How do we love our neighbor?
It’s often a judgment call as to how we deal with antagonists, but the Bible gives us guidance.
Published: 24 July 2014 (GMT+10)
The creation movement has a reputation, in the eyes of some, of being too harsh in our interactions with evolutionists (theistic or otherwise) and old-earth creationists. Of course, there is biblical precedent for direct speech, rebukes, etc. For example, when other Christian leaders are compromising the clear message of Scripture and even undermining the Gospel, strong words may be appropriate, as in the case where Paul rebuked even the Apostle Peter (Galatians 2:11–14). Jesus reserved some of His harshest words for the theologically educated Pharisees, who were leading people astray with false teaching, when they should have known better.
Sometimes we biblical creationists are accused of being divisive, but, in reality, it is actually those who compromise Scripture who are being divisive. Genesis clearly teaches a six-day creation that happened around 6,000 years ago, and this is reinforced throughout both the Old and New Testaments. In addition, the early church fathers and Christians up until the ‘Enlightenment’ believed that God created in this way. So it is those who are arguing for a new interpretation of Scripture who are being divisive.
But we have to remember that we can’t expect unbelievers who don’t know better to act or believe like Christians—so our approach to atheistic evolutionists should always be evangelistic, not just trying to win an argument. And there are also many Christians who have adopted compromising views on creation out of ignorance or poor teaching; they simply have not thought through the issues. With each of these groups of people, the way in which we communicate is as important as what we communicate.
When evolutionists challenge the creation position, they are attacking the Christian’s foundation for belief. So, sometimes, with the aim of evangelism in mind, a robust response is appropriate to challenge the thought processes of the critic. This is intended to turn it back on them to hopefully make them realize the falsity of their argument. By challenging the foundations of their belief, it is hoped that the worldview built upon those foundations would also topple. But we should never attack the person. Of course, when a person’s views or beliefs are challenged, they can feel personally threatened, because beliefs are part of the package that makes ‘a person’.
Creation Ministries International, as a global federation of ministries (CMI-Worldwide), has consciously taken the position that we want to be less involved in fiery rhetoric and inflammatory arguments, while continuing to focus on being a source for quality information for all audiences.
Of course, some Christians love to see their favourite ministries and leaders ‘machine gun’ evolutionists. And being fallible and emotional beings ourselves, we might also occasionally fall short of our desire to honour Scripture. But we should strive to be faithful to the whole command in 1 Peter 3:15 (italics ours): “But in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect”. There are three phrases in this verse. Usually it is shortened to “be ready to give an answer”, but in leaving off the last part, we risk losing some of the focus that we’re meant to have.
Honour Christ the Lord as holy
The motivation for giving an answer should always be to honour Jesus Christ. If we are intellectually precise, but fail to be a good witness by being Gospel-focused and communicating in a way that is glorifying to God, then we dishonour the Lord. Instead, we should always aim to have interactions that point people to Jesus. Having this attitude helps to take the focus away from our own emotional responses to offensive remarks, helping us to reflect a Christ-honouring attitude when we respond.
Peter gave this command in the context of the church being persecuted. Rather than fearing their persecutors, Peter is telling the church to rather revere Jesus. How much more should we do this when we are only facing mere ridicule, and not serious life-threatening persecution!
Be ready to give an answer
We give answers to literally dozens of people every week at CMI, and many of these have been published on our website as feedback articles or responses to comments at the bottom of our web articles. It is simply not possible to fight every person’s battle for them, or respond to every web article or YouTube video we are sent (something we are constantly asked to do). A major focus of our ministry is providing information to people to help them give an answer. Our content is scientifically and theologically reviewed to make sure that, as much as possible, we always have up-to-date and accurate information.
People often emphasize the scientific aspects of apologetics, and that is important (or we would not employ so many Ph.D. scientists!). However, what Peter has in mind here, and what our foundation has to be, is knowing the Bible’s teaching such that we’re able to answer from Scripture when people ask us questions about what we believe. Sometimes science will be an important part of our answer, but the foundation always ultimately has to go back to what the Bible teaches. This is why stronger criticism may be appropriate for those who profess to have a high view of Scripture, yet undermine it by deferring to the man-made interpretations of secular science that are so clearly contrary to the Bible.
A couple of recent examples
Often, CMI comments in areas of popular culture like movies and books because such things tend to drive popular opinion on a range of issues. And Christians often get very excited when something of a Christian nature is going to appear on the big screen. Recently, we critiqued a well-publicized Christian movie. It unfairly caricatured Muslims, atheists and other non-Christian positions, and it also used theistic evolutionary arguments to try to support a Christian creation position. We attempted to review the movie in a loving tone because we presumed that the producers were simply ignorant of the wealth of creation information that could have helped them. A few thought that it was wrong to criticize a ‘Christian’ movie no matter how incorrect it was, and that the good in it might outweigh the bad and lead people to Christ anyway. However, this ‘end justifies the means’ approach falls somewhat short on integrity. That is, we are being asked to turn a ‘blind eye’ when Christians attempt to use false information to reach people with the Gospel—particularly when it opposes everything our ministry stands for—biblical creation. There is no precedent in Scripture for Christ doing this, and as Christians, we are actually commanded to do the opposite.
Then when we reviewed a secular Hollywood movie (although it had a biblical theme, it was made by an atheist director), we received a handful of comments saying we were too soft in our review. However, the review actually had some strong criticisms. We called it unbiblical, said it had very few elements of the true story or the Gospel in it, and had few redeeming features for Christians to have any satisfaction from it. Some thought we were not critical enough because, unlike other leaders and ministries, we did not use inflammatory language to condemn it. As we said in the review, ‘What does one expect from Hollywood?’ The real problem was the unrealistic expectations Christians had for a secular movie.
We knew that mainly non-Christians would be seeing this movie and our hope was that Christians would forward our calm, fact-driven review so that non-believers would not be led astray by getting their ‘biblical information’ from such a fantasy-driven movie. Non-Christians were less likely to listen if we engaged in over-the-top bad-mouthing of the movie. Such a response would also just make us look like naysayers (as if we are against everything).
With gentleness and respect
It is easy to get caught up in name-calling and rhetoric, especially when hostile critics attack us. But we’re called to be above that sort of ‘spleen-venting’. Part of our witness is supposed to be the respectful tone we take with even the rudest and most unfair attacks. We should remember the principle in Proverbs 15:1: “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” For many of us, a good example might be to recall our unsaved or pre-salvation days. How would we, for instance, have responded to a Christian calling us names or commenting aggressively about how inappropriate our ideas were in light of the Bible, before we really knew Scripture or much about the Gospel to start with?
There is a threefold reason for this: we should do it out of love for and obedience to Christ (looking back to “honour Christ the Lord as holy”), and as verse 16 goes on to explain, so that we have a clear conscience in our dealings with others, and so that our opponents might be ashamed of themselves and their slander when faced with our gentle response.
What about harshness in Jesus’ and Paul’s statements?
Some people who promote a harsher response point to Jesus’ statements to the Pharisees, or Paul’s statements about the Judaizers, as a precedent for how we are to engage opponents. It has been said that this isn’t something the average Christian can do, because Jesus is God (and therefore knew the hearts of His opponents and knew when a harsh response was appropriate) and Paul was inspired by the Holy Spirit. However, Paul does say, in 1 Corinthians 11:1, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.” The Christian can and should emulate Paul and Jesus in how they interacted. Yet, we should note again that their harsh responses were only to one group of people in a particular sort of circumstance.
Jesus, Paul, and other biblical figures were only harsh to opponents who were religious leaders, and then only when they were promoting grave errors or heresies that were perverting the Gospel. So that’s why we are more critical of groups like BioLogos who teach a different Gospel, and in cases like the chaplain of a Christian school who refused to have creation ministry even when the parents of the students wanted it. The motivation of this harshness to this sort of person is actually love—love for the people who are being misled and kept from the truth. In fact, one might call it a form of discipline by trying to call the believer, and in this case, leaders, back to their first love (Revelation 2).
Giving a loving response
It isn’t always easy to respond to critics with the sort of loving response that God commands us to give. With the sort of venom we receive so often, sometimes our instinct is to respond at least partly in kind. But part of our witness is to surprise even our harshest critics with a gentle response that not only plainly states the truth, but makes that truth look attractive by the language and tone we use to describe it. Thus, by dealing with the arguments instead of the person, it avoids giving them a valid reason to sidestep the arguments, and also decreases the likelihood of an emotional reaction that might cause them to miss the arguments.
Our supporters might be surprised at some of the very hateful, abusive and even threatening comments that our staffers receive, and not just from non-Christians. But sometimes responding with a respectful tone combined with good information makes all the difference. For instance, on one occasion someone wrote in to us with a series of hostile questions. Instead of responding with sarcasm, we responded respectfully with information to answer his questions, and we did the same thing when he came back once more. The third time he wrote to us, he said:
“When I first contacted you I did not expect a reply, but now I have had two replies. I am humbled by your courtesy. I must also admit that I had assumed that deeply religious people were not keen to discuss their religion and did not have a clear idea what they believed in. You obviously are neither. The open honesty and breadth of your comments has humbled me.”
Christians who stand on God’s word should not be surprised when unbelievers are hostile and hateful to us—unbelievers were hostile and hateful to Jesus, even to the point of killing Him, and “a servant is not above his master” (John 15:20). But when we obey the commandment to “speak the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15), we can see some remarkable results when He opens hearts to the Gospel.