As a teacher at my church and as a professor at a university I find it much easier to talk about Christian ethics than to live them out in daily practice. I am sure that I am not alone in that human experience. It is a great comfort that the historic Christian faith is a religion of divine rescue rather than one of self-help salvation.
Yet Christianity involves not just a set of beliefs but also a collection of moral values. According to the Christian world-and-life view, right belief (orthodoxy) must be married to right action (orthopraxy). And one of the clearest and most practical ethical principles found in Scripture is known as the “Golden Rule.” From the mouth of Jesus Christ himself:
So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.
According to Jesus, the greatest commandment in the Law of God is loving God with your entire being (heart, mind, soul, and strength) and loving your neighbor as yourself (Mark 12:28-31). Jesus informs us in his teaching that treating others as you would like to be treated effectively summarizes this greatest of commandments.
Still, as a confirmed sinner, I can (at best) merely strive to keep these pristine moral ideals. Fortunately, the “good news” (gospel) of the New Testament is that Jesus Christ has perfectly kept the Law of God in my stead and makes it possible for me to have right standing (forgiveness and acceptance) before a holy and just God (Acts 13:39; Romans 5:1; Galatians 2:16). In my own theological tradition (Reformed), we view the believer’s imperfect attempt to keep the Golden Rule as an appropriate and necessary act of gratitude to God for his gracious act of redemption (see The Heidelberg Catechism, Part 4).
The Golden Rule in Apologetics
Since the Golden Rule applies to every action, that includes the critical enterprise of Christian apologetics. The word apologetics is derived directly from the New Testament (Greek: apologia, 1 Peter 3:15) and may be defined as the branch of Christian theology that seeks to provide rational justification for the truth-claims of Christianity. In other words, apologetics is how Christians go about defending their faith (Acts 17:2-4; 22-32; 2 Corinthians 10:5; Jude 3).
But how does the Golden Rule impact apologetic engagement? It applies in that believers need to treat nonbelievers the way they want to be treated. This includes treating other people’s beliefs, viewpoints, and arguments the way you want yours to be treated.
The Golden Rule’s application means that Christians should operate according to the highest standards of intellectual integrity. Our enterprise of defending the faith should be characterized by honesty, fairness, civility, and charity. In fact, in philosophical discourse, logician T. Edward Damer calls this The Principle of Charity (see Attacking Faulty Reasoning).
I first heard this principle applied to apologetics by gifted apologist and my friend, the late Bob Passantino. Bob wrote eloquently about “The Golden Rule Apologetic” and he strove to follow it in his many and diverse apologetic encounters.
It isn’t easy to always treat another person’s views with the same care and respect that you want afforded your own. And this is especially true when the person you are dialoguing with refuses to return the favor. But it is critical that Christian apologists strive for these invaluable intellectual virtues. When non-Christians become convinced that believers in Christ prize truth and intellectual honesty above all else, then the power of the Christian apologetic witness will be greatly energized.
In ensuing articles I will address some practical ways in which the Golden Rule of Apologetics can be applied in apologetic encounters.
For more on building intellectual virtue in the area of apologetics, see chapters 3 and 4 of my book, A World of Difference: Putting Christian Truth-Claims to the Worldview Test.