The best way to define what I mean by “Christianity passivity” is through an illustration. Imagine you are in a setting in which other Christians are present, and a secular person enters and begins to strenuously denounce Christianity. Suppose that, rather than attempting to make any defense of your faith, you allow the person to proceed unopposed, perhaps thinking that simply being polite is the ideal Christian response. If so, you can be sure that the other Christians present will probably think nothing of this reticence.
As an anti-Christian teenager, I enjoyed challenging Christians about their faith. The arguments I made against Christianity were not original or very well-researched: I cannot have read more than three books on the subject during my whole adolescence. Yet the dynamic of each conversation seemed to prove that I was winning.
In the world of Christian apologetics, it is not uncommon to encounter atheists who are both well-read and charitable. My own hostility to Christianity was more typical of the vast majority of anti-Christians: my arguments were unoriginal because I was not all that interested in developing them. Like most secular Westerners, this did not stop me from having a strong opinion, nor from believing that I had discovered that opinion myself.
What really fueled my confidence was not that Christians were intellectually unprepared—although it helped that they were. Instead, my hostility was excited because I perceived Christians as showing weakness. I don’t mean that the Christians I confronted explicitly conceded defeat. I mean that the believers I challenged seemed to approach almost any clash of ideas with an attitude of passivity. They avoided staking out bold positions, took great care not to say anything that might be offensive, and generally went beyond mere civility and into passivity.
During one such conversation, I recall thinking that I’d made a discovery: that Christians secretly knew that I was right and that their faith was a lie. Far from being winsome, which is probably what these Christians had intended, the impression that Christians were doormats encouraged me to be even more aggressive in my opposition. The compliant agreeableness of Christians did not soften my hostility. Instead, it put blood in the water.
I also remember the very moment when I first began to consider Christianity in a new and different light. A man had handed me a paper tract earlier in the day and, propelled by some unusual circumstances, I found myself looking through it. The content of the tract—although not quite fire-and-brimstone—was clearly intended to be provocative. As I looked at the tract, it suddenly struck me that Christianity might not be, as I’d thought, something that a person trying to rationalize cowardice would invent. This experience didn’t convince me that Christianity was true—that didn’t happen until much later—but I did catch myself viewing Christianity with a new kind of respect.
I agree with authors like Brett and Kate McKay about the problem that has been called “the feminization of Christianity.” Yet I also think the church faces a distinct but related problem: Christian passivity. In this column, I’ll review the nature of the problem and what might be done to counteract it.
The best way to define what I mean by “Christianity passivity” is through an illustration. Imagine you are in a setting in which other Christians are present, and a secular person enters and begins to strenuously denounce Christianity. Suppose that, rather than attempting to make any defense of your faith, you allow the person to proceed unopposed, perhaps thinking that simply being polite is the ideal Christian response. If so, you can be sure that the other Christians present will probably think nothing of this reticence. Your fellow believers will almost certainly not regard you as having done anything suspect or un-Christlike.
But now imagine that, rather than remaining passive, you rise to the occasion and firmly engage with the critic’s arguments, even going on the offensive against his own views. In this case, it goes without saying that your behavior is likely to be frowned on by some of the other Christians present, who might conflate any energy in your argument with unkindness. And if you do genuinely cross the line into rudeness, this offense is going to be judged far more severely than had you said nothing at all, and utterly surrendered the floor to the atheist.
First Peter 3:15 famously commands Christians to always be “prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect.” The word “defense” (apologia) connotes an accused person’s defense of himself in court, as in the Apologia of Socrates. Yet, in the popular interpretation of this verse, the subordinate clause of the sentence has somehow chewed up and eaten the main clause. It is almost a cliché that, when apologists remind Christians that they are commanded to be “prepared to make an apologia,” someone will chime in to quote the subordinate clause of the sentence as if it cancels out the main clause, or as if to suggest that “gentleness” itself is the “defense.” This is not unlike the way that people are fond of quoting the words “render unto Caesar” while omitting the part of the sentence containing Jesus’ main point: “and unto God the things that are God’s.”
To take a larger illustration, consider Chick-fil-A’s 2019 decision not to renew funding for The Salvation Army and the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, and to instead give to certain secular charities.