Criticism and the Church

At seminary my roommates had one professor who would sometimes mark their papers “Correct but not Complete”. They hated this because it felt harsh. I remember one of them complaining, “If it is correct what does it mean that it is not complete?” While the answer on the paper may be the right answer, how you arrived at the answer may be the wrong way or insufficient. He was not doing this to spite my friends, but to encourage them to push deeper in their understandings.

I used to hate criticism too. At several places in my life I had bad experiences with criticism. I used to think it was nitpicking. Every time I thought someone was going to be critical of something that I did I would hide or just not do it. During a long period of inner work I learned that not all criticism is bad.

I have come to find two distinct types of criticism in today’s world:

  • Criticism as destruction. We sometimes use criticism to attack others who think different than us. This type of criticism is not an effort to help them grow or understand better. Criticism can and is often used as a weapon to attack the other side. You can see this type of criticism in sarcastic remarks on social media, blog posts that misquote or misrepresent their source material, or just simply putting down someone else to make a point. I see this type of criticism a lot in our world. This is the primary tool of our political parties. Just watch any campaign commercial today. Gone are the classical debates over what is best for society. They have been replaced by soundbites and fear. This is NOT a tool for the church to use. It does not build up the body of Christ.
  • Criticism as formation. This type of criticism helps us to grow as people. It is that old adage of Proverbs 27:17 – “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another” In order to engage in this type of criticism you have to first want the best for the other person. You don’t desire that other person to become more like you, but for that person to grow in their faith and life. This is an important distinction. I am not trying to change you and you are not trying to change me, but we have a relationship built in our desire to see each other grow. Criticism done in this matter asks a lot of questions: “Have you thought about this? What about this? How did you reach this conclusion? What are some things you might be overlooking?” If you have taking a preaching class at seminary this is the type of criticism that is used in the classroom.

I meet frequently with a pastor from a different denomination to be critiqued in the second way. He asks questions about my preaching, my leadership, my spirit, my family, and my spiritual growth. The questions are difficult for me to talk about at times. Some of the questions challenge me to look at my failures. It stretches me in new ways because while I know we may not believe the same things he deeply cares for me and my family. I can open myself up for criticism because I know that he loves me.

The collective who curate and author this blog engage in this type of criticism. This may come as a shock for our readers, but we don’t all believe the same thing when it comes to issues in the church today! We are constantly asking for each other’s opinion on issues, and to be sure we aren’t insulating ourselves too much we ask for criticism from people outside our circles. We know we are not any type of authority on or in the United Methodist Church, but we all share in the desire to see it flourish as a family in Christ.

What I am wondering for my church is if we can learn a better way to criticize?

Can we use our words not as weapons but as tools?

As Ephesians 4:15 reads: “Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ.”

Can we speak the truth in love?

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