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The Unlikely Power of Gentleness and Respect
Why do we assume difference requires conflict—usually in the form of loud, fearful, defensive responses?
Apologetics is a helping ministry…Done in an atmosphere of “we”, of mutual inquiry animated by generous love. We must not become overbearing, contemptuous, hostile, or defensive. Our apologetic needs to be characterized by gentleness. Only with gentleness will people be able to see, verify, and be persuaded to respond to what we have to say.
Dallas Willard, The Allure of Gentleness
I started playing organized sports at 5 years old and continued until college baseball. This means I received coaching of all kinds. I had mean, profane, belittling coaches as well as kind, calm, instructive ones. I witnessed coaches grabbling uniforms, dragging players by the arm, or worse, twisting their ears or pulling their hair. There was always the same response to such hostility: It blocked the intended coaching. The power inequity was so great that players would never retaliate, but I could, and did, see players switch such coaching off.
Happily, many coaches did not utilize these harsh practices. The standout for me was John Scolinos, my baseball coach at Cal Poly Pomona. Coach Scolinos was a teacher, not a bully. He had rules. He clearly communicated personal and baseball expectations of all kinds. He frequently underscored the need to practice and learn the rules. He wanted our life and play to be instinctually right, correct and appropriate to the moment.
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But Coach Scolinos also knew we were teenagers, young adults—unable to perfectly take in all of what he was dishing out. When a personal rule was broken or when someone got out of position on a certain play, he was first a patient listener: What was your thought process? What were you seeing? What were you anticipating?
Coach Scolinos was a devout Christian within the Greek Orthodox church. I came to faith in Christ at 19 years old while playing at Cal Poly. Once my eyes of faith were opened, I could see the strength of his gentleness, the power of his patience, the effect of his love.
A Sparring Match or Gentle Presence?
Sports like baseball are contests between opposing players or teams—neither wanting to yield to the other. Tension and conflict ramp up as the game wears on. We use words such as battle, war and fight to describe the action.
Apologetics often have a similar vibe to a sporting contest. Someone makes a kategoria, or the Greek term for an accusation or a charge. It might go something like this: I don’t see how the Bible is relevant to modern, scientific life—much less inerrant or authoritative. Or: I don’t believe in the virgin birth or the Trinity—they defy logic. The response to such statements is an apologia, a reasoned defense that responds to the accusation. Such responses take the form of words. And words come from a certain spirit. They arrive in our ears wrapped in various attitudes.
On Jesus’ terms, the core basis and practices of apologetics should be rooted in loving our neighbors and our enemies and practicing the Golden Rule. In the Pauline vision of relational ethics for the people of God, we are to communicate the reason for our faith in ways that let our gentleness (considerateness, reasonableness, moderation) be known to all (Philippians 4:5). We invite people to consider Christ best as we invite the Spirit to work his fruit in us: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness (Galatians 5:22).
Paul’s vision was that the Church would execute on its call to do evangelism with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (Ephesians 4:2,3), being peaceable and considerate, and always showing gentleness toward everyone (Titus 3:2).
Peter made a classic contribution to apologetics, saying:
Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason (apologia) for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect. — 1 Peter 3:15
Why do we assume difference requires conflict—usually in the form of big, loud, fearful, defensive responses? Our attitudes and words would be quite different if we trusted that God was always, already at work in a conversation partner who was struggling with or rejecting some aspect of our faith.
In his book Tell It Slant, Eugene Peterson gives us the rationale for seeing how God is at work:
When it comes to doing something about what is wrong in the world, Jesus is best known for his fondness for the insignificant, the invisible, the quiet, the slow – yeast, salt, seeds, light. And manure.
When we put together the teaching of Jesus, Paul and Peter, we are given a vision for becoming persons of gentle peace, one who exudes grace and generosity to others, in humility valuing others above ourselves (Philippians 2:3), thus enhancing the lives of those who question our faith or who are suspicious of it.
Gentleness is the only way to turn contest and conquest into mutual inquiry animated by generous love.
Jesus’ gentle goodwill launched a kingdom-movement that radiated love, righteousness, joy and peace. These qualities of being don’t just enhance our reasoned defense of the Gospel—they are themselves a powerful aspect of presenting the person of Jesus, alongside ideas about him.
In your next interaction, trust the goodness and power of the gentleness that characterized the life of Jesus. Have confidence that conversations about faith marked by love, gentleness and peace always lead to more permanent change than animosity, harshness and conflict.