Stand in the Gap: A Summons to Healthcare Professionals
June 18, 2020
by Steven Willing, MD
Wanted: Christian Apologists
(Medical experience desired)
OK. The ad is hypothetical, I’ll admit. But only a little. A just-released report on human sexuality issued a clarion call for Christian apologists to step up and counter the increasingly toxic cultural narrative on human sexuality. That narrative—or perhaps narratives, since some are severely at odds—has led to increasing radicalism and polarization, leaving a tide of refugees in its wake.
In recent decades, Christians engaging society tended to follow one of two streams, the currents of political activism or social activism. However, Christians too often have been disengaged from the world of ideas. Some pastors and churches brush aside apologetics altogether. For others, apologetics serves more to rally the faithful than to influence anyone outside the echo chamber. Behind some of this thinking is a myopic view of its purpose: that it’s all about winning unbelievers to the truth of Christianity. No less an authority than the late Dr. R. C. Sproul taught that this view overlooked apologetics’ most important function:
“The task of apologetics, of defending the truth of Christianity, has at least three main aims…First, apologetics is to provide an answer to the critics of the Christian faith, to those who seek to undermine the rational basis for Christianity or who critique it from the standpoint of another philosophy or religion…The second major aim of apologetics is to tear down the intellectual idols of our culture…The third, and what I believe is the most valuable, aim of apologetics is to encourage the saints, to shore up the church—just as the first concern that Moses had was to be able to demonstrate that God had called him to go to the Israelites and lead them out of Egypt. Moses was an apologist to his own people.”
Apologists are needed within the church, to disciple both young and old. The making of disciples—not merely converts—is the Great Commission.
Numerous denominations have wrestled with sexual issues in the areas of both policy and strategy. The Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), a conservative Reformed denomination of worldwide scope, is one example. In 2019 the PCA General Assembly voted to form a committee charged with studying the issues pertaining to human sexuality, advising pastors and congregations, and suggesting ways to “articulate and defend” our biblical understanding “in the context of a culture that denies that understanding.”
The committee issued its report at the end of May, and it is a powerful document. The report underlines the urgency of a relevant, contemporary “sexuality apologetic” and outlines an approach to challenging the secular narratives.
“We discern two overarching concerns – concerns which may be expressed as two important tasks for the Church in our time…. The two tasks could be called the ‘pastoral task’ and the ‘apologetic task.’…Because both of these tasks…are required, we should give each of them strong attention.” (p. 3-4)
Approximately one-fourth of the 62-page report is devoted to “Apologetic approaches for speaking to the world.” The committee outlined approaches to challenging the false contemporary narratives of identity and history and offering in their place a Christian counter-narrative of sexuality based on the principles of self-giving and gender diversity (p 43).
Few are better equipped to advance a “sexuality apologetic” than Christian healthcare professionals.
The report did not address matters of science; a prudent decision since there was no one on the committee with the requisite expertise. Some might question whether science should even have a role in this conversation. They have a point. Science can’t define morality, but it can inform it. If we accept that mental, physical and social health are morally worthy aims—and who doesn’t?—science can identify which beliefs and behaviors either enhance or endanger personal and societal health.
The other critical role for science is to defend against counterattack. Confronted with an apologetic based on Scripture and history, opponents will predictably counter that science is on their side. No, it isn’t. Not on any level. Christian scientists and healthcare professionals are uniquely qualified to call that bluff.
In the minds of many (including some would-be apologists), apologetics conjures the notion of pummeling opponents with the overwhelming force of argument. That may be fun for some, but it overlooks what both the Bible and present-day psychology tell us about human nature. The reality is that most people are at best borderline rational, and their beliefs are determined more by emotions and peer influences than evidence or reason. Entertainment and social media are powerful sources of persuasion that are often completely untethered from truth. Because of these influences, most opponents of Christian sexual morality genuinely, if mistakenly, believe they stand on the side of virtue. It is our imperative to shine the light on the damage these beliefs inflict on the weakest and most vulnerable and then step up in their defense.
Advice for Healthcare (and Non-healthcare) Leaders
In my service as a Christian apologist, I have made several mistakes and witnessed countless more. From my experience and observations, several guiding principles have emerged.
- Become informed but be discerning.
Bad information is worse than no information. Outrageous, demonstrably false assertions founded on anecdotes or dubious sources can undo the work of hundreds and bring disrepute upon the church. The world is awash in misinformation and deliberate disinformation, and Christians are by no means immune. The temptation to embrace something uncritically is strong if it supports your position, and the ones most easily fooled are those who want to be. One safeguard against deception is to remain close to trusted colleagues and reputable societies, like Christian Medical & Dental Associations. Another is to remain humble. As you enter this field, take full advantage of the work of others, and don’t let ego make you think you can do better.
At the end I’ve listed a number of mainstream academic sources written within the last 10 years that powerfully affirm the Christian message and can assist one in becoming better informed.
- Be courageous yet humble, firm but gentle.
“But the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality and without hypocrisy” (James 3:17, NKJV).
- If you speak up in defense of Christian morality, you will be attacked. However, a single person taking a courageous stand undermines the false consensus effect and can inspire many more to step forward.
- Strident discourse can be invigorating and may win points with like-minded allies, but otherwise it is counterproductive. Insulting the very people you hope to influence is not a winning strategy.
- Don’t feel unqualified just because you’re not an academic psychiatrist or other subspecialist. Some are called to research, while others are more gifted as communicators. Both are needed.
- Don’t assume those who disagree have never heard your arguments. Study the polemics of your opponents, seek to understand them and be prepared for the inevitable rebuttals. Occasionally they might rightly point out an error or show that an older study has been subsequently refuted. Be open to that. It’s the nature of science, especially social sciences. Not every study survives the test of time. One felled tree is no threat to the forest.
- Do not despair. The tide can, and has, turned. Abortions are down, not just in absolute numbers but in the more telling abortion ratio. The ratio of abortions to live births peaked at 364 per 1,000 in 1984 and has since been cut in half. In “Adam and Eve after the Pill,” Mary Eberstadt shows how the public approval of sex with underage partners has declined precipitously from its high-water mark in the 1990s.
- Refrain from judgmentalism.
Those struggling with sexual issues are not our enemies and deserve to be treated with compassion. People are lonely all around us. Increasingly, they lack the skills to form stable relationships, and if even if they have the skill, they are challenged to find an equally mature partner. They didn’t choose to have a powerfully alluring sex drive. They didn’t choose their parents. They didn’t choose to be born into a culture flooded with distorted sexual messages and pornography. To the lonely, sex is like morphine. It provides immediate though temporary relief, is highly addictive and usually ends badly. What the lonely need, however, is not sex but family and friendship. (This is not to deny that there are many who are indeed predators—the true winners in the modern sexual ethos).
- Choose compassion over control.
“Christians cannot speak to the world about sex in a compelling way if we merely answer the story with a list of moral imperatives, however Biblical” (PCA Committee Report, p. 35).
Nothing in the New Testament obliges us to regulate the lives of those outside the church fold beyond the pursuit of justice and mercy. If you are more passionate about politics than people, apologetics may not be your calling. While sexual sins inflict a disproportionate toll on health and relationships, the church has not historically considered them among the gravest. With regard to fornication, Aquinas wrote: “a sin is the less grievous according as it is committed under the impulse of a greater passion…of all a Christian’s conflicts, the most difficult combats are those of chastity; wherein the fight is a daily one, but victory rare.”
- Engage with your local church.
Offer yourself as a resource to your pastor and church leaders. Some pastors are enthusiastic about apologetics, while some others are more ambivalent. The ambivalence may be based on a conviction that apologetics have no role in converting the unbeliever. With them, it might be constructive to emphasize the apologetic goal of building disciples, defending the weak and helpless, and extending grace to a fallen, hurting world.
- Use the gifts you have been given.
Your particular gifts in this arena might be public speaking, writing, personal experience or professional expertise. Your network of personal connections represents a gift that is unique to you and no others.
- Take advantage of the outlets at your disposal.
Engage social media. Upvoting helpful comments and posts, sharing effective stories and articles and encouraging others to do so can have a multiplying effect. (Social media can be a real eye-opener to what your fellow Christians are really thinking and saying outside the church walls on Sunday morning). More traditional forums include writing letters to the editor, contributing op-ed columns and participating in conferences and forums when opportunities arise. (The comment sections of most major new sites are the cesspool of the internet, and I cannot recommend them in any way).
Finally, I close with a few of my own suggestions for the best resources on sexual issues:
Others Resources Worth a Look
- Mary Eberstadt is senior research fellow at the Faith & Reason Institute. According to George Will, she is “intimidatingly intelligent,” and she is described by George Wiegel as “our premier analyst of American cultural foibles and follies, with a keen eye for oddities that illuminate just how strange the country’s moral culture has become.” Eberstadt is author of:
- Mark Regnerus is Professor of Sociology at the University of Texas at Austin and a senior fellow at the Austin Institute for the Study of Family and Culture. Aside from his academic research, Regnerus has published works in Slate and First Things as well as a series of powerful books from the prestigious Oxford University Press, including:
- Medical Institute for Sexual Health (MISH) was founded by Joe McIlhaney, Jr. MD. Recognized by many as a frequent guest on Focus on the Family, Dr. McIlhaney is coauthor with Freda Bush, MD of Hooked: the Brain Science on How Casual Sex Affects Human Development (Moody Publishers, 2019). MISH is particularly focused on the causes and consequences of the ongoing epidemic of sexually transmitted disease.