It’s all a matter of authority

When talking with your average, university-educated, white middle class Brit about the gospel, much of your success depends on whether you can affirm Christianity logically (so they feel). When talking with your average South Asian Muslim, whether university educated or otherwise, what matters most is whether it accords with the recognised authorities. When chatting with the average non-university educated Brit, things are persuasive when they can be shown to work in practice with immediate value. They are more likely to be swayed by their friends than ‘authorities’.

But, of course, all of these things are matters of authority. We all have recognised authorities. Even those we consider to be anti-authoritarian have a recognised authority of some sort. It’s not that people don’t recognise authorities, it’s that their authorities are all different. That means, when it comes to our evangelism, the authorities to which we appeal will need to change depending on the people to whom we’re talking.

So, in a middle class, university educated setting, we appeal to both logic and the academics who are recognised as leading authorities in their field. The educated professor, who is able to show his logical workings, is more likely to be heard than the uneducated person speaking outside of their field. But ultimately, the university educated believe they are relying primarily on their own logic. If we are disagreeing with the educated professor, we have to show logically why we believe they are wrong (and, often, with reference to other educated professors who agree with us). They think they are trained to reason logically, and what is logical to them is that those with the greatest training know the most within their field. So, we must appeal to the right authorities. Their recognised authorities are those with the right training and their own sense of logical reasoning. The gospel, to this group, must be reasoned logically and with reference to those with relevant training. Their highest authority is personal logic, with academics acting as a secondary authority for them.

In a South Asian Muslim setting, we would appeal to what the Qur’an says and what the Bible says. The Qur’an is their highest authority with the imams acting as a secondary authority. If we are to win Muslim people to the gospel, we have to first show the inconsistencies of their accepted authorities and present the consistency of the Bible when laid next to it. We can also take the authorities that they accept and point to what they say about the scriptures.

In fact, Qur’an 5:47 says: ‘And let the People of the Gospel judge by what Allah has revealed therein. And whoever does not judge by what Allah has revealed – then it is those who are the defiantly disobedient.’ The Qur’an expects Christians to judge its own claims by the gospels. At this point, most Muslims argue the gospels have been changed. They offer no evidence for this claim. However, if this statement is true, the manuscripts that Mohammad had access to must have been legitimate because he recognises they are good for judging the truth of the Qur’an. We can compare manuscripts from the time of Mohammad to today and see there has been no change over that period. Therefore, we should – on the Qur’an’s own terms – be able to judge it according to the gospels that we have today. Again, we have to first appeal to the ultimate authority of the Qur’an (as a Muslim would judge it) and then point to the lesser authority of the Bible when we see the Qur’an gives us license to do so. We have to argue by reference to different authorities.

In a white working class British context, the authorities change again. Many suggest there is an anti-authoritarian tendency, meaning reference to educational authorities or laws of the land do not hold much water. The authorities that are recognised in working class communities tend to be relational. There are friends who will be heard and people who have significant stories to tell. These are the higher authorities that carry weight. But there is a secondary authority of personal logic. But what is deemed logical is that which has practical and immediate concrete value.

So, when talking with people in working class white British communities, the people who are most likely to be heard are those who are actually friends with them. Friends are more persuasive than, say, university professors that they have never met. At the same time, what is right tends to be viewed as what appears to have the most practical, immediate credibility. So, talking about abstract ideas of judgement and salvation are not always deemed the most persuasive. It’s not that people can’t engage with those ideas, they are perfectly able to understand them, but the real question for them is what benefit to trusting in Jesus have for me now? Why should I trust in him today? What will cut through best is a friend, who has built up trust with this person, speaking about the present reality of following Jesus and why that should matter today. That doesn’t mean we can’t talk about judgement because, in communities like ours, lives are considerably shorter and people can get behind the idea that death is all around us and can strike at any time. That is an immediate, concrete concern.

There are obviously more nuances to all of this. But the point is that we all have our authorities. We might like to think we are driven entirely by evidence, but the truth is, we all have authorities to which we submit. But those authorities will be different depending on who we are talking to and where they are coming from. The skill is in recognising which authority is at play and then holding out the gospel in a way that chimes with the relevant authority.