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

August 19, 2011 — 1 Comment

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

Something that has been on my mind as I transition away from seminary has using my critical faculties graciously in my new setting. Part of this also means being more gracious in settings that haven’t changed, i.e. the internet, or more specifically, Facebook, Twitter, and blog posts on here. I started making changes along these lines toward the end of my third year at DTS, and especially during my last year toned things down a bit. The problem that I usually run into though is that I’ve been trained to be critical of texts (read: mainly books) but often this spills over into criticism of the person.

One thing that has been helpful to me is to remember that a person’s book, article, sermon, or anything set in stone can be criticized as is. However, it would be wrong to transfer some of the criticism to the person themselves in the present time if the book/article/sermon is rather dated. Maybe it is still in keeping with their general modus operandi, in which case there is good possibility of transference. But generally speaking, if I am criticizing something someone said, I need to focus on their words, arguments and their ideas and not by implication say things that are personally demeaning to them.

The internet of course is not familiar with this kind of approach. Consider the recent article by John MacArthur titled “Beer, Bohemianism, and True Christian Liberty” which I came across via Doug Wilson. In it, MacArthur has some thoughts about the young, restless, Reformed crowd and specifically their beer consumption. Some of his position was later clarified (and talked about on the radio), but if you read the article, you’ll notice the rhetoric that MacArthur uses is not likely to help convince the very people he is trying to reason with. Basically, the article will sell well to the choir, but the heathens out in the pews aren’t likely to see the light. He is however, moderately gracious in the way he approaches his criticizing those with whom he disagrees.

Now, while MacArthur was moderately gracious, this response by Joel McDurmon is hardly gracious at all. While I agree with many of the arguments, I think it has the same problem that MacArthur’s article has, only in this case far worse. To me, it is a classic example of being right while being wrong. In other words, I think McDurmon’s arguments (maybe not all of them) are more exegetically and historically sound, but his caustic rhetoric will not only fail to win friends and influence people, it fails to exhibit love and grace to not only MacArthur’s argument, but his person as well.

It would take a separate post (and it may) to examine the actual argument going on between MacArthur and McDurmon. My point here is that specifically in McDurmon’s case, the criticism was not presented in a way that moves the conversation forward, nor does it engender mutual respect and gracious dialogue. It is but one of perhaps millions of examples of blog posts on the internet that do so, but is case in point of why many people think Calvinists are all jerks.

This is in part because, well, most Calvinists are jerks. Maybe in higher proportions than other sectors of Christianity, but Calvinists are a bit more vocal, usually a bit more into debating, and so tend to be more visible for acts of jerkiness. It doesn’t have to be this way, and I would suggest that like most activities, it is habit that was perhaps unconsciously formed and will now need to be consciously broken. This is perhaps another explanation (this will become a link to another post sometime next week) but even in that other light, failing to be gracious in our criticisms is an acquired art, but it is by no means required. You can actually criticize someone for something they’ve said or done without coming off like a jerk.

As David Powlison aptly has put it, “Truth without love is like doing heart surgery with a hammer” (and conversely “Love without truth is like doing heart surgery with a wet fish”). I would say in some cases, the aim isn’t even heart surgery, its just simply organ reconstruction performed with the delicacy that only a hammer can provide. Once the habit of communicating this way is formed, it will take specific steps to break the pattern. To that end, I could make a list of ideas to jump start you into being more gracious in your criticism. But, I think it really comes down to some simple advice we often forget:

  • If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.

Try that on for size for a week and see if that doesn’t help. In other words, I’m suggesting if you can’t say something positive or affirming of a person, just keep it to yourself. You may not need to do this indefinitely, but it will help to break your initial tendency to dismantle somebody else’s wrong ideas or activities. I realize there does come a point where you probably shouldn’t just keep your mouth shut (or your fingers off the keyboard) so, next post in the series, we’ll come back to this topic, but put the emphasis on the “critical” part of it and look at when and how to criticize in a more Christ-like way.


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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!

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  1. How to Be Graciously Critical (Emphasis on the “Critical” Part) « Words With Nate - August 25, 2011

    […] 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 […]

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