In your hearts, honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being 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. – I Peter 3:15
As with any Biblical instruction, it is a Christian’s responsibility to follow these words of St. Peter. Just as we are to be ready to give an answer, we must do so with both gentleness and respect. And as with any Biblical instruction, it behooves the Christian to be sure to understand it well so we do not misunderstand.
For though the same Church is spread throughout time and space, different communities within her can often have different character, different inclinations, and different failings. There are some things each community is good at, some things it is terrible at, and those within who are not anchored to the rest of the historic Church are unable to tell the difference. There is a danger inherent in this lack of discernment that C.S. Lewis described in The Screwtape Letters:
We [demons] direct the fashionable outcry of each generation against those vices of which it is least in danger and fix its approval on the virtue nearest to that vice which we are trying to make endemic. The game is to have them all running about with fire extinguishers whenever there is a flood, and all crowding to that side of the boat which is already nearly gunwale under.
American Christians very much lean to the lukewarm and pusillanimous side—particularly when it comes to defending the faith as Peter instructs. Though Christ warned us that we would be hated by the world, we have taken on a terrible fear even of the world’s mere dislike and disdain. We are far more terrified of causing offense to a few than we are of leaving the Gospel undelivered to the masses. We do this out of the depths of our sensitivity and sentimentality—very prominent characteristics of this age which we confuse with the virtue of compassion.
Thus, when many Christians read Peter’s instructions, they do so in a way that pushes them even further off-balance—away from courage & zeal and closer to worldliness. They believe that when Scripture exhorts gentleness and respect, its really calling for ‘niceness.’ This is very unfortunate, because they are not at all the same thing.
Gentleness is simple enough. When we treat someone or something gently, we act with deliberate carefulness so as not to inadvertently cause harm. If we handle a fragile vase, for example, we takes precautions and do not apply more force or pressure than the vase can handle. We do the same when we are gentle towards a person—we take care to avoid causing harm or injury.
Respect is also straightforward. We respect something when we treat it as though it is what it is. For example, we respect a boundary by not crossing it or a rule by not breaking it. Likewise, we respect people when we treat them as though they are what they are—human beings made in the image of God at the very least. We also sometimes add special respect for those who hold special offices. We treat our parents or our president with a special kind of respect because they are more than just our neighbors—we offer courtesy and obedience in keeping with their station.
Niceness, however, is different. To be nice simply means maintaining a pleasant disposition that avoids making waves and tries to keep everything on an even keel. It looks to no firm principle but depends entirely on how everything feels at any given moment—particularly according to the wants and feelings of others. But didn’t Christ tell us to do exactly that when he gave us the golden rule? Not so much. Though many people read it as “do unto others as they would have you do unto them,” Jesus actually taught, “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” The difference is in the seat of judgment. It means that we treat others with the same regard we would give ourselves according to our own good judgment. It does not mean that we substitute our own discernment for that of another, no matter how nice it might be to do so.
Niceness’ refusal to upset the apple cart often puts it into direct contradiction with gentleness and respect. When, for example, a person considers himself to be a soulless meat-sack in an uncaring universe with no higher aspiration than the satisfaction of his own appetites, the nice thing is to simply go along with it and tell him what he likes to hear. The respectful thing, however, is to treat him as what he actually is—something more than what he considers himself to be. Likewise, it is never nice to call a sinner to repentance, but it can be both gentle and respectful: gentle because it seeks to avoid the harm caused by impenitence and respectful because it treats a sinner under the law as a sinner under the law. Reminding the unchaste of the Sixth Commandment or murderers of the Fifth can trigger some unpleasant feelings. But even this may be deemed gentle, for the ultimate cause of these feelings is not the Law itself, but the burden of guilt—and only repentance can ease that burden. Neither is calling out a false teacher ever a nice thing to do, but one must treat a custodian of God’s word as such—both for his own sake and for the sake of his students.
This distinction perhaps explains why the sinless Son of God so often failed to be nice in the Gospels. He calls the scribes and pharisees all sorts of mean names, reminds his listeners of the existence of Hell with graphic imagery, and generally makes a lot of different people very very uncomfortable on a regular basis. Nevertheless, in all these cases he gives to them what they need because he treats them as they are—false teachers, self-righteous hypocrites, blind guides, and in very many cases, forgiven sinners.
And so when the time comes for us to give a reason for the hope that we have or to proclaim God’s Word to those in darkness, we must be careful of what we are about. We must act out of love—for the benefit of our neighbor without doing him wrong or causing him injury because our neighbors are the beloved children of God made to bear His own image. And to be sure, doing so well does require a measure of sensitivity so that we know those to whom we speak and understand their needs. But we are under no obligation to never cause offense, bruise egos, or upset the status quo. Delivering strong words to hard hearts may not be nice, but neither is it harsh or disrespectful, and sometimes it is precisely what we’ve been called to do.