Rebecca McLaughlin: Presenting Truth With Humility—Part 2

Don’t miss Part 1 of our interview, where Rebecca McLaughlin explains how she came to write Confronting Christianity, how she grew in her faith despite attending schools often hostile to belief, and why intellectual curiosity is not a threat to faith.

Your work rightly assumes confrontation between the world’s wisdom and Christian truth. What are you learning about beginning that confrontation in love, without resorting to cheats we often hear Christians using to win an argument either at the expense of the truth or the expense of their neighbor?

What you’re describing is one of the reasons why I’ve a mixed relationship with the word “apologist.” Too often, Christian apologetics has been about putting other people down, setting up straw man arguments, having a somewhat aggressive posture toward other people, or not taking their legitimate concerns and questions seriously. I don’t want to be any of those things. The place I get that desire from is the Bible.

“Teaching the Bible well can be a starting point to help people grow in their intellectual curiosity.”

For example, we’re told we should always be ready to give a reason for the hope we have, but to do so with gentleness and respect (1 Peter 3:15). Jesus teaches us and commands us to love even our enemies, and when he says that, he means people who are literally baying for your blood. Those are words that, just as one example, our brothers and sisters in Afghanistan today have to hold onto in the face of real enemies that you and I as Westerners are unlikely to encounter. Jesus says to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. How much more should we then be willing to love people who may disagree fiercely, but who aren’t throwing a grenade at us or dragging us into the street?

When we become Christians in the first place, we repent and believe. We can’t do that and hold onto our pride. Likewise, we can’t share the gospel while holding onto our pride. Too often we think we’re defending Jesus when in fact we’re defending ourselves. Instead, we must have a posture of repentance and faith even as we talk with unbelievers. We must be willing to say, “Yes, Christians have really sinned in this area. I agree. And this is how far short this falls of what Jesus calls us to.”

“We often fail to distinguish between loving and respecting other people, and saying that all beliefs are equally true.”

But often we say, “My opponents are completely wrong in every way and are utterly morally suspect. I’m going to keep hammering, trying to discredit them both intellectually and morally in any way that I can.” I don’t think that’s Christian love. We’re much better to say, “I think this person who is very passionate about what they’re saying and taking a position completely opposite to mine may have legitimate, good motivations for what they are saying. They too may care about the poor, which is a very high Christian value. They too may care about love across racial differences. They too may care about women. I should recognize and validate those things and build toward Jesus from that common belief.”

Humbly building on common ground is better than trying to hurl grenades over a wall.

How do we begin to build on common ground?

By listening. That is an extremely powerful thing to do. I think we’ve become confused often about what listening entails. We’ve thought that listening or working to understand is somehow validating their beliefs. I don’t think that’s what we’re doing when we’re listening. We’re validating the person, which is something that we’re always called to do as Christians. We are showing love. 

One of my professors in seminary put it well: “We’re often told we should respect people’s beliefs. That’s rubbish. We should respect other people.” People believe all sorts of bizarre and crazy things. But we often fail to distinguish between loving and respecting other people and saying that all beliefs are equally true. Those are not the same thing. In fact, Christianity calls us very clearly to love and respect other people, while also recognizing that many of their beliefs may be completely untrue.

As we think back over the end of the 20th century, there are a few apologetic works that stand out, like Mere Christianity or The Case for Christ. Are you sensing cultural shifts now that demand a new approach? 

I think the apologetic task is very different. Whereas 20 and maybe even 10 years ago, as a Christian you might be seen as deluded and misguided by non-Christian peers, today as a Christian, you‘re more likely to be seen as morally suspect. It‘s gone from, “Isn’t it stupid that Christians believe God made the world?” to “Christianity is the source of oppression.” You’re in the position of being seen as the bad guys—morally bad—in today’s cultural moment.

A combative reaction to that says, “We need to fight back. We’re not the bad guys; you’re the bad guys.” All this language about moral purity and taking the moral high ground, arrogantly looking at the world in its loathsome sinfulness. That attitude is incredibly dangerous as a Christian.

“There are real ways in which we Christians have deeply sinned. If we can‘t acknowledge that, are we even Christians in the first place?”

The alternative is to really read the Gospels. One of the things that is so striking to me about them is that they portray that the way to see Jesus is flat on your face or kneeling. Never standing high, looking down on others, thinking you have the moral high ground. We quickly find ourselves in the Pharisees’ position when we do that. You’re on much better ground if you take the posture of any number of people in the Gospels who throw themselves down at the feet of Jesus. 

While it is tempting to want to prove we are the “good guys,” unfortunately that’s not true—at least not in its entirety. There are real ways in which we Christians have deeply sinned. That should be something we are comfortable acknowledging. After all, if we can’t acknowledge that, are we even Christians in the first place? If I can’t recognize that I am, as Paul puts it, the foremost of sinners, then I’m probably not a Christian. But instead we are quite bad at owning our sin individually, and we’re even worse at recognizing our sin corporately. So if people want to come to us with any critique of how Christians have acted, we’re quick to deny or minimize it. I don’t think we need to do that, and I don’t think we should do that. To acknowledge the sins of our tribe does not take away from our potential to witness for Jesus.

“You’re on much better ground if you take the posture of any number of people in the Gospels who throw themselves down at the feet of Jesus.”

Let me point out one common way our strategies of defensiveness often lead to very obvious inconsistencies or even hypocrisy. Look at the question of racial injustice. It’s quite common for white Christians to say, “Well, all that happened during segregation. I wasn’t there. I have nothing to do with that.” At the same time, we were raised to look back at World War II as a time in which our nations were the real heroes. Those are our people who did the right thing and beat the Nazis, right? If that was our people, then it’s also our people who were engaging in, say, the horrors of Jim Crow laws. We must pick one or the other. Either don’t take the corporate glory, and we don’t take the corporate sin, or we take both. We have a tendency to be very individual when it comes to sin—“I wasn’t there. It wasn’t me.”—and very corporate when it comes to glory, “Yes, those were my people who did that wonderful thing.”

What cultural conversations feel most pressing today for Christian leaders to think through? 

Sexuality is one of the key ones. Many of us evangelicals today feel as if we’re playing catch-up when it comes to sexuality and how to think Christianly about these issues. I think it’s important that we look back to what the Bible says and are clear on the boundaries that the Bible puts around sex, which only belongs in male-female covenant marriage. At the same time that we’re thinking through how we can love same-sex attracted brothers and sisters while also holding to what the Bible says, we are not even close to catching up with the transgender conversation right now. 

What’s interesting is that whereas gay marriage fits quite well within secular liberal thinking, transgender ideology is a very different species. There is increasingly conflict within groups of people who would all identify as secular liberal folk who wouldn’t have any Christian-related reasons for not affirming the latest thinking on transgender issues. All that to say, there’s a lot of intramural fighting going on at the moment well outside the church on such points.

“We can’t actually share the gospel while holding onto our pride. Too often we think we’re defending Jesus when in fact we’re defending ourselves.” 

But still, one of the questions many Christians have today is, “Why am I being billed as a moral monster for not affirming transgender identity?” 

We’ve failed to realize how connected this issue is in people’s minds to the civil rights movement. It’s not a legitimate connection because racial differences are a different kind of different from either male/female differences, or differences in sexual lifestyle. But the argument that says “just as you white Christians in the ’60s used your Bibles to oppose desegregation, now you’re using your Bibles to oppose gay/lesbian relationships and transgender identity” is a very powerful one. But it’s illegitimate. The problem with the 1960s segregationists was not that they were too Christian, but that they were not half Christian enough. It wasn’t that they were reading their Bible too carefully; it’s that they were completely failing to read their Bibles.

But if we’re not ready to recognize the sin of our tribe, we have no moral feet to stand on. So we must do what Christians have always done—repent and believe. Repent of the ways in which we Christians have sinned and believe what the Bible says. The consistently Christian option is to hold on hard both to what the Bible says about racial justice and what the Bible says about sexual ethics. And all of this comes together in Christian community, which has been the missing piece in our conversations about sexuality.

Let’s talk a bit about the life of the mind in the church. You’ve mentioned anti-intellectualism. What can pastors and church leaders do to cultivate the life of the mind?

The first thing to do is really teach the Bible. It is an incredibly sophisticated text. I don’t mean that it’s ultimately unclear. The gospel is simple in the sense that it’s something that a small child or someone with a learning disability can grasp. It doesn’t require years of study to understand what the gospel is. At the same time, the Bible itself is an incredibly intellectually demanding text. As we think about forming young Christians in our churches, it’s been easy to default to a sentiment like, “We’ve got to make things easy for the kids and the teenagers. We’ve got to make sure we’re not demanding too much of them intellectually, because if we do, then maybe they’ll walk away.” That’s precisely the wrong approach.

Anytime we sit down with the Bible and a child or a friend, inevitably there are going to be things that we find challenging and hard to understand. It’s going to demand all of us—after all, Jesus said we must love the Lord with all our heart, soul, mind and strength. He’s not satisfied with just three out of the four.

“Humbly building on common ground is better than trying to hurl grenades over a wall.”

Simply teaching the Bible well can be a starting point to help people grow in their intellectual curiosity. Alongside that, giving people a sense of excitement that Christianity can effectively connect all sorts of different areas of thinking. For example, if you’re a secular humanist today, you likely believe that human beings are nothing more than mammals at best. But on the other hand, you believe that all human beings are inherently morally valuable, and that the rich and powerful shouldn’t oppress the weak and poor and marginalized. But there’s no connective tissue between the two beliefs. 

Whereas, if we believe that God created us and that the study of science is the study of how God does things rather than an alternative hypothesis to belief in a Creator God, then our study of science joins up with our study of ethics and how human beings should relate to each other. That works out in all sorts of different areas of thought as well.

“Jesus said we must love the Lord with all our heart, soul, mind and strength. He‘s not satisfied with just three out of the four.”

If we instill in Christians a sense of intellectual excitement, and say to them, “Whether you’re studying philosophy, music or psychology, you have the opportunity to see how God has done things and how what we learn from the Scriptures marries up with an area of thought.” It’s incredibly exciting and gives people a sense of energy. It’s the opposite of approaching intellectual pursuits from an insecure or fearful place. We don’t have to protect our children from ideas that might be hostile to Christianity because of some deep-seated fear that Christianity is not going to stand up in the face of competing ideas.

As I raise my own kids, I’m one to say, “Bring on all of the ideas. Let’s read all the books. Let’s talk about all those things. And let’s see how Jesus shines more brightly in comparison with all those other possibilities.”

Read more from Paul J. Pastor »