In the previous two posts, we’ve been trying to wrap our heads around the concept of genuinely constructive criticism. We looked to Old Man Webster to provide some basic definitions. But most importantly, we have looked to Jesus to teach us how to help our brothers and sisters struggle hard against sin for the glory of God.
Like everything in the Christian life, constructive criticism is only possible in submission to the presence and power of God’s Holy Spirit applying the Word to our hearts, minds and lives. But possible it is, praise the Lord! And I strongly suspect the reason why I, and so many of you, have dorked this thing up for so many years is precisely because we go about our day-to-day lives walking not in the Spirit but in the flesh. Living by our own power. Using our own wit, will and wisdom. And that produces fruit of the flesh. In the case of offering constructive criticism, the particular fruits of the flesh that blossom are “Enmities, strife, jealousy, angry outbursts, disputes, dissensions and factions” (Galatians 5:20). Haven’t we all seen these things result from our efforts at criticism, or our own reception of criticism?
Well, I don’t know about you, but I have noticed some trends in my 43 years on earth. Trends that have dragged my initially well-meant criticism into the trash bin of “grumbling and disputing” (Phil 2:14). Here’s a bullet list of thoughts and questions that I pray may assist us in discerning how to both give and receive criticism biblically.
- Is the issue at stake a sin? If not, I remind you once again to state up front to the person you are offering an opinion or a preference. If a sin is the issue, follow Matthew 18:15-18 and Luke 17:1-4.
- If you are noticing something that you think needs some improvement in a brother or sister or church ministry, spend some time praying about it before talking to ANYONE else about it. God has a way of giving good and right perspective. I can’t number how many times this one simple practice has kept me from saying a word to anyone as I come to realize the issue isn’t really worth it.
- Are you talking about the issue to someone other than the person who should be receiving the critique? The Bible calls this “gossip, backbiting” or “stirring discord.” Repent! Confess your sin to God, and then go directly to the appropriate person and seek his or her forgiveness for talking about your judgment / critique behind his or her back. You may not think you’re stirring discord by discussing with other church friends the improvements you’d like to see in a church minister or ministry, and indeed, your motives may be pure. But I know from personal experience, sadly, that where two or three are gathered to discuss their critiques of ministers and ministry, there a faction arises among them.
- God hates one who stirs discord (Prov. 6:19). God says, “Reject a factious man after a first and second warning, knowing that such a man is perverted and is sinning, being self-condemned” (Titus 3:10-11). Friends, this is more serious than we have let on in the church. One of the sins I most regret is a time in my life when I was dissatisfied with the direction of a ministry and I sometimes offered a criticism to others who had some stake in the ministry, instead of going directly to the right person to hear my critique. I was building a coalition, even if ignorantly. And I now hate myself for it. By God’s grace I have repented and strongly desire to not slip into that trap again. Oh, how I need Jesus! Oh, how I need the Spirit’s wisdom every day.
- DO NOT SHARE A CRITICISM with anyone other than the proper recipient. This is the only way I know of practically to “Do all things without grumbling or disputing” (Phil 2:14). Believe me, if you go offer an humble criticism to a brother, sister or ministry leader, he or she has probably been thinking of it or hearing a bit about it from others too. Let God do the work in that person. If God wants to get a message to His people, I have found He often hammers it home repeatedly via various people and means. Trust Him. No need for you to check and see how many in the church agree with you. Just pray, keep the matter between you and God, and then if you sense Divine permission, go offer the criticism. Then trust God.
- Criticize rarely. Praise frequently. Remember, criticism does not always need to be negative! If you’re going to be hyper-critical, then make it the encouraging kind of criticism!
- When you are criticized, analyze very carefully how you responded. This often takes me weeks of prayerful reflection to assess how I reacted and responded to criticism. It always reveals much about my heart. Where was I too defensive? And why? Where did I disagree? And why? Did I listen more than I talked? If not, why not? Wow. Honestly analyzing how I received a critique seriously exposes pride, jealousy, envy and idols in my life. Oh for grace to receive criticism more humbly.
- If you think the critique is of such a serious nature that it may well explode, you might ask a neutral third party to sit in on it. God typically uses that to calm and humble everyone in the room.
- Nail down what really matters in a church, and use your Bibles to do it! This may well be the best advice I can give when it comes to criticizing something or someone in the church. Knowing what hills are worth dying on, or even worth debating, is so important. I have seen people that were precious to me leave the church over issues that I considered small preference-type things. Or over misunderstandings. Or over a few things in a ministry not being done precisely to suit them. It saddens me. Church is not a place for us to exalt our egos, our preferences, or our opinions. Church exists to exalt its Living Head – the Lord Jesus Christ. And how shall we do that if we are “grumbling and disputing?” Especially over personal preferences.
No doubt you could add many more tips and godly techniques. But I hope these at least get us headed down the right road as a church. May God unite us around our commitment to seeing His Gospel penetrate our community and world. For His glory in Christ alone. And may He be exalted even in the way we give and receive criticism.