Tom Gilson

Yes, We Need Moral Apologetics!

Should apologists concern ourselves with today’s hot moral issues, or should we focus on Christianity’s timeless, core truths instead? Someone raised that question on Facebook, or one a lot like it. I’ve taken my own liberties with the wording; it gives me a chance to beat a drum I need to sound every once in a while.

The short answer is yes, we must be involved in these issues. Very involved.

I’m writing a book on the most timeless truth of them all — the character and person of Jesus Christ — but even there I’m including sections on moral questions. I have to. I’m making a case that Jesus lived the greatest moral life ever, yet skeptics have told me he was a moral failure for not abolishing slavery, not making women equal with men, and not explicitly supporting homosexuality.

Those kinds of questions are rattling around out there, and if I don’t answer them, I’m simply not doing my job.

Scholars have their specialties, and that’s as it should be. The one who’s defending the truth of the resurrection need not explain Jesus’ view on slavery. But that’s in context of the apologetics discipline as a whole. And on the whole, I’d be so bold as to suggest that moral apologetics is our first task today.

They’re Asking; We Need to Listen

It’s first because these are the questions people are asking. The problem of evil always rises to the top of everyone’s list, and it’s part of moral apologetics: Does God have a morally sufficient reason to allow evil? In Barna’s study of younger non-Christians a few years back, unChristian, Christians’ view of homosexuality topped the list of reasons people reject the faith.

It’s first because it shows we’re listening. If we approach people with the resurrection, they very well might respond, “Who’s asking about that?” Of course we want to bring them to the point where they are asking about it. To start there, though, is to show we’re not paying attention.

I rush to point out I was intentionally vague with my pronoun “it” in the last paragraph. Just because Barna said homosexuality is the top issue on people’s minds, that doesn’t mean it’s the top issue bothering the person you’re talking with. The way to find out is by listening.

Who knows? You might even run into someone who’s really wondering about the cosmological argument, or the resurrection, or some other classical apologetics topic. I’m just saying that’s going to be a small minority of cases.

Clearing the Underbrush

It’s also first because it’s underbrush we have to clear away in order to advance. Truth takes the hindmost in most people’s minds these days; social and moral issues come first. So suppose we’re making our case for fulfilled prophecy. They’re not primarily hearing us say, “This is true, so since it’s true you should believe.” They’re hearing, “I want you to be part of this Christian group, and here’s how I’m justifying that invitation in my own mind.”

Which for many leads straight to asking, “Why on earth would I want to join this crowd of homophobic anti-science bigots?” Showing them Christianity is true isn’t enough. We have to show them it’s desirable; that it’s good. We’ve got to clear out the weeds, the false conceptions they have of Christianity on the one hand, and moral truth on the other.

Obviously that demonstration starts with being good: genuinely loving, caring, and giving; and practicing what we preach. But it also includes explanation. We need to explain, for example, why our stance on sexuality is both morally true and humanly good. We have to give them intellectual grounds for believing Christianity is morally good.

The Missiological Connection

I’d be grateful if churches would make a point of studying how missions is done. The field is called missiology, and it ought to be part of every church leader’s curriculum. I highly recommend the Perspectives on the World Christian Movement course, which I had the privilege of taking years ago, under some of its initial developers: Ralph Winter, Stephen Hawthorne, and other pioneers. I learned a lot about missions around the world — and I’ve discovered almost all of it applies here at home, too.

Every missionary knows his or her first job is to learn the language, culture, customs, stories, and questions of the local people. Every missionary knows the gospel answers every pressing human question. And every missionary knows those answers are typically the keys that unlock hearts to Jesus.

That’s a decent start at a missionary job description. It’s also a good description of the apologist’s job — and the whole church’s job, for that matter. (Hey, church! Do you think you know your local culture’s language and questions? Probably not, I’m afraid to say.)

The church must practice good missions strategy; apologists can be the specialists who lead the way. As long as the people we seek to reach are asking tough moral questions, it’s our job to develop good answers.

For an example of moral apologetics in action, see my own Critical Conversations: A Christian Parents’ Guide to Discussing Homosexuality With TeensIt may not be obvious from the title, but the reason I wrote it was to do the kind of apologetics I’ve described here. Read it, and I’m pretty sure you’ll find that perspective shows up on every page!

Image Credit(s): pixabay.

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5 thoughts on “Yes, We Need Moral Apologetics!

  1. As moral beings with free will we are to believe and behave the Revealed truth and then communicate that truth to our fellow human beings . In this process , certainly we must listen and address issues of importance to them without leaving the most important and preeminent issues of Soul and Eternity unaddressed .
    The challenge is to find wise balance prayerfully , Spirit dependent and conforming to the word .

  2. I totally agree with your point about viewing our own culture as a mission field. I think we’re too often to sink into our Christian subculture and not even notice the culture around us except to judge it.

  3. This article has convinced me to re-prioritize my apologetics teaching to teens at church. After covering supposed contradictions and the history/archaeology angle this spring, next year I will move moral apologetics to the top of the apologetics schedule.

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