When I first considered writing Christian articles/columns or a blog online the following thought came to mind: “Wouldn’t it be neat to visit different churches and then write a column rating that church? I could tell others what was cool about the church, where they were on the straight path, where they were straying, where tradition was overriding biblical teaching, where they had adopted too much of the culture, etc.” Yes, it came into my mind that it might be cool to be a church critic! I could give each church thumbs up or down, perhaps a series of stars, a Good Biblical Seal of Approval. What bizarre ideas!
Of course those thoughts were not of God; they were a temptation, an attack of the enemy hoping that I might work to further underscore and encourage divisions within the Body of Christ. Bill and Anabel Gillham, in their ministry series The Victorious Christian Life, point out that the enemy often speaks to us in our own voice. After all, if temptations came to us in a voice other than our own we might ask, “Hey, who is this talking, anyway?” But when the voice arises from within that sounds exactly like my own, I’m much more tempted to listen. I’m thankful that I realized the idea as folly. But for me, and for others, like temptations are common. So perhaps I will not become the “friendly neighborhood on-line church critic,” but many times I will still live my life as one. For this reason I am writing this piece as my confession, perhaps as a bit of an explanation. Hopefully it will speak to others like me (as well as those who have to deal with us). Lastly, I would hope that the reader, my brothers and sisters in Christ, might offer their counsel, insight, and wisdom to encourage those who struggle as I do in this area.
First I want to say that there may be something good and true at the core in the life of the church critic. People like me may have a gift of discernment. They may be legitimate prophetic voices in a church when it begins straying from biblical truth. (Prophetic in the sense that they can say, “This is what the Lord says in His Word,” from the Bible, not from some voice booming from heaven or from some special revelation.) Unfortunately, as with many false religions, a core of truth can be covered with layers and layers of sediment and falsehood. Carnality can raise its ugly head in the heart of a believer; a core love for the truth and orderly worship (1 Corinthians 14:40) may be tainted with self-centeredness or a desire for control.
It hurts me to confess these things because I struggle in this area. I would much rather keep my sins quiet. I have a burden and desire inside for everything to be right, for every word spoken in a church to be God’s truth; I see every deviation as a breach in the proverbial dam that needs to be plugged. Yet I also have a heart that distrusts authority. When I struggle with being a critic and pray to God about it, the answer that often comes to me comes in the form of the following verse: “Who are you to pass judgment on another’s servant? Before his own master he stands or falls. And he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand” (Romans 14:4). I won’t now get into when we are allowed to judge and when we are not. 1 Peter 4:17 might begin that debate. The point is that Romans 14:4 comes to mind when I wrestle with God about my critical spirit.
Pastors and Christian friends who know me know these tendencies of mine. I greatly appreciate the love and patience they have shown me over the years. One of my pastors used to challenge me on my own court by saying, “Show it to me in the Bible that what you are saying is not just your opinion or preference.” Good for him. One friend, Ian McConnell a pastor at Grace Bible Church in Northeast Philadelphia, once challenged me to get more involved in church ministries. He said, “I find that those most critical in churches, and those who church hop, are usually people who are not very involved in church ministry. It’s harder to feel at home and easier to be critical when you are not serving.” It was a great piece of advice and probably very true. My friend and co-author Al Rossi has in the past challenged me to be a person who works on bringing change from within as opposed to being someone who criticizes from without. That idea is a very difficult one for me.
Most recently I heard Pastor Robert Tarnoviski of Bethel, the Church @ Franklin Mills, say from the pulpit something along these lines: “It doesn’t take any of the Holy Spirit to be critical. We can do that on our own. We don’t need the Spirit to criticize.” It was a great point. I needed to hear it. (And at the same time I hated to hear it!) But it reminds me of C.S. Lewis’ words in his lecture on Christian Apologetics where he says that the truths a person most needs must “be hidden precisely in the doctrines you least like and least understand.” In other words, Steve’s paraphrase, the truth I most need is found in the truth that most bugs me. Keep bugging me, Lord. Don’t let me be complacent and comfortable in sin. Let me walk in the light.
But what makes people into church critics? I cannot speak for everyone. In my case I may have gotten some of the good and some of the bad from my dad. From my father I gained a good respect for God’s Word, a love for truth, and a penchant for studying and reading. But we church hopped growing up. In fact, we did not even begin attending a church until I was twelve years old. Until that time our little family of four (Dad, Mom, my brother, and I) had church at home. Dad would teach us the Bible and we would all sing hymns. Why did he keep us out of church? Well, I think it was because he believed that most churches had some kind of doctrinal problems, some kind of unbiblical teachings or obfuscating traditions. He therefore believed it best that he himself should teach his children the Scriptures. And once we started going to churches it seemed like we were at a new church every two or three years: Tenth Presbyterian in downtown Philly (Yes, as a teen I sat under the teaching of Dr. James Montgomery Boice for a couple of years.), Holmesburg Baptist, Frankford Baptist, New Life Northeast, etc. Rarely did we ever get involved. Only once was I ever part of a youth group. We were always visitors, outsiders. As an adult I picked up the habit: Calvary Chapel of Philadelphia, First Baptist Church of Mt. Holly, New Jersey, Bethel Fellowship, Rhawnhurst Presbyterian, Third Reformed Presbyterian, Grace Bible Church… I made friends at a lot of those churches. I have great love and respect for many people at those churches, especially the pastors. Yet still today I long to find a place that feels like home. I feel like a nomad, the child of nomads.
The issue is confessed; yet it remains unresolved for me. What I do know is that any differences I have with a church I attend should be shared in love, not out of selfishness or narcissism. For if it is not in love my words simply become a clanging cymbal (1 Corinthians 13:1); “if I have prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith so that I can remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:2). My mission in the Body is to build up and not tear down. I am commanded to “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than [myself]” (Philippians 2:3, NIV). This is the little I know and I struggle even with these things.
Perhaps you can relate.
Or perhaps you can offer a word of counsel or encouragement…
C.S. Lewis, God in the Dock, © 1970 by The Trustees of the Estate of C.S. Lewis, published by William B. Eerdman’s Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, MI.