Constructive Criticism (Part II)

Good+Choice+Bad+Choice

Do all things without grumbling and disputing (Phil 2:14).

In the last post, I made the case that genuine “constructive criticism” is possible for believers in Jesus who are filled and empowered by Holy Spirit God to love and obey the Word.  As many theologians from the past have said, “What God commands His people to do, God enables His people to do.”  And to remind us of the immensely deep gospel context of Philippians 2:14, consider this quote from the Puritan Powerhouse Pastor John Owen:

“To presume that what God commands, we have power in and of ourselves to do, is to make the cross and grace of Christ of none effect.”  

Amen Brother Owen.  Preach on!  The command to the Church to “do all things without grumbling and disputing” flows out of the humble condescension of our Lord Jesus who sacrificed Himself on the cross in our place, and is now raised and exalted to the highest position.  His perfect work for us and in us is the ground and hope and power of any good work we do or ever attempt.

So why then do so many of us believers flub this constructive criticism up?  Why can’t we seem to walk the line between an edifying critique and grumbling / disputing?  Per Webster’s definition, to criticize someone or something constructively is to make judgments about the merits of a performance and express them in such a way that the recipient can infer conclusions, feel encouraged and see the way towards improvement.  Easy for him to say!

Let’s get practical.  To begin, we should notice that to criticize is to judge.  We cannot criticize or offer a critique apart from making judgments and using discernment.  What was good about the performance?  What could have been better?  What good do you see in a fellow believer?  What areas for improvement do you think exist?  What changes might be needed?  And how can I be a part of the solution towards improvement?  This is criticism 101.

Jesus told His followers how to judge one another.  Though pundits often quote Matthew 7:1 to try and rebuke all judgments by all people, in its context Jesus was actually instructing His people in how to offer constructive criticism!  There’s much for us to learn from the Master here.

“Do not judge so that you will not be judged.  For in the way you judge, you will be judged; and by your standard of measure, it will be measured to you.  Why do you look at the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?  Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ and behold, the log is in your own eye?  You hypocrite!  First take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye” (Matt 7:1-5).

Several principles emerge:

  • Jesus is manifestly not forbidding His people to ever criticize or make any judgments about one another.  See also Luke 17:1-4 to reinforce this truth.
  • Jesus insists His people use the right standard to assess one another.  We know that standard is the infallible Word of God given to us in the Bible.  If you are expressing an opinion but do not have any biblical texts to support it, then make it clear you are merely giving your opinion.  If you are expressing a personal preference not supported by explicit Scripture references, or not backed up by a Biblical principle, then say so.  This kind of honesty really helps ground a critique and guides the discussion in more productive and brotherly ways.  There’s freedom for disagreement in matters of opinion and preferences!  And room to learn from each other!
  •  Never criticize anyone or any ministry unless and until you are scrutinizing your own heart, mind, and life in the exact same way.  My Dad often told me when I first started in ministry, that in his experience people in the church often accuse others of doing what they themselves are doing.  The critique is a cloak.  A mask.  Jesus confronts this very tendency!  A hypocrite is an actor. Hiding behind a mask.  So before we level any criticism at all, we must be searching out our own hearts for similar sins or mistakes or needs for improvement.  Ask yourself, “Do I have anyone looking for this same sin or tendency or pattern in my life who is holding me accountable?  Am I confessing and repenting of any known sin?  Am I willing to admit those sins to the one I am criticizing?  Do I have any real authority, experience or expertise to offer this critique?”
  • We all have specks and logs in our eyes.  Notice Jesus assumes every single one of His followers either have logs or specks!  Those symbolize specific sins or sinful habits / patterns.  But how do we know which one has a massive 2×4 protruding and which one has just a bit of sawdust?  Easy.  If it’s in my life, it’s a log.  If it’s in my brother’s life, it’s a speck.  Do you see how gospel-centered this all is?  If I’m not viewing myself as the chief sinner in the relationships I have in the church, I really should be keeping my criticisms to myself.  Or, better yet, aiming my criticisms at myself!
  • We as a church family should be seeking grace from God to deal with sin in our own lives and help our brothers and sisters deal with it in their lives too.  The goal, according to Jesus, is to “see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.”  And so we must give criticism very carefully, and very rarely.  And we must receive it humbly.  That’s surely what Jesus has in mind when He continues the instruction with these words:

“Do not give what is holy to dogs, and do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces.”  

Wow.  I do not want to be the dog or pig in a church!  God help me receive criticism humbly.  Thankfully.  Knowing I, like all Christians, have blind spots.  God help me not turn and tear a precious brother or sister by my aggressive defensiveness.  God forgive when I have in the past.  God give grace to enable me to seek forgiveness from the torn family member.  God help me receive holy, constructive criticism well, so that I might also give it well.  God fill our church with this very spirit.

Is it any wonder Jesus then concludes this block of instruction on constructive criticism with an exhortation to persistent prayer?!  See verses 7-11.  We have no prayer of offering a godly critique apart from prayer.  And the concluding principle of Christ is . . .

“In everything, therefore, treat people the same way you want them to treat you, for this is the Law and the Prophets” (v. 12).

Next post will help us with some practical ways to avoid grumbling in the Church.  A criticism meant for only a certain person or ministry far too often grows into grumbling, doesn’t it?  Join me next week for more.

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Stephen Cox - Thank you Pastor for reminding us of these critical truths which will either tear down of build up if not engaged in in the Spirit of Truth and attitude of needful humilty. The story of the unforgiving servant who was forgiven his dept, but then refused to forgive his fellow servant his dept reminds me that God really does expect us to treat each other as He has treated us, graciously. When we judge unjustly we are not acting toward another as God has us, and it stirs His displeasure greatly. Luke 18:21 to 35. 🙂

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