The word “apologetics” is based on a Greek word used in the Bible. (If you want to dig a little deeper, follow these links to see the occurrences of the Greek “apologia”, and the related “apologeomai”.)
The word is primarily used by Paul, though Peter uses it on one notable occasion. In most cases the author is referring to verbal arguments given in court to present a defense. The apostles had plenty of opportunity to practice this. Sometimes they had to make their case in court, sometimes before Jewish or Roman officials, and other times they had to defend themselves to the very people they sought to reach.
Notably, Peter uses the word apologia in a somewhat different, though related sense. He tells his readers1 that they ought to always be prepared to make a defense. But this defense is not one intended to keep them out of jail. This is a defense of the hope that is within is, namely – the gospel. In this context, it seems clear that the instruction applies to us as well. We ought to be ready, willing, and capable of giving verbal arguments to explain why we hold the beliefs that we do.
This idea is confirmed when we look at the actions of the early church. If you look at the life of Jesus, his apostles, and those who came immediately after, you will not notice them calling people to blind faith, but rather to believe in Christ because of the evidence. Jude gives a similar instruction to his audience, saying that they ought to “contend for the faith”2. That doesn’t sound passive. That sounds like something we have to get out there and do.
While these examples speak of verbal arguments, that doesn’t tell the whole story. There are a number of ways to “provide a defense”, in a manner of speaking. To the hungry, a plate of food is the best defense against the perception that there is no hope. To the grieving, the presence of a friend is the best defense against feelings of despair and loneliness. To the one who believes that Christians are self-centered hypocrites, those who truly love their neighbors as Jesus instructed present the best defense.
These examples are not arguments, and they are not the gospel, but they do serve to defend the gospel. We ought to do all of them, as appropriate. But despite what St. Francis never said, we should use words. Do help people. Do love people. Feed, clothe, and comfort. But feed the mind as well. People have questions, and we ought to have answers. If we don’t, who will? And if they don’t hear, how will they know?