Student ministry is always filled with surprises—but, if you’ve ever worked with youth, you already knew that.
I first worked with middle school and high school students nearly three decades ago, before Keanu Reeves first plugged in to The Matrix, before Tom Hanks was Castaway, and before George Lucas had inflicted the Star Wars prequels on millions of unsuspecting fans. During those years, there were many surprises, most of which I will not mention because there are places related to regurgitations and pranks gone wrong where we just don’t want to go at an apologetics conference—but I will share a few of the less awkward surprises I faced.
There was the time, during my first week of leading student ministry in one church, when a senior in high school informed me, “This is Wednesday night youth group. We don’t do Bibles here. We’re here to have fun.” That was surprising, and I quickly became aware that he wasn’t alone in his point of view. The only reply I could muster in that moment was, “Well, things are different now”—and they were.
There was the time when the students were jumping up and down during a song entitled “Romans 16:19,” while I was playing guitar—and I watched, aghast, as one of them sailed through the air into the wall in a newly-renovated youth room. When I say “into the wall,” I don’t mean merely mean that the student struck the wall. His shoulder broke through the sheetrock, and he ended up stuck in the wall, like Winnie-the-Pooh at Rabbit’s house. This was never covered in any of my seminary courses. I did the only thing that made sense to me in that moment: I pulled the student out of the wall, hid the hole with a banner, and told the rest of the youth not to talk about it. A week later, I felt so guilty that I admitted what had happened to one of the deacons. And, as a result, part of that year’s youth budget was re-designated for sheetrock repair.
Four years ago, I spent a few months working with our church’s student ministry in an interim role. What surprised me most in those months was how much the apologetics challenges had shifted since I last served in student ministry.
When students in the 1990s doubted their faith, their questions typically had to do with the plausibility of miracles or the reliability of the Bible. These students may not have always pursued a Christian way of life, but they and their parents assumed that Christian morals make the world a better place.
But the doubts are different now, I discovered.
The doubts today don’t start with skepticism about Christianity’s miraculous claims; they begin with questions about the very morality of Christianity.
During my more recent stint in student ministry, one young woman in particular confessed that she found the historical evidence for the miracle of the resurrection to be compelling. Yet she was willing to reject Christianity and the Bible if the Christian faith could not accommodate her conception of herself as bisexual and perhaps transgender. In her mind, for Christians to withhold affirmation of her self-conception was to disregard her dignity and to devalue her psychological well-being. For her, evidence for the Christian faith was irrelevant because Christianity’s ethical demands were immoral.
This is a dilemma I never envisioned in the 1990s—an acceptance of the evidence for the central miracle of the Christian faith coupled with a rejection of this same faith on the basis of its perceived immorality.
In some sense, apologetics in the modern era has been marked by three overlapping phases:
- Apologetics as defense of the miraculous: In the first phase, apologetics focused on defending the miracles in the Scriptures and the miracle of Scripture itself; classical and evidential arguments for miracles and the supernatural were arrayed against skepticism, empiricism, and historical criticism.
- Apologetics as defense of Christian metaphysics: In the second phase, it became increasingly clear that Christians and non-Christians were operating from fundamentally different metaphysics, and presuppositional apologetics set a distinctly Christian worldview against all other worldviews.
- Apologetics as defense of the Christian way of life: The challenges of our present era have forced apologetics into a third phase. In this phase, it’s not merely Christian miracles and metaphysics that are being questioned; it is the very morality of Christianity itself. In previous eras, Christian morals were widely assumed to contribute positively to the social order, even among those who may not have conformed to these morals. Today, for this young woman and many others like her, moral doubts about Christianity have taken precedence over challenges related to miracles or metaphysics.
Of all the surprises that I’ve experienced in student ministry, this change was the most surprising of all—and it calls for a different type of apologetics.
Apologetics When the Goodness of Christianity Is in Doubt
For the rising generation, the strongest doubts about Christianity no longer have to do with miracles or metaphysics; their questions begin as suspicions about the goodness of the Christian way of life. To pursue a Christian way of life is, in the minds of many, to stand in opposition to human flourishing. The public practice of Christianity is no longer assumed to be good for the world—and this assumption isn’t limited to teenagers in student ministry.
In 2019, British medical doctor David Mackereth lost his job for declining to use pronouns that conflicted with an individual’s birth gender. When he appealed to a tribunal, Mackereth lost his case because—in the words of the tribunal—the general practitioner’s “belief in Genesis 1:27, lack of belief in transgenderism[,] and conscientious objection to transgenderism … are incompatible with human dignity.” Such convictions—the tribunal continued—“conflict with the fundamental rights of others.” The irony of the claim that “belief in Genesis 1:27” stands in opposition to “human dignity” and “fundamental rights” is, of course, that the commitment of Western jurisprudence to human dignity and universal rights originates in a long tradition that traces back to Genesis 1:27. Describing a belief in Genesis 1:27 as “incompatible with human dignity” is akin, in the words of one author, “to insisting that seeds are incompatible with flowers, or grain with bread.”
In a world where belief in Genesis 1:27 is no longer considered morally good, people’s doubts about the Christian faith are more likely to begin with the morality of Christianity than with Christian miracles or metaphysics. This is not to suggest, of course, that people no longer have any doubts about miracles or metaphysics; however, the moral doubts tend to come first.
So how should Christian apologetics respond to this change?
Well, the very word “apologetics” implies a defense, and a defense assumes an attack. And so, when the attacks change, apologetics must be prepared to change as well. This is not because the truth changes; the truths we defend are grounded in a God who never varies, in “the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change” (James 1:17). Truth does not—indeed, it cannot—change.
The reason that we must be ready to change our defense is because the attacks come at different places in different contexts. This has been the church’s pattern throughout the ages. Centuries ago, when Muslims began to exploit Aristotle’s philosophy to attack Christianity, Thomas Aquinas demonstrated that Aristotelian philosophy could, in fact, function in defense of Christianity. Faced with skepticism about the divine design of the cosmos in the early modern era, William Paley countered with his work on natural theology. When shifts in metaphysical assumptions produced worldviews that were antithetical to Christianity, Cornelius Van Til and others argued for the truthfulness of Christianity by highlighting the coherence of the Christian worldview and the incoherence of every alternative. Whenever the attacks on Christianity have taken on new forms, Christian apologists have shifted their defenses to meet these new attacks.
But what happens when the very morality of Christianity is under attack? How can our apologetics shift to meet this challenge?
Well, I heard the answer to this question during the safety briefing on an airplane that was headed to the Dominican Republic. It’s been many years since I’ve actually listened during one of these briefings, which usually provide useless information such as the location of life vests to be used in case of a water landing on a flight from Louisville to Atlanta. (Where are we possibly going to find a body of water between Kentucky and Georgia large enough to ditch a jetliner?) But, on this flight to Santo Domingo, I actually listened to the safety briefing, partly because there’s a rather significant amount of water between Louisville and Santo Domingo. And that’s when I heard the flight attendant provide the answer we need: “Remember, the exit door you’re looking for could be behind you.” We always want to assume that what we’re looking for is in front of us—it’s true when it comes to exit doors and it’s true when responding to a changing culture.
The temptation when faced with this new set of challenges is to look for an answer that requires changing what’s in front of us: “Christianity must change or die.” But I don’t think the answer is found in changing what’s in front of us. Instead, the answer is found in that reminder that flight attendants speak thousands of times every day: “Remember, the exit door you’re looking for could be behind you.”
You see, the twenty-first century is not the first moment in history when the morality of the Christian faith has been questioned. It’s happened before—and one of the times it happened before was in the second century A.D. What I wish to suggest is that the answers we’re looking for could be behind us, in the second century.
That’s what Carl Trueman recognizes in the conclusion of his book The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self. According to Trueman, in the second century, “the church was a marginal sect within a dominant, pluralistic society.” The church was treated with suspicion “not because her central dogmas were supernatural” but due to Christians’ counter-cultural customs and ethics. In the eyes of their Roman neighbors, Christians weren’t merely mistaken; their way of being in the world was immoral, because they refused to honor the venerable gods of Rome. Religion was not primarily a matter of beliefs or morals for Romans in this era. It was, in fact, quite possible to make sacrifices to the venerable gods while denying the existence of these same gods. To worship the gods was not to affirm any particular creed or way of life. The point of Roman religion was to recognize binding ties of duty to the gods, the state, and the family. These ties were the cement of society and the foundation of justice. To reject such reverence was to risk the stability of the Roman social order. Since Christians refused to participate in these religious rites, the church was seen as a threat, and the very morality of Christianity was in question. And so, in contexts today where Christianity no longer seems good to many people, perhaps the exit door we’re looking for is not before us but behind us, in the second century.
So how did past Christian anpologetics engage these challenges?
One of the primary ways they responded was by presenting the life of the church as an argument for the truth of the faith. And that’s what I would like to retrieve together in this time that we share—the second-century notion that the life of the church is an argument for the truth of the faith.
As I look at the Christian apologetics of the second century in particular, I see three ways that the life of the church worked as evidence for the truth of the faith. First off, the early apologists recognized that the life of the church is impossible without the presence of the divine. Second, they highlighted how Christians did radical civic good without bowing to the civic gods. Lastly, they pointed out how, out of all the philosophies and religions in the world, Christianity alone represents a coherent commitment that requires consistency between profession and practice.
1. The Life that the Church Lived Required Power that God Alone Could Give
Aristides of Athens was one of the earliest Christians apologists whose work has survived. He was—we learn from Jerome— “a most eloquent Athenian philosopher” who retained his philosopher’s garb after becoming a follower of Jesus.
Sometime in the second century, this “most eloquent philosopher” penned a defense, pleading for Roman tolerance of the Christian way of life. His work of apologetics begins with a close look at the cosmos. According to Aristides, the beauty and order of the cosmos requires an all-powerful deity who needs nothing, though all things need him. After presenting this understanding of God, Aristides considers which people—out of all the people-groups that were known to him—live lives that reflect such a God. The counter-cultural goodness of Christianity is central throughout his argument.
Aristides begins his summary of this way of life with clauses that echo the Jewish Torah: Christians “do not adulterate or fornicate,” “they do not covet what is not theirs,” “they honor father and mother,” “they love their neighbors,” “they judge with justice,” and so on. Despite the Jewish origins of these declarations, many of these values would have been, at the very least, recognizable to second-century Romans. Some of these ethics would even have caused philosophically-minded Romans to nod their heads in agreement.
But Aristides doesn’t stop with this summation of familiar ethics in his apologetics.
He moves from these familiar ethics to actions so radically generous to one another that they would have been ridiculed as absurd among most of his neighbors.
According to Aristides, “If anyone of their number is imprisoned or oppressed for the name ‘Christ,’ all of them provide his needs, and if it is possible for him to be delivered, they deliver him.” Such patterns of hospitality and generosity are precisely the habits that another second-century writer mocked as preposterous. Lucian of Samosata was a pagan comedy writer who penned a satire that depicted the events that led to the death of the Cynic philosopher Peregrinus. Peregrinus the Cynic pretended to be a Christian and ended up in prison. Lucian’s account of the event turn this unfortunate circumstance into an opportunity to ridicule the compassion that Christians showed to Peregrinus, when they believed he was one of them. Lucian’s biting satire reveals the degree to which the generosity of the Christian way of life seemed ridiculous to cultured Romans.
This apologetics argument from Aristides is a transcendental argument of sorts that asks, “What else must be the case if we see an entire community of people pursuing counterintuitive and countercultural patterns of generosity?” For Aristides, the only possible response is that it is impossible for a community to sustain continence, kindness, truthfulness, justice, hospitality, and care for one another without the authentic existence of a God who empowers this sort of life. And that brings us to one of the most memorable lines in Aristides’ Apology: “Truly,” Aristides declares regarding the church, “this is a new people, and there is something divine mingled among them.”
Aristides was not merely declaring that the goodness of these deeds demonstrated the presence of the divine—though that is certainly true as well. What he was pointing out was the impossibility of such habits of life apart from the presence of some power that transcends every human capacity. The Christian way of life revealed the lack of divine presence and power in every other religious and philosophical commitment.
The life that the church lived required a presence and a power that God alone could give.
It still does.
To stand unashamed for truth while at the same time caring for one another sacrificially—this is a life so counter-cultural that it simply cannot be fitted into any categories that our culture provides. This counter-cultural care for one another among the people of God is evidence for the truth of the message we proclaim.
According to another second-century apologist named Justin Martyr, this is especially true when caring for one another means caring for people from different ethnicities and socioeconomic backgrounds. Here’s how Justin worded this argument: “We who once despised and destroyed each other and who refused to hold anything in common with people who were not of the same tribe, due to their differing customs, now live in common with them.” For Justin and other second-century Christians, the ethnic and cultural diversity of Christian communities was an apologetic for the power of the gospel.
Even though the challenges today are different, this argument still works. In the first place, if naturalistic evolution is our only explanation for human society, a community that unites people from different cultural and social backgrounds on the basis of the gospel makes no sense. Natural selection works best when the people that we value most are those that are most similar to ourselves. As British philosopher Anthony O’Hear points out, if everything is a result of naturalistic evolution, what does the most to promote our survival is—in his words—“to favor kith and kin, do down our enemies, ignore the starving, and let the weakest go to the wall.” Christianity calls us to an opposite way of life that unites people from a vast variety of backgrounds on the basis of the gospel and then calls these people to love and to care for one another.
Faithful churches that bring together Christians from different generations, socioeconomic backgrounds, and ethnicities can still be a powerful apologetic today—perhaps even more so than in the second century. The world around us is trying to achieve “diversity, equity, and inclusion,” but the world’s methods are failing miserably. Look at social-scientific studies analyzing the results of DEI programs. What you find is that the world’s antiracist programs multiply racism, and secular attempts at multiculturalism have failed to bring people closer together. We’re right to critique these failed attempts at diversity, but we need to take the next steps as well and cultivate faithful churches that do what the world can’t: bring people from vastly different ethnic, economic, and generational backgrounds into the same congregations, to care for one another because of the all-surpassing power of the gospel.
But once again: “the exit door you’re looking for could be behind you.” It’s not found on the political left or the political right; it’s found in the Word of God and in how the Christians of the earliest centuries found in these truths everything they needed to cultivate multiethnic, multigenerational, and multisocioeconomic churches. I currently serve as one of the pastors of a church where we have done this. The pastoral team is a combination black, white, and Latino; every Sunday, the congregation includes people who speak English, Korean, and Spanish, and the services are translated for everyone. Recently, we had a celebration called “Roots and Recipes,” when we encouraged everyone to bring food that represented their cultural background. My family brought an old-fashioned church potluck casserole, and others brought one of those Jello and whipped-topping mixtures that we from the Midwest call “salads.” But there were also kimchi pancakes and an Argentinian stew and baked macaroni-and-cheese and boiled greens and at least three types of barbecue—including the strangest cross-cultural concoction of all, vinegary barbecue. Everyone found joy both in their own culture and in everyone else’s It was amazing—and not just because it was great food (and it was) or because it was a foretaste of every tribe, language, and nation at the end of time. It was amazing because we were doing something that the world botches up every time they try to do antiracism and multiculturalism and DEI.
I won’t say a lot more about this, because I’ve recently co-written an entire apologetics book about this—the title of the book is In Church as It Is in Heaven: Cultivating Multiethnic Kingdom Culture. But what if our churches pursued this by the power of the gospel, not the broken powers of this world? What if our churches caused contemporary equivalents of Lucian of Samosata to develop comedy routines that mocked not merely our supposedly out-of-date morals but also our unexplainable generosity to people who are different from ourselves? What if the church’s pursuit of communities that are richly multiethnic, multisocioeconomic, and multigenerational caused the twenty-first century to be amazed at what the church is doing even as they hate what we believe? Churches like this will require a presence and power that God alone can give—but our God is willing to give it to us. Such churches provide a powerful apologetic for the presence of God among us. “Truly,” Aristides said, “this is a new people and there is something divine mingled among them.” This is one way that we can display the divine that is mingled in our midst.
But the apologetics arguments of Aristides don’t stop with our generosity and hospitality too fellow Christians, and neither should ours.
Not only is the Christian way of life good for one each other but it’s also good for the world.
And that brings us to the second way that the life of the church worked as a defense of the faith in the second century.
2. The Church Practiced Radical Civic Good without Bowing to the Civic Gods
For second-century Romans, one of the primary ways that you did good for others was to honor the venerable gods. By participating in the civic liturgies, Romans secured the blessings of the gods for the empire, for their cities, and for their households. But Christians abstained from these civic liturgies. And so, from the perspective of the people around them, Christians weren’t simply strange; they were a threat to the wellbeing of their neighbors.
That’s why second-century apologetics—exemplified by Aristides and Athenagoras, Justin Martyr and the author of the epistle to Diognetus, among others—went to such lengths to argue that Christians were not only good to each other but they were also good for the world. According to these apologists, Not only did Christians not threaten the social order; they made it better than it was before. According to these approaches to apologetics, Christians did more to strengthen the social order than barbarians, Greeks, or Jews. This good for the social order began with prayer for the wellbeing of the world. “To me there is no doubt,” Aristides wrote, “that the earth itself abides through the supplication of Christians.”
But the good that Christians did for the world didn’t end with their prayers. Christians constituted a voluntary community whose virtues contributed to the civic good while simultaneously refusing to submit to the civic religion. These virtues included kindness to persons outside the Christian community that the Romans would have despised and even disposed. Christians, according to Aristides, “rescue orphans from those who abuse them.” Although some philosophers did criticize the practice of abandoning unwanted infants, rescuing the fatherless would have seemed ludicrous in a context where children unacknowledged by a father were widely perceived as disposable. What’s more, Christians—the apologetics of Aristides continues—“give without boasting to the one who has nothing.” Christian care and hospitality included not only those who professed Christ but also those in need who had never yet heard the name of Jesus.
This pattern of life persisted for centuries. When Emperor Julian attempted to reinstate the worship of the venerable gods, the generosity of Christians was one of the factors that caused people to hesitate to return to the pagan temples. “Why can’t we see,” Julian complained in a letter to a pagan priest,” that it is [the Christians’] benevolence to strangers, their care for the graves of the dead, and the supposed holiness of their lives that have done the most to increase their number?”
The questions posed by those outside the faith in the second century were not identical to the challenges of the twenty-first century, and I do not pretend that they were. Today, the challenges have to do with whether a Christian can possibly contribute anything other than civic harm if he or she does not wear a Pride patch on a uniform or affirm a young woman’s conception of herself as bisexual. Yet perhaps there is more similarity than one thinks at first. In some sense, secular progressivism has taken on a religious quality for many people. These contemporary cultural demands include civic liturgies that includes ceremonial vestments of rainbows coupled with ritual celebrations in the calendar, combined with widespread incredulity that anyone who refuses these rituals could possibly contribute to the common good.
How, then, can Christians today demonstrate their contribution to the common good while refusing to conform to these civic liturgies? One possible response, grounded in the apologetics of the second century, is for Christians to be known as much for their generosity toward the disadvantaged as they are for their refusal to bow down to the false gods of the culture. What if the church’s participation in care for the impoverished, our love for prisoners, and our welcome and adoption of children in the foster system was so widespread that an awareness of these habits was as widely known as the stand that we rightly take against progressive sexual agendas? What if our contemporary critics were—much like Emperor Julian—forced to recognize not only that we will not bow to the civic gods but also that our benevolence far exceeds anything that secular progressives can imagine?
Aristides was not describing doing civic good that the world would recognize as good. He was describing something better—generosity and hospitality so rich and radical that it could not be fitted into the world’s categories.
So should we.
3. The Church’s Life Was a Coherent Commitment that Called for Consistency between Profession and Practice
It is difficult for us to imagine how strange it was that Christians refused to participate in the cultus deorum, the venerable worship of the gods. Here’s why: In the Roman way of thinking, you didn’t have to believe in the gods to participate in the sacrifices.
Many of the ancient philosophers, in fact, did not believe in the gods—at least not in the ways they were described in the Greek and Roman myths. Yet these philosophers still participated in the civic religion, and this disjuncture between profession and practice was completely acceptable. That’s because the purpose of pagan worship was not to declare your belief in the pagan gods. The reason you participated in the civic religion was to bind the the people of the empire together.
And this civic religion saturated every part of life. When you walked into the entry way of a villa, you brushed your fingers against an image that honored the spirits of ancestors—regardless of whether or not you believed these spirits had any effect on your life today. When you reclined at a business banquet, you dribbled a bit of wine on the table (or, if you were a Baptist, grape juice) to honor a patron god or goddess—again, it didn’t matter if you believed in the existence of this divinity, you still poured out the wine.
To refuse to offer sacrifices to the venerable gods was to threaten the stability of the state and to be a bad neighbor. And why would anyone refuse to participate in these sacrifices? After all, you didn’t have to believe in the gods—don’t be silly!—you only had to offer the pinch of salt, the incense, the sacrifice in the name of the god.
But Christians did the unthinkable: they required consistency between profession and practice. And so, they didn’t make the sacrifices, they didn’t dribble the wine, they didn’t touch the lares. They didn’t do what was require to secure the blessings of the gods and to bind the empire together.
Belief in a singular and sovereign deity compelled Christians neither to reverence “idols made in a human image” nor to consume “food consecrated to idols,” according to Aristides. And, according to Aristides, this coherence of Christian profession and practice provided evidence for the superiority of Christianity. This was one of the evidences that Christianity is true: Unlike the religions of the Romans and Greeks, the church’s life was a coherent commitment that called for consistency between profession and practice.
A few months ago, I was at the University of Michigan—Ann Arbor, working on a translation of an ancient hymn. While I was there, I was perusing some other documents in their collection, and I ran across a type of document I’ve read about several times but I’d never held in my hand before. It’s from the middle of the third century, a certificate of sorts, signed by a civic official, certifying that a man named Aurelius and his family had “always been constant in sacrificing to the gods.” The purpose of these documents was to identify people who didn’t sacrifice to the gods.
During the Decian persecution, these documents worked to prove that you weren’t a Christian—but they only worked because Christians, unlike almost anyone else in the Roman Empire, practiced consistency between profession and practice. Profession and practice were separable for ancient Romans, but not for Christians. Belief in a singular sovereign God compelled Christians to pursue unity in what they professed and practiced.
This argument for the truthfulness of Christianity persisted for some time. Almost two centuries later, one of the evidences for the truth of Christianity that Augustine of Hippo presented to Romanianus in a treatise entitled On the True Religion was the consistency between Christians’ beliefs and their practices. The Greek philosophers had, according to Augustine, participated in pagan worship, yet these same philosophers taught in their schools that the gods did not exist. The consistency of the Christian life was what the philosophers sought but never achieved, according to Augustine. That was part of what proved Christianity to be “the true religion.”
According to the apologists of the second century and later, this consistency is not only external but also internal. Christianity is, unlike the professions and practices of the pagans, internally coherent as well. The barbarians claimed, for example, that the elements of the cosmos were divine, but they protected, manipulated, and even destroyed these same elements, revealing that the elements could not be divine after all. The Greeks made righteous laws yet venerated and imitated unrighteous gods whose actions contradicted these righteous laws. In the church, however, the declarations of the creeds, the confessions, and the Scriptures are coherent and consistent. In the church, there is coherence and consistency between the truths professed, the liturgies practiced, and the lifestyle required.
So what relevance do these arguments have for apologetics today? In the first place, it calls us to consistency in our lives, our professions, and our practices. It calls us never to retreat from a full affirmation of the complete consistency of Scripture; it calls our churches to test our practices and to show how our practices and creed and confessions conform to Scripture.
But there are deeper implications for our particular cultural moment as well. There has been a movement among some well-intended Christians to practice “pronoun hospitality” by referring to transgender persons according to preferred pronouns that conflict with their biological sex. In some cases, the encouragement is to affirm outwardly their transgender self-conception even as we know inwardly that it is false. In other words, “just say outwardly what they want you to say—you don’t have to believe it.” When I hear that, I cannot keep myself from thinking about the Christians of the second and third centuries in a world where you didn’t have to believe in the Roman gods to participate in the sacrifices. The entire pressure of their culture was declaring, “Just do the sacrifice—you don’t have to believe it.” But they didn’t. And they died because they wouldn’t do it. I think of that sacrifice certificate that only worked because Christians refused to participate in practices that contradicted their profession. Early Christians were hospitable, but true hospitality doesn’t lie.
It would have been easy to say, “Just put the pinch of incense on the altar! Sacrifice to the genius of Caesar! You don’t have to believe it!” But Christians, as a whole, didn’t. Today, it is easy to say, “Wear the Pride patch—you don’t have to agree with what it implies,” or, “Use the preferred pronouns, even if you don’t believe they’re true.” But we shouldn’t, because it is a lie.
What we see in the second century: We practice radical hospitality to the world and radical care for one another—but, in our hospitality and care, we never give up consistency between our profession and our practice.
The Church as a Community of Apologetics
Cultural changes have called the very morality of Christianity into question, and a new approach to apologetics is needed. But this has happened before, and the exit door we’re looking for may be behind us. One of the moments when this happened before was in the second century A.D. Faced with questions about the very morality of their faith,
- Christians cared for one another in ways that required the presence and power of God, and
- the church did civic good by showing radical generosity and hospitality, while never bowing to the civic gods.
- Yet the church’s generosity and hospitality did not mean conforming their practices to their culture’s demands; the church’s life was a coherent commitment that called for consistency between profession and practice.
After hearing my considerations about how these truths might be contextualized in the twenty-first century, some of you may find yourselves wondering, “Will these tactics from the second century work? Will they persuade sexual progressives that Christians are, in fact, good for the social order? Might they at least provoke the broader culture to welcome our presence in the public square?”
My answer is, “No, they won’t, and I never intended them to do so.”
Encouragement, clearly, is not one of my spiritual gifts.
I have no confidence that these arguments will persuade any contemporary secular progressivist that Christian professions and practices are good for the world. As far as anyone today can tell, the apologies of Aristides and Justin and Athenagoras and others did not change imperial perceptions of Christianity. In the second century, the worst persecutions were, after all, yet to come.
The depth of the culture’s ridicule of Christians can be glimpsed in a bit of third-century graffiti, known as the Alexamenos Graffito. In this rough-scrawled memento of mockery, a young man lifts his hand toward a naked man on a cross, with the head of a donkey, and the misspelled words, “Alexamenos worships God.” To associate with Christians, to worship a man who was crucified, is seen as ridiculous and absurd.
The practices that I described did not convince the cultured elites of the second and third centuries of the goodness of Christianity. And I do not expect these practices to convince any secular progressive today of the social good of Christianity.
But here is what I do expect: God works through practices such as these to form us into the type of community that will persist past the rise and fall of every power that resists God’s truth. What is likely to take shape through these particular practices is not the persuasion of the world but the formation of a people—a church that persists in publicly practicing and proclaiming truth.
The church will stand as an argument for the truth of the faith, and God will work through our faithfulness in his time and in his way to change the world.
Perhaps it will be by empowering the church to persist through persecutions. Perhaps it will be by Christian perspectives being embraced by earthly political powers—if so, that will bring its own challenges, as it always has. Perhaps it will be through widespread spiritual revivals.
I do not know.
But I do know this: In the past, these practices cultivated resilience in the churches that God turned to his own glory, and I believe that he can and will do so again, and he will do it through his church.
Throughout it all, the church is not merely the context for our faith; the church is itself evidence for the truth of the faith. The church does not merely do apologetics; the church is apologetics. Though the world may hate this truth and even suppress it, they will still see it. Even if our defenses do not persuade the world that Christianity is good for the social order, they form a community that persists in holiness, love, and proclamation of the gospel.
And this brings me back to that surprise in student ministry, to the young woman who preferred her own bisexual self-conception over evidence for the resurrection that she herself admitted was compelling. During the pandemic, I lost track of this teenager but, throughout 2019, her engagement with church followed a predictable pattern. She would attend student ministry for a short time before declaring she would never return, due to her disagreement with the moral implications of the gospel, particularly as it related to her sexuality. And yet, a few weeks later, she would be back again. I never asked why, but I think I know. It was because the people of God loved her and cared for her in a way that no one in her home or at school did, despite her unwillingness to embrace the gospel. As far as I know, she never was persuaded that Christianity is good for the world, but she had discovered that Christians could be good to her. Someday, somewhere, I pray that God will work through that knowledge to clear her moral confusion as he draws her to himself. And I am confident that one of the evidences through which God will work is the church.