Leviticus 19:15-18: “You shall do no injustice in judgment…You shall not go about as a talebearer among your people; nor shall you take a stand against the life of your neighbor…You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.”
Galatians 6:10: “Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all, especially to those who are of the household of faith.”
Southern Baptist seminaries are confessional institutions. Faculty members and students confess that God is Triune, the Son was crucified and resurrected, salvation comes by grace and faith alone, and that the Scriptures are the very words of God. We rightly learn to see the world through the lens of these confessions, to critique the spirit of the age and its manifestations. We learn to critique other Christian traditions and theologians. We learn to read critically, think critically, and write critically. We write critical essays, book reviews, and research papers. This is good, when done with grace and love to the glory of God.
But somewhere along the way, we sometimes become critical in the bad sense of that word. Perhaps it is easy to slip from critiquing a book or a theological position to criticizing everything and every person we encounter, and doing so in a way that is lacking in grace. One of the most rude awakenings I had upon “entering” convention life (in my late teens) is that seminary people and other “convention” people seemed often to be quick to gossip, repeat unsubstantiated rumor, misrepresent their opponents, and find an all-around satisfaction in judging other people. This critical spirit can take many forms: At pastor’s conferences, we encounter it in the form of preachers making derisive jokes about homosexuals, or allowing their “exegesis” of a biblical text to become a series of drive-by shootings of fellow Southern Baptists. At the lunch table or in the coffee shop, we recognize it when conversation hinges upon criticisms of other people.
Let me be clear. I am not saying that theologians must not critique or criticize. In fact, criticism is inherent to the task of theology. We must rightly divide the Word of God and defend the faith once for all delivered to the saints. The problem is that sometimes we become inordinately eager to criticize, criticizing at the wrong time and in the wrong way, speaking the truth without love, and attacking people more than error. And herein is a deep and ugly irony: We who speak often (and loudly) about grace sometimes find ourselves speaking in ways that are not at all gracious. Because our speech is not seasoned with grace, we undermine the very gospel we preach.
Of course, we don’t develop a hyper-critical attitude because we are in a seminary or involved in the convention. We develop such an attitude because we are proud. We are, as Luther put it, curved in on ourselves (incurvatus se). We think we are “big britches.” We love ourselves inordinately, at the expense of loving our brothers and sisters in Christ. Pride is manifested in many ways and, in our speech, it often manifests itself in incessant criticism. “Criticism,” writes J. Oswald Sanders, “is always made from the vantage point of conscious superiority. Pride will find cause for criticism in everyone and everything. It lauds itself and belittles its neighbor.”
I have noticed that the same pride that prompts me to criticize others also causes me to react sinfully when others criticize me. Immediately, I seek to justify myself. Sometimes, I become hostile and resentful toward those who have criticized me. And almost always, I begin to criticize my critic. But if I could be a consistently humble man, a man who walks with the Lord, I could take criticism no matter from whom, or in what form, it comes. Even the most unfair criticism will likely contain some truth.
The bottom line is this: If we love God more, we will love ourselves ordinately. And if our love for ourselves is in order, we will not develop a critical spirit and we will be able to handle criticism when it is dealt to us. “Therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, put on tender mercies, kindness, humility, meekness, longsuffering, bearing with one another, and forgiving one another….Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another….And whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him” (Col. 3:12-17).