Why I Criticize in Public
Over my career as a writer and speaker—about a quarter-century, now—I have had occasion to raise some concerns about certain individuals and institutions, including fellow Christians. I’ve even criticized some of them pretty hard, both in Christian and in mainstream media.
Invariably, upon such occasions, I or my editor will receive mail from Christians who denounce me for, yes, denouncing other Christians. “We shouldn’t shoot our own,” they say.
Well, here’s why I sometimes do.
First, I’m a Christian, and I try to follow the example of Jesus and the apostles. They criticize other believers—fairly routinely, as it appears in the pages of the New Testament. And they do so publicly, whether it’s Paul withstanding Peter in front of other Christians, or various Christians disagreeing with each other and with Paul as to whether he should return to Jerusalem, or Paul criticizing individuals and whole churches in the public documents we know as epistles.
And lest we are tempted to blame all this on a cranky Paul, let’s remember that Jesus himself, at both ends of the New Testament, is capable of handing out some pretty strong public criticism. Look at the Gospels, whether what he says to Simon Peter (“Get behind me, Satan”—the likes of which I’ve never said to anyone, even at my most incensed) or what he says to the Pharisees who congratulate themselves on being sons of Abraham only to have Jesus say that their father instead is the devil (ditto). Then look at the Book of Revelation and what he says to some of the churches in chapters two and three.
So public criticism of other Christians or other public figures is clearly established as a normal part of Christian discourse.
Let’s notice, also, that these criticisms are rendered without any obvious attempt to follow the recommendations of Matthew 18. So we mustn’t condemn someone for engaging in public criticism simply because he hasn’t approached the individual first privately or then with a few others. Matthew 18 is about the very particular case of someone sinning against another person personally. It isn’t a required pattern for all teachings and warnings. So Jesus and the apostles don’t always follow it, and neither do I.
The second reason I publicly criticize is that the New Testament exhorts us to exhort each other and warns us to warn each other of others in our midst who might lead us astray, bring shame upon the church, or otherwise harm the gospel. So we are not only given examples of public criticism, but also commands to undertake it. It is particularly part of the Christian teacher’s calling to Scripturally “rebuke and correct” (II Tim. 3:16), so I do.
Third, many people in the West since 9/11 have made the point that moderate Muslims have been far too slow to publicly criticize their co-believers who engage in violence or other reprehensible activities. How are we to know, so this line of thinking goes, that the extremists are not representative of the mainstream if representatives of the mainstream don’t distance themselves from extremism?
Many of our neighbours have no more knowledge about, or respect for, Christians than they do members of any other religion. So unless we want those neighbours to carry around prejudices toward, and negative stereotypes of, Christians and Christianity, then some of us simply have to disavow what others of us have done in public.
So I’m going to keep doing it.
But before I am criticized (!) for validating every malcontent and revenge-seeker among us, the Scriptures offer us a number of qualifications we ought to meet before we start criticizing. Most basic of all is the motive of love: loving God, loving our fellow Christians, and loving our neighbours of every stripe.
When we consider criticizing, then, let’s be sure to seek the best interests of all the neighbours involved. That will include being sure to love those we criticize–in what we say and how we say it. But love also must include speaking up on behalf of their victims and for the benefit of those looking on as well—all of whom God loves.
This page is a revision of an article that first appeared in the Canadian magazine Faith Today, September 2010.