After many years of study and experience of how people come to faith in Christ, professor Tim Yoder proposed what he calls “action apologetics,” a powerful way of bearing witness to the gospel by acts of love, charity, justice and sacrifice, to supplement traditional intellectual apologetics. Join Scott for this discussion of the various means of defending the truth and goodness of Christian faith.

Timothy Yoder is Associate Professor of Theological Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary. He has taught for many years at Cairn University and also at Marquette University. He has also served as a missionary in Russia, and has served in France, Italy and Ukraine.

Episode Transcript

Scott Rae: Welcome to Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith and Culture Podcast from Talbot School of Theology at Biola University. I'm your host, Scott Rae, dean of faculty and professor of Christian ethics. We're here with a special guest, Dr. Tim Yoder, who is an associate professor of Theological Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary, my own seminary alma mater. So it's nice to be back among kindred spirits, although we consider Talbot to be as close a kindred spirit to Dallas as there is.

Tim Yoder: Absolutely.

Scott Rae: Tim has taught in various places, spent most of his academic life at Cairn University on the East Coast in Philadelphia, has been on the mission field in Russia and in the Ukraine and in France. He has taught at Marquette University where he earned his PhD in philosophy. And for the last four years has been on the faculty at Dallas Seminary. He's got a fascinating topic that I think our listeners are going to be very interested in called Action Apologetics. So let's dive in here. There's a lot to unpack. So you are trained as a philosopher. You're teaching in theological studies, but you've taught, you're as close to a Renaissance man in terms of what you're teaching. How did you get interested in apologetics and particularly this type of apologetics that you are proposing here?

Tim Yoder: Great question. Yeah, to me, apologetics was always kind of a natural consequence or even goal from the studies in philosophy as a Christian, as I wanted to be able to give evidences for the faith. I wanted to be able to defend the existence of God and the relevance of faith and the soul. And so all of those things are just a natural consequence of studying and learning.

Scott Rae: Okay. Now what do you mean by the term action apologetics as opposed to what?

Tim Yoder: Right. So in thinking of, I got started in this specific topic reading Christianity Day magazine. Over the last four or five years they have had, at the end of every issue, a testimony, which are always fascinating to read. And I realized that a lot of the people that were giving their testimony were not necessarily referring to some of those intellectual arguments that I studied and teach. And so I realized that there's more than one way to do apologetics if we use the term a little bit more broadly than we usually do. There is intellectual apologetics, which is crafting strong, rational, truthful, philosophical arguments.

Scott Rae: What most people think about.

Tim Yoder: Exactly.

Scott Rae: With the term.

Tim Yoder: And then there's another kind of apologetics, cultural apologetics that we've been, some people have been talking about. Paul Gold has written about that. And I have also thought about that as a way of making the gospel attractive, using arts and movie, and music and lots of things. But then I realized that there's another kind of apologetics that I call action apologetics. And that is when we use works of love and charity and a commitment to social justice as a way of proclaiming the gospel.

Scott Rae: Okay. How does that work? We often hear about that in terms of pre-evangelism as sort of a sort of tilling the ground, so to speak. But is that how you're looking at it? Or it sounds like you have something different in mind than that.

Tim Yoder: I don't disagree with the idea of the preparation for evangelism, the tilling the ground, but think that the Bible seems to think that when we, that these acts of love are a way of sharing the gospel. We could think about it this way, this is little more philosophical, but the three transcendentals - truth, goodness, and beauty - in intellectual apologetics is clearly truth oriented, and cultural apologetics is beauty oriented. So action apologetics is good oriented. Showing love, charity, being the hands and feet of Jesus, as we minister to those who are oppressed and poor, in showing the gospel. As it says in Matthew 25 when you do these things to the least of these, you are doing them to me. And I think there is a kind of gospel proclamation in that.

Scott Rae: Okay. Now, when you read those testimonies at the end of the issues of Christianity Today, you noticed that, and not everybody was coming to faith via traditional apologetics. What are some of the other avenues through which you saw people coming to faith, and how did that impact your own view of apologetics?

Tim Yoder: So actually I have five different kinds of apologetics. There's intellectual, cultural, action, there's also personal testimony, which is experiential. And then there is power encounter, when there are miracles and other sorts of things, dreams and visions.

Scott Rae: We hear about a lot of this in the Middle East today for Muslims.

Tim Yoder: Right, having dreams about Jesus. So those are the five that I'm working on right now and thinking about, and I think that they are all exemplified in testimony and conversion accounts of adults who have come to faith.

Scott Rae: Okay. And you saw examples of those as you read, just sort of went through Christianity Today and they would randomly publish. You saw a pattern.

Tim Yoder: Yeah. There was one, there was a woman, a Vietnamese woman, her grandparents left Saigon, the fall of Saigon in Vietnam. And they ended up, after a long twisted story, in Indiana to start their lives over again. And this little church wanted to show the love of Christ to a refugee family. And they provided food and clothing and some housing. And they didn't even speak English. And they came to church not understanding a word, but they knew that there was, this was love and generosity and caring and they needed it so much. And she said her grandfather loved going to church. He couldn't understand a word. Eventually they did. And so there is the proclamation. I don't want to say that we don't use words here, but the love and the concern was a big part of their coming-to-faith story.

Scott Rae: I've often wondered, because in the generation that you and I grew up in, I'm assuming we're close to the same age. The question we asked about Christian faith is, is it true? And I've noticed among my undergraduate students today, that's not really the question they're asking today. They're asking more is Christian faith good?

Tim Yoder: Yeah. Is it good.

Scott Rae: And does it advance the common good? Does it do good things for our community? That I'm finding is a much more, well, maybe not, or at least to some in this current generation, a much more powerful form of apologetic. Is that sort of what you have in mind?

Tim Yoder: I do. I do. Although I do want to say I don't view these different kinds of apologetics as in competition, or I'm not trying to rank them or say that one is better or worse. The conference theme is poverty and wealth and it fits very well. And we have, obviously we have lots of conversations in our culture about the role of social justice in the Christian worldview. But Scott, I think you're right. A lot of people that I talk to talk about being concerned with what is good? Is our God good? Or is God a God of hate? Are Christians making a difference in the world for the good, or are they contributing to the malaise? And these are the kinds of things that we can, I think we need to consider and move the story in another direction.

Tim Yoder: Frankly, I think that the church sometimes gets an undeserved reputation for being anti, anti-homosexuality or anti-abortion or anti-transgender or anti-whatever. Whereas I think there are, there have been and there are, a lot of the church that are engaged in quiet, personal ways with these sorts of things. With helping refugee families out, with befriending people who have a different worldview than them. With reaching out and showing love whether it's clothes to the homeless or food to the hungry. And building houses or digging wells and those kind of things. They are a way of sharing the love of Christ.

Scott Rae: Okay. So I think it's fair to say that we have a lot of people out of nonprofits, a lot of NGOs, who are out there doing a lot of good things for people. Without the least remotest interest in the gospel of Christ.

Tim Yoder: That's right.

Scott Rae: What's the practical difference between what you're describing as action apologetics and what a lot of nonprofits who are out digging wells and serving the poor and doing all kinds of very good things, but without any kind of Christian worldview.

Tim Yoder: I think there are two things that we can point to. One is that when Christians do these things, they have the Holy Spirit. And so when Jesus says you are salt and light in the world, when Paul says in Philippians 2 that we shine like stars in the skies that people will see your good works and praise the Father. I think it's the Holy Spirit working through us in a way.

Tim Yoder: But the second thing is that I do think we do need to share the gospel. So this is not a replacement for ever saying anything. And so that's why I don't want to put these different ways of doing apologetics in competition because they naturally work together. So you can do great works, befriend an immigrant family in your community and help them. And then maybe you'll have the conversation, which you say, here's why I think the Bible is true. And here's why I think Jesus rose from the dead and that naturally works together. There has to be a gospel proclamation in words. But I think it's also a gospel proclamation in our love and our actions.

Scott Rae: Yeah. I've often been a little skeptical of people who claim I'm just going to live my life with integrity and authenticity, and I'm going to model this and I don't need to use words. And my response to that is, well, you're not that good.

Tim Yoder: That's right.

Scott Rae: And that's probably doomed to fail. And I think you're right. We do need words. That's really important. Because a lot of people don't, they understand that they're being loved, but they don't immediately catch that they're being loved by whom.

Tim Yoder: Right.

Scott Rae: Ultimately.

Tim Yoder: Right. And so we say it and affirm it and express those thoughts. The gospel is a message that needs to be preached and shared and told.

Scott Rae: Yeah, I'm interested in some of your experience in doing this when you're on the mission field in other parts of the world. Because I think in comparison to a lot of the US and Canada and other parts of the West, the injustices are not quite as egregious and jarring as they can be in some other parts of the world. Where in other parts of the world, I think it's almost impossible for the gospel to have credibility if you're not involved in some of these causes to right injustices. I think that's less true here, or at least it used to be. But did you find that to be the case when you were ministering in other parts of the world?

Tim Yoder: So, the nature of the ministry that I was involved with when I lived in Russia was really trying to reintroduce Bibles into society. And I spent a lot of time with some of the young pastors that were there and we did teach in the schools and teach Christian morals and ethics. So I wouldn't say that the ministry that I was involved with in the nineties was heavily focused on these sorts of things. But I do think that if we're talking about there's people that live on the margins of society, the poor, the sick, the starving, this is how ministry should be done. It's not just about preaching the word, but it's about doing justice and showing mercy and loving in that way.

Scott Rae: I know there's a lot of skepticism, I think, in our Christian culture about social justice and doing justice because of the historical precedent, which happened so many times where that became front and center in the gospel. And the evangelistic gospel message got lost in the process. How do you safeguard against that?

Tim Yoder: Yeah. Well, I think that is a concern. We can talk historically about the social gospel in which doing good acts becomes a replacement for a verbal ministry, and I think we need to be careful of that. And so I think that the way to do that is to recognize that there's a kind of a two step, it's a both/and. I think we do need to be authentic and real and move out of our comfort zones to share, even in a sacrificial way, with people who are different than us. The Good Samaritan gives us the example of that. And that's great and it's essential.

Tim Yoder: And I think there are a lot of organizations, Christian and non-Christian, that are doing those sorts of things. But for us as people that are defending the faith and sharing the gospel, we've got to communicate in words. It doesn't have to be with a lot of fancy philosophical arguments and other sorts of things. It can just be this is what I believe. I believe that Jesus died for our sins. And I believe that the Bible is the word of God, and you should read it, or you should come to church.

Scott Rae: In some cases that can be enough.

Tim Yoder: That can be sufficient.

Scott Rae: Now throughout church history, we've had lots of examples of this. This is not something that's brand new. So give us a couple of highlights from church history where the church throughout the ages has performed acts of justice and those things have been powerful witnesses to the gospel.

Tim Yoder: So I'll give you a really good one from the early church. In the early church in the Roman Empire, which was obviously greatly persecuted, but ultimately within a couple centuries, the Roman Empire became Christian. And how did that happen? How did the persecuted Christian minority become embraced widespread by many of the Roman Empire? And I use the work of Rodney Stark, who is a good historian, and he argues that two things happened that really helped to convert the Roman Empire, if we could put it that way. One is the way that Christians cared for the sick, especially when the plague came.

Scott Rae: During pandemics.

Tim Yoder: Exactly. Yes. That they stayed and cared for people, putting themselves at risk, even for people that were not their own. The elite of the Roman Empire, they left the cities, they went to the countryside. Even the famous physician, Galen, took off and didn't treat people.

Scott Rae: So literally they headed for the hills.

Tim Yoder: They did, they did. And Stark says that another aspect of that was the Christian Church had a role for women, a really significant role in discipling, in doing important works, even in leadership that gave these women a chance to thrive in a way that they did not in the pagan Roman culture. And so these two things were powerful examples of action apologetics that made a difference in those and made Christianity much more attractive and meaningful. Not more true, but more relevant and good. And it was extremely important in the conversion of the Romans.

Scott Rae: Yeah. And I think just for the sake of our listeners, too, the differences in the size of the safety net that the poor had in the Roman empire as compared to today was pretty significant. So how did that set the stage for the church's charity?

Tim Yoder: Yeah, well, it did because there wasn't much that happened. There wasn't any kind of insurance or public hospitals or other sorts of things. And it was the goodness of the followers of Christ who bear one another's burdens, and weep with those who weep, and taking Jesus words seriously. And they did. They showed acts of love and they cared for the sick and it was a vivid, vivid testimony.

Scott Rae: The vast majority of whom were not exactly overflowing with resources themselves.

Tim Yoder: That right, exactly.

Scott Rae: So it was not only at great risk to get sick, but often at great cost financially, too. The very early church, I know, had a reputation for rescuing children from infanticide.

Tim Yoder: Right.

Scott Rae: And they just really without much financial means to speak of, they just adopted these kids in mass that they found abandoned by the roadside and left to die from exposure.

Tim Yoder: Early pro-lifers.

Scott Rae: Yeah. Very, yeah. A nice early precedent.

Tim Yoder: And of course the rise of hospitals and agencies like Salvation Army and Red Cross are more contemporary examples of the same sort of thing.

Scott Rae: And those, I think, unfortunately, some of those have lost their original gospel emphasis and have been co-opted by our more secular [crosstalk 00:18:38].

Tim Yoder: Because it is a tough balance, right? It's easy to slide over into an extremely evangelistic perspective or to slip over into an extremely kind of charitable good works perspective. And what this is about is doing both. About doing acts of love and charity and being engaged in social justice, but doing it in the name of Christ and with His gospel as a part of what we're doing.

Scott Rae: So how do you do social justice without all the baggage that often comes attached to that? That seems to be a pretty significant challenge today. I know some people who just they're just allergic to the term. And others who think that is the sole mission of the church. And they've imported the ideology that comes with it. So how do you stave that off?

Tim Yoder: Yeah. Well, it's a big question. It's a huge question. And all I can do really is say that I think that the model for social justice is Jesus. Jesus interacted with women. He interacted with Gentiles. He interacted with poor, the lepers. The term marginalized, that's the people that Jesus talked to. And it was scandalous. The people of, the Jews of His time, the Pharisees, even His own disciples, thought it was wrong. His disciples rebuked Jesus more than once about who He was talking with.

Tim Yoder: And so I think if we take His, the model of Christ seriously, and think about His social engagement, even if I could say his political engagement, I think that will help us to navigate the waters. It's not really a Republican or a Democratic concern, it's more about what are we doing to help people. It doesn't necessarily have to be something that's institutionalized. It can just be what my family does, or what my small group does, or what our Sunday school class does, or our local church, what it does to meet the needs of people around us.

Scott Rae: Tim, one last question for you. In this area of action apologetics, as you've described it, what are a couple of things that you're particularly encouraged about?

Tim Yoder: Hmm. That's a great question. Well, I'm encouraged that we live in an era of increasing devotion to apologetics on an intellectual level, on a cultural level. And I think that we're ready, we're equipped in many ways. The resources are there for people to read and to understand, and you don't have to have a master's degree to understand these things. Obviously the education helps, but there's lots of great apologists who are writing things that the average church group can understand and communicate.

Tim Yoder: And then I'm encouraged when I hear stories. I hear stories of people that this is happening. There's a story of a woman by the name of Rosario Butterfield. She was an LGBTQ advocate and professor and she wrote an editorial piece, this was some years ago, and she got a ton of letters, pro and con. But one stood out, it was from a local pastor who didn't agree with her stance in the editorial, but asked if she would you like to come to dinner sometime? And the more she thought, she couldn't get out of her mind. And so she called him and she said, yeah. And they met. And they had a great time and they interacted and it led to more conversations. They became friends and eventually she became a Christian and she changed her worldview entirely. But it began with that simple invitation of come to dinner. Even though we are poles apart, politically, socially, on all these ethical questions. And that kind of stuff encourages me because it's this life and that life and that one. And that's something that we can all grasp and do.

Scott Rae: Yeah. And sometimes it is just literally one person at a time, for how that works. Tim, thanks so much. This is so insightful. I so appreciate your emphasis. And you're not suggesting that the sort of traditional intellectual apologetics is not of value, because you've affirmed it's of huge value. Because it's one thing to love people, it's another thing to answer their questions. And both of those things.

Tim Yoder: And we should be ready for both.

Scott Rae: Both of those things matter. So very grateful for you sharing your perspective on this. This is so helpful and much appreciated.

Tim Yoder: Well, thank you for the invitation. It's a pleasure to talk and I'm glad to be able to share some thoughts with you.

Scott Rae: This has been an episode of the podcast Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith and Culture. Think Biblically Podcast is brought to you by Talbot School of Theology at Biola University offering programs in Southern California and online, including an accelerated Bible theology ministry program that allows students to earn a master's and a bachelor's degree together in just five years. Visit in order to learn more. If you've enjoyed today's conversation with our friend, Tim Yoder, give us a rating on your podcast app and feel free to share it with a friend. Thanks so much for listening and remember, think biblically about everything.