Editorial: Critical Thinking

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.

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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.

  1. Let’s not assume the worst about people.
  2. 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.
  3. Let’s be very cautious in assigning motive.
  4. Let’s not take everything personally or make everything personal.
  5. Let’s not get our kicks from criticizing others and mucking around in controversy.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.

  1. 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.

4 thoughts on “Editorial: Critical Thinking

  1. Many great Christian leaders- Ryle and Lloyd-Jones (on the errors of the holiness movement), Spurgeon (on Baptist liberalism), Whitefield (on Wesley’s arminianism) and countless others have been prepared to criticise or question beliefs and practices, even of those acknowledged to be devout Christians but seen to be in error and leading others astray in some relatively minor ways- as distinct from gross heresy.

    I am sure that it is important to try to corerct errors and keep people from being misled. The problem for many of us, especially me, an obscure layman, is doing it in the right spirit and with love. But it must be done at times.

    In general I think The Briefing does this sort of thing very well, and the current edition’s critique of Hillsong is no exception.

  2. It is fair to encourage us to think about things in a new light but I think we as a church in general are championing this new ‘Stand for Truth’ banner in a way that is unbiblical and divisive.

    The truth is that Jesus is the Son of God and it is by grace we are saved (This we must stand firm in).
    The truth is not how we run church. The Acts church shared all their possessions and met every day. Sermons (ie. letters) were written only through inspiration of the Holy Spirit (my point is they didn’t have a Bible). Does anyone follow that model (my point is there is no explicit way to do church)?

    The body of Christ has many parts but one head. It seems to me that the arm likes to criticise a leg and say, ‘why aren’t you holding things like me?’ or the eye says to the nose, ‘why aren’t you seeing the way I see?’

    We need to be more selective with our criticisms and make sure we are not tearing at the church, (the church is the bride of Christ, not one denomination)

    I think we judge hearts and minds alot more than we say we don’t. I see things that I would do differently in the Hillsong church, (not based on me going there), I see things I would do differently in the Anglican church (it was my first christian community for years), but how altogether helpful is it that we publicly look for areas of weakness in others? How helpful is it that during the young spiritual years of my faith, I was taught, ‘charismatics and Hillsong don’t teach the Bible (I’m thinking they must be pseudo-christians)’?

    I believe God is greater than our human weaknesses in understanding. Whatever mistakes we have as churches, as long as it isn’t a mistake on the truth that we come to Christ by faith alone, then I don’t think we need a public criticism or teaching about it.

    God’s word is the only thing that is infallible. We as people are fallible in our understanding of the church and of his word.

  3. The church is primarily the local assembly and the unity of the body of Christ is primarily local. As far as possible Christians in general should be seen to be unified, but for the sake of the gospel message there are times when robust debate needs to take place, and that may include criticism of some beliefs and practices. There are some churches and denominations which have departed seriously from the New Testament and I don’t think believers have to let them get away with that without a comment.

    The doctrine of justification by faith alone, through grace alone, which you mention, is indeed central and churches which really believe that and teach it are not likely to go too wrong in essentials. It’s not the only doctrine which needs guarding, though.

    There are certainly different legitimate ways to “do church”, if I may use such an expression, but even there we can sometimes discuss the question of which ways are most glorifying to God (of first importance in everything we do) and most helpful to those present.

  4. Thank you for this post. It’s great. Can I add a few more cents to it and elaborate…

    ‘Critical Thinking’ as a discipline is the adoption of a critical or objective stance so as to evaluate the worthiness(truth, ethical, correct interpretation, etc), of a truth-claim. It’s more like ‘critique’ than criticism, and it’s definitely not ‘criticizing’if the target is other people.

    Some food critics like what they eat. Some food tastes good. Some critical thinkings think that what they have critiqued is good and right. Some critical thinkers change their own mind because they have thought critically about other people’s arguments and claims.

    ‘Criticising’ is neither compatible nor incompatible with Critical Thinking, but it usually happens when we are not thinking critically. If so, then a ‘theology of criticsm’ is also unrelated to critical thinking, although, maybe it should be. If a theology of criticism adopts Critical Thinking standards then it might also produce a theology of self-criticism, where we discover we had the wrong theology and we end up changing our minds, because we have thought critically.

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