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Why So Critical?

Today’s guest post comes to us from Stephen McGarvey. Stephen is editorial director of Salem Web Network (i.e. christianity.com, crosswalk.com, and so on). He tackles a subject that is near and dear to me—using discernment in real life.

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Is there ever a time man can judge another man? I can’t find it in the Bible but my friend says it’s ok to judge false teachers. 

The question above arrived in my inbox a few days ago from one the readers of Christianity.com. This is an issue that arises regularly in our little editorial corner of the world.  Typically, however, the question isn’t phrased as mildly as this member of our audience put it. The more usual way this issue comes to our attention is from an incensed Facebook comment or reader feedback post that sounds more like:

How dare you condemn this fine Christian person whom I love and their film/book/movie/actions/etc? How can you call yourself a Christian and write something so negative?

There are certainly examples of the “negativity” to be found on the Christian websites I am responsible for as well as the sites of others who look to comment on life’s issues from the Christian perspective.

Not too long ago a colleague of mine wrote a review of the film Fireproof. While he acknowledged the film’s positive message, he also noted the film’s technical failings. As someone who is quite knowledgeable about the world of film and charged with writing an assessment of this particular movie, he (as he should) felt that it was important to be truthful to his audience. Unfortunately his truthfulness incurred a great deal of ire from those who felt that his truthful assessment was ultimately negative. And negativity, in a public forum about the work of other brothers and sisters in Christ, was a in and of itself wrong.

When thinking through the issue of “judging” the work and actions of fellow believers I often refer to Ephesians 4, where Paul writes that by “… speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ.” [ESV]

Later in Ephesians 5 verses 10 through 14 Paul exhorts us to:

discern what is pleasing to the Lord. Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. For it is shameful even to speak of the things that they do in secret.  But when anything is exposed by the light, it becomes visible, for anything that becomes visible is light. ” [ESV, emphasis mine]

It seems that a natural implication of texts like these is that debate and discussion play an important role in the growth of Christians. In his notes on this passage in the English Standard Version Study Bible, S.M. Baugh of Westminster Seminary California says the word “exposed” used here means “either to reprove or to convince through argument or discussions.”  The Apostle Paul here is telling the Christians in Ephesus to be discerning, to use their own wisdom to apply the principles of Christianity to, as Baugh says in his notes, the “concrete issues of their lives.”

In the life of the Christian believer, critical thinking might also be called discernment, as verse 10 above asserts. And the Bible is full of admonitions about the importance of wisdom and discernment.

When giving instruction for the Church in I Timothy 5, Paul contends there is even a time when it is appropriate to rebuke the elders of a church who persist in sin. That sin could certainly include false statements or teaching that doesn’t conform to the truth of Scripture. If it is at times appropriate to contend with our own church elders for the truth, would it not even more so be appropriate to debate with people outside the realm of our spiritual leadership?

Of course, the way we exhibit our discernment is important as well. It should not be the desire of Christians who comment publically on culture and current events to appear offensive. Indeed, we should take great care to speak the truth with grace.

In the middle of a Leviticus 19 list of requirements for the people of Israel, God condemns slandering your neighbor but goes on to say in the very next verse, “You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason frankly with your neighbor, lest you incur sin because of him.” Even as the Lord rebukes the sin of slander, He seems to make a distinction between a spreading of lie, and contending for the truth. And certainly, as we “reason frankly” we must remember Paul’s admonition in Ephesians 4 to be “speaking the truth in love.” The manner in which we contend for the truth with one another is important too.

In his notable essay On Criticism, C.S. Lewis recognizes the role of those who public assess the art and work of others:

When we are criticizing a kind of work we have never attempted ourselves, we must realize that we do not know how such things are written and what is difficult to ease to do in them and how particular faults occur.

This is why exhibiting grace in our criticism is so important. Lewis is speaking to the matter of literary criticism here but the principle has a broader application. A critic may not have ever made a movie but must say how he thinks it is flawed; he may not have ever pastored a church yet must comment about the teaching of particular church leader who teaches contrary to the Scripture.

Lewis clarifies his caution above by continuing on to say,

I don’t mean at all that we must never criticize work of a kind we have never done. On the contrary we mush do nothing but criticize it. We may analyze and weigh its virtues and defects.

It is up to Christian readers, who don’t have a microphone of significance at their disposal, to choose to read from the fray of public commenters on a particular topic, those who are trustworthy and also speak the truth in love.

One of my favorite quotes from a Pixar film comes from my least favorite Pixar film (there I go being critical, and of a studio whose movies I typically adore), Ratatouille. At the film’s conclusion the grizzled restaurant reviewer Anton Ego poignantly sums up his role as a critic:

In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face, is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so. But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new…

As Christian “critics” our take away from this statement is not to unequivocally endorse new things, new ideas, and new practices across our culture simply for the sake of newness. Rather, we should not be afraid to speak positively of new ways the truths of Christianity can be seen in the world around us. We should be unafraid to speak negatively about what we see that is counter to what we know to be true.

If we are unduly harsh or condescending in our assessments, then yes, they are of little meaning. But when we are gracious and thoughtful in our critiques, examining the item or issue in question next to the light of Scripture, then the reflection we create is of great value. To facilitate such conversation among those truly striving to know that truth, is a high calling indeed.

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Stephen McGarvey is the editorial director of the Salem Web Network, which operates a suite of Christian websites for Salem Communications, including Crosswalk.com, Christianity.com, Oneplace.com and BibleStudyTools.com. He has previously worked for BreakPoint with Chuck Colson, the Home School Legal Defense Assoc. and has been regular contributor to byFaith Magazine. Stephen has never written a book, directed a film, or recorded an album but he has read hundreds of novels, watched more movies than he can count and listened to untold hours of music, all the while attempting to assess this art with the truths of Scripture.