Wednesday, December 28, 2005

The Most Important Reason

Mark Coppenger on why the church needs apologetics:
-- It keeps us honest -- we need to hear our critics.

I have a copy of an 1860 book, published in Louisville, entitled "A Bible Defense of Slavery." It reminds me of how a group of believers can cling to something really stupid and wrong for years and years. Insularity is treacherous. We need to listen to those who gainsay us. It can have a hygienic effect, helping us to sort out the defensible from the indefensible.
Coppenger's example is telling, because it's not Christianity at its core that changes. What changes, year to year and century to century, is our understanding (and often misunderstanding) of what it is. And a big part of that is because Christians are insular. And fearful. And proud.

Our insularity leads to our confusing culture with Christianity; being comfortably settled into habits and attitudes inherited from those around us, we naturally come to think of it as the way things ought to be and have always been. Following up on the topic below, drinking alcohol is the perfect example. Only in America, and in America, only in certain protestant denominations is alcohol even an issue, yet in those cases, it has been THE issue and the subject of countless weekly harrangues and sermons for nearly a century. In order to support Prohibition as a political platform, the scriptures were interpreted a unique way, just like to support the American institution of slavery, the scriptures were interpreted a certain way. In both cases, because we simply will not hear Christians who disagree with us or non-Christians who can in some cases see more clearly than us, we perpetuate error (or at least politics) all the time thinking it's Christianity. It's not. Christianity has bloody little to say about politics.

Our fear keeps us from truly examining issues on the off-chance we might discover something unpleasant or that others might think less of us. After all, no one wants to be accused of heresy or carnality or worldliness for pointing out the fact that the church (or what is far more likely, the culture within the church) has something wrong. Sometimes, the truth is not worth it to us. That's how Christians can wind up on the wrong end of the great issues of the day, like slavery, not only failing to discern right from wrong, but enlisting God's name and people on the side of wrong. We fail to listen to our opponents because we are afraid to find out that they might be right. We fail to stand up against error for fear that others will think we are less Christian than our group.

Our pride keeps us from admitting (at least in public) that we don't know everything, the Bible doesn't cover everything, and that our opponents are correct a lot more than we'd like to believe. Such pride leads us, as it leads everyone, into dishonesty. It happens all the time within the church (take a look at the KJV-only "debate" sometime, where the most dishonest arguments imaginable are foisted for the greater good) and when the world rightly calls us out as "lying for Jesus," we're often still too proud to admit it.

None of these problems are unique to Christianity or to Christians. Everyone is to some extent fearful and insular and proud. But they are a problem for church apologetics because they are not what we are supposed to be. We are called to be wise as serpents and harmless as doves, and we will be effective as apologists only to the extent that we act Christian and teach a true Christianity.

A big part of understanding true Christianity is examination of our own attitudes and beliefs to see whence they arise and to make a conscious distinction between those which are truly Christian and those which are cultural. A bigger part is truly listening to those - especially other Christians - who disagree with us, whether friends from another denomination or authors from another century.

Most people are perfectly willing to accept the idea that the smartest people of past centuries were incorrect about a great many things. Yet they are not willing to imagine the same about themselves. But like most of our fellow men, the only people we are truly fooling is ourselves.

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