Apologetics, in our context, refers to the intellectual defense of the Christian faith. I say that it is intellectual to distinguish it from military conquest and retaliation, political manipulation and legislation, or other such methods of securing agreement or surrender from those who oppose us. Our method is intellectual, in that our defense consists of verbal assertions, explanations, and arguments. We use words to talk about the Christian faith, and to show that it is true.
As for saying that it is a “defense,” later we will discuss the possible problems with this characterization. Before we do that, we should first confront a subtle but crippling error that pervades almost all teachings on the subject of apologetics. The error is subtle not because it is difficult to detect, but it manages to hide in plain sight because it has become so popular that it is now accepted as truth, and it is even upheld as a nonnegotiable ethical standard for believers.
I am referring to the idea that when we defend the faith, we must do so with “gentleness and respect” toward the non-Christians. Since these words are taken from the apostle Peter, of course I agree with his teaching, but only when his meaning is correctly understood. The problem is that most instructors on apologetics fail to perceive or acknowledge Peter’s meaning, so that they fail to pass on his teaching to believers. And the harder they teach it, the more they steer God’s people away from the biblical approach to the defense of the faith.
The phrase appears in Peter’s first letter, written to encourage and instruct believers who are suffering severe persecution for their faith. Thus the phrase does not stand in a vacuum. It serves the purpose of the letter, so that its meaning is determined by the context in which it appears. By observing the overall intention of the letter as well as the surrounding passages, we are able to infer Peter’s intended meaning.
When we return to the letter with this in mind, we see that the “gentleness and respect” indeed fit into a broader teaching that Peter conveys to his readers. His main concern is to instruct believers in what to think and how to behave when they face persecution from authority figures. He refers to the king and to governors, and then to masters, and after that to husbands. He nowhere refers to the defense of the faith when it comes to discussion between peers, or in scholarly debates, or in the general publications of the Christian faith, such as in books and sermons.
Therefore, 1 Peter 3:15 refers to an interrogation of Christians about their faith by authority figures that hold formally superior positions in society. Christians are to be “always be prepared to give an answer” when questioned by government officials, masters or employers, or husbands and parents, and so on. This does not mean that the verse is irrelevant to the defense of the faith before other kinds of people. But it does mean that if we are to release the verse from its original context in order to make a broader application, then we cannot do this to one part of the verse and not the other.
In other words, once we apply “always be prepared” to other situations, we also need to consider whether we still need to behave with “gentleness and respect,” or a better way to say this is whether we need to behave with gentleness and respect in the same sense. This consideration is legitimate. To illustrate, Jesus did not speak to the Pharisees and to his disciples in the same way. And Paul did not defend the faith in the same way when he spoke to Agrippa as when he wrote to the Galatians. Likewise, it would be strange and unbiblical for a person to defend the faith in the same way when he speaks to a judge as when he speaks to his colleague or his infant son. The content of the faith remains the same, but the proper way to address people varies.
Peter indicates that he has different relationships and different categories of persons in mind when he writes, “Show proper respect to everyone: Love the brotherhood of believers, fear God, honor the king” (1 Peter 2:17). This does not mean that the way we behave in these relationships are mutually exclusive. The point is that in this letter, Peter makes these distinctions and provides specific instructions for specific situations. Love toward God is legitimate, and fear toward the king is also legitimate, although even here both words are used in different senses already, so that even to acknowledge this is to make the point once again.
When interrogated by a government official, the Christian is to exhibit a gentleness and respect in honor of the office held by the one who questions him. There are exceptions to this, as when Elijah said to Ahab, “You are the problem!” or when Jesus publicly referred to Herod as, “That fox.” Paul later cursed the high priest to his face, although when he did this, he did not know that he was speaking to the high priest. When he found out, he indicated that he did not know, implying that he might not have said the same thing if he had known. But remarkably, there is no record that he retracted his curse. That there are exceptions even to this rule for addressing authority figures reinforces my contention that the universal application of the “gentleness and respect” admonition is erroneous. And it is often taught in a way that would have us soften our tones and our words at all times and to all persons in such a manner that reduces apologetics to a rather effeminate and repulsive demonstration.
Nevertheless, Peter teaches believers to exercise wisdom and discretion when confronted by authority figures about their faith. To apply this in the broadest manner possible without first noting the specific context is defective exegesis, and an insult to divine inspiration. This does not mean that the Christian is to be a respecter of person, fearing the wealthy and powerful but scorning the ordinary inquirers. The reason for this attitude toward authority figures is because, as Paul teaches, all authorities are from God. No one who wields authority obtains his position except by divine providence. God is the source of the very ideas of authority and submission.
When the Christian answers authority with gentleness and respect, he does so because he is aware that the source of all authority is God. You respect the position given to the person by providence, while despising his ignorance and wickedness as a non-Christian. This is the apostle’s teaching. But even this teaching gives the Christian boldness before authorities. When Pilate said to Jesus, “Don’t you know who I am? Don’t you know that I have the power to judge you, or to set you free?” Jesus replied that Pilate could have no power except what was given him from above. So the usual attitude taught is based on a misinterpretation of 1 Peter 3:15 and related verses, and a shallow understanding of what Scripture teaches about faith, humility, and respect. Because the popular understanding is false and shallow, it is useless and even harmful. We should throw it out.
If we consider the verse in a broader context, that is, from the perspective of the New Testament or even the whole Bible, then the error of the popular interpretation becomes even more glaring. We begin with the assumption that if the verse is understood in a way that would condemn the prophets and the apostles, and even the Lord Jesus himself, then it cannot be the correct interpretation. Anyone who reads the Bible can see that the prophets, the apostles, and the Lord Jesus often spoke and behaved in ways that contradicted the popular understanding of 1 Peter 3:15. The Lord Jesus called people snakes, dogs, hypocrites, sons of hell and sons of the devil, and even performed physically violent acts such as turning over tables and using a whip to chase merchants out of the temple.
Those who affirm the popular version of Christian ethics would give no place for the Lord’s behavior, but would readily condemn him. And in condemning the Lord, they condemn themselves. As a Christian, I fully endorse the Lord’s action. I wish not and dare not disagree with him. But all those who affirm the popular interpretation of 1 Peter 3:15 have no right to endorse the Lord at the same time. They must consider him a hypocrite, in which case they blaspheme the Lord and reject the Scripture’s testimony concerning him, so that they renounce Christianity and show themselves as unbelievers and reprobates.
Or, if they do not do this, they must regard him as an exception to 1 Peter 3:15. They must say that the verse is not derived from the example of Jesus, but that it applies only to Christians. Even this is insufficient, since the prophets and the apostles also contradicted the popular understanding of 1 Peter 3:15, so that they must also be considered exceptions. Some people indeed teach this. Greg Bahnsen excuses the prophets, the apostles, and the Lord Jesus from 1 Peter 3:15 in precisely this manner in one of his lectures, saying that they were exceptions. At least he realized that they did not adhere to his interpretation of the verse.
However, this attempt to make their false interpretation of 1 Peter 3:15 consistent with the rest of the Bible betrays the fact that they have not understood or acknowledged even the surrounding passages. Peter repeatedly refers to the Lord’s example throughout the letter, and it is on this basis that he gives the instruction to give an answer for the faith with gentleness and respect. So the Lord cannot be an exception because 1 Peter 3:15 is based on his example in the first place. And since this is the case, then the prophets and the apostles cannot be considered exceptions, since all of God’s people must follow the supreme example of Christ, as all of them are called to conform the image of God’s Son. The popular interpretation of 1 Peter 3:15 is inconsistent with the immediate context of the verse, and it contradicts the rest of Scripture. Therefore, it must be false.
Since the prophets, the apostles, and the Lord Jesus could not be exceptions, this interpretation encourages both Christians and non-Christians to condemn them as hypocrites, since there is no way that anyone can twist the facts to make them fit the popular interpretation of 1 Peter 3:15. They violated the false interpretation with regularity and with no remorse. In fact, they appeared completely unaware of any moral regulation requiring them to show gentleness and respect in the sense meant by the popular interpretation. So, who are the true guardians of the faith? The prophets, the apostles, and the Lord Jesus, or those who tell you to be soft and polite when talking with unbelievers, and not to follow the numerous examples of the inspired preachers that demonstrated the exact opposite?
On the other hand, if we understand the verse to say that we must show respect when under interrogation by authority figures, then the problem disappears. And given the context in which the verse appears, this is the obvious and only possible meaning. As mentioned, even then, there are indeed apparent exceptions to even this principle, so that at times the prophets, the apostles, and the Lord Jesus appeared to show no respect at all to the authority figures. Unlike the false interpretation of 1 Peter 3:15, the legitimacy of these exceptions is not invented to preserve a semblance of consistency, but it is explicitly granted in Scripture, as when Peter indicated under interrogation that he ought to obey God rather than men. So these exceptions are not arbitrary, but clearly defined and explained. Moreover, these exceptions do not help the opposing view, that is, the popular interpretation, since the consideration of these exceptions occur after it has been established that 1 Peter 3:15 refers to showing respect to those in authority. The legitimate exceptions appear within a narrow context with clearly defined principles that explain when they should be done.
The truth is obvious. Those who insist on the basis of 1 Peter 3:15 that we must always perform apologetics with “gentleness and respect” – that is, with what they mean by gentleness and respect, which does not always conform to the biblical meaning – assert nothing more than their own opinion about the appropriate manner in which religious dialogues should be conducted. They are not really concerned about what Peter says and what he means. They just want to find words in the Bible that would support their own attitude on the matter, which amounts to, 1. You should do apologetics, and 2. You should be nice while doing it. This cheap distortion of Peter’s teaching subverts the apostle’s intention in encouraging and instructing believers who live under severe persecution. Those who promote this deception should be held accountable.