The Importance of Criticism in the Church
This is now the third introduction I’ve written for this article and I’m sure that once this article is published I’ll have wished that I wrote a fourth. The fact of the matter is none of my introductions were good enough for me.
Few things ever are.
I criticize everything, my parenting, my preaching, even my ability to play board games. To me, this is natural. It’s not a habit of self-hatred but a desire to be better at everything, and this mindset is carried over into everything I am a part of, including the church.
The topic of church criticism has been a touchy one for as long as I remember. Some are all for it, citing overall improvement as their reasoning. Others vehemently oppose public criticism of the church claiming that it ruins the image of the church in the eyes of weaker Christians or nonbelievers (more on that point below). While both sides have valid points, I am solidly pro-criticism, and believe it not only to be good for the church, but vital for its success.
What Criticism of the Church Is Not
Before we break down why criticism is so important, I want to answer some of the issues others seem to have with articles of this nature.
Articles on church criticism are not seeking to place blame on past generations. The word “arrogant” is used in regards to these criticism articles a lot. Older readers see these articles, often written by younger writers, as posts on how this generation has finally figured everything out. Some of the time that might be true, but most of the time the mindset of the writer (from my experience) is not that we have everything finally figured out, but that as things change, we need to change with them to some degree. These articles are more than often not an attack on older Christians.
Articles on church criticism are not a critique of Jesus and His bride. This criticism is never levied against Paul when he writes to the Corinthians about how they can be a better church. That’s because we know that Corinth was not living up to the expectations that Jesus has for the church. When Paul criticizes them, he is merely trying to push them to rise up to the bar Jesus set for the church. These articles are attempting to do the same by addressing things we perceive as shortcomings in reaching that bar. We love the church and want to reach the bar that Jesus set, that’s why we point out the flaws we believe need to be worked on.
Articles on church criticism are not a sensationalist ploy for blog traffic. Some have sought to undermine the valid critiques brought up in these articles by suggesting that the writers are only putting them out because they want to drive a lot of traffic to their website. Comments like that are judgments of the heart, judgments that Christians have no business making. Extend the benefit of the doubt to your fellow child of God and assume they have the best intentions in their content (“Do unto others…”).
Lastly, articles on church criticism are just a way for cynics to rail against the church. For some this is an absolutely true statement, but to assume that every criticism article is just an opportunity to rail against the church is far too dismissive. The question I always ask in regards to these articles is “does the author provide a solution to the problems they proposed?” If they don’t, they’re just looking to rail, if they do, they are worth hearing out.
Criticism Forces Us to Reevaluate
Criticism is good because it forces us to reevaluate. When it comes to the various practices of the church (worship, outreach, etc.), there are some things that God has specifically legislated, and others that He has left up to us to discern how to carry out. Those human-made decisions are the things I criticize. As culture changes, approaches need to change. As generations come and go, methods needs to come and go. As dialogue changes, churches need to adapt. When those things do not happen, these articles on criticism pop-up begging us to look inwards and make the necessary changes. Self-evaluation is ultimately where change comes from. People on the outside of Christianity can tell us what they believe we need to change, and they may even be right, but we will never listen to them if we don’t take the time to challenge and critique ourselves.
Criticism Forces Us to Address Specific Issues
It’s no secret that many in our culture view Christians as bigoted, hateful people riding on moral high horses. This criticism from the outside presents us with two options: We can deny the monikers that nonbelievers bestow on us and write them off as misguided, or we can evaluate their claims and see whether or not their criticisms of us are valid. Those that write articles criticizing the church are often doing just that, taking the criticisms of those on the outside and funneling them into a location where Christians will be forced to deal with them.
One of the biggest objections to articles on church criticism is that it will paint the church in a negative light to those outside. That objection ignores the fact that to many people, Christians are already perceived in a negative way. Knowing that we’re viewed in such a way I ask this question: is it better for those outside to see us admit we are flawed and working to get better or is it better to portray ourselves as flawless and perfectly put together? Pretending we have everything perfectly put together is not only dishonest, it affirms the suspicions of inauthenticity the culture already has concerning Christians.
Criticism forces us to look at how we handle various issues, from salvation to evangelism to how we respond to issues of the day. If we never criticize ourselves we continue to spin our wheels and watch as the world progresses onward.
Consider what James has to say on this matter:
“But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing.” (James 1:22-25)
I’m afraid we spend too much of our time telling other people to look into the mirror of God’s word and see how their life doesn’t reflect what God wants for them and not enough time checking ourselves out to see how much better we should be doing.
Can I offer some advice? Anytime you read an article, try to extend to that brother or sister the benefit of the doubt. Even if you don’t agree with what’s been written, you owe it to your fellow Christian to be respectful. As others extend to you the word of God, in any form, and give advice on how to conform to it more, be willing to listen, understand, and take time in your response to them (James 1:19-21).
This is something we could all do a little better.