I recently received a letter from a pastor friend who warned me that I was being too critical of the Church lately on my blog. The person said “I guess my big concern is that much of your criticism is leveled at Christians and the church, and while this may be deserved at certain points it will inevitably breed mistrust of you and your ministry, and ultimately breed antagonism toward Christ’s dear bride.”
Just a theory…
I wonder why the word theory is not used more among evangelicals. A theory is defined by one source as…
a coherent group of tested general propositions, commonly regarded as correct, that can be used as principles of explanation and prediction for a class of phenomena: Einstein’s theory of relativity.
All one needs to do is pick up a solid book on Christian history and one will clearly see that we the church are beautifully pluralistic in our faith and practice because we are figuring it out as we go. Every major doctrine we hold to as biblical usually has more than three solid ways of seeing it and they have all been arrived at through divinely ordained conversation or argumentation. I have had the all-to-naive assumption that Christian leaders, for the most part, believe that subjects like Atonement, Trinity, bibliology, etc. are all theories from our human end. I have learned the hard way that this is not the case… to many theologians, theory is the enemy of faith.
To be clear they are NOT theory in God’s mind. He is absolute truth for sure and he is not confused. But down here we see through a fog the beauty and truth of God in His word (how this happens is even a theory). Our theology as evangelicals, both its application and interpretation are absolutely theoretical. When we operate under the concept of theory we should welcome every camera on the football field, every angle, every commentator. Now when I say “welcome,” I simply mean in the sense of a willingness to listen and observe in order to gain more understanding and hopefully questions. A theory cannot exist unless it can be tested. I think when we hear criticism it can easily come across as negative when it threatens to pop our tribal or community bubble. But on the flip side or in the scary and wild world outside of the bubble, theory is not a threat but a reminder that this fear, uncertainty, confusion and tension is what faith is all about. Faith flourishes among wildflowers and weeds but becomes emaciated and domesticated in greenhouses. As a pastor my goal is to facilitate and foster the growth that the Holy Spirit is causing from the power of the Gospel the power of the person and work of Jesus. I want to protect pluralism among believers in our church–fence all that causes unity. I want to gate-keep tension, conversation and disagreement. Not in a sense of regulating it, but allowing the reality of our many truths, tensions, conversations to continue to show and remind our church that theory is there and it is what makes us who we are as a community.
A critical pastor?
As a pastor, if I am critical of myself and the theories around me, will it really “breed mistrust of me and my ministry, and ultimately breed antagonism toward Christ’s dear bride”? Wow– when my friend wrote that my heart sank. I have been praying that God would help me see the truth here. I certainly do not want to harm the bride of Christ or cause people to mistrust me and my ministry. Here are some conclusions that I have drawn from the last couple of months meditating on the admonishment of my friend.
- One who thinks or sees criticallyhas a positive effect on the bride of Christ because…
- They Recognize problems, to find workable means for meeting those problems,
- They Understand the importance of prioritization and order of precedence in problem solving,
- They Gather and marshal pertinent (relevant) information,
- They Recognize unstated assumptions and values,
- They Comprehend and use language with accuracy, clarity, and discernment,
- They Interpret data, to appraise evidence and evaluate arguments,
- They Recognize the existence (or non-existence) of logical relationships between propositions,
- They Draw warranted conclusions and generalizations,
- They Put to test the conclusions and generalizations at which one arrives,
- They Reconstruct one’s patterns of beliefs on the basis of wider experience,
- They Render accurate judgments about specific things and qualities in everyday life
- Gospel soaked humility in relation to critical thinking fortifies people’s faith because it does not seek to make one person right and the other person wrong–it simply seeks to help us see what we are… and WOW! the body of Christ is a phenomena for the world to stumble on and try to figure out… and ultimately come to when all other wells leave it (the world) thirsty.
- If I am openly critical of myself first (my strengths, my weaknesses, my issues, my theories) then when I am critical of other theories it should breed trust not mistrust because I am equal not above. I haven’t pulled myself up by the boot straps… I have been pulled up by Jesus. So I won’t be giving the “Gospel of Able” it will be “The Gospel according to Able”.
- I am critical of the bride because she is in need of the physician just as much as much as anyone.
- As an evangelical pastor I need to remind believers that they are not islands but leaves on a tree. Critical thought can bring us to the place where are reminded where and how we are connected.
- My experience in the last five years of removing the infinitely long mote from my own eye (through the power of the Gospel) has brought about trust in my ministry at home and everywhere outside of it. Trees are bearing fruit. There is no longer a need for me to tape wax apples to dead trees and pretend.
E.W. Bullinger (a man with some pretty crazy and borderline sectarian theological theories) said something amazing that I will never forget in his book Word Studies on the Holy Spirit:
“The presence of this New Nature necessitates conflict with the Old Nature and this conflict is therefore the best assurance that we are “in Christ” (2 Cor 5:17). This it is which ever distinguishes the true child of God from a mere professor. The true believer always has an abiding sense of inward corruption; while the merely religious person never has it at all, and knows nothing of it“
So after some real soul searching this last month and the earnest admonishment from my friend I have come to the conclusion that if the bride can’t take criticism from within it probably needs it. We should be a people of inward conflict not simply inward peace. If I can’t’ take criticism I probably need it. Criticism forces us to see others, their views, thoughts and paradigms. A theory cannot exist unless it can be tested. And it seems some people finished their tests in Seminary.
I like when people talk about “constructive criticism” and what charismatic folks call a “critical spirit.” It helps me distinguish between what is helpful, and what is just… well, not.
Lots of good thoughts here.
I’m glad you are writing on it, because I don’t sense in your writings an attitude that hates the church at all. Instead, I sense a pastoral heart that is full of love for the church.
There is definitely a difference between destructive and constructive criticism. I prefer constructive but God said as His servant I have to take both so… I’m still a little frustrated about that but we’re working on it. I have to admit there are days when I don’t even want to leave the house because of the amount of destructive criticism I hear as a pastor (I’m kind of a pansy sometimes haha just ask my wife). If anything my friend has helped me to check my writing and make extra sure that I am not coming across as bride hater. My love for the church is complicated like Russel Crow’s character on 3:10 to Yuma. **awesome movie alert!**
Well said, Able. Like any other structure, the local church is often in need of structural restoration. Lights grow dim and must be replaced. Walls need a fresh coat of paint. A new wing is added. We quickly do all of these things physically to a building, but are often afraid to do the same things spiritually with developing leadership within the congregation and challenging ourselves as leaders. Asking, seeking, and knocking for wisdom includes hearing the gripes and pet peeves. I see this often in the Security profession. Often, I have to pray and let God sort it out. Two major ongoing conflicts took me deep into the Book of Proverbs. One situation resulted in a promotion. The other situation resulted in a transfer with Emergency Response training included. The “haters” revealed my “supporters.” Within a few months they were terminated, but not before we strengthened our resolve to stick together and do what was right, no matter the outcome. Get second opinions. Get into the Word (especially the Psalms and Proverbs during a conflict) to get God’s perspective. God may turn a few of our toughest critics into our most jealous supporters when we are friendly, firm, fair, and honest with them.
Tod I appreciate your earnest desire to talk and engage in difficult things. I see your Love for God and desire to bring Him glory!