Question: How do I stay focused on the gospel when sharing it with a skeptic who wants to debate side issues like the age of the earth, homosexuality, abortion, evolution instead of the gospel?
Answer: Your question tells me quite a bit about your walk with the Lord. I appreciate a brother like you who has a concern for souls! As far as the necessity of apologetics for the unbeliever, however, I feel your pain; we Christians have a Catch-22.
On the one hand, a nonbeliever will not likely to remain in place for a barrage of Bible verses (which is the very thing he needs). On the other hand, if we engage the unbeliever on specialized topics, we might end up running down rabbit holes with little chance of success…but the skeptic sees these side-issues as an honest response to Christianity. The thing he cannot see, however, is that a non-regenerated person cannot understand (see) the things of God.
“Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”” (John 3:3, ESV)
“The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.” (1 Corinthians 2:14, ESV)
Contrary to the opinions of many, faith does not oppose knowledge. In fact, in the kingdom of God, faith is the first step to knowledge! The Catch-22 occurs because a person needs to be converted to understand the issues of the kingdom of God…but many won’t consider salvation’s gateway message without satisfactory answers to those other questions first! For this reason we Christians must perform a balancing act: Although our ultimate objective is the salvation of the soul, our immediate objective is to “earn” a hearing.
Concerning focus then, perhaps a listener may benefit from a separation of issues. There is an element that is “above” all others in that it controls all others: to do the will of the Father. Since understanding all other issues requires an understanding of and a deployment of that primary directive, logic demands that subordinate issues be put aside until the gateway issue is resolved.
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 7:21, ESV)
This verse shows us via “Lord, Lord,” that there are many people claiming to know about God…but who are actually clueless—and they are on their way to hell as a result! The ones who will enter the kingdom of heaven are the ones who will do “the will of my Father who is in heaven.” This is the primary issue in all of life. Relative to one’s eternal destiny, everything else is arranging deck chairs on the Titanic—and yes—this includes stands on abortion, homosexuality, evolution and the age of the earth. If one does not obey God’s primary directive, even an earnest handling of other issues will be considered lawlessness, and the workers of such will be disavowed by God.
“And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’” (Matthew 7:23, ESV).
What then is the will of the Father concerning salvation and knowledge? He desires both for us—but he described them in their natural order.
“[prayer and supplication] is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” (1 Timothy 2:3–4, ESV, emphasis mine)
I have no great confidence that a skeptic will bow to the logic of this restriction. The problem is that it requires an admission of ignorance by the nonbeliever—but one based on some yet unseen advantages to Christian thinking. This is logically sound, however. If he wants your answers as a Christian, you have an obligation to give them from a Christian point of view, and this includes working under these restrictions. By logic, a skeptic cannot ask you a question that engages your Christian worldview and then demand that you abandon its rules in your answer. This logical jumping-in-and-out is aptly called the Taxicab Fallacy.
Furthermore, the Bible addresses issues like abortion and evolution more tangentially than directly. This, too, makes the first-things-first rule very important. Until one understands the overarching themes of the Bible, and until one understands it as a synergistic whole, one cannot understand its parts or the issues related to them. Additionally, the book is designed to be studied with the aid of the Holy Spirit, so outsiders can only do so much with it. When you consider all of the restrictions necessitated by logic and designed into God’s revelation, you can, with good conscience, withhold answering side-issues for any or all of these reasons. The only risk is that he may close the door on you.
Although you are seeking ways to keep the focus, another good strategy is to lose the focus…for a while anyhow. Since our immediate objective is to win a hearing, some plain-old winsomeness is in order. We must be friendly, polite and respectful of the skeptic’s part of the dialogue—and this involves letting a lot of ungodly ideas pass out of his mouth and into our ears unchallenged (which is not the logical equivalent of accepting them). In effect, you would be watching his tail disappear down those rabbit holes which will feel like an enormous waste of time—especially with the gospel burning on your tongue. But when a person has his ears stopped-down by a godless worldview, you are probably in a pearls-before-swine situation (Mat.7:6) with the gospel—and if you persist, he may “turn to attack you.”
Part of Christian maturity is understanding that the way-of-God is a minority enterprise—and by a lot! (Mat. 7:13-14). Therefore, you shall usually be rebuffed; this is a reasonable expectation for anyone sharing the gospel. It helps to remember, however, that this is part of a process: God draws all men to himself (John 6:44); countless people walk among us who are under the conviction of the Holy Spirit, but who are not yet converted. Admittedly, if those under conviction were wearing signs our job would be easier…but they do not. Therefore, we must proclaim the gospel to every creature. First of all, we simply do not know who is who. And second, we are probably performing a step in a larger process (Mat. 13:4-8). Because of this, rejoice in the occasional success—but do not be dismayed at the many who will not hear you. Your maximum efficient efforts will please God well…but they will only occasionally yield an apparent success this side of Christ’s return.
That’s all I have to say on global strategies concerning the gospel focus, but I do have comments on evolution and the age of the earth. Frequently, skeptics who throw out words or ideas in objection to the gospel are just buying time. They may have some passion, but they are not usually prepared with an apologetic—and this means that they probably do not understand the implications of their own words. As such, the scientific objections are relatively easy to address, and a quick diffusing might open the door to more conversation. Therefore, the ability to address a few critical issues might be an important tool to keeping your foot in the door.
Concerning the age of the earth, not all Christians subscribe to a young earth. Sharing this truth removes this topic from the doorway of the salvation discussion—and your personal stand on the issue does not matter! Here’s how that works: One ministry in which I serve (Got Questions Ministries) teaches from a young earth perspective, but I subscribe to an old earth; yet both the ministry and I give testimony to Jesus Christ and hold a Christian worldview. Since opposing views on this topic can coexist peaceably without negating biblical salvation, logic dictates that the age of the earth is a non-issue in the domain of salvation discussions. Therefore, stating that there are plenty of Christians who believe that the earth is 4.5 billion years old proves that this is a perceived restriction to belief and not an actual one. So, it should be removed from the path to salvation.
Concerning people who throw out evolution as an objection, they usually have two problems: as in the age of the earth, they often have a false perception of what many Christians believe. Furthermore, they often have a false understanding of evolution itself! For purposes of our argument, these are quickly solved.
I try to disarm the evolution argument by telling people that I subscribe to evolution—and indeed I do! But I subscribe to the proven one called microevolution. This is change within species, and this is readily observable in the world. But Darwinian evolution postulates macroevolution which is change between species. This is a failed model—and I do not subscribe to it. In 150 years of Darwinian wishing and hoping, neither life, the lab nor the fossil record has yielded convincing evidence to support their notion that one species changes into another. Yet people-at-large assume that the science supports this belief—and why shouldn’t they? Textbooks teach this in spite of the paucity of evidence.
Sloppy thinkers (whether wearing lab coats or not) seem to think that the evidences for microevolution somehow prove macroevolution too…but they simply do not. So, I ask people, “Where are you getting your information? Have you read On the Origin of Species yourself? Do you understand the limitations of his claims? Can you show me any transitional forms in life, the lab or the fossil record? Or are you just repeating something that you’ve heard? Because, as a theory of speciation, Darwinian evolution has failed. Scientists have taken an adequate sampling of the earth in their 150 year search for Darwin’s transitional forms, but have not found any. At this point, how dare they claim Darwinian speciation as a fact of science!” Usually, people have not done their own homework, so they are stuck with admitting that they have just heard this stuff somewhere…which then removes it from the argument because they are misinformed.
These topical blasts tend to work on scientific topics, but I do not see this type of thing working with abortion or homosexuality because these are value-centered rather than science-centered topics.
Another issue is stewardship. A conscientious Christian must decide how to spend his time. Becoming more conversant in the apologetics of science-and-the-Bible takes away from pure Bible study time…but as discussed earlier, laying a barrage of Bible verses on a person with the stopped-down ears does not promote the gospel, either. As such, I see no single strategy…except, of course, for the one you are probably using already.
My guess is that you pray and study your Bible. You sound like a faithful witness, and you are probably faithful in your job of being salt and light. If those things are true, do not fret: God has a plan, people have free will and you have done your job. Who would ask more of you?