In the last blog in this series, I talked about how to engage in theological conversation or controversy, especially on the internet. In this blog post I want to take this one step further in talking about our attitude. In my opinion, one cannot underestimate the importance of having the right attitude. Chuck Swindoll says that life is about one-percent what happens to you and ninety-nine percent how we respond.

I often talk about the importance of having an irenic approach to doing theology. It would seem that this term, “irenic” is suffering because of its overuse and misidentification with those who would choose to abuse it. To be irenic means that we are peaceful in our approach to issues. This does not involve compromise, but a willingness to engage issues fairly.

Here are some of the characteristics to being irenic in theological conversation and controversy:

  • You accurately represent all theological positions, even when you strongly oppose them.
  • Your tone of engagement comes from a humble respectful attitude.
  • Your primary goal is not to win an argument, but to contribute to understanding.
  • Your defense of your position recognizes that strengths of the opposing side.
  • You are gentle.

Here are two important Scripture references concerning how we are to engage in theological discussion irenically:

2 Timothy 2:24 “The Lord’s bond-servant must not be quarrelsome, but be kind to all, able to teach, patient when wronged, 25 with gentleness correcting those who are in opposition, if perhaps God may grant them repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth, 26 and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, having been held captive by him to do his will.”

Notice the key phrases:

  • “not be quarrelsome”
  • “kind to all”
  • “patient when wronged”
  • “with gentleness correcting”

This describes the irenic method of theological engagement. 

1 Peter 3:15 “But sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence.”

Notice a few things about this passage:

  • The context has to do with a believer ”suffering for righteousness” 
  • We are to give an answer (apologetic) to those who ask
  • This is to be done with gentleness
  • This is to be done with respect

Many of us only hear the first part of the verse “give an defense,” and upon this we justify our apologetic polemic ready to destroy, slander, or misrepresent any who disagree with what we believe to be the truth. We fail to recognize that this defense, in this context, is to be given to people “who ask.” This is requested information based upon a life of integrity in the midst of our suffering. As well, this defense is to be done irenically—with gentleness and respect.

I can hear the “what abouts” coming. And in the spirit of this post let me tell you how stupid you are for questioning my . . . ahem . . . Ok, let’s deal with them.

There seems to be examples in the Scripture where the prophets, apostles, and even Christ did not engage irenically. In other words, they often seemed to engage people with a fierce resolve, respecting the truth more than the person with whom there is conflict. I admit this is true. I also admit that there are times when such polemics are important. But we need to look at the context in which this type of polemic is brought about.

1. Should we defending the faith like Christ cleansed the temple?

We often think we should speak with the authority of Christ. In defense of our attitude we will appeal to Christ’s attitude toward the pharisees or his cleansing the temple. But to refer to the example of Christ in these instances can be problematic seeing as how Christ’s actions are not always intended to set examples for us. I know this sounds off, but think about it. He worked great miracles in order to demonstrate his unique authority, he engaged people with a divine introspection knowing their thoughts, motives, and intentions, and he was the ultimate divine judge who has every right to judge all people. As well, this was not the modus operandi of Christ. Do you ever notice that he was only polemic in such a way to the self-righteous who arrogantly believed they had all the answers and were a step above all the rest?

2. Defending the faith like Paul encountered the Galatians.

Many times we will appeal to Paul’s example. His polemics, especially to the Galatians, are used to defend our own less than gracious encounters. But this has problems as well.

First, Paul was an apostle who carried the authority of an apostle. Being such, he had both divine authority and the divine ability to speak to a situation with infallible guidance. This is something that most of us we cannot claim. Can we?

Second, Paul primarily only spoke in such a way to those who were under his authority. He was their leader and had the right and obligation as their leader to engage them in a candid way. He was their pastor. Pastor’s can and sometimes should speak in such a manner to their flock.

Third, like Christ, Paul did not always engage people in such a way. In fact, as noted above, the encouraged his people to be gracious, humble, and respectful in all their dealing with those with whom there is disagreement. In 1 Thess 2:7 he describes his own ministry as one of gentleness, comparing it to a mother caring for her children.

Sadly, it often seems as if there are people out there who not only think they are an apostle, but also think that they are talking to their own congregation. Some even seem to enjoy polemical engagement in an unhealthy manner. In fact, I think that a lot of ministries would not know what to do if they did not have someone to fight.

Sadly, many times this attitude is found more in my own conservative Calvinistic circles than in any other. For this I am sorry and ashamed. Sometimes Calvinists make the worst Calvinists. But, of course, it can be found in any group. Baptists have a knack for it. Even emergers can display the most angered, discounting, and arrogant spirit that I have ever seen.

Why do we sometimes act this way?

I am not sure.

Maybe its because we are so confident in the particulars of our faith that we feel we have the right to shout the loudest. We have the greatest message. We feel our polemic will force the truth into the mind of those who oppose.

Or . . .

Maybe we think that we have to set an example of the truth to those who are listening from the outside. Like in a debate, we don’t really think we are going to convert our opponent, but we hope to solidify our position among those who are listening.

Or . . .

Maybe it is because we are so insecure in our position that we think the louder we are the more true our words are. As I tell students, if you are not confident about what you are saying, you can first speak deeper, second speak louder. And if both of these don’t work, speak with a British accent!! In truth, I have found that the most fundamentally uninformed folk believers are often the most polemically militant because they, deep down, don’t really know why they believe what they believe. Their only recourse is not a gentle engagement, but a raised voice.

What part of gentleness and respect don’t we understand. Ironically, the original title of this blog was going to be “What Part of Gentleness and Respect Don’t You Understand.” I had to change it in order to keep with the spirit of the post.

I am certainly not perfect with this issue. Believe me. This, as with the last post, is self-therapy. Awww . . . aren’t I humble? Let us all try to be more gentle, humble, and respectful when defending the faith. In earnstly contending for the faith, let us be irenic. 

For those of you who will respond to this by posting with a sawed off shot loaded with your favorite Scripture, take you proof-texting and shove them . . . Ahem . . . Please deal with the Scriptures in such a way that takes into account their context.


C Michael Patton
C Michael Patton

C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo House Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger. Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminary (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I'm a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. Find him everywhere: Find him everywhere

    2 replies to "What Part of Gentleness and Respect Don’t You We Understand?"

    • Shrommer

      My only “what about” is to point out that while, yes, I Peter 3:15 is a reply to “those who ask”, there are other examples and exhortations to share the hope within us – the Gospel message – to the whole world, making disciples of all nations. We’re not supposed to sit at home, waiting for the nations to come to us and ask before we share any of the hope we have in Christ. Jesus says, “As you go” (having gone), do this, preach the Gospel to every creature.

      The main point is well taken – to be irenic as we do this, not polemic. Amen, brother!

    • George

      I Just had a polemical person taint a book study last night. I really appreciate apologetics but for some, defending the rationality of the faith becomes their gospel. Our hope is in the Triune God and not in arguments for the reliability of the new testament, or disproving evolution. You said it well. We must read these apologetics proof texts in context. We are to give arguments or reasons for the hope in us (what is this hope?), if someone asks. I think William Lane Craig explains this well in his book “Reasonable Faith”. He uses Alvin Plantinga’s Reformed Epistemology to argue that, we know the truths of the gospel through the witness of the Holy Spirit and we show the truths of the gospel through arguments and evidence.

      Sorry for the rant. I appreciate you addressing this issue. Does anyone have any good recommendations for teachings, expositions, or commentary on 1Perter 3:15?

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