Treating Questioners with Gentleness and Respect
BY RANDY PETERSEN
There are two types of people in the world: those who divide the world into two types of people, and those who don’t.
As Christians, and especially as Christian leaders, we tend to be in that first group. We see an essential division in the world. The saved and the lost. Believers and unbelievers. The churched and the unchurched. While there is certainly some biblical support for that worldview, it can also keep us from establishing honest relationships with people outside our faith community. This is especially true for those in ministry.
Lately at American Bible Society we’ve been paying special attention to one segment of that “outside” group—those who don’t believe the Bible. We’ve been monitoring the growth of this population segment for seven years now in the annual “State of the Bible” poll. The group we call “Bible skeptics” has increased from 10 percent in 2010 to 21 percent in 2016.
That concerns us.
Still, it would be a mistake to characterize this group as completely antagonistic toward the Scriptures. Less than half of them say the world would be better off without the Bible. The others merely believe that the Bible is of human origin, not divine. They might like some of its sayings. They might find spiritual comfort in it. They might be curious about it. They just don’t accept it as God’s Word.
So how can we talk with these people about the Bible?
We could scold them, telling them how much they should believe the Bible. We could pick fights with them, blaming them for the world’s downward slide. We could slam them with proof of the Bible’s divine origin—fulfilled prophecy or quotes from famous people or the fact of the Bible is still the best-selling book of all time.
Yeah, but Christians have already been doing all that, without much success. We need a new idea.
Talking and Listening
For some reason I’m flashing back to my years as a shy teenager with a mad crush on a beautiful girl. I imagined all sorts of extravagant ways to make her notice me, but never had the guts to try them—and then her family moved out of the area. Later I shared this tale of woe with a friend, who said, “Dude. Why didn’t you just talk with her?”
And I’m wondering if we need to hear the same question about our relationships with the nonbelievers around us. Why not just talk with them? More importantly, listen.
We get similar advice in Peter’s first epistle. It was a tough time for believers. As the gospel spread into the Roman world, Christians faced misunderstanding, discrimination, even persecution. But there was also curiosity about this new faith, full of hope, joy, and love. If people got close enough, they might ask. And how would believers respond?
“Be ready at all times to answer anyone who asks you to explain the hope you have in you, but do it with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15b-16a).
Gentleness and respect seem to be in short supply these days, but we Christians need to major in it. Christian leaders need to model it.
We’ve been asking people why they don’t believe the Bible, and their responses fall into two categories. For some it’s a problem with the Bible itself. It’s old, old-fashioned, big, hard to understand, and they don’t know where to start.
For others, it’s a people problem. They don’t like the people who quote the Bible, and they don’t want to be like them. Furthermore, they often feel that the Bible is against them and the people they care about.
These are major challenges. How will those obstacles ever be removed? Surely it requires a work of God’s Spirit. Our role might be mainly to respond with gentleness and respect. As you and the people you lead foster relationships with those who don’t believe the Bible, here are some suggestions that might help.
Just open the door. We would love to make compelling arguments that lead to a full acceptance of the Bible as God’s inspired Word. But the other person isn’t ready for that yet. For them, maybe the Bible is just an interesting book, and they may have some questions about it. Don’t answer more than they ask. Put aside your own agenda and focus on theirs.
Do not assume that they believe the Bible is true, holy or authoritative. This may be harder than it sounds. We’re used to proving things from the Bible—including the truth of the Bible! We’re good at going on guilt trips based on biblical teaching. But we’re trying to communicate with people who don’t agree to those assumptions. You can still share your opinions and beliefs, but once you start citing biblical authority to prove your points, the other person will check out. You’re not speaking their language.
Let the Spirit do the heavy lifting. There is amazing wisdom in the Bible; also thrilling adventures, fascinating characters, and disarming humor. The Spirit speaks powerfully to our souls through these time-tested documents. And that can also begin to happen with a person who doesn’t believe the Bible . . . yet. Be ready to give an answer, but let the Spirit speak through the Scripture.
Stand down. Be willing to say, “I don’t know.” Or, “Maybe my interpretation is wrong here.” Or, “I’m sorry for the times I have quoted the Bible insensitively.” Sometimes we contribute to the Bible’s “people problem.” We can start changing that, with gentleness and respect.
Steer toward Jesus. There may be difficult questions about laws in Leviticus or atrocities in Judges. You don’t have to resolve everything, but it will help to focus on Jesus. The Bible itself leads us in that direction, and it might be our most winsome option.
Randy Petersen is Director of Scripture Engagement Content for American Bible Society. Writer of more than sixty books and hundreds of church curriculum lessons, he has also served churches as a Bible teacher, small-groups coordinator, drama director, preaching consultant and softball pitcher.