A True Critique May Not Always Be A Wise One

My two year old likes to sing. And when he sings, he sings with all his might. And, you know, he can carry a tune — for a two year old. And because he is two and can barely put sentences together, and because he has not been trained in the academy or raised for operatic genius, I would critique him quite differently than I would a professionally trained singer. The slightest error might be cause for a corrective and stringent critique towards the trained professional. But for my son, the slightest error is only part of a larger reality that he is putting words together and being excessively cute. And so that sort of critique would not exist. Critique might come, but it will come much more indirectly and softly, according to his ability to handle it. Depending upon the experience and training and ability and maturity of the singer, the critique will be more or less stringent. It might even address different things.

The issue in giving critique is to know the one whom you are critiquing. The better we know them and their abilities and their level of training, the better equipped we will be to offer appropriate and gracious criticism.  I think we largely fail at this. The reasons for this suggested failure are manifold: perhaps, pride — we cannot stand to fathom that this person might be more gifted than me, so we have to knock them down a notch with our superior knowledge. Perhaps, extreme expectations, which is another way of saying gracelessness.  This is the inability to consider room for growth. We tend to think of people in static terms. What they are now, that they will always be. So we are more inclined to criticize harshly, thinking that by our effort they might be transformed. Tangential to this, I think, is the lack of a truly pastoral heart. Again, a failure to understand sanctification and how best to bring others along to full maturity in Christ. Or worst of all, perhaps, a simple lack of love. This idea is underneath the others. Love seeks to edify, to build up. And don’t misunderstand me. Direct and stringent and tight criticism can be edifying and has been necessary and useful in my own life as I have received it from others. I am not calling for the abolition of such critique. It can be done, it must be done in love. But a lot of what I have witnessed on this front is, ultimately, a failure to apply growth-inducing compassion. It requires the hard work of getting on the other person’s level, understanding their foundation, trusting in the inward work of God’s Spirit to transform, and offering edifying critique on those grounds.

An example and a final thought.

Example: My local church has an apprenticeship for men aspiring to the office of pastor, or missionary, or, very wonderfully, the biblically-informed and brave-hearted husband and father. Preaching a handful of short sermons is part of the course. While I am not in the apprenticeship, I sat in on one of the sessions a few months ago. One of the brothers preached for the rest of the men, about twenty-five of us. It was his first attempt at preaching before other human beings, much less a room full of present seminarians and future pastors and missionaries. And when he finished, he was critiqued — critiqued hard. One of the brothers used his knowledge of biblical Greek to criticize one of his points. What’s the problem? Not that this brother desired to help this other brother see things a bit more clearly by means of New Testament Greek. But that a critique was offered by means of New Testament Greek to a brother who had not yet taken New Testament Greek. And a few other such critiques were offered. I have been in both shoes. By God’s grace, I was able to see his discouragement. So afterwards, I went to him and mentioned a few things that he had said that were encouraging to me, that God really used to build me up in the faith. He had studied hard. He had genuine affections for the truth of the text. He had wrestled with it experientially. And he taught it with passion appropriate to the glory of Christ. He even used suitable illustrations (something I envy). And so I made these things known to him in order that he might be encouraged to continue to grow in his craft. Later, he sent me an email thanking me for the encouragement.

A final word: what this means is that while a critique may be true, a true critique may not always be wise. Again, know the person, know their foundation, give room for growth and sanctification, trust the working of God’s grace, seek to build up, and before speaking, consider humility. It is not that they do not need to know the truth at the center of your critique. They do! It is rather the packaging of it. And the packaging of it usually shows the maturity of our own hearts. Do we only seek to be a corrective? Or do we also seek to offer affirmation? Do we hold them accountable for things beyond their current level of knowledge or ability or experience? Or do we package these things with understanding and an encouragement that looks to future growth in what they lack? If we approach criticism in the latter ways described, then our hearts are venting a shepherd’s love. And at the end of the day, it is this shepherd’s love that must serve as a guide to all of our conversation.

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4 Responses

  1. Couple things:
    1. While I appreciate everything said here (notice the affirmation, now comes the critique), I am for setting the bar of preaching impossibly high, so as to weed out any and all who would come close to mishandling the word of truth. In other words, I am ok pushing the line a little on holding men “accountable for things beyond their current level of knowledge or ability or experience”.
    2. I praise God for the way He has gifted you, brother, to think and see so pastorally in the situation you described above. This is a very edifying and grace-filled challenge for me!

    • Yes, this is a good counter-balance in your first point. I think I said as much in that we need to offer the more difficult criticisms but 1) not without grace, love and humility, and 2) in the right frame or package, i.e., with both critique and affirmation (which honestly reveals what the ears of our hearts are tuned to, either things to stab at or both things to stab at and things to appreciate and further encourage). Ultimately, we are looking for development. Very few preachers begin like Spurgeon or Piper and the like. If one is a natural born Spurgeon, he is not free from mishandling the text or his life. And one who, at first, vomits at the thought of public speaking for the first time (Dr. Russell Moore), is not destined to be one who mishandles the text perpetually. Again, we are looking for development, and that is a call to us for graciousness. As development includes both the more stringent critiques that raise the bar quite high and the shepherd’s eye affirmation of small beginnings and abilities, the call to us is the development of a heart that smells of “tell the truth in love.” While I understand that we can set the bar high and critique quite stringently in love (which I said is necessary), what I have written is really a balance to what I have discerned of late on some occasions, specifically, “tell the truth” without the love that is inherently 1 Cor 13 in nature, patiently seeking understanding and words that are governed by the desire to build up. One more thought, if we set the bar impossibly high, do we run the danger of discouraging men out of this ministry who, in the future, might have been faithful brothers and very good preachers . . . such as yourself? You know I mean that with the highest amount of sincerity! Much love to you and your family.

      • I had a feeling you might say something like that. I think you’re right! My choosing of “impossibly” is simply because I think the true preachers, like Lloyd-Jones says, are the ones who understand the task of preaching to the point that they “inevitably feel like one has never preached.” The one who can feel the weight of the pulpit and is scared to death of it is the one who I think is on the way to being a great preacher.

        Another reason for a little bit of pushback is because I just don’t see the emphasis on developing preachers in the NT the way you describe it (perhaps you have texts in mind). Not that I don’t think the development of preachers is necessary, I just see the emphasis in the NT more in terms of God ordaining, God gifting, a uniqueness of the kind of man God has created him to be. When Paul tells Timothy to “entrust to faithful men” the things I have taught you, there is a recognition of what constitutes “faithful”. So to your question about possibly discouraging men out of the ministry, I’m sure you would agree that many men in pulpits today should have been discouraged by their church or mentor or seminary. And I would say we have a responsibility to recognize who the “faithful” men are so that we can encourage them when they feel like giving up. Love to you and your family as well, praying for you all, and glad God is placing you as a preacher in the Northeast!

      • I think we are in agreement. My argument is not for the abolition of high standards and criticism that seeks to underscore these standards. And, as I trust you know me, I am certainly not arguing for a weightless preacher or pulpit ministry. I agree with you that the best preachers are those who feel the weight and nobility of the task — to dare to speak on behalf of God. Moreover, those preach best who feel the weight and glory of God. Passionless and prayerless preaching is powerless preaching. But this means, as you have said, identifying faithful, God-qualified, and God-gifted men, and cultivating in them passion in keeping with the truth(s) being preached. The issue of critique falls mainly, I think, in that latter category of cultivation. And cultivation requires both rigorous accountability, responsibility, mental exercise, and critique, and all of that offered in love and with grace. In other words, I am not advocating the wussification of the preacher or the pulpit ministry. I am seeking to balance the one who critiques by calling us to watch how we say what we say, and to take a shepherd’s posture towards those who have ambitions for such a noble task. There was a time when you did not know biblical Greek or the analogy of faith or biblical theology or fill in the blank. If at that time you had preached, I would have sought to encourage you to learn biblical Greek, the analogy of faith and biblical theology and fill in the blank, but I would have done so understanding where you were in the process, seeking to encourage other things done well homiletically, and giving room for growth as a preacher. And, yes, if there were no improvement, if there was perpetual mishandling of the text, if there was little evidence of teaching ability or of a particular anointing for the task (at least vocationally), I would, in love, discourage the brother from this pursuit. I do definitely agree with you that more pastors/preachers should have been discouraged from assuming the noble task. I just wouldn’t want to say, “If you are not Paul or Timothy or Apollos or Augustine or Chrysostom or Luther or Calvin or Edwards or Spurgeon or Piper or Todd Morikawa from the beginning, you ought to think about pursuing some other vocation or office in the church.” I know you are not advocating that, but that is what I would want to guard against. Timothy in Acts 16 was not Timothy in the pastoral epistles. What I mean is, the man of God, the pastor, the preacher, the evangelist, the disciple of Jesus that Timothy was at first, was not what he was in the end. In fact, the pastorals are written in some part to encourage Timothy to continue to grow in particular aspects of the ministry. That is what I am trying to guard. “Faithful” then is not static. “Faithful” is recognizable, no doubt. But faithfulness is in constant need of cultivation, refinement, hard sayings, encouragements, exhortations and, above all, the gospel of Christ. And one way, I think, that we can continue to cultivate increases in faithfulness for this noble task is by critique — hard, helpful, gracious, merciful, humble, loving, God-trusting criticism. So, again, the emphasis of the post was somewhat different than the emphasis of your comments, though this conversation has been extremely helpful and broadening for me. The post emphasized what I think is a helpful balance to instances of graceless critiques that are nonetheless true. I am simply advocating for a more patient and pastoral method of critique that underscores the surety of growth in all who are gifted of the Lord and called out by the church to this ministry, while (as you have added) also underscoring the height of the calling and, if necessary, the discouraging of those unfit for such an office.

        Do pray for me, brother, as I trust that you are already doing, that I might be faithful indeed — in life and in rightly dividing the Word of truth. Your servant in the Lord and

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