Apologetics in its place and the need for Gospel reform of our culture

In the light of the Ravi Zacharias scandal, the debate has continued about what should happen to the vast empire of trusts and organisations that took his name.  The options so far have been:

  • Disband all of the trusts quickly and completely
  • Dissociate individual national trusts from the US one which is seen as the primary cause of toxicity.
  • Rebrand by removing references to the name of the abuser
  • Reform -learn lessons and make changes.

The first thing I would want to say is that this decision-making process is not unique to RZIM or indeed to major institutions. As someone who has argued strongly for the first option, I was asked the other day whether or not  I would argue that a local church should close if the pastor or leaders had been abusive.  Now, whilst I believe that the local church takes priority over parachurch organisations, I am also keenly aware from Revelation 1-3 that it is dangerous and arrogant for a church to assume it will always be there. Sometimes the toxic stench is so bad, that yes a church has to close and whilst we don’t see that happening through conscious decisions, what we do see is the gradual lingering death of a witness in a community.

However, I think there are further factors at play in terms of RZIM.  The assumption seems to be that everything was okay until we had it confirmed that his accusers were telling the truth.  Yet the problems run deeper than that.  We may now have the confirmation that Lori Thompson and others were truthful and RZ lying but I think that there was enough information in the public domain for some time to say that the case was credible.  Furthermore, the problems went wider than that. Furthermore, the known existence of NDAs should have been at least raising eyebrows.

First of all, we had the immediate issue where Ravi’s qualifications were proven to be bogus.  So, those who continued to align with, own his name and accept his patronage were already associating with an apologist who had a problem with truthfulness.   Secondly, there were longer term issues. One example I’ve heard of is a University Christian Union that put up and lost prize money offered to anyone who could debate with Ravi Zacharias and win.

I want to suggest here that we are seeing themes that play into a broader, toxic culture. It’s a culture where powerful men sit free of true local church accountability and believe that they are above challenge.  It’s a culture where truth is seen as a convenient tool rather than an essential requirement for godliness.  It’s a culture where money dominates. An organisation can sit on millions of pounds whilst local churches struggle to survive. Indeed, it is those local churches in hard contexts, especially deprived, working class contexts who are often asked to put in and support such ventures for the privilege of being listed as partners. Yet those ventures have nothing to offer to those churches and communities in terms of Gospel impact.

There is a reason for that last issue and it is this. The forged qualifications and the emphasis on debate belongs to what is really a pseudo intellectualism that has become an idol. And, if I can be provocative, the problem lives on whilst we continue to have individuals and networks of individuals presenting themselves as professional apologists.  I struggle to find a basis for this concept in the New Testament. 

I believe that apologetics is a helpful discipline as we seek to share our faith. It has its place and I’m grateful for Christians who have taken time to think carefully about how we respond to the objections people might raise concerning faith in Christ.  However, it should not be a separate profession or role.  In fact, I think we have over egged it.  In terms of the sorts of questions people are asking on a day to day basis, these tend to include

  • How can I know if there is a God
  • Did Jesus really rise from the dead?
  • Are we here by chance?
  • Is there life after death?
  • Can I trust the Bible?
  • Are Christians anti -science?

Let’s face it, those questions are not beyond the wit of most Christians to answer in one to one conversation or for a pastor to respond to as he preaches.  Indeed, the best apologists I know are those who speak out of the context of long term pastoral ministry, people like Tim Keller in New York and Paul Williams in Sheffield.  One reason for that is that people are rarely won to faith by an appeal to intellectual questions. They want to know if it is true but also if it works.  Gospel encounters tend to happen in the mess of life.  Most people don’t need an intellectual answer to the question “Why is there suffering?” They need a practical response to “why am I suffering?”

A little while back I wrote about how we need to recover pastoral counselling for the church. When we ship someone off to the professional Biblical Counsellor, we are telling them that their problems are so difficult and dangerous that specialist help is needed.  Yet God has made us competent to counsel. Similarly, the message we send when we invite people to our apologetics events with our special guest speakers is that their objections to the Gospel are too difficult to handle.  Bluntly it gives them a credibility that God’s Word does not (cf Romans 1:16-32). 

So, I think that the current crisis we are in is also an opportunity.  This is an opportunity not just to deal with one rotten apple but to look again at our wider Christian culture and introduce real and lasting reform.

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