I wish I could say that I handle it well. Criticism is hard to take and Pastor’s are especially susceptible to turning it into a game of pulpit & pew dodge-ball. Currently I’m reading a book called Why Johnny Can’t Preach by T. David, Gordon. Believe me when I say it is a difficult read, and a pastor should not pick this book up unless he is ready and willing to be brought very low. The book is brutally honest about the ministers task, and does not fall short of levelling the proud heart. Believe it or not, I am very appreciative of Gordon for his honest appraisal of the current condition of the pulpit. I have much to work on as a preacher, and see afresh, my great need to be a better ambassador of Christ behind the Sacred Desk.
In Gordon’s book he states that in his latest charge, in exchange for a reduced salary, he asked the elders for 2 things: first, more time off to study, and second, be given an objective preaching review once per year. Gordon believes that the best way to improve as a preacher, is to have a review of his main duty. Other professionals are subject to review, so why should this be any different for ministers? (Note: a minister is not a professional. Gordon recognizes this, but believes the principle still applies.) This is the point in the book where most preachers will begin to feel a bit uneasy and perhaps look for a more encouraging read. Thoughts run through one’s mind like, “What would my elders say?”, and “Would I be able to handle it?” The question came loud and clear to my own heart, “How would I handle such criticism”? Scary stuff. This presumes of course, that the eldership knows something about the art and science of what they have governance over. The elder should make a complete study of the “art of prophesying”, and know from whence he speaks. This goes without saying.
The truth is, some criticize because they firmly believe that “The Lord wants you to be humble, and has appointed me to do it”. There is never an encouraging word from this kind of person, who always has a list of things you could do better, different, or like the last minister “Rev. So-n’-So”, who by the way, was near perfect. There are others however, who are genuinely trying to help you become a better preacher, and to do so they need the opportunity. None of us like having our shortcomings exposed let alone hung out for others to scrutinize. We’d rather admit that we don’t have the problem, the criticizer does. But this is not biblical. Solomon says, “A wise son heareth his father’s instruction: but a scorner heareth not rebuke.” (Proverbs 13:1) and, “A scorner loveth not one that reproveth him: neither will he go unto the wise.” (Proverbs 15:12). I remember Dr. Beeke saying once (and I wish I could remember where), “There is always a shred of truth, even in the harshest criticism.”
A wise preacher will examine the criticism he receives although it may be painful to do so. He knows it is dangerous to dismiss such simply because he doesn’t like it. “He, that being often reproved hardeneth his neck, shall suddenly be destroyed, and that without remedy“(Proverbs 29:1). This goes for preachers too. David knew something of this when he said in Psalm 141:5 “Let the righteous smite me; it shall be a kindness: and let him reprove me; it shall be an excellent oil, which shall not break my head.” This text also says something about the one doing the criticizing doesn’t it?
I think the Lord has set in place the proper mechanism for this kind of review; the local consistory. It is not the place for every armchair preaching expert in the congregation to point out the flaws present in the pulpit; it is the prerogative of the elders (and that, perhaps an appointed one or two). The consistory alone has the oversight of the preaching. Even then, the criticism should be motivated by love. Further, the criticism should be objective in nature, not based on personal preference. When it is objective in nature, it will almost always be helpful. When I was a student minister several years ago, just beginning to preach, I was told by an elder, “I don’t like your preaching. I don’t know what it is, but I just don’t like it.” Massively unhelpful. But loving, reinforced, objective criticism from an appointed source can be very helpful. I remember preaching a sermon several years ago in a congregation I had never been in before. After the service was over, I was approached by the kind old minister who said to me, “I liked your sermon very much. There was one flaw however; the Christology could have been stronger.” He then went on to point out at least 2 places where I missed the direct link to Christ. Massively helpful. Further, he did it in such a loving way, I could not help but receive it with gladness.
Bad criticism often points out the flaws but never suggestions for fixing them. What makes matters worse, bad criticism can be so entirely subjective that it has no footing in reality. “Lloyd-Jones preached on this text, and let me tell you, you’re no Lloyd-Jones.” Like that’s some kind of revelation. I think in the case of unhelpful criticism, it is best to turn the conversation to the Scriptures, and humbly demonstrate, from the Word, how what you are doing is approved of God. Move from the subjective to the objective. Ask for scriptural passages that point out the inadequacy. By doing so, the conversation moves away from personal preference toward objective truth. If this cannot be done by the criticizer, don’t take it personally. Anyone else who does the same thing, will receive the same sort of criticism.
In short, preachers should welcome constructive criticism from the right sources (other ministers, elders, wife, etc.) done out of a spirit of genuine love. Further, those doing the criticizing should make their motivation plain: the strengthening of the preacher as the servant of Christ. Also, encouragement in the things done right can often help in the right reception of criticism. May the Lord help ministers, and student ministers to receive criticism with grace, and make it a matter of prayer.
When the criticism is subjective and unhelpful, do not defend yourself. Simply thank the person for their words, and tell them that you will lay it prayerfully before the Lord. Then do just that. If Beeke is right, that even in the most unloving criticism there is a shred of truth, then we must take it before the throne of grace.
And if, by chance, the criticism is unfair, let me leave you with the words of Peter, “For this is thankworthy, if a man for conscience toward God endure grief, suffering wrongfully. For what glory is it, if, when ye be buffeted for your faults, ye shall take it patiently? but if, when ye do well, and suffer for it, ye take it patiently, this is acceptable with God. For even hereunto were ye called: because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that ye should follow his steps: Who did no sin, neither was guile found in his mouth: Who, when he was reviled, reviled not again; when he suffered, he threatened not; but committed himself to him that judgeth righteously: Who his own self bare our sins in his own body on the tree, that we, being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness: by whose stripes ye were healed (1 Pet. 2:19-24).
A possible helpful link, 7 Ways to Deal With Haters.
This is an interesting post from Dr. David Murray .
I’d like to introduce you to four members of the Legalism family that I’ve frequently run into in pastoral ministry. They are among the most miserable people that you can possibly meet.
Mrs Try-Harder is trying to reach heaven by her good works. You’ll know her if you meet her, because she talks so much about herself that you’ll hardly get a word in. You certainly won’t be asked any questions about your own life and interests. If you manage to speak about the Gospel of grace, and “Whiter than snow” salvation, she may go quiet for a while and smile in a sort of condescending way. But she soon manages to change the subject from God’s Works to her own again.
Mr Addition knows the law so well that he’s decided to add quite a few of his own. He is often motivated by a desire to see Christians live more godly lives and feels sorry that God left so many gaps and grey areas in matters of personal conduct. So, to help everyone else he has scoured past tradition to fill in the gaps and eliminate the grey areas. There are two things Mr Addition hates. He hates being asked, “Where does the Bible actually forbid this or require this?” And he hates people pointing out his own failures in areas the Bible is crystal clear on. He’s much happier talking about his own laws rather than God’s.
Mr Contract has had quite a sad upbringing. He was raised in a family that believed in grace, but which conducted relationships on the basis of law. If a sister did something for a brother, the brother knew that he would have to return the favor soon, or else he would be reminded of his debt (usually in the middle of an unrelated argument). No one seemed to do anything for anyone else out of sheer love, without expecting repayment. Long records were kept of how much each had done for, or given to, the other. And woe betide anyone who failed to repay in kind before the next argument. Unfortunately this quid pro quo, like for like, commercial contract spirit is often carried into adult relationships and even into their relationship with God. For example, Mr Contract finds it difficult to receive grace from God or gifts from others without thinking immediately about how to quickly repay and equalize the accounts. Don’t ask him to do anything for you, unless you are willing to do something in return, usually with a bit of interest. And never ask him to go above and beyond the call of duty. He knows his rights! Having grasped and enjoyed little of grace himself, he is not going to show it easily to others.
Mr Pleaser is a pastor. Yes, pastors can be legalists too. Sometimes they look awfully like Mrs Try-harder. Regrettably, they are sometimes influenced too much by Mr Addition, who always seems to have the loudest voice in the fellowship. And too often they do their work out of a sense of contractual duty, rather than out of love for Christ and His people. But most often, Mr Pleaser’s day is dictated by the expectations of others, a legalism as miserable as all the others. Instead of being motivated to serve God’s people by his own experience of divine grace and love, Mr Pleaser ends up being pushed and pulled by the desire to avoid criticism or receive praise. His daily agenda and schedule is determined not by love for the Lord but by trying to live up to other people’s demands. Instead of serving the Lord whose yoke is easy and whose burden is light, Mr Pleaser puts himself under the cruel, relentless, insatiable yoke of other people’s expectations.
I am sure that you will have frequent opportunity to meet these sad and sorry members of the Legalism family. (Sometimes, you only need to look in a mirror). If you do, I hope you will take them to the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. I hope you will introduce them to Jesus who calls these weary and burdened souls to find perfect rest in Him. I hope you will show them how, through the cross, Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, having been made a curse for us.
May God use us to break up this needy family, and to build up the happy family of His free grace.
I am asking why hymns may not be sung in church. There are also beautiful hymns. February 24, 1944
I have lumped these two questions together because they are obviously related, and are also in succession in the book. Here is Kersten’s answer:
The fact that there are a few hymns in the book of hymns which are actually good, makes the book all the more dangerous. Those few good stanzas are used to justify the use of the entire book of Arminian songs. Truly, that book, considered in its entirety, is liable to lull the congregation to sleep and to lead them away from the firm foundation of the truth. If the church accepts the book of hymns, it is in danger of being shattered to pieces on the reefs of all kinds of heresies. Cast out those hymns. The church must keep itself to the decisions made by the Synod of Dort in 1619.
Yes, there are beautiful hymns, some by Van Lodestin, the songs by Luther, etc. But also there are very many which harm the reformed doctrine. The Synod of Dort has appointed the Psalms and a few select hymns to be sung in church. Let us keep ourselves thereto and not accept a collection of Syrenian hymns into the Church (p.50).
Kersten stands on favorable ground by referring back to the Synod of Dort as the historical president for not singing man made songs in corporate worship. I concur wholeheartedly. I do believe however that Kersten does not dig deep enough for the answer to these two questions. If tradition alone is our answer to such an important query, we are not letting Scripture govern our actions, but man. The firmest foundation for any practice pertaining to the worship of God must be grounded in the Word of God, for He alone knows how to be worshiped. The historic reformed and puritan reason for the singing of Psalms, and not man made hymns in the public worship of God, is built upon an ancient scriptural principle of worship, nicknamed the Regulative Principle. Both the Heidelberg Catechism and Westminster Shorter Catechism appeal to this old path as the sole reason for our current practice.
Observe these two formidable documents:
Question 96. What does God require in the second commandment?Answer: That we in no wise represent God by images, nor worship him in any other way than he has commanded in his word.
Westminster Shorter Catechism
Q. 50. What is required in the second commandment?
A. The second commandment requireth the receiving, observing, and keeping pure and entire, all such religious worship and ordinances as God hath appointed in his Word.
Q. 51. What is forbidden in the second commandment?
A. The second commandment forbiddeth the worshiping of God by images, or any other way not appointed in his Word.
Q. 52. What are the reasons annexed to the second commandment?
A. The reasons annexed to the second commandment are, God’s sovereignty over us, his propriety in us, and the zeal he hath to his own worship.
So then if I may further Kersten’s thought, the foundational rule governing the acceptable worship of God corporately, is the Word of God itself, not the whims of the fleeting heart of man. Further, if man made hymns were to be permitted in the corporate worship of God, then why not choruses, and contemporary praise songs as well? We would then be embarking on the new path of “will worship” (Col 2:21-23), and adding to what the Lord has commanded.
The old paths are the safe paths, built upon the Word of God.
Never be absent from God’s house on Sundays, without good reason, – never to miss the Lord’s Supper when administered in our own congregation, – never to let our place be empty when means of grace are going on, this is one way to be a growing and prosperous Christian. The very sermon that we needlessly miss, may contain a precious word in season for our souls. The very assembly for prayer and praise from which we stay away, may be the very gathering that would have cheered, and stablished, and quickened our hearts.
Let us see, in this simple fact, the importance of diligence in the use of means of grace. Let us never neglect the house of God–never forsake the assembling of ourselves with God’s people.