As we make our way through the Gospel records, we find that Jesus frequently warned and criticized both his opponents and his disciples. This is a point of no small significance for those of us who live in a time when, at every level of society, men tend to focus exclusively on the error of their categorical opponents rather than on the errors of those with whom they are affiliated. We readily lend our weight to the demonization of those we perceive to be most dangerous to the cause we seek to champion, while neglecting significant error within our own affinity groups. There are several reasons for this phenomenon.
1. Previous personal experience.
The Puritan theologian, Robert Traill, once made the following astute observation: “Men…have a greater kindness for that extreme they go half-way to than for that which they go half-way from.” Those who move away from their Arminian roots are ever in danger of having a greater tolerance for hyper-calvinism than for any semblance of man-centered theology. Those who distance themselves from the Antinomian teaching they once embraced have a greater kindness for legal sanctification than for anything they perceive to give license. Those who have shaken off the shackles of legalism are more susceptible to the allurement of Antinomianism than they are to the bondage of legal sanctification. History is full of examples of those who have tolerated error on the side to which they have half-way gone while rejecting error on that side from which they have half-way come.
2. Present collective agendas.
Collective labors are inevitable in this fallen world. Even those who have a distaste for political opportunism are susceptible to siding with others for a common cause. This is not, in and of itself, an evil thing. Causes and movements are bound to occur, and may–if they are driven by a desire to bring glory to God and good to men–serve to make the church and the world a better place. However, a zeal for the potential good of collective labors may diminish the objectivity of those who have bound themselves together for a common cause. When a particular group recurrently affirms its cause in a general sense, it can easily lose the ability to give proper critical nuance to the more refined beliefs of the members of the group. It is far easier to launch grenades at the perceived enemy without, than it is to root out renegades within. As is true of our dealings with blood relatives, affinity clouds objectivity.
The desire to hold on to privilege or influence, together with those with whom we labor, often tends to fuel an imbalanced approach to criticism. Late in Jesus’ ministry, the Apostles came to him and said, “Master, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he does not follow with us.” A prima facia reading would seem to lead us to conclude that this was an appropriate criticism. After all, one would expect a true disciple–at this point in the Savior’s ministry–to be bound together in the same fellowship as his inner circle of disciples. However, Jesus responded, “Do not stop him, for the one who is not against you is for you.” John Calvin explained that this rebuke, on the part of the disciples, was driven by sinful ambition and a desire to maintain privilege and honor, when he wrote:
“[The Apostles] had rashly taken on themselves the right to forbid; and therefore every man who undertakes more than he knows that he is permitted to do by the word of God is chargeable with rashness. Besides, there is reason to suspect the disciples of Christ of ambition, because they are anxious to maintain their privilege and honor. For how comes it that they all at once forbid a man who is unknown to them to work miracles, but because they wish to be the sole possessors of this right?”
3. Potential Mutual Defenestration.
Fear of overly harsh criticism has often had the adverse effect of muting constructive criticism within an affinity group. When we fear the responses we may elicit from those who have stood side by side with us in a common cause–because we have witnessed a destructive chain reaction in other settings–we are tempted to shy away from raising apropos criticisms. Nevertheless, we must remember the words of the Proverbs: “Open rebuke is better than love carefully concealed,” and “faithful are the wounds of a friend, but the kisses of an enemy are deceitful.” Of course, how we criticize is just as important as what criticisms we raise. For instance, Scripture teaches us that “a soft answer turns away wrath” and “a wise reprover to a listening ear is like a gold ring.”
We must be willing and ready to criticize individuals, actions and ideologies within the ecclesiastical or theological camps in which we find ourselves, when we find that we–or those with whom we labor side by side–have deviated from the clear teaching of Scripture. We must resist the urge to partner with others merely out of a desire to gain traction in a common cause. We must not fear the repercussions of being the dissenting voice among affiliates if we are convinced that constructive criticism is necessary. Of course, we must take the most strident stand against aberrant doctrine and practices outside of our affinity groups–but never to the exclusion of raising necessary criticisms within.