Criticism can reveal faults in ideas and actions, with the potential to save many situations, but all too often criticism burdens or breaks relationships. How does criticism fit in Christian life and what kind of mindset do we need to be in when we set out to criticise?
Criticism of Leaders
While engaging in criticism is an important (but difficult to balance) aspect of many relationships, it seems to be most intensely focused on our leaders. In my church context, when debates get stronger, so does the sense of harshness towards our leaders. We appointed our leaders with an aim for them to challenge us. I believe that the church I am a part of made a bad call in the way they understand the distinctions between services, churches and the Church.
However, I think the lay members of the church (including myself at times) harmed our leaders throughout our debates. Relationships in the church are still healing after several years.
Weighing down our leaders will not help them to perform their roles, but we should not stand idly when they might be moving into error. We have duties to keep each other accountable for everyone’s good. Even though criticism brought significant issues to the health of my church, I think the real problems were parallel to the criticism, not in the act of criticism itself.
Room to be Harsh?
There are certainly times for criticism. Paul wrote harshly against Peter at one point saying “But when Cephas [Peter] came to Antioch, I [Paul] opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned.” (Galatians, chapter 2 verse 11, ESV trans.)
In this case, Paul’s confrontation with Peter was important because Peter was undermining the gospel through his hypocritical actions (Peter was maintaining separations between Jews and Gentiles due to pressure from one of Christianity's earliest heresies). There is not much detail on what their discussion was like, but it seems from the wording here that Paul was direct and did not hide behind false pleasantries. Criticism does not always need to be padded or without sting.
Paul’s objective was for Peter’s good. Paul wanted to correct Peter’s error, both for Peter and for the wider Church who were influenced by Peter. We should try to maintain proportionality in our criticism and, where we can, understand when we ought to be gentle in our words.
Notably, they had already understood that both of them were committed to serving Jesus, with a level of trust that may have allowed them to be blunt towards one another with less risk of causing harm.
Towards Unity, Not Division
Our criticism of each other should be carried out in a way that fits with what Jesus’ said to his disciples “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” (John, chapter 15 verse 12, ESV trans.)
Criticising in love does not preclude strong words, but strong words tend to push us away from love. We need to be careful in times of disagreement that we do not lose love—that we do not act in a way that will be held against each other.
Perhaps like Paul and Peter, we can develop the groundwork in our relationships for the kind of trust that will help us to be quick to forgive grievances.
We should not be seeking division. Paul’s writing to Timothy warns against being quarrelsome:
And the Lord's servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil… (2 Timothy chapter 2 verses 24-26, ESV trans.)
While I would normally interpret this as being directed at how Christians should act towards non-Christians, similar principles can be applied across a wider range of contexts. How would it seem if we were kind to outsiders, but quarrelsome within?
Inconsistency in care for each other could undermine the faith for both new and old Christians. It could even change our actions from seeming genuine into feeling like a kind of trap.
God is Attentive to our Conflicts
God takes conflicts between his people very seriously. Jesus goes so far as to say:
But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment […] So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. (Matthew, chapter 5 verses 21, 23 and 24, ESV trans.)
Jesus seems to be saying that having right relations with each other is as important (or even more so) than some of our worship towards God. Though of course, following Jesus’ command could easily be taken to be a form of worship in itself.
When we criticise each other, we should strive not to make antagonists but rather to drive each other together. Unity of thinking born out of rigorous consideration is far stronger than unity formed through passive acceptance.
We need criticism to keep each other on track, but we need to operate out of the right motives, and with hearts that are quick to forgive and mend any harm that might have been made through our actions towards each other.
By doing this, we can show the changes God has made in us, forming us into a people who follow Jesus rather than our prideful agendas. If we can recognise this in each other, we will be even freer to challenge and test our ideas and actions and be made better by it.
Alexander Gillespie is an Arts Honours graduate of the University of Sydney. Particular fields of interest include Nineteenth-Century migration history, conceptual philosophy, social policy and ecclesiology. He currently lives in Sydney with his wife and enjoys researching and writing.