How can anyone make sense of Christianity if Christians don’t know what they believe?

This Saturday sees the fourth annual Unbelievable? Conference hosted by Premier Radio host and Christianity Magazine editor, Justin Brierley. For those who fancy a day at Methodist Central Hall in London considering issues around Christian apologetics and effective evangelism, this will be the place to be. Unbelieveable? is now the UK’s leading apologetics and evangelism conference and features an impressive line-up of respected international speakers. According to the website, this year’s event will help ordinary Christians be equipped to:

  • Be confident in your faith and share it effectively
  • Engage with atheism, Islam and other worldviews
  • Give good reasons for God and the truth of Christianity

The sad thing is that some readers of this post will not have reached this point, having lost interest as soon as apologetics and evangelism were mentioned. We are repeatedly told that Christians are increasingly holding views on a range of life (and death) matters that are in opposition to official church teaching including sex and relationships, abortion and assisted suicide when they are in disagreement with those of wider society. Research has also suggested that Christians are much more likely to rely on their own feelings and thoughts than God or the Bible when making decisions.

Is it any wonder that Christianity is declining in this country when many of those who claim to be Christian take such little interest in the foundations that it is built upon? This is consumerist religion that picks the bits that suit us and ignores those that don’t or are too challenging. Such an approach to faith and belief severely diminishes its attractiveness. Why should I believe something that you aren’t even sure about yourself? There is a difference between believing in Jesus in some way or form and knowing the genuine Jesus of the Bible and having a sufficient grasp of his teachings to apply them to real life and to be able to understand and express our faith confidently.

If Christians are to be followers of Christ – which after all is what the word literally means – then surely the best way to find out what this entails is to look at Jesus and what he said and did. What he didn’t say was, “Pick and choose the bits of my teachings that you like the sound of and don’t let the rest bother you.” or, “Don’t worry too much about the Bible – that’s just for clever people and vicars.” If you want to know what Jesus expected from his followers then you only need to look at the parable of the sower. Jesus expected commitment and explained it would be far from easy: ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.’ He knew the Jewish scriptures intimately, because he fully understood their importance and value.  And he didn’t make sharing his Good News an optional extra. Apologetics (being able to explain and defend your beliefs in a coherent way) and evangelism (sharing your faith) were right at the top of Jesus’ agenda for his disciples and were for the early church as well as it began to spread his message.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby talking at a conference on church growth last year said that,

“Evangelism has to be a priority” and the CofE at present has a bit of work to do on this. Is it on the agendas of our meetings, synods, etc.? It must also be seen as normal for everyone  “this is emphatically not a clergy thing, this is a Christian thing.” 

“Dealing with the really hard issues, solidly, is absolutely fundamental.” Churches need to help people with apologetics, dealing with the tough questions, and being able to explain their faith.”

This is not just talk for the sake of it; it makes a difference right here, right now. Next week Lord Falconer’s Assisted Dying Bill will be presented to the House of Lords.  There’s been a great deal of strong words written in the press over the last few days both from those in favour and those against. Plenty of doctors are dreading a change in the law and so too are many people on religious grounds. This is exactly the sort of issue that Christians shouldn’t be watching from a distance whilst sitting on the fence. When the Observer publishes an aggressively intolerant piece entitled Religious activists have too much say over our right to die, which in effect says that those with religious views should shut up and stop interfering, it is a moment when a good grounding in apologetics is needed in order to respond forcefully and coherently. Shouting ‘Because God says so!’ is pointless. Being able to frame powerful arguments that will chime with those willing to listen irrespective of their religious beliefs whilst staying true to your own (as some have done) is an important art. If you don’t know what you believe or whether those beliefs are relevant to others, then it probably is best if you shut up.

Looking at this from the other side of the coin, it’s possible to do more damage than good if you choose not to shut up, but your theology is misguided or confused. Dignity in Dying (formerly the Voluntary Euthanasia Society) who are backing Falconer’s Bill have recently published an article on their website which gives a supposedly Christian case for assisted suicide from the Reverend Paul Badham. It is obviously there to rebuff Christians who are in disagreement. Reverend Badham may be Professor Emeritus of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Wales, but writing as a Christian apologist promoting assisted dying, his argument is scarily flimsy. Badham’s main thrust is that Jesus’ golden rule was that we should always treat others as we wish to be treated ourselves. Therefore if someone wants to die, the compassionate response is to help them achieve their aim.

This is a terribly narrow interpretation of Jesus’ words. It assumes that we would want the same if we were in the shoes of the other person and is worryingly vague on where lines can and should be drawn. How much does someone really have to want to die before we help them out? The context of Jesus’ words in Luke 6 is regarding loving our enemies, treating others equally and fairly, withholding proud condemnation and applying forgiveness. It’s not a get-out-of-jail free card to do whatever we like.

1 Peter 3:15-16 says this:

‘But in your hearts, set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer [apologia] to everyone who asks you for the reason for the hope that you have, but do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience.’

Apologetics is no more for Oxbridge academics than evangelism is for professional evangelists. If we are serious about living as Christians in the world rather than behind closed church doors, it’s imperative that we are able to give a good account for our faith and represent God’s Kingdom as ambassadors rather than as embarrassed school children who have been caught out because they haven’t done their homework.

Categories: Euthanasia, Faith in society

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16 replies

  1. Gillan, another superb article – you are so on track!

    • Ive already commented on pick and mix christianity on a previous blog. Do christians not realise that by trying to get christianity to fit a secular worldview (square pegs, round holes) you are just playing into the hands of atheists? How are you going to convince anyone to believe, if you can’t agree amongst yourselves what you believe? ??,

      • This reminds me of the following joke from American comic Emo Philips

        “Once I saw this guy on a bridge about to jump. I said, “Don’t do it!” He said, “Nobody loves me.” I said, “God loves you. Do you believe in God?”

        He said, “Yes.” I said, “Are you a Christian or a Jew?” He said, “A Christian.” I said, “Me, too! Protestant or Catholic?” He said, “Protestant.” I said, “Me, too! What franchise?” He said, “Baptist.” I said, “Me, too! Northern Baptist or Southern Baptist?” He said, “Northern Baptist.” I said, “Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist or Northern Liberal Baptist?”

        He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist.” I said, “Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region, or Northern Conservative Baptist Eastern Region?” He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region.” I said, “Me, too!”

        Northern Conservative†Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1879, or Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912?” He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912.” I said, “Die, heretic!” And I pushed him over.”

  2. Pix and mix works in many different ways. Different groups pick and mix different parts. Probably the main reason I haven’t become a Christian is because I find it difficult to work out what Christianity is. Different groups tell you different things. It’s a minefield.

  3. Interesting change of title since you first posted this… but to the subject itself: there are many things I’m sure of, and one of them is that Jesus would have no truck with the institutionalised homophobia that we see in the Church of England today, with its antipathy towards equal marriage. Jesus, I think, would be far more likely to be leading the way in the call to faithfulness that those of us who believe in equal marriage are campaigning for, rather than putting up barriers and excluding LGBTI people from the church.

    Any embarrassment I feel when it comes to sharing my faith isn’t because I haven’t done my homework, as you put it, but because I have, and having done it I find myself increasingly alienated from a church that fails to represent the Jesus I’ve come to know and love. The call to follow Jesus falls on deaf ears because the church doesn’t: it follows its own agendas rather than its Lord’s.

    • Thanks Phil. Decided to change the first title as it sounded too harsh.

      I can emphasize with a lot of what you have said. The church is often its own worst enemy and is and has been sadly successful in driving too many people away including gay people, but also many others. Someone I know has recently come out and I’ve been spending quite a bit of time talking with them as they deal with the implications of it. We might not agree on equal marriage, but I’m not letting that get in the way of being there for this person and showing them as much love as I can.

      To me demonstrating the love of Jesus is far more important at the end of the day than fighting over differences. It doesn’t mean we all have to agree on everything in the Church, but it is about our priorities. There’s still plenty to do and lots to fix to make churches the beacons of light to a lost world that they should be.

  4. Pretty much what Phil said, and Christians who are ever so ‘confident of their faith’ and unquestioning are a turn off to many.

    • Lorenzo, do you find maths teachers that are confident in their belief that 2+2=4? Would you be turned off by one that refused to question this understanding?
      Surely someone who believes in something so definitively should be applauded rather than derided?

  5. Part of the problem is this insane idea that disagreeing with someone over what God calls us to as a way of life means that you are rejecting them. It is as much a part of pick and mix consumer religion as anything and it is very dangerous. It leads to people reacting to something that wasn’t actually said (e.g. “I don’t agree with you” becomes “I reject/dislike you”) and means that for many the only way that they will feel like they are accepted and welcomed is if everything they do, think and feel is accepted as well.
    Is it any wonder that we have so many social problems in this country when we have so many who take a similar view on all sorts of issues?
    “Don’t like how I dress? You’re rejecting me!”
    “Don’t like the music I listen to? You must hate me if you way that!”
    “Disagree with who my friends are? You bastard!”
    The list could go on and on, because people really can’t stand conflict and disagreement within relationships. The sooner people stop taking this mindset and start accepting that no relationship can ever be perfect and without disagreement the sooner we have a chance of having proper discourse on the things that really matter!

    Regarding Unbelievable!, I will be there. I was there last year and it is an excellent resource for Christians wanting to learn different areas they might seek to engage in. It is also an excellent place for non-believers who are of an open mind to go and listen to what people have to say. Questions are usually welcomed (time allowing) and there are breaks during the day for further discussion as well.

    • Dave, my fave emo joke is:

      I prayed to god every night for a bike, but didnt get one. Then I realised it didnt work like that, so I stole one and prayed for forgiveness.

  6. Thank you Gillan. This is such an important subject and whilst apologetics has limitations it is so important to be able to explain why we follow Jesus. One of the problems is that his message is so counter cultural in so many areas and he bursts many of the bubbles that underpin our lives. We may feel threatened and become defensive because he touches raw nerves. If we take him seriously though this amounts to a huge challenge and when you add explaining the supernatural resources that are available to us by faith in the seemingly improbable, in a prayer life and study of ancient scripture it becomes a huge task to connect with modern culture particularly if we critique that culture we soon become moralists or kill joys. On another level many people relate to Jesus but not the church. There is a huge amount of church baggage to be honest about with ritual, tradition, history and hierarchy also making the task harder because huge numbers of people find it weird and cant relate to it. . You touch on issues of interpretation and the temptation to fit in with culture in order to feel relevant rather than distinct. This requires an ongoing fascinating discussion as we seek truth and meaning, as it has always been from old testament times and one of the reasons this blog is important. We can take encouragement though from the many fresh expressions of Church, a return to authentic forms of worship, a renewed zest for mission ( which people relate to ) and the growing number of rich resources books, dvds, and conferences which help and encourage us to grow in this area. A recent survey revealed that 8 out of 10 Christians felt inhibited in sharing their faith with work colleagues and those they meet through fear of being marginalised. Is this our timidity, poor presentation or other peoples religious prejudice !!!! The great shame of this is that Jesus is simply awesome and has so much good to offer us both as individuals and as a society. Do we ourselves believe it ? Do we need to be more bold ? The unbelievable conference is extremely interesting and they always produce a D.V.D / you tube clips of the seminars if folk are interested but can’t make it. Alpha also produce a number of low cost accessible booklets which can be very helpful for seekers to ponder over.

  7. Graham, I would say poor presentation is the biggest problem. When I have spoken to christians they just havn’t been relevant. I have a good life and they can’t offer me anything that I feel would improve that. There also seems to be a tendancy to get confrontational and defensive when challenged (something in evidence on these blogs).
    Churches also need to do more, I live within spitting distance of three churches, yet the only time I hear from them is the usual christmas/easter leaflets.

  8. Yes – knowing why people have rejected Christianity is first base because a lot of what is said is true but paradoxically there is caricature and stereotype which seriously exaggerate certain aspects of the Church. In my time as an atheist i carried many of these prejudices but have been pleasantly surprised by Church culture which does seem a bit weird at first. My daughter who has been studying in the north of England has had many discussions with Christians and finds that when pressed will often say ”Its just my faith ” which is no answer at all. As Gillan rightly says We need to do better in this area.

  9. ‘‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.’

    That is the key that will unlock this country for Christ.

    What am I afraid of?

    For over a year I have slipped a £20 note under the bedroom door, as it were, to Him. ‘Use it for the upkeep of your church,’ I have whispered in the night: a vain attempt just to appease Him, just for one more day of self-indulgence.

    The price to be paid tomorrow increases by the hour.

    I have to surrender my bourgeois life-style: the lust; the security; the safety; the neat little house; the cigars and champagne; my life.

    Yet – He is sovereign – He owns ‘the cattle on a thousand hills’ – it’s all borrowed – He owns it all anyway.

    ‘Daddy, (it’s your birthday soon) may I have £40?’

    ‘Sure, honey.’

    ‘Here you are Daddy, a birthday present!’

    It’s all His.

    Except for my free-will.

    He won’t touch that. Why?

    For if He did, Love is not possible.

    What if I freely chose to present to him out of love: my free-will?

    The supreme self-sacrifice.

    Then, it is possible: All England will be on fire.

  10. ‘This is exactly the sort of issue that Christians shouldn’t be watching from a distance whilst sitting on the fence’

    Lord Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, is not sitting on the fence when it comes to assisted suicide.

    Happily, we know he has prayed to his god for guidance on this subject. A sceptic would claim that God doesn’t answer prayer, but Lord Carey knows better.

  11. The cafeteria Christian phenomenon started in 1054. Actually before then with the Eastern churches, the Coptic Church, etc, etc. It started as several divergent streams that diverged again and again just kept on diverging. Kind of looks like the Nile delta now. If it keeps on diverging, it’ll soon resemble the fine cloud of dissociated water molecules sprayed out by a garden sprinkler…

    The problem isn’t the modern tendency to pick and choose beliefs. That’s just the logical progression of a tendency that’s been developing since the faith was founded. All those myriad churches, denominations and assemblies that have existed for hundreds of years without being able to agree with each other speak of a fundamentally divided faith. Nobody knows what Christianity is because there are hundreds if not thousands of versions of it and who knows which, if any of them, are even close to the truth, if truth there is…

    Christianity is a confusing hubbub of competing and contradictory voices. Its very diversity speaks of a human rather than a divine origin. Christians talk a lot about what they have in common and then fight and fight and fight some more. When you’re on the outside looking in, it looks very unconvincing.

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