Wednesday, September 30, 2015

By Dr. Joshua Chatraw

Following the “Rules of the Gospel” in Engagement

Jonathan Edwards, the great American pastor-theologian, articulated how the gospel not only gives a message to proclaim, but it also sets a course for living out this message. Writing on Christian charity, Edwards discussed what he called the rules of the gospel: “if we do otherwise, we shall act in a manner very contrary to the rule of loving one another as Christ hath loved us. Now Christ hath loved us, pitied us, and greatly laid out himself to relieve us from that want and misery which we brought on ourselves by our own folly and wickedness.”[i] Here, Edwards is summarizing a theme that is played out throughout the New Testament, a theme which should be the foundation of our lives as believers. As such, it should also apply to our apologetic encounters.  Inspired by Edwards’ “rules of the Gospel” for Christian charity, we suggest “rules of the gospel” as they apply to engaging in the public square.

Showing Respect through Dialogue

In his book, Dialogical Apologetics, David K. Clark comments, “Moral values like love and justice will characterize [apologetic] dialogue of this kind. One who practices dialogue recognizes the other as an individual made in God’s image. He expresses genuine openness to the other person, a willingness to hear as well as to speak, and recognition of the dialogue partner as an individual with the right to think and act as an adult and an equal.” (p. 123)

Humility and Wisdom

This series could have also been called, “Humility and Wisdom: Practical Apologetic Lessons from the book of Proverbs.” In Proverbs, wisdom and humility are inseparable.  For example, “When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with humility comes wisdom” (Proverbs 11:2). Wisdom is not a vast accumulation of facts or an above average IQ, but a practical knowledge of a way of living that is rooted in the fear of God. Wisdom does not work with 7 step plans, nor does it involve plugging in facts to equations in order to produce effective persuasion. For example, the Proverbs remind us: “Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself.”[ii] And then, the very next Proverb goes another direction: “Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes.”[iii] This reminds us that the Bible does not give us a mathematical formula for engagement. The Proverbs call us to wisdom—we must know our context because different situations call for different types of responses. Jesus, the embodiment of wisdom, himself taught us, “Be wise as serpents and gentle as doves.” Over the next several weeks, we will be posting these “rules of the Gospel” for engaging others.

Hearing Them Out

Rule #1: Listen and take others seriously. “To answer before listening—that is folly and shame” (Proverbs 18:13). We shouldn’t expect others to take us seriously if we are not willing to take them seriously, if we are not willing to hear them out.

Not only is it important to understand what the other person is saying so that we can try to answer what they are actually asking (rather than hastily chalking up their question to one we already have a pat answer for), but one of the most disarming things one can do is be quick to listen and demonstrate the commitment to look at things from the opposing perspective. As we communicate that we understand (and thus have actually been listening), we are in better position to empathize and respond redemptively. Most people know when you are simply making up answers. If you don’t know the answer, you can listen, admit their asking good questions, build a relationship, and ask if they would be willing to talk some more once you are able to do some more thinking and reading about the questions. We have 2,000 years of men and women in the church who have been wrestling with the various challenges to Christianity. You are not alone. We should work to be able to respond intelligently to the most frequently asked questions, but admitting you don’t know off hand isn’t the end of the world. Often, it can be the beginning of a transparent relationship.

At times, even when we see problems with what the other person is saying, it can be wise to show patience. I was recently listening to an apologetic dialogue when the non-believer calmly said, “I feel that Christians need to be more open minded and not be so exclusive in their beliefs (i.e., not claiming the Jesus is the only way to God).” The Christian she was speaking with was bright and I knew that he was well aware of the problem with this kind of statement: it is itself exclusivist because it excludes the view of Jesus in the Gospels. He could have cut her off and exposed her own exclusivity. Yet, he waited. He listened. Eventually, in the course of the conversation he was able to return to address this winsomely. He could have “won” by cutting her off, but she probably would have simply walked away, turned off to Christianity. By being patient and listening, he was able to build a relationship, eventually addressing his concern with her critique, and in turn he won a hearing for the gospel.

John Stott emphasizes the importance of listening and sympathizing with those we are trying to persuade:

Dialogue becomes a token of Christian humility and love, because it indicates our resolve to rid our minds of the prejudices and caricatures we may entertain about the other man; to struggle to listen through his ears and see through his eyes so as to grasp what prevents him from hearing the Gospel and seeing Christ; to sympathize with him in all his doubts and fears.[iv]

[i] Jonathan Edwards, Charity Explained and Enforced, 172.

[ii] Proverbs 26:4.

[iii] Proverbs 26:5.

[iv] John Stott, “The Biblical Basis for Evangelism,” in Let the Earth Hear His Voice, ed. Douglas, 72. Emphasis mine.