I love apologetics. Real apologetics. I’ve known Christians who say they like apologetics, want to learn apologetics, or enjoy doing apologetics. That’s a really great thing! The desire to learn how to do apologetics can lead not just to a deeper understanding of Christian theology but also many other disciplines as well (philosophy, physics, biology, astronomy, literature, psychology, etc.). But sometimes I fear that an overzealous pursuit of apologetics can lead not just to sloppy arguments but to arguments and behaviors that are downright harmful to fellow Christians and to the witness of Christians in the world.
So let’s start out with a good definition of apologetics. Our word “apologetics” comes from the Greek word ἀπολογία which means “a verbal defense” especially in the context of a courtroom. It implies intelligence and competence. It implies well reasoned and thought out arguments that are given in the hopes of swaying people to see your side. Christian apologetics done right should have all these things in mind plus the ultimate goal of bringing glory to God by pointing people to the infallible truth of the Scriptures.
The tool of apologetics is something that should typically be wielded like a scalpel. The best apologists are those who are able to systematically dismantle the arguments of their debate opponents in a systematic, clear, and winsome manner. They use apologetics like a surgeon’s scalpel and carefully address every argument against the faith while offering their own powerful counterarguments. The apologetics scalpel is incredibly effective. Even those who disagree with Christianity can at least respect and admire the strength of a well made argument that is delivered with charisma and intelligence.
Unfortunately there are those who wield apologetics more like a sledgehammer. Sadly they will sometimes turn that sledgehammer against their fellow Christians too. I’ve seen it all too often: Christians who are rightly passionate about correct doctrine and practice who, in their zeal, will damage and destroy their fellow Christians because they wield apologetics like a sledgehammer without the seasoning of love and grace. They will often see a fellow Christian who they believe to be in error and without going through the effort to build a relationship with the person in error, to love them, and to disciple them; they will instead immediately whip out the sledgehammer and bombard the person in error with proof texts. Sadly, many who wield apologetics in this manner will then walk away with head held high, feeling like they’ve done their duty in defending the faith when in reality all they’ve done is alienate and hurt a person who needed love and discipleship. A sledgehammer breaks and destroys whereas a scalpel cuts, and while it can hurt, it does it with the intention of healing and growth.
I say all this not as someone who is an apologetics expert. I’m decidedly not. I’m not quick enough on my feet to be a good debater. I don’t have a mind with the sort of encyclopedic recall that you see from many of the best apologists. Mostly I say this for all those in churches who love apologetics and want to do it themselves. People who want to contend for the faith; who want to be ready to offer a defense in season and out of season. People who love the Scriptures and want to see them upheld. Those are all worthy and admirable things. But I would encourage you to make sure that in your zeal to do apologetics you don’t make it impossible for yourself to do discipleship. If you are quick to smash all errors with the apologetics sledge you might find that people shy away from you and fear asking you questions because they know you will simply crush them with your apologetics sledgehammer.
Instead, learn to wield apologetics like a scalpel. Part of being a good doctor is knowing the proper time to do surgery. The same goes for the apologist. There is a time and a place to make that irrefutable defense but most likely it will be after you have invested many hours developing a friendship and toiling in the fields of discipleship. Ultimately, it is worth remembering that the world will not know us by the strength of our arguments but by how well we love and care for each other. Make sure you keep that at the forefront of all your apologetics efforts.