Until recently I had never heard the term “incarnational apologetics.” At its most basic, incarnational apologetics means that the way we live as Christians is as much a part of our defense of the faith as the historical reliability of the Gospels or the various arguments for the existence of God.
According to David Wheeler, professor of evangelism at Liberty University…
… both the incarnational and informational approaches combine to create an authentic message. The holistic combination of a Christian who is well prepared informationally to defend his faith, combined with one who actually lives out his beliefs incarnationally as a transforming expression of Christ, is what powerfully speaks to non-Christians and compels them to receive Christ as their personal savior.
It seems silly that, as Christians, we have to remind other Christians to live like Christians: Be kind. Be generous. Forgive those who hurt you. Help those who need help. Let the joy of Christ emanate from you like the light that shoots from the Doctor when he’s regenerating.
The most obvious example of incarnational Christianity is someone who risks his life for his faith. From Justin Martyr to Saeed Abedini, these Christians stand up for Jesus in the face of death. Another characteristic of the true Christ-follower is his love for the unlovable. One of the reasons why Christianity grew so quickly in the 1st and 2nd centuries was its commitment to caring for those that others had left to die. There is no better example of incarnational apologetics than Mother Teresa ministering to India’s sick and dying throughout her life.
But Christians (including those of us who consider ourselves apologists) aren’t perfect.
In “The End of Apologetics,” Myron Penner recalls an incident in which two seminary students decided to follow a non-Christian around and convince him that Christianity was true. They used every weapon in their apologetic arsenal, assuming that if he could just be convinced that Christianity is empirically true, he would convert.
I know people, myself included, for whom this kind of behavior would simply push them further away from Christ. As Penner observes, these men seemed to have no real interest in the actual person. They weren’t interested in this man’s thoughts or feelings, or what kept him up at night. They weren’t interested in getting to know him, only in scoring a win for Jesus.
In our zeal for defending the existence of objective truth and correcting misperceptions about our faith, some Christians forget that those who don’t yet know Jesus are not the enemy. Every time we talk about “us” vs. “them”…or assume we know what someone is thinking before even talking to them…or fail to attack the idea without attacking the person holding it…we are not being incarnational.
There are atheist forums on the Internet where Christians are called “stupid,” “irrational,” “religitards,” and “a plague upon the earth.” One particular site encourages its members to find Christian forums, assume the guise of an honest seeker, then at some point in the conversation “open fire.” Members “pose” as someone else, then “see how long they can stay undercover until they’re found out.” One member of this forum considers the persecution of Christians the “good ol’ days.” (These are actual quotes from the site).*
Yes, it is wrong to unleash this kind of virulent hatred on any group (my deontological view of morality is showing here), but as Christians, we are called to forgive. We must keep in mind that they don’t have access to the Holy Spirit—a fact that should make us more aware of our responsibility to be Christ to them, not less. Unfortunately, sometimes Christians are as sharp-tongued and slanderous as those they’re interacting with.
Yes, the Gospel is of eternal consequence. Misperceptions must be addressed and the truth proclaimed, but not at the cost of disobeying Christ’s call to love our neighbor as ourselves.
There are several specific methodologies connected to incarnational apologetics. J.R. Miller has a helpful introductory series for those who are interested in both the theory and practice of this relatively new branch of apologetics, but my apologist friends would all agree that knowing the theory—and even employing the method perfectly—does not replace showing the love of Christ to those who ridicule us.
I hope that someday, those of us who follow Jesus are so obviously Christ-like that there is no need for a separate apologetic category to remind us of what we should be doing naturally. But in the words of Aragorn, “It is not this day.”
Until then, the scandal of incarnational apologetics is that it is necessary.
*Disclaimer: The atheist group quoted above is a public group; these comments are public record.