The Problem with Christian Criticism


Recently, I wrote “Humility, Unity, and the Overly Opinionated Christian.” In it, I noted that too often we lack the facts to comment and should probably, in humility, refrain from adding our two cents.

Seems some may consider me part of the problem. 😉

At Christianity Today, Rachel Marie Stone, in her “Why Criticism Belongs in the Christian Blogosphere,” argues the merits of Christian opinion. She equates it to iron sharpening iron, and she wonder how it is that Christians are refraining from offering much-needed criticism.

I would like to offer my answer.

1. Many people are tired of angry discourse on the Internet. It doesn’t seem as if anyone has enough couth to criticize without resorting to sinful expressions of anger and resentment. Stone notes her own criticism of others has often resulted in ad hominem counterattacks. Well, yeah. That’s where we Americans are in 2013. Still, some thoughtful people—thankfully—are tiring of this.

2. Our critical vision as Christians is too small. Nearly all criticism by Christians on the Web is directed at individuals rather than at systems. Problem is, it’s mostly the systems mucking up everything. While it is much easier to criticize individuals, doing so rarely changes anything on a larger scale, because the power of that larger scale is not in individuals but in systems.

3. Systems are ridiculously hard to address. Criticizing the guy next door for letting his dog poop on your grass may accomplish getting him to keep his mutt out of your yard. But if your state determines your house is ground zero for a new shopping mall for “the public good,” good luck with your criticism of the state. And many systems are more complex than even a state government. Try criticizing the result of the Industrial Revolution and changing it through criticism. That system is far harder to assault because it is enormous and nebulous at the same time.

4. Criticism of individuals does not lead to change on a larger scale, while criticism of a system often gets absorbed by the immensity of that system. That tendency toward “lose-lose” explains the result Stone laments in her article.

For too long, some Christians have focused too much anger in their criticism, reserving much of it for individuals. So and so is a heretic! You don’t know your Bible! And on and on. This does not get us far. More people now recognize this. They also note that much of that criticism was not wrapped in love but in self-righteousness and pride.

Where Christians should be focusing our criticism is on systems, yet almost no one does. No one talks about workplace justice. No considers whether our lifestyles are based on fallacies locked in place by deviant cultural assumptions. No one asks whether the Reformation and democracy have led Americans to no longer fear of God. For the most part, Christians are not offering criticism of these larger thoughts, ideas, and systems because we’re too intellectually lazy and too satisfied with the status quo. Why rock the boat and bring down the system on our little heads?

I stopped reading most Christian blogs because they went after the minuscule. They strained for gnats. And then when they did, they were too often mean-spirited about it.

I think many people are tiring of the mean spirit. Meanwhile, few are willing to wade into larger battles. Stone talks about how hard it was to receive criticism for her criticism of another writer’s book.  If that’s the size of our vision, then all is lost already. Taking on systems, which is what we Christians SHOULD be addressing, is costly, complex, and tedious. Our criticism needs to be laser-like, educated, and relentless if we are to fix entire systems in the name of Christ.

Christians of long ago were up for that task. I’m not so sure we are today.

Oh, look…

“Hey, you! Get your dog off my lawn!”

8 thoughts on “The Problem with Christian Criticism

  1. Mr. Poet

    My criticism of Zimmerman is, mainly, that he went by himself. I did this recently in my neighborhood. Three young boys who did not live in my neighborhood were running around behind my building. They were hanging out in the patio of an empty unit. Then they came to our back door and knocked on the glass, startling my mother. So I went outside, alone, and found one of the boys, who freely spoke to me. It seemed to me the other two had led this boy astray, because he seemed pretty innocent. Anyway, I told the boy that if they came back, I would walk down to their street and start knocking on doors, looking for parents.

    “Hey, you kids, get off of my lawn!” 🙂

    Unfortunately, we live in an age where a lot of people, parents included, would want to have me arrested for approaching these kids, even if all I did was walk up to them, tell them to go away, and threaten to find their parents if they came back: that I should have stayed in my home, minded my own business, and call the police if I felt threatened (and then they would say I was calling the police on three young boys, and how could I be such a meanie?) I even think the father of one of the boys drove into the neighborhood shortly afterward, looking for me, but when he saw how big I was, he turned around and left.

    Where I live, I have to tolerate trespassers all the time: dog walkers (who do not clean up after themselves), bicyclists, joggers, entire high school track teams, people from outside the neighborhood who dump their trash in our dumpsters, use our pool, wash their cars at our water stations, and park in our parking lot. The office has locked the tennis courts indefinitely because almost everyone who was using them was not a resident. Recently I learned that people race up our parking lot’s hill from one entrance to the other entrance, where we have a stoplight, in order to avoid the rush hour backup at the other intersection, where there are stop signs.

    This, of course, does not broach the serious crimes that do occur in my neighborhood: like the other day, a woman left her car running, keys in the ignition, doors unlocked, with her purse in the driver’s side seat, while she was off God-knows-where. And people wonder why crimes happen in our neighborhood?

    So, yes, I do get peeved about these little things. I also know that the “system” is stacked against me. I have a saying: If you want next to nothing done, call the police; if you want nothing done, call the office; if you want less than nothing done, call a homeowners’ association board meeting.

    Did I mention that some of the trespassers are evangelical pastors who ought to know better? Heh, yeah.

    I would not mind so much sharing the neighborhood with people who are just cutting through (with the exception of speeding cars), but we live in a “system” of litigious liability, where they will sue us for not keeping them out of our neighborhood.

  2. linda

    Hi Dan,
    I think that there are other matters involved in the lack of criticism being offered by Christians.

    Believers have been taught in the church that criticism of what goes on in the church equals ‘rebellion’. Rebellion in the church against unity, rebellion against God, an ungodly characteristic, unwanted imput (leading men and women only want to hear praise from believers), disloyalty to leadership, causing discontent and factions in the church, stirring up the brethren, etc.

    Perhaps another reason is that Christians really don’t care to offer their opinion or criticism. Offering these may create conflict for them or get these Christians into trouble with their friends, family, church social contacts, business friends, etc.

    Christians have been inundated with the teaching of being ‘loving and peaceful’ people toward one another in the church and toward the world. Keep the peace at any cost. It’s not worth causing a disruption or trying to make a change. Peace might be lost. The peace these ‘teachers’ are talking about is worldly peace. Keep your mouth shut, keep to your own affairs.

    Another problem might be discouragement. Experiences that these Christians have had in past have shown them that ‘it’s all for nought’. Nothing changes, nobody’s interested. Even if change seems to be happening, things quickly return to the ‘status quo’.

    Another reason might be ignorance. Christians don’t have the knowledge or the information they need, so they say and do nothing. No queries are made by these Christians. They want to forget about what’s been said and what they’ve heard and move on with their planned day.

    There’s probably lots more reasons why many Christians don’t offer their criticism easily. Another reason may be that these Christians’ eyes are on the world and so in their thinking everything is going along well and good. There’s no reason for criticism.

    • Linda, et al.,

      I would contend that through most of my life, Christians have been the MOST opinionated and critical people I have known, not the least. While some of this is due to the reality that Christians comprise a majority of people I know, my conversations with fellow believers almost always descend into talking about something controversial. This is, however, decidedly NOT the case with my conversations with people who don’t claim to be Christians. My conversations with them are rarely about controversial matters.

      There is something in the American Christian mindset that equates being right about everything to being righteous. I also believe there is a tendency to fall into “Spanish Inquisition” mode, which makes us constant rooters-out of error, wherever it may be, even if no one asked us to be inquisitors.

      This is uncalled for, actually. It’s a hyperreactive response to testing to see if one is in the faith. Not only does it err when it moves outside the individual, it errs when to judges harshly all who are not identical to us.

      If that tendency to criticize is waning (and it should, frankly), two reasons may explain it. One is good and the other terrible.

      Terrible: Psychology now runs our lives more so than Christian faith. In that regard, a positive thinking movement is at work. While the Bible recommends that we dwell on the positive, I don’t think the majority of the positive thinking trend has its roots in Christian positivism but in the positivism of psychology. For that reason, it is most likely misplaced and in error. Too many Christian books today spout psychological positivism rather than the genuine Christian form.

      Good: I believe that some Christians have been repulsed by the horrid witness that occurs when Christians tear into each other on the Internet, usually over some point of doctrine. I’ve seen as much hate for another person displayed on a Christian blog as anywhere on the Web. I believe some Christians are finally realizing how damaging this is to our witness and they are backing off and reexamining how they deal with fellow Christians. If so, this is a good thing.

      But if anyone thinks that this battle is won, look how many scathing words from Christians undergird the Culture Wars. Now, how is it that Christians aren’t critical? 😉

  3. linda

    Hi Dan,
    You said in your post here ‘It’s a hyperreactive response to testing to see if one is in the faith’.
    How do we find out if we are in the faith as Christians? When we are faced with trials and temptations and we choose to follow God’s word and his counsel in these situations. This proves to us that our trust and confidence is in God.

    Finding ‘errors’ in others and in doctrine does not equate with being in the ‘faith’ of God. As regards doctrine the scriptures should be able to settle this to a large degree. There are differences in interpretation but the Holy Spirit should be able to bring Christians to an understanding of basic doctrine. If not, there is an issue with whether the Holy Spirit is involved at all.
    It’s difficult for me to envision the Holy Spirit being involved with the kind of anger toward each other that you say is happening on the Internet. The anger is occuring over nuances in doctrine?

    We don’t have a crisis of criticism in Christian circles, we have a crisis of the lack of God’s Spirit. How does the Holy Spirit indwell such a hatefilled person? I think that He would leave. He’s not obliged to stay, contrary to some teaching of doctrine in the church.

    In the OT in Ezekiel, God’s Spirit? rose off the top of the great temple, out of the Holy of Holies, and sped away. This is an example for us, I believe, showing us that God was not obliged to ‘dwell’ in the temple after he had established himself there. His residence was dependent on his people and how they conducted themselves. How faithful they were to him. When they chose other gods, he left. He was longsuffering but he did leave.

    There appears to be such twisting and knarling of God’s word in our day in the ‘teaching’. Why isn’t this ‘hate’ by Christians on the Internet being addressed from the pulpit? This is a relevant teaching for our day.

    I’m not in these places on the Internet. I’m not aware of this situation other than what you have said here in your post.
    I’m not into reading popular books written by Christians, I don’t listen to Christian radio programs, other than the Christian music. I don’t listen to secular radio stations at all lately. I watch a little tv, I like the programs about detectives and solving crime. If it gets too graphic or gory during these shows I shut off the tv, or move to another station. My choice is limited as I have ‘peasant vision’. I have two tv channels to choose between.

    We need to have some discretion as to what we are exposing ourselves to. The more exposure we have to something the more prepared we will be to accept its’ propaganda. If it were Truth we were exposed to, this would be great. But, it’s clear, Christian teaching is faulty in our day.

    I’m not saying that people should live as I do. I lived with a ‘social recluse’ for nearly 30 years. I learned some of his traits and habits, but there seems to be little if any discretion used today by Christians. They’ll allow themselves to be exposed to anything, especially, false teaching. The Bible talks about this in Paul’s letter to 2 Cor chp11. Believers who accept false teachers with gusto and refuse the ones who comes in the name of Christ.

    We need to guard ourselves in our day, and it seems little if any teaching is being done on this topic. The Bible says we are to work out our salvation with ‘fear and trembling’. We are to be examining our steps every day. Looking toward where the decisions we make every day will eventually take us and make changes if needed.

  4. linda

    Another disturbing trend happening in young children under 6 years old that I have learned of. I work with children, so this is a part of my experience with children too. Young children under 6 are increasingly becoming more and more violent in their actions and behaviors before entering the kindergarten classrooms. This behavior is a part of these kids before they come to school.

    I don’t think it is altogether a result of upbringing, although it doesn’t help when these kids are growing up largely without their parents, while their parents are at work all day. This is a trend that was noticeable in 2005. We are now 7 years past 2005. A white paper was done in the USA on this topic in the state of Missouri in 2005. This is very unusual behavior for a child under 6. Something is in the ‘wind’. Corruption is occurring in people at very young ages. How is this happening? I’m not sure. Culture probably has a place in this. Sin has a place in this. Abuse of children in several ways may have a place in this.

    What we do know is that children are usually very receptive to the gospel. At least until their parents discourage it. If their family doesn’t live it, then it’s very difficult for the child to continue on. They don’t have the exposure to God’s word and exposure to strong believers that they need.

    What I’m thinking in my mind is Sodom and Gommorah. Violence was normal in those cities. Sexual violence was normal. A visitor couldn’t come into town to stay overnight without being violently assaulted. These young kids can be sexually violent as well. I had a young child this past year try to rip my blouse off me several times over the course of the school year. I was working in a daycare setting as an aide to him. He was 4, then turned 5 years old during this time.

    This condition as far as I understand it,is likely incurable. The behaviors can be helped (hopefully anyway), but the child apparently has some ‘different wiring’ when they are born or that occurs shortly after birth. They are not suitable for a ‘classroom setting’, extremely disruptive, dangerous to the other kids by the throwing of objects, hitting, kicking, banging other kids’ heads against the floor, etc. When they are not in this behavior these violent kids are good. The problem being these kid’s behaviors are increasing in intensity and frequency in the school classrooms. At a young age these children do not have control over these behaviours. Partly because their parents believe that their child will grow out of these behaviors, therapy and medication is not considered. The parents believe taht their child will come to their senses, etc. when they get a little older. These kids react ‘instantly’ way out of proportion to the supposed ‘offence’.

    God says in the Bible that in the end days he is going to do a quick work. The Bible also says, first the natural then the spiritual. If we see this ‘incurable violence’ innate in children , we will then likely see the ‘righteous’ also gaining ground in righteousness and godliness.

    Some thoughts from me.

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