you struggle to keep the snide remarks to yourself? If you lack self-control, you need to sit this one out, and go find another Christian to do the talking.

And if you’re the argumentative sort, stay far, far away from argumentative apologetics and argumentative apologists. Go right ahead and study truth, history, philosophy, logic, and all the appropriate subjects. But when there’s a fight to fight, you shut up. Stick to prayer. As another Christian talks with them, you stand there, listen, and pray God opens their mind. Work on that self-control. Practice with fellow Christians. Wait till they deem you ready.

And even then, don’t argue. Inform. Share. Point stuff out. But leave the battle to the Lord.