Death. Taxes. A Cleveland Browns losing season. Criticism. Four things that are pretty much inevitable. For those that engage in ministry criticism—whether unfounded or legit is inevitable. It really is true that you cannot please all of the people all of the time.
Consider the apostle Paul. Within the his recorded writings we can discern that Paul was taking criticism from many different opponents. There were those of the legal variety who believed Paul was being loose on the law and too free in his grace. But then he often ticked off the other side too—those shouting race, unity, and love—believing the Paul was too light on grace and too strong on the law.
Those who were more legal in their understanding of the Scriptures would have loved the Paul of 1 Corinthians. They would have been the loudest members of the “Amen” choir as Paul exhorted the Corinthians to “purge the evil person from among you”. But as soon as Paul would say things like, “where sin increased, grace abounded all the more,” the amen’s would cease and the accusatory questions would begin. “So why don’t we just keep on sinning Paul? Your view of the gospel is directly opposed to the law. It has no regard for God’s holiness. If we follow your gospel then people will be all kinds of immoral”.
Of course at the same time that Team Legal is accusing Paul of subverting the law then Team Grace is clapping and registering for their seat in the “Amen” choir. They love hearing that grace covers over sin and that for those that are in Christ you cannot out sin his grace. But as soon as Paul would say things like “Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body” then Team Grace would turn on him and accuse him of subverting the gospel.
You and I
If you are faithful in preaching the gospel you are going to upset those that are more legal in their understanding of the Scriptures AND you are going to upset those that herald a cheap grace that is marked by shallow unity and weak love. Both sides may argue with one another about the Scriptures but they will be united in their belief that you aren’t being faithful to the Scriptures.
The answer then is to keep preaching the gospel faithfully and ignore your critics.
Or is it…?
While it may be true that you are just faithfully preaching the gospel and those gospel haters are unfairly criticizing you, it may be just as true that you are wrong and only think you are faithfully preaching the gospel. You and I are just as prone to legalism and antinomianism in our lives and in our preaching as those that criticize us.
There are two chief dangers when it comes to criticism. First, is listening too much. Secondly, is not listening at all.
If you listen too much then you are going to ineffectively attempt to please everyone and as a result you will prove unfaithful in your sacred task of proclaiming the whole counsel of God. You need to faithfully proclaim the gospel and offend the antinomians as well as the legalists.
But not listening at all is just as deadly. There is a danger when getting leveled with criticism to assume that you are Paul and your detractors are one of the gospel-haters. But keep in mind that the antinomians and the legalists were pretty confident that Paul was the gospel-hater.
So what do you do with criticism? Three steps:
1. Humbly check your conscience. In Acts 23:1 among other places Paul references his “good conscience”. It seems that Paul was consistently listening to his conscience. If he had a nagging sense of guilt he dealt with it by the same gospel that he proclaimed. If you receive criticism get alone and get honest with yourself. Is their charge really baseless? Is it possible that you might have had a misstep? If so, clear your conscience by grace through faith and repentance.
2. Rest in grace. If this charge is baseless your conscience will remind you that there are a hundred other charges that are not baseless. You are held by grace whether this criticism is true or false. As Abraham Booth has said, “the Christian in such a predicament may just say, ‘Though I am free from the charge alleged, it is not owing to the superior holiness of my heart, but must be ascribed to divine, preserving care”. You do not need to needlessly defend yourself or your cause. Yes, humbly defend where it has a bearing on the gospel—but at the end of the day sleep well because grace reigns.
3. Live out the gospel you proclaim. The gospel reminds you that you do not have to be a perfect shepherd because Christ is. Our identity is wrapped up in the identity of the Good Shepherd who cares for us. Your fundamental identity before the Savior is not “pastor extraordinaire”; but it is child, bride, adopted, forgiven, servant, etc,. So by His grace and for His glory we must strive to grow and reflect Him. We do not strive to be accepted in his Kingdom as a pastor. We pastor because we are accepted in His kingdom.
I think following these steps is what Abraham Booth means by this:
“For even malevolent attacks and unfounded charges upon a Christian’s character, if his own temper is under proper government, may prove an occasion for promoting his best interests” (Booth, The Christian Pastors Manual, 97)