Dear Pastor: Apologetics is a standard operating feature of Gospel-centered ministry

Let me begin by making a claim that many will find rather contentious: Apologetic ministry—the ministry of commending and defending the “faith which was once for all handed down to the saints” (Jude 3)—is a vital and essential part of Gospel-centered, New Testament ministry. To many evangelical laity and non-laity alike, this claim not only lacks the clear ring of truth, but it is much too strong, as it needlessly saddles “ordinary” followers of Christ with the responsibility of being seriously intellectually engaged with ideas. Here, I briefly underscore the Scriptural grounding of apologetic ministry, and why the consistent New Testament witness is that such ministry is an essential component of impactful, Gospel-centered ministry.

In both its noun (apologia) and verb (apologeomai) form, the word “apologia,” from which we get the English word “apologetics,” is used a total of 13 times in the New Testament. To give an apologia for the truth of Christianity both as a set of beliefs and as a way of life is to speak (lego) away (apo) charges brought against it. The word “apologia” is most frequently translated as “defense” in the New Testament and is often used in a legal context as a defendant’s reasoned reply to various accusations (see Paul in Acts 22:1; 25:16; 26:1-2).

I am convinced that the consistent New Testament witness is that pastoral ministry minimally involves both the engagement with and the refutation of ideas and patterns of thinking that are contrary to the Gospel. While a fully-orbed, New Testament portrait of pastoral ministry involves much more than apologetic ministry, it most certainly involves nothing less.

Throughout the pastoral epistles, Paul admonishes those in pastoral leadership to be good stewards (1 Corinthians 4:1) and guardians of a particular set of ideas (1 Timothy 6:20; 2 Timothy 1:14), namely the “pattern of sound words” that marks out the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. Paul considers the doctrinal content of this deposit of sound teaching to be very precious indeed, so much so that he deems it “good” and worthy of protection, even entrusting it to Timothy (2 Timothy 1:14) and charging him to “pay close attention to yourself and to your teaching” (1 Timothy 4:16).

Paul tells us why pastors are responsible for exercising such great care in protecting this good deposit: because it consists of “doctrine conforming to godliness” (1 Timothy 6:3) and enables the saints of God to be “sound in the faith” (Titus 1:13). There is, for Paul, an intrinsic and organic connection between sound doctrine (literally: “healthy doctrine”) and godly and sound living. And it is precisely this deep conviction that underlies Paul’s urgent plea to those in pastoral ministry to be equipped and ready to “correct,” “rebuke,” and destroy “speculations and every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God” (2 Corinthians 10:5-6). Paul describes his own Gospel ministry as aimed at the strategic dismantling of distinctively ideological strongholds that are contrary to the Kingdom of God, that is, as targeting arguments and lofty opinions (“strongholds”) and aiming to take “every thought captive to the obedience Christ.”

Even more, Paul tells Timothy that the church of the living God is the “pillar and support of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15). “Support” in this context refers to a source of defense or reinforcement. Thus, it is part of the very nature and function of the church of God to reinforce and defend the truth of the Gospel of Christ. And it is, first and foremost, the responsibility of pastors to cast a vision for the local church that is oriented toward an abiding and public concern for the truth of the Gospel, which minimally includes equipping those in their care to gracefully defend it at all costs.

Without question, Paul himself practiced what he preached regarding the vital importance of the engagement of ideas in Gospel ministry. Throughout the book of Acts, we find Paul regularly devoting himself to ministry oriented around the engagement with and refutation of ideas. In Acts 17, we find Paul engaging the intellectual elite in Athens by quoting pagan sources from memory (17:28), as well as ministering to the Jews in Thessalonica even as he “reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and giving evidence that the Christ had to suffer and rise again from the dead” (17:2-3). Luke even points out that some were persuaded and decided to follow Paul and Silas as a result of his rigorous and public apologetic endeavors in Thessalonica (17:4). In fact, Luke sees fit to emphasize that a ministry of intellectual engagement and persuasion was a regular and customary part of the apostle’s ministry (17:2). For Paul, the principal basis of Gospel proclamation was objective and not subjective, an appeal first and foremost to the truth of Christianity and not an appeal to felt needs.

In fact, in Acts 19:8-10, Luke tells us that in Ephesus, Paul “entered the synagogue and continued speaking out boldly for three months, reasoning and persuading them [the Jews] about the kingdom of God.” After his efforts were met with fierce opposition and resistance, Paul “withdrew from them and took away the disciples, reasoning daily in the school of Tyrannus.” Luke goes on to say that Paul’s daily reasoning ministry in the hall of Tyrannus at Ephesus lasted two full years.

What was the impact of Paul’s fervent commitment to a two-year apologetic ministry in Ephesus? We do not have to speculate, as Luke tells us in the very next verse that “all who lived in Asia heard the word of the Lord, both Jews and Greeks” (19:10). Strategic apologetic engagement yields impactful Gospel ministry.

Likewise, the Apostle Peter offers what is perhaps the most straightforward injunction to engage in the task of apologetic ministry in the New Testament: “… but sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence…” (1 Peter 3:15). Similarly, in the face of false teaching that threatened to undermine the very lordship of Christ, Jude “felt the necessity to write to you appealing that you contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all handed down to the saints” (3). The word Jude employs for “contend” is epagōnizomai and denotes a deep and earnest struggle, which in the immediate context refers to an urgent struggle against false ideas that are contrary to the truth of the Gospel.

Moreover, Peter offers a clarion call to pastors in particular to “… shepherd the flock of God among you, exercising oversight not under compulsion, but voluntarily, according to the will of God; and not for sordid gain, but with eagerness” (1 Peter 5:2). Pastors as shepherds are called to stay out ahead of the flock of God, protecting it and looking out for its spiritual welfare. Yet the flock of God is threatened today not by wild animals but by false ideas that are hostile to the Gospel and corrosive of an abundant life in the Kingdom of God (2 Corinthians 10:3-6).

Consequently, the New Testament teaching and practice regarding pastoral ministry minimally involves (1) being a good steward and guardian of the truth of the gospel (Acts 17, 19; 1 Timothy 1:3, 4:6; Titus 1:9), and (2) staying out ahead of the flock of God, protecting it from all that might threaten to subvert Christian commitment (1 Peter 5:2). As a result, pastors should themselves aim to be competent in and strive to equip leaders for training in apologetic ministry.

Yet, in my experience, it is often the case that apologetics has a severe public relations problem among evangelical Christian laity and non-laity alike. The very word “apologetics” tends to invoke a host of thoughts and emotions, chief among them being that apologetics is strictly for those who tend to be more cerebral, heady, and at home in the world of science, history, philosophy and cultural studies. Apologetics, it is often thought, is more like optional leather trim than a standard operating feature of Gospel-centered ministry.

Yet, at its root, apologetic ministry is a ministry of service; it serves both to help pave the way of Christ for non-Christians as well as to answer what theologian Avery Dulles calls “the secret infidel in every believer’s heart—that is, a kind of dialogue that takes place between a believer and an unbeliever in a Christian’s mind.” And as a Christ-centered Gospel ministry, speaking or reasoning away charges to the Christian faith ought to take place in the manner of Jesus, the master.

As ambassadors for Christ, the task of reasoning and persuading others to embrace the Way of Christ must be—just like any form of ministry done in the name of Christ—“full of grace and truth” (John 1:14), with “gentleness and reverence” (1 Peter 3:15), and “with wisdom toward outsiders” in a manner that is always gracious, “as though seasoned with salt, so that you will know how you should respond to each person” (Colossians 4:5-6). Pastors, may we not neglect this essential intellectual dimension of such a noble task.