To be frank, putting this issue together was tough. That’s largely because the main article, written by yours truly, is in places fairly critical of others and their ministry—with good reason, mind you, but the point still stands. Despite what you might think, calling others out is not something that comes easily to me, nor do I enjoy it.
So why bother? In fact, isn’t the whole exercise uncharitable at best, even un-Christian? Is it ever ok to criticize other Christian movements or churches?
The short story is that I think it is, at times, ok to criticize.1 Paul’s example shows this can be against both ‘false teachers’ outside the flock (e.g. 1 Tim 4:1-10), and close brothers who are in the wrong (e.g. Gal 2:11). The question is less about whether we can criticize (and praise) and more to do with the content and manner of that criticism, and what we do with it afterwards.
Kevin De Young said it well when he wrote about engaging with other Christians with whom we disagree, often strongly, on matters of significance:
We need a more careful theology of criticism. There are several observations all Christians should be able to agree on, even if they sometimes pull us in opposite directions.
- Let’s not assume the worst about people.
- Let’s not shame those who aren’t immediately credulous when someone with a history of bad thinking says something that could be construed as maybe okay.
- Let’s be very cautious in assigning motive.
- Let’s not take everything personally or make everything personal.
- Let’s not get our kicks from criticizing others and mucking around in controversy.
- Let’s avoid facile condemnations of all criticism, realizing that the statement itself is a criticism and the Bible is full of heroes who had a lot of bones to pick.
- Let’s accept that in this fallen world only the Lord can fully sort some things out and we don’t have to go twelve rounds in every conflict.
I’ve attempted to follow those principles here as I engage with the Hillsong conference and church (published here May 6th). As Chris Swann puts it in his article (May 20th), my aim is to remain anchored in Christ, and to avoid having a combative stance simply by default.
More broadly, this Briefing issue revolves around engaging others: whether in critical thinking about the good and bad practices of a church and their message, or in everyday conversations where you’re called on to provide an answer for the hope that you have. Phil Campbell has written an article on engagement of a different sort for those who preach, whether weekly or occasionally: he wants you to kill off boring preaching from your repertoire (April 3rd). I also spoke with Mark Gilbert about his new book of personal stories from reformed Roman Catholics, and how that might be fruitful in engaging with Catholic friends, family, or neighbours (April 17th).
In all of these situations, our aim ought to be to honour Jesus, securely anchored by his promises and in his love, sure of our firm foundation as we imitate his faithfulness, grace, and humility.
- For some detail behind this I commend to you Tony Payne’s two-part article on ‘Fighting the good fight’, The Briefing #353, Feb 2008, and #355, April 2008; along with Don Carson’s ‘On Abusing Matthew 18’, Themelios 36/1, April 2011. ↩