On critiquing other churches.

by K.W. Leslie, 08 September 2022

There are Christians who believe we should never, ever criticize one another. Nor other churches. What they do is their own business; it’s between them and God; it’s not for us to say they’re right or wrong. If you need a proof text, they point to this one:

Romans 14.4-5 KJV
4 Who art thou that judgest another man’s servant? to his own master he standeth or falleth. Yea, he shall be holden up: for God is able to make him stand. 5 One man esteemeth one day above another: another esteemeth every day alike. Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind.

Okay, here’s a fun paradox: Isn’t this passage of scripture… a form of correction? Isn’t Paul right here telling the Roman Christians they’re wrong, and oughta do better?

Yeah, I’m clearly not one of those “live and let live” Christians. I tend to be mighty libertarian about a lot of things, but whenever it comes to immorality and irreligion, I’m gonna say something. And I believe I have biblical precedent for this. In the scriptures, Jesus and the apostles most definitely rebuked people. Paul, who wrote the above verses, did too—in every letter he wrote. Even to really good churches like that of Ephesus.

But I believe in loving, constructive criticism. Hopefully we’re all trying to get better at following Jesus. Well, you can’t do that without other people, the Holy Spirit included, prodding us to do better. And sometimes pointing out blind spots which we’re too dense to notice. But we gotta do it as the Spirit does it—with kindness, patience, love, and all his other fruit.

I appreciate the Spirit’s criticism, ’cause he does it so encouragingly we sometimes don’t even realize it’s criticism. Other times he’s completely blunt and matter-of-fact with me… because he knows me, and knows that’s what it’s gonna take to get through my thick skull. It always depends on the person he’s working on. He knows what works. Us, not no much; we need to follow his example much better than we do.

I suspect a lot of the reason certain Christians frown on critiquing other churches, is because they don’t see the encouraging, fruitful forms of constructive criticism. They only see angry, outraged Christians ranting against some church’s practices, calling them heretics and cultists and condemning them to fiery hell. That, not gentle guidance, is what Paul was rebuking when he wrote Romans 14.

As for Jesus telling us “Judge not, that ye be not judged,” Mt 7.1 —a passage taken out of context constantly—he was critiquing our tendency to practice double standards. If you judge, expect to be judged by the very same yardstick. It’s only fair. You are not an exception.

And again, we tend to see a lot of that same inconsistency and hypocrisy when Christians critique fellow Christians and our churches. We rebuke ’em for doing stuff, but we do similar stuff. We might complain their worship music lacks spiritual depth, but I’ve heard contemporary Christian songs, ’80s-style worship choruses, and hymns, all of which were mighty shallow. We might complain about their overt sexism, but what about our subtle sexism—where we claim we recognize women can be in Christian leadership, but our churches have no women on the church board, and our few women pastors only minister to the women and children?

Like I said, I have no trouble with constructive criticism—but we gotta be prepared to stand up to the very same criticism. If we’re holding Christianity up to Jesus’s standards, we don’t get to be exceptions to those standards. No loopholes.

Constructive criticism versus angry bile.

For some people, they’ll criticize anything and everything at the drop of a hat. They’ll criticize churches and Christians just as easily. They have a long lot of angry peeves, and if you get ’em started, they’ll go on for a good long while. Get comfortable.

And I suppose all of us have some peeves about the way other Christians do things. Shopping for a church, after all, means there are gonna be a lot of other churches in our communities which we don’t want to join, because we found ’em incompatible for one reason or another. We didn’t care for the theology, nor the focal points, nor the leadership, nor the practices (or lack of them), nor the music, nor the style; and of course there are much shallower reasons to reject a church.

We can invent all sorts of spiritual-sounding reasons why we rejected those churches. Fr’instance: I like it when people sing enthusiastically in church. Other Christians are used to solemnly singing along to the organist, and insist that’s how every Christian oughta do it. To them, my church’s behavior is “emotion-driven and self-indulgent.” I can come right back at them and dismiss their style as “formal and spiritually dead.” Thus we can feel spiritually superior to one another, and feel like righteous Christians instead of lukewarm. But let’s be honest: We just like different music. That’s all. Spiritualizing our preferences—“I like it this way because God likes it this way”—is pure hypocrisy.

If a church is legitimately trying to follow Jesus, we shouldn’t find a lot to criticize anyway. We oughta quickly be able to identify good fruit and spiritual growth. We might suggest corrections, or improvement in one area or another, but we’re certainly not gonna reject such a church in totality. Those Christians who do greatly object to differing churches—who are mighty quick to call ’em heretic, call ’em sinful, claim they’re led by Satan itself and doomed to hell—tends to expose such Christians as spiteful, jealous, and fleshly. They might try to pass it off as just being zealous for God and truth, but their impatience and uncharitableness exposes them.

Sad to say, a lot of the criticism of churches which we see, is nothing more than that. Oh, these critics may appear to be theologically and biblically sound. They’ll try to sound reasonable, sensible, thoughtful, with humble-sounding language so they sound like they’re expressing their concerns with much weeping and sorrow. But never underestimate the ability of a clever hypocrite. Look, as always, at their fruit. Is the end result of criticism meant to be a closer relationship between fellow Christians? Or have they largely burnt bridges, or sound like they’re trying to make enemies, trying to rally a lynch mob?

Among serious fellow Christians, we shouldn’t see enmity. At all.

Church is family. So disagreements between churches and fellow Christians are, properly, family squabbles. Things should never escalate to a point where we disconnect from one another. We need to go out of our way to make of it! We need to give one another the benefit of the doubt. To be optimistic about one another’s intentions, rather than assume their statements are made without sincerity, or in sarcasm or jest, or should otherwise be interpreted negatively. We’re meant to live at peace with fellow Christians, Ro 12.18 rather than revel in being the local gadfly, who’s so zealous and uncompromising for Jesus, our enemies list is bigger than the phone book.

Like prophets, critics oughta speak for one another’s strengthening, encouragement, and comfort. 1Co 14.3 Our goal should be to bring out the best in others, not knocking down whatever displeases us. (Considering how self-centered even the best of us can be, whatever displeases us, more than likely, reflects a blind spot in our own spiritual lives. We aren’t that good at getting righteously angry on Jesus’s behalf.)

And don’t forget: Hypocrites love to criticize the issues they suffer from most. Just like the hypocrite who loves to go on and on about “purity” in order to cover up his own impurity, hypocrites who rebuke churches over “works righteousness” often have a lack of their own good works. Hypocrites who rebuke compromise tend to have a lot of their own compromises in their lives. Hypocrites who complain about a lack of self-control in worship, tend to have a lack of self-control themselves. The heresies which bug us most? They’re the ones we’d likely slide into first.

Keeping all that in mind… go ahead and critique away.

Priorities, though.

Back in the ’00s I used to read the late Michael Spencer’s blog “Internet Monk.” He called himself “post-evangelical”—by which he meant he no longer practiced the style of worship as found in conservative white American churches. (But he was still mighty Evangelical.) So he had a lot of criticisms of “evangelicalism,” as he saw it. Particularly of partisan churches. Or churches which existed to promote themselves as an institution, or their denomination, instead of God’s kingdom. Or churches which entertained Christians instead of properly instructing and discipling them.

Spencer preferred a church which uncompromisingly teaches the things of Jesus. Not a church which strives so hard to be a comfortable space for culturally Christian conservatives, it’s gradually nudged Jesus out of the building.

I largely agree with Spencer about centering our churches on Jesus and his teachings. But (and this was largely ’cause of his Baptist upbringing) Spencer’s solution to the problem was “Our churches gotta teach more Jesus.” They do… but I would argue the proper solution to the problem is our churches gotta emphasize the Spirit’s fruit. That, I believe is Jesus’s top priority. Jn 15.8 Not teaching.

Don’t get me wrong; teaching is most definitely important! Teaching’s in Jesus’s top 10. So is bible, doctrine, healthy relationships, transparency and accountability, and prioritizing people over institutions. But the Spirit’s fruit is still Jesus’s top priority. We can have all the right doctrine, all the right revelations, all the truth, and gobs of faith—but without fruit we’re nothing. 1Co 13.2 Immature Christians who know tons of Jesus trivia aren’t gonna make anywhere near the impact on our world as a mature Christian with good fruit—much as immature Christians who know tons of Jesus trivia will nonetheless insist.

Spencer liked a teaching-focused church. Stands to reason; he was a teacher. I am too. So of course I like Christian teaching, and churches which make that a priority. But when I was a child I went to a teaching-focused church… and came out of it a prideful, self-righteous know-it-all who thought I was a mature Christian because I knew a lot of Jesus trivia. No, I’m not claiming this is what teaching-focused churches will produce… but if they prioritize doctrine and bible knowledge over fruit, it’s exactly what they’ll produce. They’ve produced a lot of ’em.

So when I critique a church, I’ll typically get on their cases because I think they oughta put a lot more emphasis on fruit. Yeah, I’ll also point out other problems, but most of those problems are the byproduct of fruitlessness. Fruit’s a much bigger deal than the American church recognizes, and the more we ignore it, the worse we’ll get.