A few recent controversies have caused me to reconsider when and how we should criticize church elders – that is, pastors or overseers. As someone who often writes about theological topics, I am particularly concerned with how bloggers and other Christian authors choose to respond to well-known elders in the Church. This is certainly a sensitive subject and one that calls for wisdom based on the Word of God.
I myself have made occasional criticisms of various elders on this blog, particularly over the course of the past year. These experiences have taught me some things about how we ought to engage with one another for the good of the Church and in line with God’s commands. I know that I have not always met the high standard that I set for myself, and there are some things that I would change if I was offered a redo. Nevertheless, I hope that what I have to say today will be helpful to both myself and others in the future.
The most relevant biblical passage that deals with criticisms of elders occurs in the book of 1 Timothy, a letter that the Apostle Paul wrote to his young protégé pastor.
The elders who rule well are to be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who work hard at preaching and teaching. For the Scripture says, “You shall not muzzle the ox while he is threshing,” and “The laborer is worthy of his wages.” Do not receive an accusation against an elder except on the basis of two or three witnesses. Those who continue in sin, rebuke in the presence of all, so that the rest also will be fearful of sinning. I solemnly charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus and of His chosen angels, to maintain these principles without bias, doing nothing in a spirit of partiality. Do not lay hands upon anyone too hastily and thereby share responsibility for the sins of others; keep yourself free from sin.
1 Timothy 5:17-22
Paul lays out several principles here that are helpful to us. 1) We should be careful about who we ordain (“lay hands upon”). 2) Those elders who do well are worthy of honor, particularly if they preach the Word faithfully. 3) Elders should be properly compensated for their work. 4) Accusations against an elder should not be accepted except “on the basis of two or three witnesses”. 5) If an elder is in unrepentant sin, they should be rebuked “in the presence of all”, in order to set a good example for others. 6) We must handle all these situations without a “spirit of partiality”.
What can we conclude from this? First, it is not illegitimate to criticize an elder. Second, there is a right way and a wrong way to do so. The difficulty with this passage is following through with Paul’s requirement for two or three witnesses. This seems to apply more to accusations about an elder’s personal or private behavior. Many of the criticisms leveled against well-known elders have to do with things they have said or done publicly. How then do we apply this principle?
I believe that what Paul is really getting at is the need to make sure that the accusation is true. The standard used to verify a public statement is different than an allegation of private misconduct. In this article, I am mainly going to address issues with an elders’ teachings, e.g. what they say in a sermon or write in a book. Here it is helpful to review the Apostle Paul’s qualifications for the office of elder. He said that such men should be “above reproach”, “have a good reputation with those outside the church”, and be “holding fast the faithful word which is in accordance with the teaching”. Paul was concerned that an elder should “be able both to exhort in sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict”. (These qualifications are found in 1 Timothy 3:2-7 and Titus 1:5-9.)
Something else we should keep in mind is the following: “Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word as is good for edification according to the need of the moment, so that it will give grace to those who hear.” (Ephesians 4:29) This certainly applies to our critiques of elders. We must ask ourselves if what we have to say is both necessary and profitable.
Having reviewed these biblical principles, I am going to offer a series of recommendations to anyone who is considering publicly criticizing an elder, and particularly writers such as myself. Some of these are based on specific passages of scripture, while others rely on common sense and basic courtesy. Most of the principles would also apply to criticisms we make of laypersons.
- Your goal is always reconciliation. Hold to the twin virtues of truth and love. There may be times when a criticism is necessary in order to correct something that is not true or loving, but you yourself must engage in truth and love. The purpose is not simply to attack, but rather to exhort, reprove, and train in righteousness, seeking the good of the other person and the Church.
- There may be a difference between a critique and a criticism, and there is certainly a difference between constructive and non-constructive criticism: between something offered in love or in a dismissive manner. Strive to be constructive whenever you engage.
- Elders are to be criticized in cases where their teachings or personal behavior are not in line with scripture. Those who are part of a denomination that holds to a particular confession, doctrinal statement, or other set or rules can also be expected to uphold those requirements and beliefs. Save your greatest criticism for any deviation from the core doctrines of our faith: those regarding the nature of God, the nature of man, sin, salvation, and scripture. When it comes to personal behavior, focus on any deviation from the requirements outlined by Paul.
- Bathe everything you do in prayer. Pray that God will help you to understand the elder’s words properly. Pray that He will help you to understand the scriptures properly. Pray that He will help you to know whether or not a criticism is appropriate. Pray that He will help you to criticize in a godly manner. Pray that the whole episode will be beneficial for the Church. Pray that He will help you to respond with love when you yourself face criticism.
- A basic amount of background research is required of anyone who chooses to criticize the words or actions of an elder. This means examining other writings, sermons, interviews, etc. to see if the problematic view was the result of a one-time mistake or an ongoing trend. While critics cannot be expected to read everything an elder has ever produced, they should examine those resources that are most pertinent to the subject at hand.
- If possible, contact the elder in question or their church/organization. In a peaceable manner, explain your concern and ask for clarification. Was that really what the person meant? Are the reports you have heard accurate? This step presents certain complications. You may get no response, or you may get an angry response. Your concern may also be of such a nature that it is not appropriate to contact the elder. Here some common sense can be very helpful. If you feel it is reasonably possible, give the elder an opportunity to explain himself before you criticize him publicly.
- Check with one of your own elders or a godly friend to see if they agree that the problem is really a problem, assuming that you take issue with something an elder has said or done publicly. Seek their counsel on whether or not to criticize the individual and how to go about it.
- Consider whether or not you are the best person to offer a particular criticism. While people should not be expected to have a seminary degree or a personal relationship with the elder in question in order to critique them, there are some issues that require a certain level of expertise. Doing your research helps here, but consider if you are the best person among your circle of acquaintances to tackle the issue in question. Also consider whether you might have a conflict of interest that would hinder your ability to offer an appropriate and impartial critique.
- Be aware of scriptural levels of authority. Each of us is under the authority of the elders at our own church. They have a God-given responsibility to shepherd us and, if necessary, to proceed with church discipline. However, we are not under the authority of every elder that exists. There is also something to be said for the difference between what an elder does in their capacity at their own church and what they do as part of a parachurch organization or write in one of their books. Be mindful of these differences when you offer a critique and adjust accordingly. Not all elders have authority over us, but they are all worthy of respect.
- When evaluating an elder’s public statements, remember that not all mediums are equally authoritative. Although blog articles and interviews may receive a good deal of publicity, they often involve less preparation and a larger admixture of personal opinion. An elder has the greatest responsibility when he preaches to his congregation or writes something more formal, like a book or academic paper. This does not excuse errors made in other situations, such as a parachurch conference. However, we must realize that people are more likely to make mistakes when they are put on the spot, and some of the things they say carry more weight than others. I also feel that things presented to seminary students should cause us greater concern, because they have the potential to affect preaching in many churches for years to come.
- We have a responsibility to present an accurate version of someone else’s view. Make sure that what you are critiquing is what they actually believe and not a straw man set up to score points. Using a lot of direct quotes can be very helpful here, as any attempt to rephrase involves some degree of interpretation on your part. Try your utmost to avoid taking words out of context, or to inform readers of anything that might affect the meaning of those quoted words.
- Pay special attention to how the person you are critiquing uses different terms. While there are commonly accepted definitions of certain terms within evangelical and Reformed theology, some elders do not adhere to these definitions. This is a very unhelpful habit, as it can cause listeners or readers to misunderstand their overall meaning. However, if you have any reason to suspect that the person you are critiquing is employing a different definition of a term than the one that is commonly used, make sure to note this fact in your critique.
- Criticize as if the person in question is listening. Assuming you have not had any prior contact with the elder you are criticizing, ask yourself, “Would I be willing to make this criticism to their face? Would I give them this article to read?” This is the internet version of not saying something behind someone’s back, and it will stand you in good stead in the future. They may never read what you have to say, but at the very least, this will help to ensure that you make your criticism in a fair and loving manner.
- Your argument must be rooted in scripture or not made at all. Appeal to the scriptures first and foremost when criticizing an elder. Appeal secondly to the creeds and confessions to which the elder is subject. Only after that should you appeal to the writings of theologians or other individual opinions. Just because so and so writes something doesn’t make it right. Elders should base their teaching on scripture, and your critique should likewise be based on scripture.
- Have someone you trust read over your argument. Before you publish your critique, ask one or two trusted friends or colleagues to review it. Select people who have a good knowledge of the scriptures, an awareness of your own character and personality, and some exposure to the issue at hand.
- Strive to develop a good balance in how you respond to elders. You should not simply be critical all the time. Give honor to whom honor is due. If you see an elder doing something that is in line with scripture or is benefitting the body of Christ, offer them words of gratitude. We should make great efforts to encourage and pray for our elders. They need it!
- Offer the person you are criticizing an opportunity to respond on your own platform, provided they attempt to make their defense from scripture and do not resort to personal attacks or abusive language. Many elders will not take you up on this offer, but it is a basic courtesy.
- Make your audience aware of any other response. If the elder or their church/organization offer some kind of official statement clarifying their position or write something on their own platform, acknowledge this and present it to your readers.
- If someone points out a flaw in your own behavior or descriptions, have enough humility to admit that you were wrong. Offer an apology to the person in question. Make any necessary corrections. One mistake may not invalidate your whole criticism, but it is important to conduct yourself in the same manner that you would require of others. If you expect them to apologize when they are wrong, then be willing to apologize yourself.
- Again, your goal is always reconciliation. Criticisms often create rifts in relationships, but you should never burn a bridge unnecessarily. Seek to restore those who are in error. If they respond to your critique in humility and with a desire to make things right, then by all means embrace that. Seek opportunities for biblical restoration. It may be necessary to repeat your criticisms, but we should not carry a vendetta against a particular elder. Again, we seek their good and the good of the Church of Jesus Christ.
I hope these suggestions are somewhat helpful. If an elder continues in unrepentant sin or refuses to hold to doctrinal orthodoxy, then it may be necessary for them to be removed from their office. However, we hope for happier outcomes, and the Spirit that works in the children of God is capable of creating reconciliation. Criticizing an elder is a serious matter, but if we go about it the right way, we can help the Church rather than hurting it.
All scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, copyright The Lockman Foundation.