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Criticism that Breaks or Blesses

Every pastor gets criticized.

There is the dreaded Monday morning email, shredding yesterday’s sermon. There is the complaint quietly circulating in the congregation about the pastor’s lack of empathy. And though it was the whole board of elders that made the decision to switch Bible translations, much of the criticism lands at the pastor’s door.

When a pastor is criticized, it is easy for him to react badly.

One response is to become angry and resentful.

Or to be over-defensive, hurrying to list one’s good qualities and contributions.

Because some people are easily displeased, it can also be tempting to dismiss critique with a flat reminder to “consider the source.” In other words, because it came from a Negative Nellie or a Pessimistic Pete, the criticism need not be taken seriously.

And the classic response is the sheltering strategy: putting up emotional walls, lest anyone get close enough to inflict more hurt in the future.

Paul Under Fire

Paul was an apostle of the Lord Jesus yet was often criticized. Strikingly, a lot of flak originated from believers in whom he had invested much pastoral time and energy. His second letter to the Corinthians reflects their numerous complaints. They critiqued his change of travel plans (2 Cor 1:15–23), they were dissatisfied with his preaching ability (10:10), and took offense when he rebuffed their financial support (11:7–11).

In the face of this criticism, it’s no wonder Paul felt that the Corinthians were withholding their love from him (6:12). So does he react in one of our characteristic ways: anger, pride, dismissal, or withdrawal?

Paul has a different answer, an example from which pastors can learn.

Reaction #1 – Don’t Think Too Highly of Me

Paul was constantly in the public eye, yet he doesn’t want people to think too highly of him. When he reflects on his many ministerial qualifications and experiences, he writes, “For though I might desire to boast, I will not be a fool; for I will speak the truth. But I refrain, lest anyone should think of me above what he sees me to be or hears from me” (12:6). He is concerned that some will take an elevated view of him, and he’d rather that they regard him as a fool.

This statement is so counter-cultural that one might think Paul is being disingenuous. But he wants the Corinthians to see him rightly—as weak and inadequate—so that they will rest more wholly in the glorious Christ.

Paul’s fear that people will think more highly of him than they ought to think is precisely the opposite of what we fear. Especially when we’ve been criticized, we long to be esteemed again! But Paul’s abiding concern is that sinners look to Christ and not to him. This purpose overrides everything, even Paul’s natural desire to defend himself or to go on the offensive against his foes.

It is a challenging lesson for the criticized pastor: Christ’s glory is always more important than our own prestige. His honor must come before our own reputation. With this humble mindset, we can begin to bear up under criticism.

Reaction #2 – I Speak Before God in Christ

In Paul’s surprising response to his critics, a second key truth is that he conducts his ministry in the sight of God. He gladly sets himself before God’s judgment and evaluation. For instance, when defending his practice of self-support (and his refusal of the Corinthians’ financial backing), he asks whether this was “because I do not love you? God knows!” (11:11).

Paul really was motivated by his concern for them—and God knew it, even if they doubted it. In the next chapter (12:19), he asserts,

We speak before God in Christ.

Knowing that he ministers under God’s direction means that Paul isn’t concerned with the judgments of other people. His focus is on pleasing the Lord above all. As he wrote in 1 Corinthians, “He who judges me is the Lord” (1 Cor 4:4). Infinitely weightier than any human opinion is God’s evaluation.

This realization was freeing to Paul, and it can liberate the criticized pastor as he commits his work to God in prayer. Criticism remains hard to receive. Unfounded criticism is particularly discouraging. But a pastor does his task firstly before the Lord and primarily under his scrutiny.

So God knows when we have put in our best effort into a sermon. God knows what motivated our decision in a difficult pastoral situation, and He also knows if we have been unfairly judged. This is key to having God’s blessing of peace when criticized: to remember at all times that you serve Christ. It is to him that we must give an account.

Reaction #3 – I Need Grace

Paul’s response to his critics is remarkable and bold. And perhaps it is uniquely apostolic, for he doesn’t seem to acknowledge any wrongdoing! Yet he is aware of his utter dependence on God’s grace (2 Cor 12:9). Without grace, he was nothing, and he could do nothing. This is a third lesson, and sobering: no pastor’s work is without flaw or failing. Our best efforts remain in constant need of God’s sanctifying grace.

Perhaps it is true that some people will notice only when an obviously deficient job is

done. Yet even then, the pastor’s answer can be, again and again,

I need grace too.

For he can never claim that he doesn’t need to learn or grow. Every servant of Christ needs reflection, correction, and reorientation in his holy task.

When criticism is received, a pastor can accept this as a God-given means to growth. When we read 2 Corinthians, we get the sense that Paul had been granted an excellent opportunity to grow through the strain and stress of this relationship. It was through this conflict that he developed precious insights into the character of ministry, and into the character of the gospel itself—insights from which we are still learning today.

And so for a pastor today, criticism that is committed to God and his grace can be used by him to sanctify, teach, and mature his servants.


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