Someone who is going to be giving a talk soon on apologetics asked me to offer a couple of principles I think would help people to do apologetics responsibly. I thought I’d share my response here.
Properly Present Your Opponent’s Position
No one enjoys being misrepresented, especially in an argument. Whether you are being accused of believing something that you reject, your words are being twisted to mean something you never said, or you are being linked to positions with which you have nothing in common, it is frustrating to be forced to defend yourself against ungrounded assertions.
Though we may despise it when we are on the receiving end, we can easily slip into these flawed attacks ourselves. One of the most common ways Christians do this is to assume all adherents of a religion believe the same things. But just like in Christianity, there are a multitude of sects for most religions, and even in those sects some individuals don’t believe what the official teaching is. (In Christianity, we note this as a difference between official teaching and the beliefs of the “person in the pew.”)
So when we do apologetics with a person from a different religion, we should avoid telling them what they believe. It may be valid to point out what the religion itself teaches (or perhaps what the traditional view of the religion purports—not some obscure teaching), but we should not accuse every follower of that religion of holding that view.
Deal with the Big Issues
Related to the previous point, it is also frustrating to interact with someone who tries to mask the weakness of their argument by piling up a host of minor issues. For example, I had a conversation with an atheist where the arguments against Christianity moved from the accusation that the account of Adam and Eve was false because it was actually Adam and Lillith (a figure from Jewish mythology developed around 300 years after Christ), to the claim that the Bible teaches reincarnation because the Jews asked John the Baptist if he was Elijah, to the charge that Christian preachers are just trying to get money from people. If you have experienced these kinds of conversations, you know how discouraging it can be that you never get to address the real issues.
But again, Christians can do the same thing. There is little value in arguing with a Muslim as to whether or not Muhammad was literate (NOTE: Many claim he was illiterate, so the production of the Qur’an must be a miracle). What matters is whether or not what Muhammad taught was true—whether it accords with what God has revealed in the Bible. So do not spend your time on peripheral matters in order to score cheap points. Properly understand and present the heart of the other person’s position and demonstrate why it is false.