How to Criticize the Church
Some weeks it’s easier to be a Christian than an Adventist. This was one of those weeks for me. It began with Annual Council delegates forgetting that Halloween is still a week away and deciding to dress like extras from Little House on the Prairie…or Django. To many of us, they were a reminder of a patriarchal, racist chapter in our nation’s history. Can you say tone deaf?
Next the President of the General Conference went after music, worship, and social justice in the same message – just hours after the costume party. It gave rise to criticism that he was attempting to Make Adventism White…I mean, Great Again. I understand his call for moderation, and in context it makes sense. But what are the words I’m looking for? Oh, yeah. Tone deaf.
And then there was the “Unity” document. An attempt to rein in parts of the church that have been deemed, “out of compliance.” (Hint: That’s about 80% of you.) Again, it makes sense in principle. This is a 20-million-member denomination with more off shoot groups than we can name. But the unmistakeable backdrop is women’s ordination. And in my opinion, it’s another attempt to legislate a matter of conscience, context, and Union control.
So, what’s a frustrated Adventist professor to do? Well, I think its time to criticize. What? Yes, criticize. Is that appropriate? I think so. Ever heard of a prophet named Jeremiah? What about Ellen White and her Testimonies to the Churches and letters to leaders? What about Jesus and his letters to the churches in Revelation 2 and 3?
Is church criticism appropriate? I would argue that it’s not only appropriate but essential. It all depends on how it’s done. Let me give some suggestions on how to appropriately criticize the church.
There are some church issues that don’t need to be made public. As a matter of principle, we should attempt to resolve issues as quickly, quietly, and as close to the source of the problem as possible. Matthew 18 provides concrete counsel for most church conflicts. But that counsel is best applied to personal conflict. Not a perfect model for criticism of institutions.
One of the absolute requirements for going after an institution or an individual, is getting your facts straight. Don’t accept what you hear or what you read at face value. The internet is fast becoming a fact free zone. Ted Wilson is not a Jesuit. The church logo wasn’t designed by a warlock. Get your facts straight before you criticize the church.
Paul reminds us in Ephesians 4:15, that speaking the truth in love is a recipe for Christian growth and maturity. It’s also important for those who criticize the church. Check your motivation. Watch your attitude. Be conscious of how your criticism impacts and influences others. You can’t use the Devil’s tools to build the Lord’s house.
If you don’t have the courage to speak truth to power, step aside and support those who do. Our church structures are presidential to a fault. It’s great for efficiency, but it comes at the cost of collaboration and diversity. The warning against “kingly power” is more than cliché counsel. We have a real problem. We have literally enabled leaders to hurt themselves and us. For all the talk of free exchange, many of our leaders are surrounded by other leaders who won’t speak up because it’s contrary to their own self interests. I get it. But it’s not working. And it runs counter to the sensibilities of the generation that will be leading us next.
Finally, if you’re going to criticize, start with that person in the mirror. Don’t require something of me that you don’t value yourself. No one is perfect but have some integrity. Be consistent. And let me leave you with perhaps the greatest test of your integrity. How do you respond to a friend that’s incorrect or out of order? Not an enemy but a friend. Are you prepared to correct them?
So, there they are. Some simple suggestions from a professor who has been in a few battles. What do you think? Is it ok to criticize the church? Any observations or suggestions?