People often quote part of 1 Pet 3:15 to support the need for apologetics: always be ready to offer a defense (Greek apologia) to whoever asks you for an account of the hope among you.”
The context may suggest that the asking involves unbelievers questioning a movement of which they are suspicious; being a Christian was certainly an object of slander (2:12), and may have already been subject at times to prosecution (cf. 4:15-16). Being able to offer a defense meant being able to show that the charges against Christians (or at least against the Christian movement as a whole) were untrue.
First Peter 3:15 does apply to an apologetic, or defense, and it is certainly not alone. The final quarter of Acts, for example, probably functions as Luke’s apologetic (based on sound information, I would argue) for the innocence of the leading figure behind the gentile mission. But what kind of apologetic is it? Certainly early Christians did appeal to evidence, such as the eyewitness testimony of the apostles and continuing miracles. But the appeal here also appeals to something else.
The context of 1 Pet 3:15 is slanders against believers as wrongdoers (2:12: “they speak against you as wrongdoers”; 3:16: “those who speak against you and abuse you”). When the arguments against the Christian message are the alleged behavior of Christians, Christians need to work all the harder to live an apologetic that undermines the charges. Of course, in a culture where there is less social cost to being a Christian, lots of people claim to be Christians without living a Christian life. This undermines Christian witness.
I experienced this firsthand because, when I was an atheist a few decades ago, I was more hostile toward Christianity than toward other religions, because it seemed to me that most “Christians” didn’t live like Christ made a difference for them. Still, there were some committed Christians (such as my Dad’s sister’s family) who didn’t fit my skeptical paradigm, Christians that I had to respect despite my dismissal of Christians as a whole. That enigma wasn’t enough to change my paradigm, but if more of the “real” Christians had openly self-identified as Christians, perhaps I would have noticed a different pattern. (Yet even after conversion I discovered that even “real” Christians aren’t perfect, and could certainly profit from Peter’s advice.)
Their apologetic responds to charges that Christians are subversive against the empire. (What would you expect for a movement begun by someone executed on a cross for high treason against the majesty of the emperor, by pretending to be a king?) Thus, for the sake of the gospel, believers should, under ordinary circumstances, submit to every “human institution” (2:13). An emperor (2:13), slavery (2:18), and husbandly rule over wives (3:1; calling him “lord” in 3:6!) are human institutions and not part of every culture. But by submitting to social demands where possible (Christians often had no alternative except to be in those situations), Christians, who were a tiny and misunderstood minority, could silence such misinformed claims (2:15) and even win over some nonbelievers (3:1-2). They could challenge the charges of subversion leveled against them.
There are certainly intellectual apologetic issues worth discussing today. But some of the turnoffs to Christianity are the public personae of Christians. Sometimes this stems from misrepresentation. Sometimes it stems from public fixation on scandal, which allows the worst representatives of Christianity the most airtime. At least we don’t have people accusing our movement of cannibalism, as some of earliest Christianity’s critics did (misunderstanding what Christians meant by eating the body of their Lord).
But like Peter’s original audience, we live in a world where people often challenge Christianity because of how they think Christians live. Peter can’t tell us how to change what we can’t control. But he does advise us about what we can control: live in such a way that refutes such accusations, at least among those who know you personally. As Peter advised Christians who were subordinate on other fronts, choose your battles. We don’t have to fight and quibble about every situation or every social stance held by others, even if these are not the values that we live by. But we do need to live in such a way that people can see a difference.
A year or two before my conversion, I heard one of my cousins singing in a youth choir. They sang, “They will know we are Christians by our love.” That was a kind of Christianity I didn’t feel the need to despise. This group also seemed genuinely committed to Christ. I despised the intellectual dishonesty of people who claimed to believe that a God created them yet didn’t live like he was the most important thing in the world. I could respect those who at least lived consistently with what they believed. That didn’t stop me from making fun of Christians generally, but it did plant a seed that later bore fruit when I was confronted with the gospel.
The sentence doesn’t stop with “offer a defense to everyone who asks you.” It elaborates on the attitude with which this defense is given, one that does not match some apologetic broadsides available on YouTube or elsewhere. (Blasting atheists by calling them names, for example, is not a very good way to communicate Christ’s love to them.) Peter says to give an answer, but (and here he uses the stronger Greek word for “but”): do it with gentleness and respect.
Part of our defense of the faith is thus how we live the values of Christ, the example to whom Peter appeals (2:21; 3:18). As Christ went to the cross, he did not respond to insult with insult; he left his honor in the Father’s hands (2:23). Our natural, fight-or-flight instinct is to defend ourselves. It is difficult to do otherwise. As we retrain ourselves to follow Christ’s example, however, we want to show grace even to those who are hostile to us, so they can see more of the heart of the one who died for his enemies—even for us, when we were his enemies. May the Lord help us to defend the faith—and especially with gentleness and respect.