After writing my last article I quickly realized how diverse our views are within the Christian faith. The premise of my article was that we should be less critical and more supportive of those pastors who are blessed with sizable God-given influence.
The article was basically inspired by the whole "love your neighbor" thing in the Bible (Mark 12:31). However, the comments I received from strangers and even close friends ranged from uplifting support to scornful disagreement. Although my article wasn’t centered on Joel Osteen – the comment section quickly filled with accusations about his alleged false teaching and heresy.
I don’t want to make the focus of this article simply about him or about defending his wealth (even though he doesn’t take a salary and is the largest contributor at Lakewood Church) or defending flawed statements he has made (and made public apologies for) or refuting the alleged prosperity gospel he teaches (the one he publicly and specifically denies teaching).
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Instead, I want to explain why I do not believe that God has called us to be critics. And I want to actually practice what I will be preaching – which is to address the principle of a concern instead of attacking those I might disagree with.
We Criticize Real People When We Choose to Criticize
We live in a digital era with instant access to an abundance of avenues to voice our opinions. This is the "Catch 22" of the social media age - healthy, respectful online discourse is just as prevalent as damaging, negative discourse. It's not always wrong to voice criticism, but I have to argue that social media and the comment section of an article is hardly the ideal place for doing it.
My concern is the lack of hesitation that people seem to have when making personal accusations like "heretic" and "false teacher." My fear is that as we are taking to the online forum we are forgetting to be gentle and respectful in the process (Titus 3:2). Just because a computer screen separates us from someone doesn’t mean we should lack decency in our words toward them.
In other words, if there is something that you would not feel comfortable saying to a person’s face – then you probably don't need to type it out. Some of the hurtful comments I have read lately makes me secretly wish that Jimmy Kimmel would invite Joel Osteen on his show for a Christian rendition of “Mean Tweets.” I think it would be incredibly helpful in teaching us to understand that pastors are just as human as anyone else.
Principle Not Personal
I am not against disagreeing with someone or respectfully stating your opinion against a false doctrine, such as the "prosperity gospel." In fact, Christians have a responsibility to respectfully disagree with teachings that are damaging and leading people away from Christ. Where I have hesitation is the idea of attacking specific people, especially people we don’t know personally.
John Piper, one of the prosperity gospel’s biggest critics, actually voices his own hesitations about personally identifying those he disagrees with. His exhortation is to make it a principle thing and not a personal thing (which I completely agree with). This is our best option for at least two reasons of which Piper makes mention –
- If you warn against false teaching on principle rather than on a specific person it allows for people to use their own discernment, which is hopefully based upon scripture and the help of the Holy Spirit (John 16:13). Which is the way the Bible instructs us to test any teaching that we listen to (1 John 4:1).
- If false teaching is criticized in principle it will teach others to see it in any situation and in any person - not just one particular pastor. The Bible explains that there will be many false prophets so it isn't a problem that is going away any time soon and not one that can be resolved by exposing one "false teacher" (1 John 4:1). Our fight isn't against a flesh and blood anyway; it is against the principles in false teaching, which is inspired by “the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12).
Finding biblical support for exposing false teachers is not as simple as quoting Bible verses either. There are several scriptures that mention false teaching - 2 Peter 2:1, Matthew 7:15, Romans 16:17-18.
But nowhere in these scriptures does it instruct us to publicly declare a particular person a heretic or a false teacher. In fact, judging from the situation that occurred with the woman caught in the act of adultery, criticizing someone publicly and without compassion is dangerous territory.
We also have to keep in mind that some scriptures are more descriptive than they are prescriptive. If all verses are intended as a prescriptive blueprint then we need to start greeting one another with a "holy kiss" as it says in 1 Thessalonians 5:26.
All that to say, we should not simply assume that because there is a verse with Paul telling someone to rebuke someone else that he is telling us to do so as well. With any scripture, we must be careful to view it within proper context.
Avoid, Not Attack
We should defend and guard our beliefs in some cases, but it is wrong to believe that in all circumstances and situations we should react as the doctrine police. In some instances we are actually instructed to avoid rather than engage with those we disagree with.
“Timothy, guard what God has entrusted to you. Avoid godless, foolish discussions with those who oppose you with their so-called knowledge.” 1 Timothy 6:20-21 NLT
“I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them.” Romans 16:17-18 ESV
Notice the key word “avoid” in both scriptures. This is the opposite of what we naturally want to do. As human beings we love to argue and we love to prove one another wrong. It is incredibly tempting to not only attack the people we disagree with, but also publicly show our attack to the world via social media.
The fact is though, I see much more scriptural evidence for avoiding than I do for attacking.
And in Romans 14 we’re even told to welcome those we disagree with:
“Welcome with open arms fellow believers who don’t see things the way you do. And don’t jump all over them every time they do or say something you don’t agree with—even when it seems that they are strong on opinions but weak in the faith department. Remember, they have their own history to deal with. Treat them gently.” Romans 14:1 MSG
Living It Out
This world is brimming with critics and criticism. And there is absolutely no shortage of Christians willing to give their opinions on doctrine and debate scripture. But when we take our differences online to discuss them we nearly always end up in a worst place than before we started. Not to mention the divisiveness that develops, which presents a poor example of the unity that Jesus prayed that His Church would have (John 17:20-23).
It should serve as a warning sign that the places in scripture where we see Jesus and the disciples actually rebuking and exposing people is when they comes across judgmental religious circles who are proud of their "perfect" doctrinal knowledge. (Matthew 23:13-28, Luke 11:37-44, John 5:39-40, Titus 1:10-11)
We are all imperfect in our efforts to share the perfect love of God. This should give every believer hesitation before criticizing someone else. Instead of wasting our breath arguing over our differences I suggest we offer grace to those we disagree with and offer the simple Gospel to everyone.
The truth is we don’t need more Christians debating scriptures; we need more Christians living them out. We don’t need more Christians looking for false doctrine; we need more Christians preaching sound doctrine.
It’s easy to sit behind a computer screen disputing and discussing the Christian faith. What’s hard is actually living it out.
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