How to Be Graciously Critical (Emphasis on the “Critical” Part)

August 25, 2011 — 2 Comments

[This post is part of the Reshaping Christian Habits series]

Just a caveat before we get started: I don’t necessarily embody this ideal so well myself. Rather than say, “Do as I say, not as I do,” think of this post as more of a line in the sand. In the past I’ve certainly violated both the previous post on grace, and don’t always follow the advice I’ll have below. But, as part of reshaping my own Christian habits, I’d like to start being more gracious when I am critical, and less critical in general.

So, last post closed with the thought that sometime being gracious means not being critical. Something that has been very useful for me to remember is that I’m not called to be the thought police for everyone I run into. Even now with a master of theology and all that jazz, I’m not God’s gift to the church for the correction of doctrine and identification of idolaters. I realized around my third year of seminary that my idol at the time was probably pointing out other people’s idols. This of course was a problem. Since then, I’ve wrestled with how to be critical when appropriate, and when to just keep my mouth shut, or better yet, pray about it and wait for the right time to bring up the issue. There are some helpful ideas I’ve come across that help me approach criticism more graciously. They include but are not limited to:

  • Differentiating between Closed-hand vs. Open Hand doctrines
  • Weighing my own certainty and the importance of the actual issue
  • Becoming more humble about what I actually know
  • Examining the relational standing I have with the person involved
  • Checking my motivation for criticizing in the first place

The first applies especially to theological issues, or doctrinal issues and is just a general qualification. Some doctrines fall into what we might think of as “closed-hand” issues. The Trinity, Jesus’ full humanity and full divinity, the Resurrection – basically doctrines that have historically been affirmed by all believers everywhere and have a creedal status of orthodox.

On the other hand (ha) there are “open hand” issues like personal views of eschatology, specific interpretations of some passages of Scripture (like Genesis 1-2 maybe), and views on church government. This is not to say these issues are not also important to have a position on, but to say that there is much less certainty involved, and there is much less at stake if you are wrong.

Just another caveat: I think all theology is important, and I think everyone should strive to hold views on doctrine that as far as they are aware are correct. That being said, something we tend to forget (and by we, I mean us Calvinists) is that Jesus longed for us to be unified to the same degree that He and the Father were. Holding correct doctrine is virtue to strive for, but not at the expense of unity.

Now, besides looking at things from an open-hand or closed-hand perspective, I think a good general criteria is to only confront or criticize when a situation arises where you are extemely certain you are right, and the issue is in fact a highly important one. Sam Crabtree talks about this in his book Practicing Affirmation. This, as you might already  be thinking, seems very subjective. Isn’t the problem that too many people think that every little detail is of the same importance and those same people are always dead-certain they hold the right view?

This is a problem, so it seems, that before you can approach criticism correctly, you need to have a certain degree of intellectual humility. I found that as my studies continued at DTS I noticeably grew in knowledge, but also I began to feel that I knew less. What happened is that my circle of knowledge started out small, and so the boundaries of the unknown were also small. I felt very certain about what I did know and did not think there was much out there to consider. As I grew in knowledge though, the boundaries of the unknown grew as well, leading me to be a little more humble about what I knew I didn’t know, as well as the possibility that someone else may see things in a way I hadn’t thought of, and that way might be correct.

In addition to being more humble about what I know, weighing the importance of the issue, and in theological concerns differentiating between closed and open handed doctrines, a big thing is to consider your relational standing to the person you are going to criticize. This, as you can imagine, becomes tricky when it is criticizing a public figure with whom you have no relationship. In short, I think when a public figure makes public statements, they are then open to criticism, but a good rule of thumb is to not say anything on your blog that you wouldn’t mind saying to that person in person. In cases where it is someone you could talk to personally, I think you should consider whether you have the right relational standing with them before criticizing.

As a short example, when I first moved to Florida, we started going to a new church. Because of my background, I came with a fairly critical eye, but I also realized that as a new person in the congregation, and as just an attender and not an elder or staff member, I was not in a relational position to be very critical. Also, I did not want to start off new relationships with the reputation as being Mr. Critical. Beyond that, many of the earlier considerations (level of importance, possibility of being wrong) have stifled some of my more critical impulses, I think for the better.

Lastly, I think it is always a good idea to examine your motives as best you can. Are you simply being critical in order to prove someone else wrong? Being right when someone else is wrong puts you in a position of power over the person corrected, and some people, myself included, can be attracted to that. I think often for me, I may follow the above criteria, but still spoil it by coming to a person with the wrong motivation. Wanted to rain on someone else’s parade and show how wrong they are is never a good reason to criticize, but it is unfortunately a sinfully gratifying thing to do. This is something I need to continually work on, and maybe you do as well.

All in all then, before criticizing, even graciously, consider how important the issue is and how certain you are that you are right. If both are high, then move forward. Before initiating actual criticism though, check your motivation and think about the relationship you have with the person and whether you are in the kind of standing with them that allows you to speak critically. I realize much more could be fleshed out here, but this is just a start, and its also something you can call me on now when I violate it.


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I'm an avid reader, musician, and high school Bible teacher living in central Florida. I have many paperback books and our house smells of rich glade air freshners. If you want to know more, then let's connect!

Trackbacks and Pingbacks:

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