Have you ever noticed how often the New Testament authors addressed divisions within the church?
A clear example can be seen in the first chapters of 1 Corinthians, where Paul wrote to a church that was dividing over personalities rather than unifying under Christ. In Philemon, Paul wrote to reconcile a slave and his master in the Lord. James called his readers to stop showing partiality in their gatherings. Other letters show signs that false teachers and divisive people were prevalent in the early church. If you take a quick look at today’s churches, you’ll find that not much has changed over the last two millennia. We remain in constant danger of division.
Of course, there are times when division is necessary. The letter writers regularly addressed false teachers and corrupt theologies, clearly drawing the line between truth and error. Yet they did so for the sake of the flock. John wrote to the church as a father writes to his children, urging them to abide in the truth in spite of those who departed from the fellowship. Paul likewise wrote as to his brothers and sisters, passionately denouncing false teachers for the sake of his people’s freedom in Christ. As we read the New Testament authors, we see through their words that they were indeed people who loved their Savior and who loved his church. They fought in his name to defend her.
Do we love the church like they did?
When I began to recognize poor theology and false teaching, I used to love jokes that highlighted such issues. Prosperity Gospel preachers were the usual targets at first, but my friends and I soon widened our sights to poke fun at any Christian in the spotlight who seemed to stray even slightly from what we believed was solid. We turned a critical eye on every statement, every claim, every analogy. We picked apart pastors and wrote off worship leaders who didn’t seem to align with our perspectives. I’m sure we thought we were standing for truth by criticizing these leaders.
I remember feeling attacked, however, when I heard someone criticize a leader I followed. As I encountered similar criticisms and jokes from the other side of the conversation, I noticed how unloving the remarks sounded. In the moment, I didn’t detect any concern for my soul on the part of the commentators. I don’t believe they were lovingly trying to help me see a more holy path. I believe they were simply enjoying their jokes and their judgments.
As I consider criticism in these situations, I wonder again: Do we love the church like the New Testament writers did?
Do we criticize out of love for the flock or out of enjoyment of criticism? Are we more against opponents than we are for the church? Are we really speaking so that people will see the truth and draw near to Christ, or are we simply bullying people? Would Paul write to encourage us or to rebuke us for our words?
Don’t misunderstand – I believe there is a time and a place for healthy criticism. We must test the spirits (1 John 4:1), holding fast to the good confession for the glory of God and for the good of people (Hebrews 10:23). At times, this will mean critically evaluating and rejecting wrong theology and practice. But we still must do this in love, for the good of the hearers. In Matthew 18, for example, Jesus gave us a model for responding to those that sin against us that I think could help us in giving helpful criticism, a model that doesn’t immediately jump to public repudiation but which instead works for reconciliation and for the health of the body. Love should rule our approach. We are called to make disciples, not to make enemies.
I’m reminded of Paul’s words to the Romans: “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all” (Romans 12:18). This week, let us be people of peace. Let us encourage and edify with our words. Let us build up the body. Let us stand steadfastly for truth, not compromising the Word of God but neither compromising our witness for a laugh. Let us love people more than popularity, holiness more than humor, and Christ more than crass criticism. And let them know us by our love (John 13:35).
Thanks to Maci Duncan for her editing suggestions.