My Pastor’s Heresy
Pastor “Bill” is a man of God. He knows his Bible inside-out. He regularly fasts and prays. Bill has a “heart for the lost,” as they say. He is upfront about his own temptations and sins. And he preaches a mean sermon: he has us rolling in the aisles with jokes one moment, thinking seriously about God’s calling on our lives the next.
Unfortunately, Bill is also a bit of a heretic. I do not mean he tells lies: Most heresies simply downplay an important part of the truth. Jesus told us to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.” Bill is for all of that, except the part about loving God with your mind. He put it this way in his sermon last week: “Witnessing means telling people your story. Don’t argue. Don’t try to persuade. Tell them what Jesus did for you.”
Christ Gives Many Gifts
I’ll admit I argue too much. You may have noticed. I have made a living teaching ambitious students how to make sound arguments, and have written a dozen or so books arguing what a more famous apologist called “the Case for Christianity.”
So you nailed me, Preach. Like the hound that gets scolded after massacring the chickens in the henhouse, then proudly lays their bodies out on the grass, I take bad arguments to pieces and wag my tail as I display their fractured logic and missing facts. It’s no wonder one famous atheist wished I would die in a fire. I can be a know-it-all! That’s my heresy — don’t I know it!
But St. Paul said Christ passes out many gifts: “He made some apostles, some prophets, some to go tell the Good News, and some to care for and teach God’s people” (Eph. 4:11).
How can one teach and not value reason? Do apostles and prophets only tell stories?
The notion that Christians should only rely on their “personal testimony” to witness rings false, for at least five reasons:
1. Persuasion Isn’t Only for Pastors
First, if we shouldn’t try to persuade, why did Pastor Bill just spend the best part of the morning service making the case that we should be witnesses? Sure, he told some stories. But he also made arguments, based in Scripture, and our common experience. Aristotle said a good argument should appeal to “pathos,” “ethos,” and “logos:” all three showed up in the morning sermon. Are only preachers allowed to argue?
2. Bad Arguments Need Good Answers
Second, our children are losing their faith to people who are eager to argue. Richard Dawkins argues to deny God. Peter Singer argues to deny the worth of humanity. Steven Pinker argues to portray the Enlightenment instead of Christ as the font of modern reforms. As I have shown here before, Bart Ehrman stands before college classes and draws on his knowledge of ancient literature, which he misrepresents, to undermine the faith of college kids.
Robin DiAngelo and Ibram Kendi are even worse scholars, but know enough to guilt young Christians, left defenseless by pastors afraid to teach them reasoning skills, into buying their shoddy intellectual wares. As C.S. Lewis put it, “Good philosophy must exist, if for no other reason, because bad philosophy needs to be answered.”
You are leaving bad philosophy unanswered, Pastor Bill. You’re even telling others not to answer it. You open the gate to wolves who gleefully devour the lambs you’ve so painstakingly brought to pasture.
3. Jesus and the Apostles Used Arguments in Their Teaching
Third, Jesus argued. “Consider the lilies of the field.” “Which of you will stand by and watch your livestock fall into a ditch on the Sabbath?” “Are you not worth many birds?” Jesus did not just “give his personal testimony.”
The Book of Acts likewise shows believers “baffling” opponents, debating, speaking persuasively or effectively, and “vigorously refuting” error. The authors of Scripture appeal to signs, prophesy, natural theology, and the Resurrection of Christ. If Jesus and his first followers felt free to make rational arguments, and to appeal to evidence of many kinds, why shouldn’t we follow their example?
4. Great Leaders in Church History Did, Too
Fourth, great evangelists have employed reason (along with true stories) to win whole nations to Christ.
Justin Martyr argued in Dialogue with Trypho the Jew, as did Augustine in City of God. The great Catholic missionary Matteo Ricci wrote a best-seller in Beijing about friendship, and practiced what he preached when he dove into a flooding river to save a friend’s family. But he also wrote a dialogue of respectful argumentation entitled The True Meaning of the Lord of Heaven.
The arguments in that book helped establish Christianity as a credible option in China, and then (when Catholics and Protestants followed his lead), in Vietnam, Korea, and Japan as well.
5. The ‘Personal Testimony’ View Gets the Gospel Wrong
There are serious problems with the “personal testimony” concept of witnessing. For one, we should tell the story of all peoples, not just our own. Stephen retold the story of the Jewish people before he was stoned to death. Paul joined Greek and Hebrew stories together when he argued for Christ in Athens. In my doctoral dissertation, I tell how theological argument, tied to the story of nations, won millions for Christ in Asia.
Our stories should be about more than ourselves. They should begin with God’s creation, and end with the redemption of the human race in His Kingdom. Like hydrogen and oxygen which together make up water, human beings are joined in community, and so (I’m sure Pastor Bill would agree) our redemptive stories should speak not only of individuals, but of families, cities, genders, races, classes, and nations coming together in Christ.
And aside from telling the redemptive story of creation, we must also argue: to “speak the truth in love,” as St. Paul put it.
Everyone Has a Story
Further, people of every religion tell stories. The Autobiography of Malcolm X tells a riveting “faith journey” to Islam. In How to be an Anti-Racist, Ibram Kendi relates how, having been raised in a Christian family, he became woke. Atheists also pen books of “personal testimony” telling how they came to reject God.
E.O. Wilson was an atheist and a famous evolutionary biologist who lost his Southern Baptist faith when his teachers told him a bigger story than his pastor (or so he thought). He reflected, “We are obligated by the deepest drives of the human spirit to make ourselves more than animated dust, and we must have a story to tell about where we came from, and why we are here.”
Christ’s Story is Bigger and Better — and Better Reasoned, Too
The Christian story is bigger and truer than Wilson’s story. Which means we must not limit our tale to “What Jesus has done for me.” We must tell what God has done for us as families, genders, and nations, after He animated dust and made from it a living soul, “male and female,” and promised to bless “all peoples of the world.”
It also means we must give evidence for our claims, and link them coherently in a polite but confident argument.
“Bill” is a wonderful pastor. His soul is marinated in the Bible, so he can hardly help but speak truth, often profoundly. But Christ commands us to love God with all our minds, as well as with our heart, strength, and soul. If we are to win this generation back to Christ, brainwashed as it is by years of propaganda and lies, we must not neglect their hunger for truth, explained both in story and in great reasoning. It is part of what makes us human, and part of God’s call on our lives.
David Marshall holds an undergraduate degree in the Russian and Chinese languages and Marxism, a masters degree in Chinese religions, and a doctoral degree in Christian thought and Chinese tradition. His most recent book is Jesus is No Myth: The Fingerprints of God on the Gospels.