A healthy church is one that is shaped by the gospel. Our people need to see the beauty of Christ. Nothing will enable them to lovingly and humbly give and receive constructive critique more than heart-searching, expository gospel preaching. This is our great task and privilege as ministers—to proclaim Christ. And as we do, whether we recognize it or not, we will be promoting a healthy culture of criticism.
What is it that fuels both a hypercritical spirit and an aversion to criticism? It is a high view of self. Man criticizes incessantly in order to feel better about self. Man runs from or suppresses criticism directed his way for the same purpose, to protect and promote the self. There is a certain high-mindedness native to us all that is averse to both giving and receiving constructive critique.
At the cross, however, man’s high-mindedness is utterly decimated as he comes face-to-face with the savage heinousness of sin. Sin is insurrection of the highest sort, a rebellious uprising against the Creator and Ruler of all things. While the law certainly does much to show us our sin, it is actually the gospel that gives us the most alarming impression of the infinite affront that our sin is to God. David Wells writes, “The biblical gospel asserts… that the self is twisted, that it is maladjusted in its relationship to God and others, that it is full of deceit and rationalizations, that it is lawless, that it is in rebellion, and indeed one must die to self in order to live.”1David Wells, No Place for Truth (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), 179 The hamartiology of the gospel shatters the exalted self-perceptions of our congregants, as well as our own.
Who can behold the Son of God being submerged under the floodwaters of divine judgment, utterly forsaken by His Father, and think nothing of this? Alfred Poirier, in his excellent article entitled “The Cross and Criticism,” explains, “In response to my sin, the cross has criticized and judged me more intensely, deeply, pervasively, and truly than anyone else ever could.”2Alfred J. Poirier, “The Cross and Criticism,” The Journal of Biblical Counseling 17.3 (1999): 18. To hear the proclamation of Christ crucified
is to hear the most comprehensive and cutting critique of ourselves. In the light of the cross, we are taught the painful but liberating truth that we are always worse than our worst human critic makes us out to be. It is not possible to paint us too blackly.
The breathtaking reality is that at the cross Christ has swallowed up the judgment that our rebellion deserved. In Him, God views us as though we have not the slightest taint of sin. He justifies us! If our congregations really understood this, they would exclaim, “If God justifies me, accepts me, and will never forsake me, then why should I feel insecure and fear criticism?”3Poirier, 19. Such is a practical outworking of the gospel. To the extent that our churches possess an experiential acquaintance of their gracious acceptance, adopted status, and unshakeable security in Jesus Christ, they will not excessively fear the frowns of man or be quick to issue hypercritical frowns toward others.
This is the kind of culture of criticism our churches need—one in which the cross looms large and men, women, boys, and girls see themselves as crucified with Christ. The gospel humbles us lower than the most scathing human criticism, but it simultaneously exalts us into God’s gracious favor so that the negative appraisal of our fellow man no longer devastates us.
Pastors and their Critics: A Guide to Coping with Criticism in the Ministry
Joel R. Beeke and Nick Thompson