I’m not short on criticism. In fact, I don’t have to work hard at all to be critical. Seems to come rather natural for me. This is both a blessing and a curse. It’s a blessing because being critical has given me a sharper intellectual edge in analyzing doctrine and thinking hard (read “critically”) about subjects. On the other hand, being critical is also a curse for the same reasons it’s a blessing. Because I tend to think harder and more critically about subjects, it’s easier for me to identify error or point out subtle nuances in preaching that are logically unsound, theologically questionable, or just plain biblically or historically uninformed. [Admittedly my philosophy background and training in seminary has something to do with this “skill.”]
While being critical is a strength in a classroom, it’s rarely seen as a virtue when sitting in the pews at church. Indeed I cannot think of a time when it’s ever served me well. I suspect this has much to do with our culture that eschews any criticism and sees it only as destructive rather than constructive. It also may have much to do with the notion that the pastor/preacher has some special skill and insight (after all, they’ve had formal education) that we don’t because we’ve not been formally trained and we’ve no right to question an “authority”. Why would I question my medical doctor when given a diagnosis, if I spent my life as a plumber? They have to be right. Right? Maybe being “critical” sounds too much like “criticizing” and no one wants to be labeled a “critic.” Or maybe we’ve bought into the idea that we have to earn the right to be critical by saying something positive to even things out (the math may be simple, but the logic is invalid). Since we have a hard time saying positive things, we end up not being critical at all.
Regardless of root causes, I wonder: Is it okay to critique a sermon? What do you think? Can I be critical without being labeled a critic? A few passages come to mind that suggest it may be appropriate for believers to be critical.
Two or three prophets should speak, and the others should weigh carefully what is said.
(1 Cor 14:29)
Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God.
(1 Jn 4:1)
Do not treat prophecies with contempt but test them all; hold on to what is good, reject every kind of evil.
(1 Thess 5:20–22)
Here’s what I think. First of all, none of these passages give us grounds to think that the testing or weighing carefully is done only by certain people in the church. Actually, the presumption is that everyone can and should engage in critically evaluating what is said. Regarding 1 Cor 14:29 D.A. Carson argues “If Paul had wanted to say ‘the [others] (of the prophets),’ the Greek more plausibly should have been οἱ λοιποὶ (hoi loipoi) rather than οἱ ἄλλοι (hoi alloi)” meaning “all the others” (Showing the Spirit, p. 120). Blomberg adds “when prophecy is taken to include Spirit-filled preaching, it seems clear that the ordinary ‘layperson’ is often in a better position to determine how well or accurately the preacher has communicated than are fellow-preachers, who are absorbed in the fine points of the theology or technique of the message” (1 Corinthians: The NIV Application Commentary, p. 279).
Second, with regards to 1 Thess 5:20-22, while it is true that prophetic utterances must not be depreciated but taken serious and with the same respect due the Holy Spirit, it is every person who must carefully weigh “all [things]” (πάντα, neuter plural), leaving no stone unturned. The presumption is that everyone exposed to prophesy (this includes Spirit-filled preaching) will be able to discern truth when they hear it. It follows that everyone recognizing spiritual truth must translate that into their lives (“hold on to what is good”), but reject those sayings which are contrary to gospel faith. This of course requires a critical ear. Just as in Old Testament times a prophet was to be rejected when prophecies did not turn up true (Deut. 18:21-22), so too in New Testament times. Similarly, those who do not hold to the full humanity of Jesus are false prophets (1 Jn 4:1-3) and this requires the discernment by every member of Christ’s Church.
Though no one likes a tenacious critic, there is nothing virtuous about a credulous Christian. Everyone is called to be a discriminate learner. Just as the whole church is to be involved in discipline (see Craig Blomberg’s excellent post “True Church Discipline”), so too the whole church is involved in discernment. So the next time someone critiques the sermon, don’t be too critical of them. Hopefully, they’re doing their (biblical) job.