One of the earliest verses I learned as a basis for Christian Apologetics was 1 Peter 3:15, “Always be prepared to give a defense to everyone who asks you to explain the hope you have.”(ISV) As with most verses presented in a standalone fashion, the interpretation is open to a much wider range of understanding than was intended by the author.
In the case of apologetics, this is seen as a justification for a wide range of actions and beliefs. For some this means metaphorically becoming a shining Knight for the Gospel, armed with a wide arrange of arguments and debating tactics, ready at a moment’s notice to counter and defend against any challenge to the faith.
I would submit that this is not only a misunderstanding of the verse, it is one that has several dangers lurking within it. Perhaps the most dangerous is that it can lead one to see those who are raising objections more as opponents that need to be defeated, than souls that need to be saved.
This view is akin to the Dark Side of apologetics, a road that tempts us with the promises of an easier victory, but one whose end is not good. This is not to say that those we are reaching out to are not at times making the choice easier for us. While I have had many good and earnest discussions with those having different beliefs, I have also had many where those I was discussing with made it very easy to see them as “opponents to be defeated.” After all, when someone threatens to kill you, I know from personal experience that it takes some effort to keep them in the “souls that need to be saved” category.
In the end, the dark side leads to a focus on winning debates more than winning souls. In addition, the more we demonize our counterparts, the easier it becomes to justify bad behavior on our part. Even lying or worse can be justified “for the greater good.” After all, as long as we are not as bad as they are, it’s still OK, isn’t it?
The another problem with this can be seen throughout history, and sadly at times on the nightly news. From the early killing of those considered heretical, to the Inquisition, up to the Westboro Baptist church, to name just a few of the far too many examples, as an apologist at times is seems that most of what I do is try and account for the actions of Christians who thought they are defending the faith.
The struggle we are in is very real, and darkness will seize on any advantage it can. As a result, it is just a fact that the more Christians act badly, the more they will be presented as the “true face” of Christianity. Thus, not only is it wrong, it is, at the end of the road, counter-productive and harmful.
But if this is true, then why did Peter say this? The simple answer is that he didn’t, for when put into context, a different picture emerges. Even a little more context helps, for the next verse begins, “But do this gently and respectfully.” It is very difficult, if not impossible to go to the dark side of apologetics “gently and respectfully.” Thus, when I hear 1 Peter 3:15 quoted, I always listen to see if these words are included and thankfully I am hearing them a bit more often, though I would like to hear them even more. When we look at even more context, this removes completely the possibility of the dark side.
Who will harm you if you are devoted to doing what is good? But even if you should suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed. “Never be afraid of their threats, and never get upset. Instead, exalt the Messiah” as Lord in your lives. Always be prepared to give a defense to everyone who asks you to explain the hope you have. But do this gently and respectfully, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak evil of your good conduct in the Messiah will be ashamed of slandering you. After all, if it is the will of God, it is better to suffer for doing right than for doing wrong. (1 Peter 3:13-17 ISV)
In context (and I highly recommend that you read 1 Peter from the beginning to get the full context) this passage is saying that whatever our circumstances, we should live our lives in such a way as Christ shines through us. In that way people will be drawn to us, not because of us, but because Christ is shining through us. When they ask how we are able to live and act as we do, then we should “always be prepared to give a defense to everyone who asks you to explain the hope you have. But do this gently and respectfully.” This is the apologetics that Peter calls us to. Not a life of debates and arguments, but a life of service and example, where people can see Christ working through us.