Learning to be a Grateful Critic
“What do you think about the whole Mark Driscoll fiasco?” “Did you know Tim Keller believes in _____ ?” “What do you think about John Piper inviting ______ to his Conference?” Over the past decade, I’ve been asked these and other related questions too many times to recall. This is not always a bad thing. Caring about what happens in the wider church is something that we see played out on the pages of the New Testament; but, the way that people tend to line up on either side of these questions to either uncritically defend or hyper-critically condemn well-known pastors/theologians has become a matter of grave concern to me. In part, because I often find myself falling off into one or the other of these two pits. I rarely come across that wise someone who I would call “a grateful critic.”
On the one hand, it is not wrong to be critical. A love for biblical truth and practice demands that there should be a discerning and appropriately critical response to error in the writing, teaching and actions of public figures. We’re commanded to “test all things” (1 Thess. 5:21). On the other hand, there can be a hyper-critical, vitriolic and mean-spirited posture taken on in the name of discernment. I sometimes get the sense that hyper-critical people want to see men with public ministries fall. I know this is true because I know that I have had manifestations of this in the recesses of my own heart. In the same way, it is not wrong to be an appreciative fan of popular pastors/theologians; but, it is wrong to idolize them to the point of being unwilling to criticize them (or to receive criticisms of them from others). I can’t tell you how many times I’ve raised a much guarded criticism about a certain aspect of some well-known minister’s theology or methodology, only to have a disapproving glance or phrase shot back at me. I also know this because I have caught myself doing this very thing. Instead of adopting an exclusively critical or an entirely affirmative attitude towards our popular figures in Evangelical and Calvinistic circles, I would suggest that all of us learn to become grateful critics of popular pastors/theologians. Here is what I mean by “a grateful critic:”*
1. The Scriptures teach us to be thankful for men who have clay feet. We can honor them for all the gifts and graces of God that He uses in them for His glory. The Scriptures teach us to give thanks to God for faithful ministers of the Gospel and to give them the honor that is due unto them. While condemning preacher idolatry and personality-driven factions in the church, the Apostle Paul speaks of “the brother who is famous among all the churches for his preaching of the gospel” (2 Cor. 8:18). Additionally, we are told that elders who rule well should be “considered worthy of double honor” (1 Tim. 5:17). While this probably refers to financial remuneration in the context, it surely includes expressing gratitude for their ministries. It’s right that we should be grateful for the ministries of men that God has raised up and used for the spiritual nourishment and well-being of our souls. We should be grateful to God, first and foremost, for raising them up. We should then be grateful to them for pouring out their lives in the service of Christ.
There can sometimes be a false humility that manifests itself under the guise that men are not to be honored because we are not to praise men. This is, of course, a functional impossibility. Everyone who I have ever heard make such an audacious claim still functionally honors those who think like them. The problem is that much of our admiration for men is idolatry and not biblical gratitude. We all tend to idolize others in whom we see things that we think we see in ourselves (or wish that we saw in ourselves). When they succeed in championing our causes we praise them; when they fail, we criticize them because they have let down something that we have idolized. All of us gives honor to others.
2. The Scriptures teach us to be critical of our heroes because they have clay feet. The Scriptures teach us to be biblically critical. Every faithful minister engaged in public ministry should want to be held to biblical standards and scrutiny by those by whom they are heard. The Apostle Paul put himself and his teaching under the scrutiny of men when he said, “Even if we, or an Angel from heaven, preach any other Gospel to you than that which you received let him be accursed.” The Holy Spirit commended the Bereans for searching the Scriptures after receiving the words of an Apostle (Acts 17:10-11). An uncritical approbation of ministers is never taught or modeled in Scripture. In fact, even among the Apostles this principle held true. When Peter denied the Gospel, the Apostle Paul withstood him to his face. This was not a hot-headed overreaction by Paul. It was the model response to a real perversion of the Gospel–even when it came from a dear brother who has been laboring faithfully with him in the Gospel. Sadly, this is something that we are increasingly losing sight of in our day because of “the cult of niceness.” Surely the Apostle Peter deserved honor–even though he is repeatedly shown to have had sinful weaknesses that are rightly criticized. The Scriptures air the dirty laundry of our heroes for this very reason. We must come to terms with this.
3. The Scriptures teach us that the criticism should fit the offense. We certainly learn this from “the-punishment-fits-the-crime” nature of the Mosaic Law; but we also see it in how Jesus confronted and corrected others. He didn’t treat His disciples with the severity with which he confronted the Pharisees, Sadducees, Scribes and Lawyers in Israel. That being said, He didn’t gloss over the disciples erroneous attitudes and actions. In the same way, we learn from the Apostolic example the measure of criticism we should use in our approach to error in doctrine and practice among false teachers in the church and among brothers in the church. Distinguishing between the two categories is absolutely fundamental for us. We can err by being too severe in our criticism of a brother; and, we can err on being too soft in our criticism of a false teacher. We must labor to know the Scriptures well enough to distinguish between errors that must be met with severity and errors that can be handled with loving confrontation. This takes serious meditation on the examples set down for us in the Scriptures.
4. The Scriptures teach us to work through proper channels of criticism and to speak when necessary. This is not always easy to navigate. On the one hand, the Bible tells us to go privately to a brother if he has sinned against us personally (Matt. 18:15) and not to bring an accusation against an elder except on the evidence of two or three witnesses (1 Tim. 5:19); but, on the other hand, it tell us that there are times for public confrontation and and that we are to rebuke those who persist in sin (whether moral or doctrinal) publicly so that they learn to fear (1 Tim. 5:20). One thing that we do need to learn is that public ministry is exactly that–public. This means that it open game for–and sometimes calls for–public criticism. After all, when ministers decide to pursue a public ministry they are saying ‘yes’ to all the vulnerability, accountability, criticism and scrutiny that comes with that. If it is true that every pastor is in a fish bowl, this is exponentially so with regard to public ministry. Even if Carl Trueman is right when he says, “Blessed are the celebrities, for they will be rigorously held to a much lower standard of behavior than the rest of us,” the reality is that those engaged in public ministry have their every word and action scrutinized. This is not altogether a bad thing; but, it does not mean that we always need to speak to every controversy in the public square. A very wise friend of mine always reminds me to ask myself, “Am I the person that NEEDS to write on or speak to this issue.” This has, many times, kept me from spending time, energy and reputation on things that I did not need to criticize openly.
5. The Scripture teach us to think the best of others until they give us reason not to think the best of them. I am a very skeptical person. I tend to think the worst of others–partly because I know my own corrupt heart, partly because I believe what the Bible says about the depravity of men and partly because I often relapse to a judgmental spirit. The Scriptures are clear that “it is the glory of man to overlook a transgression,” that “love covers a multitude of sin;” that “love keeps no record of wrongs;” and that “love believes all things.” Surely, if we apply this to anyone it ought to be to those men who have faithfully preached the Gospel “more or less purely” (WCF XXV.4) in the public square.
6. The Scriptures teach us to recognize our own proclivities and labor to grow biblically in areas of weakness. I have already told you that I am, by nature, a critical person. I fight against an unguarded use of criticism because of this. When I read the Proverbs, I find a sweet balancing of wise actions. If I tend to vent emotions, answer things before I hear the matter and dominate conversations then I need the to learn the wisdom of God in those Proverbs that speak against such folly. If I tend to retreat, avoid controversy and keep silent when I ought to speak, I need those Proverbs that speak to that manifestation of folly. We have to be honest about our own weaknesses. This only happens as we look into the mirror of God’s word and consider who we are in light of what He has said. This is the most important aspect of learning to be a grateful critic–yet it is also the most difficult. After all, no one said that being conformed to the image of Jesus would be easy. Thankfully God gives us grace to grow, repent and learn. May He do so for all of us as we labor to see His Kingdom come, side by side with those to whom He has given public ministries.
*Jared Wilson, in his recent post in his post Re: Mark Driscoll, has given us a helpful model of what it looks like to be a grateful critic.
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