The Church Is the Evidence

By Timothy Paul Jones

Student ministry is always filled with surprises—but, if you’ve ever worked with youth, you already knew that.

I first worked with youth nearly thirty years ago. During those years, I faced surprises that resulted from students gone wild and pranks gone wrong. Yet none of those surprises prepared me for an unexpected change that I experienced more recently while working with our church’s student ministry in an interim role. After several years away from student ministry, what surprised me most was how students’ doubts have changed. When students in the 1990s doubted their faith, their questions typically had to do with the plausibility of miracles or the reliability of the Bible.

That’s no longer where their uncertainties begin. Today, doubts tend to start with questions about Christian morals. One young woman in particular confessed she found the historical evidence for the resurrection to be compelling. Yet, unless the church affirmed her conception of herself as bisexual, she was ready to reject Christianity. In her mind, any refusal to affirm her perceived sexual identity was dangerous and immoral. And so, she was willing to walk away from Christianity even as she admitted the evidence for the central miracle of the faith.

Doing Apologetics in a World that Sees Christianity as Immoral

This is a dilemma I never envisioned thirty years ago. The twenty-first century is, however, far from the first moment when the morality of Christianity has been questioned. One of the times it’s happened before was in the second century A.D.

Second-century worshipers of the Roman gods had no quarrels with the claim that Jesus performed miracles. Yet, from a pagan perspective, a moral life required participation in ceremonies that honored the civic gods. Since Christians didn’t participate in these sacrifices, Christians didn’t merely seem odd; Christians seemed dangerous and immoral. One of the primary ways that Christians responded was by pointing to the life of the church as evidence for the truth of the faith. Three of these responses are still very relevant for apologetics today.

1. The Life the Church Lived Required Power that God Alone Could Give

One second-century apologist named Aristides begins his summary of Christian ethics with clauses that echo the Old Testament. Christians “do not fornicate,” “do not covet,” “honor father and mother,” and so on (Apology 15)

But this defender of the Christian faith doesn’t stop with the Old Testament.

Aristides goes on to describe habits so radically generous that they would have seemed ridiculous to second-century Romans: “If anyone is imprisoned or oppressed for the name ‘Christ,’ all of them provide his needs…. Those who have give freely to help those who have not“ (15). After describing how Christians cared for each other, Aristides marvels, “Truly, this is a new people, and there is something divine mingled among them” (16). The life that the church lived required power that God alone could give.

It still does.

The way that Christians care for each other provides evidence for the truth of the message we proclaim. This is especially true when it comes to living in fellowship with people from different ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds. Another second-century Christian pointed specifically to the diversity of the early church as evidence of God’s power among his people:“We who once despised and destroyed each other and who refused to hold anything in common with people who were not of the same tribe, due to their differing customs, now live in common with them” (Justin, First Apology, 14).

Even though the challenges today are different, this argument still works. If secular evolution is the sole explanation for the social order, a community that unites people from different cultural and social backgrounds on the basis of the gospel makes no sense. After all, if everything is a result of naturalistic evolution, what promotes survival the best is to favor kith and kin, do down our enemies, ignore the starving, and let the weakest go to the wall.” Christianity calls people to an opposite way of life. Whenever a church unites people from different backgrounds on the basis of the gospel and then calls these people to care for one another, that church is providing  evidence of supernatural power.

2. Christians Did More Good for the Vulnerable than Their Pagan Neighbors

When they sacrificed to the civic gods, Romans believed they were securing blessings for themselves and their neighbors. Since Christians abstained from these sacrifices, Christians seemed like a threat to their neighbors’ wellbeing. That’s why second-century apologists went to such lengths to argue that Christians were good for the world.

Christian virtues included kindness to persons that the Romans saw as disposable. Children unacknowledged by a father were frequently abandoned to die or to be enslaved. Rescuing these children seemed ludicrous to ancient Romans, yet that’s precisely what early Christians did.

What’s more, Christians even cared for persons who weren’t part of the church at all. Later, when Emperor Julian attempted to reinstate the worship of the venerable gods, the generosity of Christians was one factor that caused people to hesitate to return to pagan worship. “Why can’t we see,” Julian complained, “that it is [the Christians’] benevolence to strangers and care for the graves of the dead … that have done the most to increase their number?” (Julian, Epistle 22).

What if the church’s care for the poor and for children in foster care today was so widespread that these habits were as widely known as our stand against the false gods of the culture? Second-century apologists weren’t merely describing deeds that the world would recognize as good. They were highlighting hospitality so rich and radical that these acts could not be fitted into the world’s categories. So should we.

3. The Church Called for Consistency Between Profession and Practice

In the Roman way of thinking, people sacrificed to the gods to bind the empire together and gain blessings. You didn’t have to believe in the gods. You only had to sacrifice in the name of the gods.

Christians did the unthinkable. Christians pursued consistency between profession and practice, and they refused to participate in any practice in which they didn’t believe. Early apologists pointed to this counter-cultural consistency as evidence for the truth of Christian faith.

So what relevance does this evidence have for us today? In the first place, it calls us to pursue consistency between our own professions and practices. But there are deeper implications too. There has been a movement among some well-intended Christians to practice “pronoun hospitality” by referring to transgender persons according to preferred pronouns that conflict with their biological sex. In some cases, Christians have been encouraged to affirm transgender pronouns outwardly even as we know inwardly that these self-conceptions are false. In other words, “Just say the pronouns that they want you to say; you don’t have to believe it.” When I hear that, I cannot keep myself from thinking about ancient Christians. The entire pressure of their culture was declaring, “Just do the sacrifice; you don’t have to believe it.” But, for the most part, Christians refused. As a result, many of these Christians endured martyrdom. Early Christians were hospitable to their neighbors, but true hospitality doesn’t lie.

What Happens When We See the Church as Evidence for the Faith?

After hearing these considerations, some of you may find yourselves wondering, “Will these tactics from the second century persuade the broader culture to welcome Christian values?”

My answer is, “Probably not, and I never intended them to do so.”

I have no confidence that these arguments will persuade secular progressivists that Christian professions and practices are good for the world. As far as anyone today can tell, second-century apologists didn’t change imperial perceptions of Christianity. In the second century, the worst persecutions were yet to come.

I do not expect these same practices to convince contemporary progressivists that Christianity is good for the world. What I do expect is that God will work through practices such as these to form us into the type of communities that persist past the rise and fall of every power that resists Gods truth. Even if these defenses do not persuade the world that Christianity is good for society, they form us into a community that persists in holiness, love, and proclamation of the gospel. Through it all, the church is not merely the context for our faith; the church is itself evidence for the truth of the faith.

And this brings me back to that surprise in student ministry: a young woman who preferred her own bisexual self-conception over any evidence for the truth of the resurrection. I lost track of this teenager in 2020. Throughout the months preceding the pandemic, however, her engagement with church followed a predictable pattern. She attended student ministry for a short time before declaring she would never return, due to her disagreement with the moral implications of the gospel. A few weeks later, she would be back again. I never asked why, but I think I know. It was because the people of God loved her and cared for her in a way that no one in her home or at school did. As far as I know, she never was persuaded that Christianity is good for the world, but she had discovered that Christians could be good to her. Someday, I pray that God will work through that knowledge to clear her moral confusion as he draws her to himself. And I am confident that one of the evidences through which God will work is the church.

Published February 14, 2024

Timothy Paul Jones

Timothy Paul Jones is chair of the Department of Apologetics, Ethics, and Philosophy at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, as well as a preaching pastor at Sojourn Church Midtown in Louisville. Timothy hosts The Apologetics Podcast ( He is the author and coauthor of more than twenty books, including In Church as It Is in Heaven: Cultivating Multiethnic Kingdom Culture.