We often hear 1 Peter 3:15 quoted as a defense for, and stated expectation of, apologetics in our current context. I am writing this post today to ask all apologists everywhere to actually assume the posture and pursue the purpose described in 1 Peter 3 rather than using part of verse 15 to justify an aggressive, one-sided, debate-oriented model of what it means to witness to others.
In chapter 3, Peter is writing to the church to encourage them in their suffering and persecution. He encourages his hearers not to be afraid and to continue their good works. He goes on the exhort them to do this from the right foundation… that they have set apart Christ as Lord in their hearts. This is the primary motivation for their good deeds, and it keeps them from the fear of persecution or opposition. With Christ as Lord, they need not be afraid of rejection, oppression, anger, retaliation, or persecution. With Christ as Lord, they are to continue to follow His call, emulate His example and serve others in His name. If they are persecuted for these kinds of deeds, they are blessed. This is not to say that they are to pursue persecution and instigate oppression to acquire this “blessing.” It is merely to echo the New Testament assertion that if Jesus himself was persecuted for these acts, those who follow His way will also be persecuted.
From this place of encouragement and assurance, Peter then instructs the church to be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks for a reason for the hope they have. This is true apologetics. True apologetics is giving a reason for the good things we are doing, not defending our overly systematized doctrine. True apologetics is naming Christ as the source of our hope in desperate times, peace in conflict, joy in suffering, generosity in want, kindness in the face of anger, love for our enemies. This is worlds away from the argumentative proof-texting debates between Christians that we have called apologetics. This is worlds away from the superior posture we have assumed when initiating debates with other faith perspectives trying to prove our worldview as correct and theirs as uninformed.
But Peter continues… “do this with gentleness and respect.” This is the biggest oversight in our current culture of apologetics. When we hear our contemporary apologists speak or debate, they sound anything but gentle or respectful. Not only are they instigating debate rather than giving an answer for their hope and good deeds, they are instigating this debate in an aggressive and arrogant manner. They seem to be turning the old sports cliché on its head, “the best defense is a good offense.”
As an alternative to our current posture and practice of apologetics, I offer the ancient Christian apologetic known as The Epistle to Diognetus (c. 130) as an inspiration and pattern.
*I suggest starting with the section subtitled “The Church in the World” (paragraphs 5&6)