Apologetics Tip #24 Make Distinctions

“And as for the dead being raised, have you not read in the book of Moses, in the passage about the bush, how God spoke to him, saying, ‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? 27 He is not God of the dead, but of the living. You are quite wrong.”
Mark 12:26-27 (ESV)

The ability to make distinctions is a critical skill for adults. It can spell the difference between propaganda and insightful comments; or between slander and constructive criticism. In the above passage, Jesus demonstrates this skill answering the pharisees who were questioning him about the resurrection. His response is subtle. He points out the verb tense of the phrase, “I am the God of Abraham . . . ” In the Hebrew, and the Greek, that “I am” is present tense, not past tense. This means the dead patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, are not stuck in the past tense–once alive, but now annihilated. No, God is Lord over them today because they are still alive in some resurrected sense.

Jesus drew a critical distinction down to the verb tense of a single word, and that distinction meant the difference between resurrection theology and some heretical alternative. Words and even parts of words matter. Apologists can policy and improve their craft by discerning those distinctions that spell the difference between heresy and orthodoxy, or between insightful descriptions instead of shallow insults.

***

This morning a speaker said: “‘Defending the faith’ isn’t a biblical concept.” Now, I have devoted my adult life and ministry to this very purpose, defending the faith. So you can imagine what I felt inside when she said this and then explained that instead of being passive and defending the faith we should be active in advancing the faith. She continued to share an otherwise stirring message. Because with this perceived insult to my whole ministry, it was hard to focus and listen after that. I had a really hard time listening to the rest of what she had to say because of that poorly phrased line. My normal habit of “charitable/gracious interpretation” was a real struggle because I was emotionally and intellectually distracted by her apparently casual dismissal of my life’s work.
Talking with her afterwards she clarified that she knew about my work in apologetics and my wife, Hillary Morgan Ferrer, and her work in www.mamabearapologetics.com. She affirmed what we do, and had no problems with our ministry. She meant only that we Christians sometimes treat God’s kingdom like some isolated castle, with heavy walls and a big moat so that we are well defended from outside influence. She meant, what she called, “the moat mentality.” On this we can agree. We Christians should not be socially and culturally isolated so that we’re useless to those who most need the touch of Christ in their lives.
Unfortunately, there may be people in the audience who heard her say, “Defending the faith isnt’ biblical” and they heard what I first heard–apologetics isn’t biblical.
A lot can hang on our words. Our words can build up slowly or tear down swiftly. And it just might be the hardest part of our body to train in righteousness, It’s no wonder that the book of James says, “the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness.” (3:6)
When it comes to discerning speech, our words-choice weighs heavily in the delicate balance of persuasion. If we want to win agreement from people, to help change their minds about important ideas, we have to be willing to sift through key words and pick ones that can advance the conversation truthfully and fruitfully. In this way, it’s incredibly important to use fitting terms, allow for clarification, and be careful ourselves not to blur separate categories, especially when our blurred categories may indict innocent people with someone else’s guilt.
Consider the following examples:
  • “Pro-choice” isn’t identical to “Pro-abortion”
  • “Pro-life” isn’t identical “Anti-choice”
  • “Atheist” isn’t identical to “Pagan”
  • “Republican” isn’t identical to “Nazi”
  • “Democrat” isn’t identical to “Fascist”
  • “Free speech” isn’t identical to “Racism”
  • And so on.

These are just a few examples of labels that, when we misapply them, they can wreck a conversation and ruin a ministry opportunity. But this isn’t simply about avoid offense. Of course we shouldn’t add offense when it’s unnecessary. But we also err when our loose unguarded choice of words misidentifies the truth, obscures the truth, or obstructs conversation and repels other people.

The author of the book of James understood the critical importance of guarding our speech. At one point he seems fatalist, despairing over the apparently incurable tongue: “no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison” (James 3:8). But, just a few verses later he answers this lament with a divine prescription. Perhaps no human can fully tame the tongue by God can tame our tongues with “wisdom from above.” James says, “the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.” (3:17-18).

The words we use should be at least reasonably accurate and, where possible, inoffensive, so we aren’t wrecking ministry opportunities before they can even launch. We will not be perfect in this regard, but we can be perfectable if we are pleading in prayer for God to give us His wisdom (James 1:5). When we are conduits of God’s wisdom our conversations can be a God-honoring artpiece instead of an inglorious mud fight or or sacrilegious shouting match.

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