Tactics and Tools

Pick Your Battles with Unbelievers

Author Tim Barnett Published on 03/25/2021

A man stumbles into the ER with a scraped knee, a sprained ankle, and a gunshot wound to his head. What injury do the doctors treat first? This isn’t a trick question. They prioritize the most serious injury first—the gunshot wound—even if that means ignoring other injuries. ER doctors call this medical triage.

I think something similar can aid the apologist in his defense of the truths of Christianity. In our engagement with unbelievers, we should do theological triage. This is a concept coined by Albert Mohler. In an article titled A Call for Theological Triage and Christian Maturity, he says, “God’s truth is to be defended at every point and in every detail, but responsible Christians must determine which issues deserve first-rank attention in a time of theological crisis.”

How we rank doctrines has practical implications for how we do apologetics. If you believe everything is essential, then you will die on every hill. And if you believe nothing is essential, you won’t die on any hill. Both of these extremes have serious problems.

In reality, not all doctrines are equal. There are some things that are essential and some things that aren’t.

For example, Christians all agree the gospel is essential for salvation. Paul calls it a matter “of first importance” (1 Cor. 15:3). Likewise, the deity of Christ is an essential doctrine. “Unless you believe that I am He,” Jesus said, “you will die in your sins” (Jn. 8:24) These are first-rank doctrines.

There are other beliefs, though, where Paul allows for a difference of opinion, like esteeming “one day as better than another” (Rom. 14:5).

So there is a hierarchy ranging from big stuff to little stuff. And this hierarchy should impact how we do apologetics with unbelievers.

There was a time when I didn’t make these distinctions. There was a time when I was an adamant young-earth creationist and often found myself in passionate arguments with non-Christian friends over the age of the earth. This went on for months. Then it occurred to me: What if I succeed in convincing my friend that, say, radiometric dating is unreliable? Would it mean atheism is false? No. Would it mean Christianity is true? No. I was putting major time and effort into a minor issue. I was treating a sprained ankle while ignoring the bullet in his brain.

I have a better strategy. Now, with unbelievers, I do an end run around how God created—since this is an in-house discussion between believers—and focus on that God created—a primary issue. I bypass the days of creation debate by focusing on something all Christians agree on: the event of creation.

I call this the Family Matters tactic. When someone who’s not in the Christian family brings up a matter of secondary importance, it is appropriate, in some situations, to decline debating with them about it. Instead, direct them to the diversity of views Christianity has to offer. Here, diversity is our strength, not our weakness.

For example, if a young-earth creationist is challenged on the age of the earth, say something like, “Well, I could be mistaken on this. In fact, there are faithful Christians who believe the earth is billions of years old. But even if the earth is old, you still need a Creator to get something from nothing. How do you explain why there is something rather than nothing?”

This is a tactical move to help shift the discussion away from non-essentials towards essentials. Whenever possible, we should avoid debating family matters with non-family members. In other words, if you want to debate family matters, you need to be in the family. So, when talking about certain issues, being in the family matters.

This, by the way, isn’t always easy. It takes humility, maturity, and self-control. Our impulse will be to respond to every challenge. Don’t take the bait. Remember to do theological triage, and pick your battles.