Excessive criticism and living in grace

If this post is problematic to you, please blame Emily Hunter McGowin. I tried to not have enough time, but she suggested I write it anyway.

Another video about Jesus went viral last week. Called “Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus” (aka, Jesus>Religion), it appeared in my Facebook news feed regularly for several days. I’m not a great fan of the “Spoken Word” genre so I didn’t watch it, but could grasp enough from comments to figure that a great number of people were being blessed by it.

Then, as sure as the sun rises in the east, another link began appearing in my Facebook feed promoting a blog response to the video. Comments on Facebook ranged from the innocuous, “Here’s another view on the Jesus>Religion video,” to fully supportive, “If you’ve seen the Jesus is greater than religion video then you need to read this.”

The post, entitled Does Jesus Hate Religion? Kinda, Sorta, Not Really was a critique of the video essentially arguing that, despite its good points, the poem was erroneous. After a lengthy critique, author Kevin DeYoung concludes with a direct appeal to writer/performer Jefferson Bethke,

You have important things to say and millions of people are listening. So make sure as a teacher you are extra careful and precise (James 3:1). If you haven’t received formal theological training, I encourage you to do so. Your ministry will be made stronger and richer and longer lasting. I encourage you to speak from the Bible before you speak from your own experience. I encourage you to love what Jesus loves without tearing down what he also loves and people are apt to misunderstand. I encourage you to dig deep into the whole counsel of God.

Thanks for reminding us about Jesus. But try to be more careful when talking about religion. After all, there is one religion whose aim is to worship, serve, know, proclaim, believe, obey, and organize around this Jesus. And without all those verbs, there’s not much Jesus left.

At some point after DeYoung’s essay, my friend Trevin Wax tweeted this: “Excessive critique on the part of leaders will squelch the passion of the next generation.” I have no idea what sparked the thought, but with it I utterly agree.

Leaders have the weighty responsibility of shepherding their flock with integrity, love, compassion and wisdom. If discretion, as the old saying goes, is the greater part of valor, then, I would say, deference is a great part of wisdom. Specifically, deferring to the Holy Spirit rather than jumping headlong into every perceived controversy that arises.

Since the advent of the written page, I suppose, people have had the tendency to launch critiques at things with which they disagree. The existence of printed historical polemics bear witness to this. Many are needed, some are crucial and some are a waste of everyone’s time. Since the advent of the internet, it is not only possible but incredibly easy to publicly critique people with the exact same results. The primary difference being instead of a hundred or so of the intelligentsia as an audience, literally 10’s of thousands to millions may be able to read. When the critique is needed this is a good thing. When it isn’t? Well…

Romans 14:1 is most appropos to this discussion. Paul addresses the issue of dealing with Christians who are not mature, and who may not be right where they need to be in their particular stage of spiritual maturity. What was his counsel? “As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions” (ESV). “Accept the one who is weak in faith, but don’t argue about doubtful issues” (HCSB). “Now accept the one who is weak in faith, but not for the purpose of passing judgment on his opinions” (NASB). An application specific to this discussion is: Don’t level criticism at a weaker brother simply because he has a different opinion than you.

The book of 1 John portrays spiritual leadership as a parent, specifically as “fathers.” One of the critical components of parenting–and spiritual leadership–is knowing when to let your kids make their own mistakes. By extension this means that spiritual leadership is identified by a wisdom that chooses to defer critique, preferring instead to let the Holy Spirit do the work of maturation. One person asked the question, “Shouldn’t this kid be open to some sharpening?” Sharpening only takes place by those close to you. Judgment is all that can take place from afar.

When we look at the life of Jesus it is clear that His words of critique and rebuke were virtually always leveled at either 1) the Pharisees who had set themselves up as judges and arbiters of spiritual truth, or 2) His disciples who were on a crash course of being the earliest foundation stones of the Church. Paul’s and Peter’s harsh criticisms were addressed to false teachers, slackers, and those who had abandoned the faith. In fact, Jesus exhibited more patience with lost people (the woman in adultery and the Syro-Phonecian woman, for example) than some Christian leaders give to young believers. Christian maturation is a long, rocky, laborious process. It is given to fits and starts, lulls and spurts. Only God is wise enough to know all things related to the spiritual growth of His children. Sanctification does not flow along the length of a 1-size fits all wall chart.

Did he deny the faith? No. Question the fundamentals? No. Deny the gospel? No. But by the response of some you’d think He had done all that and proposed adding Lassie to the Trinity. I’m not sure where all the grace went from some who supposedly cherish the “doctrines of grace” as the best expression of biblical theology.

When critique and the spiritual equivalent of visiting the proctologist are what is to be expected when following the leading of the Spirit, then Trevin’s analysis will hold true. Young believers will stop attempting great things for God since, even though they might expect great things from God–like 12M+ YouTube views in a brief while–they might also expect great and unnecessary criticism from those who would be better served judging themselves.

Marty Duren

Just a guy writing some things.

  • Matt Svoboda

    Great article Marty.

    Trevin’s tweet was brilliant… It was right on the money.

    • Marty Duren

      Thx, Matt.

  • Marty,
    I thought about an excessive critique for hiding behind Emily as the driving force behind this post. Then I read your reflection on Romans 14 and wondered if you were confessing to being weak in the faith. I forestalled my knee-jerk response and continued reading through your explication of leadership, critique and deference. Thoughts of a mild rebuke were dashed by your reference to proximity. Me in Oklahoma and you in Tennessee surely meant that I was too far removed from offering what would surely have been a maturing remark, or three. Subtly I deferred to better judgement.

    Finding my way to the end of the post it occurred to me Emily’s encouragement was well-placed. You rightly noted that some undertake to critique in tome like fashion when what could be said would fit a 400 word post. I am now left hoping that your apologetic, or polemic as it were, of Trevin’s prophetic warning that we will gut the young of their energy to produce mightily by scolding them publicly will be embraced as encouragement to those same young people to poke back at the grace-less stodgy. Here’s to hoping DeYoung does not come to sharpen you!

    Good post Marty.

    • Marty Duren

      Thx, Todd.

      And I’m glad to know you think I’m young enough to warrant the potential attention…

  • Marty, I love how you called me out at the beginning. That’s funny…

    I agree with your general point. Romans 14:1 seems pretty clear. Here’s my concern: I don’t know how this applies to someone like me, with the vocation of teacher/theologian. Isn’t there a difference between offering clarification on a particular teaching that comes from a younger believer (discussing the matter among friends–those in close proximity to you) and arguing with someone younger in the faith over their opinions (or, publicly calling them out and criticizing them as happened in this case). Is that the same thing?

    As I’ve said before, much of my work is about examining arguments, making fine distinctions, and offering critique. Certainly, there are times and places for this and wisdom is required for discerning those appropriate times and places. But, keeping in mind your point about not passing judgment from distance (which I agree with) isn’t careful consideration of ideas, particularly ideas that are popular precisely what we want church theologians doing? Doesn’t this ultimately help the whole body of Christ?

    Finally, I think when someone puts their ideas in a public forum like YouTube or Facebook, they’re (maybe unwittingly) inviting response. Surely the author never anticipated the kind of response he received, nor am I defending some of the uncharitable tone in the responses. But, he (or any of us) can’t expect to be shielded from criticism when he decides to make his art/ideas public, just because he’s young in the faith.

    Certainly, if I knew this young man and we had a conversation about this performance art piece, I’d listen attentively and encourage him to follow his joy in service to the Lord–even if I had some reservations about the content. I might even ask him to perform it at church or at a youth meeting or conference or something. But, as soon as he puts it on YouTube and then others offer it up as speaking truth (“The best thing I’ve heard in years!” “OMG this is amazing!”), I feel that is an invitation for a response.

    What do you think?

    • Marty Duren

      I agree with your leaning that there is a difference between correction between friends or a mentor/learner relationship and publicly calling out a weaker brother. I think the first has its roots in biblical disciplemaking and the second has its roots in pharisaism.

      I agree, tentatively, with your idea about the responsibility of theologians. I think on Facebook you referred to nuance. Again agreeing with the need to be clear in our wording to as not to confuse or appear confused, the over pursuit of nuance can itself lead to legalism or arrogance. My concern, and my experience, is that much study, in addition to being a weariness to the flesh, can be a pridefulness to the heart. Drawing ever more distinctive lines about what it means to be “right,” leads, I think, to the feeling that all perceived error must be addressed even when I really have no standing to do so.

      It’s one thing to show the video to your class, have a discussion then point out the strengths and weaknesses in a productive light. It’s another to hold court on it. DeYoung is no small fish; his initial post garnered 32,000+ FB likes already. The follow up emails between him and Bethke? less than 10% of that. Some damage was done.

      I guess, when it isn’t a person in your church, class or ministry, and when it does not concern the fundamentals of the faith, why people cannot simply say, “Have y’all seen this? I don’t agree with all of it, but it’s worth watching.” I’m just left convinced that I don’t have to point out all that’s wrong. That’s the Holy Spirit’s job, and, in those areas lacking black and white, I might be intruding on His work.

      • I think I agree with everything you’ve said. Nothing left to “nuance,” as far as I’m concerned! :)

  • Lori Metevia

    I agree with much of what this young man says. However, I disagree with the idea that Christianity is just a religion. It is a relationship with Jesus Christ. People use this kind of video as an excuse not to go to church. The church is Christ’s bride. You can’t be good friends with a man and disrespect his wife-at least not a real man. The church is made of imperfect people worshipping and learning about a perfect savior.