Maybe the first thing to say is that those of us in positions of responsibility have a pivotal part to play in developing a church or organisational culture that keeps levels of criticism low. That means us being people who criticise rarely and, when appropriate, criticise well. The Bible reminds us that Christians are called to avoid grumbling (1 Corinthians 10:10; Philippians 2:14-16), bear with weaker brothers (Romans 14:1-4) and maintain unity (Ephesians 4:3). That means criticism should be the exception, rather than the rule. But when criticism is necessary (as it inevitably is in this fallen world), we need to give it with humility (we are all sinners), grace (forgiveness is on offer) and hope (to build up, not tear down). As we set such a tone for a church or for a parachurch group, others will hopefully follow suit.
The second point may be to remind each other that throwing our toys out of the pram is not a suitable response. It can be so tempting to hear critical words as a personal attack which requires a robust defence – particularly so when we have our identity misplaced in what we do for God rather than in what he has done for us. That knot in our stomach can tighten, our heart begin to pound and the temptation to lash out can be very real. But God’s word reminds us that “a gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Proverbs 15:1). Even when criticism is utterly unfair, a knee-jerk enraged retort is never the godly course.
So, what do we do with the critical emails in our inbox right now? Depending on their content and tone, maybe one of three things:
1) Let’s face it, sometimes we get things wrong. Sometimes it is entirely justified that someone in the church lovingly says, “brother / sister, that simply wasn’t right”. Though it’s never easy to hear, godly criticism is a beautiful gift: “faithful are the wounds of a friend” (Proverbs 27:6). Hearing, prayerfully weighing and humbly responding to constructively critical words with appropriate repentance and change can be a wonderful opportunity for growth. If we’re not sure, we can bring in other wise and godly friends to help assess whether the criticism is valid or not (actually, it’s not a bad idea to bring in a select few others every time). But, without doubt, there will be some comments to which it is right to respond with the words, “thank you, you’re right – I’m sorry”.
2) There will, however, be other criticisms which are less biblical and/or godly. There may still be some nuggets of truth to which we need to listen – unkind motives or flawed theology does not mean they are wholeheartedly awry. A helpful first step can be to assure people that we will weigh their concerns with other members of church/parachurch leadership. (And this can stop the criticism descending into a personal dispute).
It’s worth remembering that sometimes people are critical because their theology or their heart is astray. And then (having first examined our own hearts) we are to “correct, rebuke and encourage – with great patience and careful instruction” (2 Timothy 4:2).
That said, there are times (especially when people are criticising one of our colleagues – or our boss) when it is wiser simply to tell someone that you’re not going to chat about their concerns. We can point them to speak to the person concerned rather than risk propagating rumours (Proverbs 26:20) and damaging church unity (Ephesians 4:3). But even here, we still need to be kind (2 Timothy 2:24) – especially because there may be other difficult things in the background. They still need our compassion.
3) Just occasionally, however, there will be criticism from individuals who, having read or heard a little something from us, feel they have the right to slander, malign or try to bring us into disrepute. Social media is fertile ground for this. Their criticisms are rarely based in fact; their words, rarely measured or wise. Here, Paul’s instructions to Titus may well need to come into play: that is, “warn a divisive person once, and then warn them a second time” before refusing to engage any more (Titus 3:10). Rants can be ignored. Sometimes doing so is undeniably wise.
Whatever our approach, prayer needs to be at the heart. The wisdom to discern the truth and the power for changed hearts (ours and others) can be found in God alone. And, whatever the rights and wrongs of a situation, the kingdom is his. It’s the Lord whom we want to see lifted high.