Friday, August 10, 2012

"Are we biblically winsome and persuasive to our apologias?"

"There are, as you know, two kinds of popularity: the one, when we seek favor from motives of ambition and the desire of pleasing; the other, when, by fairness and moderation, we gain their esteem so as to make them teachable by us."
[John Calvin, in a letter to William Farel]

"Finally, live out the virtues of a good ambassador. Represent Christ in a winsome and attractive way. You -- God's own representative -- are the key to making a difference for the kingdom. Show the world that Christianity is worth thinking about."
[Tactics: A Game Plan for Discussing Your Christian Convictions, by Gregory Koukl and Lee Strobel, Zondervan, 2009]

When the journal Sacred Tribes was launched by John Morehead, Philip Johnson, and Jon Trott back in 1999, Philip Johnson wrote the lead article for issue 1, volume 1, under the title "Apologetics, Mission and New Religious Movements: A Holistic Approach." Johnson went on to expand that article into a book by the same title, published by Sacred Tribes Press in 2010.

Anyone who thinks of John Morehead & Co. as anything other than just another bunch of Christian missionaris with the same goal as all other Christian missionaries (the replacement one way or another of all of humanity's religions with The One True Religion) should read the Introduction to this book by his long-time missiological colleague and close collaborator (scroll down).

Before getting to Johnson's essay itself, I would like to draw the reader's attention to some of its highlights.

In the opening paragraph, Johnson essentially gives the game away. He reveals that in his mental universe there are two ways of looking at adherents of "new religious movements" (a category under which one finds everything from Latter Day Saints and Seventh Day Adventists, to western converts to Buddhism and Hinduism, to Wiccans, Satanists and Scientologists): (1) poor confused souls who are "bedeviled" into following False Doctrines through no particular fault of their own (because, you know, of The Fall), and (2) "heretics and satanic adversaries" who are the willing followers of their Lord in Hell, whom they will join once they leave this earth. Take your pick.

In the second paragraph, Johnson begins to lay out the broad outlines of his case for a shift in the "vocabulary" and "tone" that should be employed by missionaries when "dealing with cults and new religions." In the following paragraphs Johnson contrasts one group of Bible stories which depict "direct and hostile confrontations", such as Matthew 12:30 in which Jesus declares "He who is not with me is against me," with kinder, gentler Bible stories in which Jesus and Paul are portrayed as "winsome and attractive" toward those they seek to convert, such as Paul's appeal to the Hellenes of Athens found in Acts 17:16-34.

It is worth taking a closer look at the little vignette in Acts that is so often presented as an exemplary tale of Christian open-mindedness. In the first place, Paul "was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols." (Hey, Paul, this is, you know, like, Athens. The Parthenon? Ever heard of it?) Then a little later on Paul is making a nuisance of himself obnoxiously haranguing Athenian Pagan passers-by on some street corner, when "a group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers began to dispute with him." One thing leads to another, and eventually Paul finds himself being invited to present his case for this new foreign God of his before a large gathering of Pagans (both Athenians and out-of-towners). Paul tells them that while they might be very religious after a fashion, they do not understand what it is they worship. In the past, Paul warns them, the One True God of the Christians overlooked this "ignorant" behavior of the Pagans, but now everyone must worship only The One True God of the Christians or face eternal damnation. This is the "winsome and attractive" version!

But now it is time to let Philip Johnson speak for himself:

Apologetics, Mission and New Religious Movements:
A Holistic Approach

Sacred Tribes Press, 2010
Philip Johnson


New religious movements form part of the mosaic that makes religious pluralism quite a challenge for Christian missions in the twenty-first century. Of course mentioning missions and new religions in the same breath might raise a few eyebrows: is the apologist primarily a gate-keeper who fends off false doctrine, or can an apologist also actively seek to make disciples from the ranks of new religions? Our answer to that question will partly depend on where we place the most emphasis: (a) Do we regard adherents [of "new religious movements"] primarily as persons made in God's image bedeviled by the Fall and who have been misdirected? Or (b) Do we regard them primarily as heretics and satanic adversaries who are destined for divine wrath?

Now, some apologists might take exception to this initial gambit of mine and feel this is simply pettifogging about words. It might be felt that this is an artificial dichotomy that deliberately polarizes the issue because an apologist can both fend off false doctrine and engage in evangelism. I certainly do not intend to imply that these twin functions are mutually exclusive. However, what I am seriously inviting readers to reflect on concerns our motives, methods and messages in dealing with cults and new religions. In particular, it is about our choice of vocabulary, the tone in which we write and speak, and our efforts to disciple people who are currently devotees in new religions.

If we are genuinely interested in communicating Jesus' call to discipleship to those who participate in new religions, then we must look at the shape and content of our messages to them. What parts of Scripture are we emulating when presenting the gospel and commending the faith? Do we consciously or unconsciously adopt a stance similar to these passages:

(a) Elijah versus the prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18: 21-40)?

(b) John the Baptist versus the Pharisees (Matthew 3: 7-10)?

(c) Jesus versus the Pharisees (Matthew 12: 22-39, Luke 11:42-54)?

(d) Paul versus the Judaizers (2 Cor. 11, Galatians)?

From the "Men On A Mission" Calendar, 2009
In the above examples we have direct and hostile confrontations occurring between a particular religious group inside the nation of Israel and God’s prophet, or with Jesus, or with Paul and a congregation. Are these sorts of encounters intended in Scripture to be used as a guide to apologetics, evangelism and discipleship? That is one of the issues I hope we can reflect on once this discussion is concluded.

By way of contrast, to what extent do we approach devotees in the style of Jesus in his encounter with the Samaritan woman (John 4: 1-42) and Paul’s apologetic speech in Athens (Acts 17:16-34)? Are we following Paul’s mission’s principle to become all things to all people (1 Cor. 9: 20-23) when approaching the non-Christian devotee? Are we biblically winsome and persuasive in our apologias? Do we show courtesy and respect towards devotees or are we scornful, scathing and sarcastic in what we say and write? These too are issues I hope we will reflect on at the conclusion of this discussion.

On another tack, some countercult apologists might argue that apologetics is synonymous with evangelism. It might be argued that as adherents of new religions embrace false doctrine the tried and true method of apologetic refutation, coupled with an appeal to repent, is the only way to evangelize. This is what we have always done. So it might be genuinely felt that we are already engaged in mission and there is no further point to this discussion.

From the "Hot Mormon Moms" Calender, 2012
The temptation to cease reading here should be forestalled. It is almost a cliché to say that we are living in a time of rapid change. Yet it is precisely the ebb and flow of the tides of history that carry us along, and it can be very helpful for us when navigating those currents to take some bearings. By taking bearings I mean that we should from time to time pause in our journey and reflect on the cultural and historical contexts in which we find ourselves. We should also be willing to look at what our apologetic forebears have done and consider their strengths and limitations. By looking at what others have done or are doing, we can put our own labors into critical perspective and test the mettle of what we do.

Now there are things implied in what has just been said. One is that countercult apologetic methods need to be evaluated, and the very suggestion that our apologetic toolkit could stand some upgrading probably sounds shocking. Yet to paraphrase Socrates’ aphorism, “the unexamined apologetic method is not worth using.” If we evangelicals do indeed believe that in everything we say or do, we do it for Jesus Christ (cf. Col. 3:17), then we surely will want to do our utmost in service for him in the field of new religions.

A different way of looking at ourselves in the mirror is through Ralph Neighbour’s cheeky point about the church’s famous last words: "we never tried it that way before." He made those remarks about resistant attitudes to change in the church. For my purposes Neighbour’s remarks provoke a pertinent question for us to consider - how resistant are we to examining our methods and learning about other approaches? Are we so habituated to primarily using negative apologetics as the remedy for cults that we might be too rigid to be challenged by fresh ideas? Has our apologetic toolkit become a sacred cow that we tenaciously refuse to subject it to scrutiny? I am not suggesting here, by the by, that apologetics is misguided or useless at all, particularly since I have taught the subject of apologetics at a Bible college level for several years, am on the board of the recently established School of Apologetics at the Centre for Evangelism and Global Mission in Sydney, Australia and been a practitioner in the field of personal evangelism and apologetics since 1978.

David Wilkinson of St Johns College, University of Durham, in addressing the wider dimensions of apologetics observes:

"Apologetics, like preaching, is an art to be developed rather than a science to be understood. In developing apologetics for our time, we need to rediscover its biblical roots. Often our western theological tradition has narrowed the practice of apologetics making it largely irrelevant to contemporary mission. A broader biblical view allows us to reformulate apologetics as an essential part of Christian ministry and evangelism in the new millennium."

What Wilkinson intimates about reformulating apologetics to suit our cultural circumstances has some bearing on the sub-discipline of countercult apologetic ministry. We need to consider what our cultural circumstances now comprise in view of religious pluralism being a street-life reality in most parts of the world. For some western Christians it probably comes as a great jolt to realize that the privileged societal position of Church dominance has been undermined or in many cases has ceased to be a living reality. One thing we might find helpful to rediscover is how the children of Israel and then the apostolic church functioned in cultural contexts where they were in the minority rubbing shoulders with many competing religious options. As Wilkinson calls for a rediscovery of the biblical roots of apologetics, so too we should learn from our biblical forebears in the ways they lived, ministered and engaged in mission with rival religious movements.

Another implication to my earlier remarks is the distinct possibility that we might not be properly engaged in mission as it is classically understood and practiced. That probably sounds absurd. Yet we must surely wonder why is it then that westerners who participate in cults and new religions are not being discipled by us en masse? Why do some evangelical missiologists look askance at our activities and cringe? Why do some sociologists and phenomenologists dare to observe that we are so caught up in preaching to the choir? Why is it that few cult devotees ever end up in our churches as servants of Christ? Are we construing boundary-maintenance against heresy as being coterminous with evangelism? Maybe we could learn some fresh tricks of the trade from our colleagues in world missions that will become a blessing to the church at large and for ourselves. For the issue at hand is not about jettisoning the analysis of heresy in the light of orthodoxy. Rather the basic question is whether evangelism and discipleship of devotees in new religious movements is taking place on any serious and sustained level.

For some readers this call for reflection about our methods and strategies may seem odd or even provoke some impatience. Most of us as apologists for the faith have happily applied methods and forms of argument that have been formulated by others. We have probably been content to follow those who have pioneered countercult ministry without much need to call our methods into question. However it would do us no harm to consider how and why these methods were formulated, particularly when in recent years various apologists have expressed disquiet about existing models through their essays or in public conventions. When debates about method emerge in a discipline they may arise because there are new circumstances that highlight inadequacies with existing approaches. Although methodological debates can sometimes polarize the participants, they can also be the catalyst for new and productive enterprises.

The purpose of this critical discussion is to evaluate some of our existing methods, and propose some improvements by gleaning insights from cross-cultural missiology, so that we can be more effective in our engagement with today’s world. To achieve that goal this rather long paper is divided into four separate documents. The first involves a description and positive appraisal of the pre-eminent apologetic method used in ministry to new religions, the heresy-rationalist apologia. The second illustrates limitations and weakness with the heresy-rationalist approach. The third carries on with a brief description and analysis of five other models used: end-times prophecy & conspiracy, spiritual warfare, apostate testimonies, cultural apologetics and behavioralist apologetics. The fourth and final installment provides a skeletal outline of the directions we need to take to create a holistic, integrated approach that can have maximum effectiveness in the proclamation of the gospel and the task of discipleship.
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