“Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction…” (2 Timothy 4:2). Without constructive, scriptural criticism, there is no doubt that falsehood will creep into our lives and destroy the work of the Lord. Paul exhorts Timothy to “preach the word” because a time will come, and indeed has already come, that many will fall away and choose to live undisciplined, “un-criticized” lives. If we do not work diligently at teaching and reproving each other, sharpening each other as iron sharpens iron (Proverbs 27:17), we may find ourselves deep in sin and at the threshold of condemnation.
This lesson will deal primarily with the practice of offering criticism to others. It is a difficult task, one that cannot be taken lightly. We all know how it feels to be corrected somebody else – especially in a matter that we consider our specialty. To take a hit in our pride is so very difficult, which is why we should be sensitive to this fact when we are the ones offering the exhortation.
There are a number of problems related to criticism, though – the first of which being pride. Knowing that every person has a certain degree of pride, we must be aware that there is a right and wrong way to criticize, as well as a right and wrong way to accept criticism. Being sensitive to the facts of certain situations will help us on both ends, as well as help maintain a spirit of peace and unity that can only come through love and humility.
Offering criticism comes with its own set of rights and wrongs. If we rebuke another person in a way that is not tactful, or that is inappropriate, it may result in further suffering for both parties. Handling criticism with care, love, and humility is the best way to avoid some of the most common mistakes that are made.
First of all, age matters much more than we sometimes think it does. Whether right or wrong, most people have a very hard time accepting criticism from a person considerably younger and less experienced than them – it is a matter of credibility. In the same way, many young people do not realize how very important it is to know their place in the structure of authority in the church, in their families, or in various circles at work or school. “Do not sharply rebuke an older man, but rather appeal to him as a father, to the younger men as brothers, the older women as mothers, and the younger women as sisters, in all purity” (1 Timothy 5:1-2). How do we talk to our fathers? Truly, I have criticized that man on only a few occasions, and with great hesitation. So why do so many young people feel no aversion to criticizing older men who are not their fathers? It is best, for example, that a young person with little or no marital experience refrain from criticizing somebody else’s marriage – or dating relationship, for that matter. Those who have not raised children should never say, “Well, I could do it better.” When rebuking another person in sin, young people must remember to give their elders the benefit of the doubt. “Do not receive an accusation against an elder except at the word of two or three witnesses” (1 Timothy 5:19) – and this was written to a young man who was an evangelist! It is an unfortunate problem that so many young people see it as their place to criticize, rebuke, correct, and try to go “one-up” on those who are older and wiser. Young preachers sometimes fall into this trap, taking on the elders of their congregation when an important decision does not go their way.
“Let no one look down on your youthfulness” (1 Timothy 4:12). Often, young people with a mind to criticize use this verse as their permission to say and do whatever they feel is necessary. However, that is not the proper application of this verse, and it is an arrogant youth who believes God has given him permission to argue incessantly with those who have accrued twice as many years of wisdom as himself. Rather than permitting free criticism, this verse prohibits it. Paul is trying to tell his young charge to give no occasion for somebody to look down on his youthfulness. The responsibility is on Timothy’s shoulders to act in a respectful, quiet, dignified manner. If we constantly disparage our elders with critique after critique, we have given them an excuse to “look down” on us! Our elders will not admire us for our loud mouths, but will stop listening for the simple fact that we do not respect age (Proverbs 20:29).
Please understand that what I am not intimating is that young people should never rebuke, for as we have already noted in 2 Timothy 4:2, Timothy was a very young man when he was exhorted by Paul to “preach the word.” Youth is not an excuse for silence, but it does call for discretion. While many young people are admired for their courage – sometimes uncommon in older people who are less apt to begin crusading for a new cause in their waning years – it can also be their undoing. At an early period in our development as Christians, we sometimes want to take on the world and challenge anything we can find. We want to make names for ourselves by preaching quite loudly on what we believe – our opinions on modesty, dating relationships, allegiance, or perceived hypocrisy that we alone can extinguish. While courage is commendable, and enthusiasm should never be discouraged, young people need to realize that Paul adds some warnings with the command to “preach the word.” If we are going to criticize, we must be credible! We are told, “Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, handling accurately the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15). Before we think it is our place to criticize and rebuke older Christians, we must have a complete knowledge of whatever subject is under scrutiny. Otherwise, we will make fools of ourselves – courage and boldness never save face when ignorance is at the root of our argumentation.
As an example of this, consider Elihu, the young man who came to Job with his three friends for the purpose of accusing him of sin. He is described as being a number of years younger than Job or his three friends (Job 32:4). We read about him starting in Job 32. Although much of what he spoke to the old man Job was arrogant and unwise, a sure sign of his age and his misunderstanding of the true nature of God, we can learn a lesson from the respect that he tried to show to those who were older than him. Notice what he says in Job 32:6-12. He was so hesitant to speak in the company of older, supposedly wiser, men because he did not want to leave his place as the least of all of them. If only all young men could learn to hold their tongues as long as Elihu did! We can all learn a lesson from him. Often, young men want so badly to impress their elders that they will say or do anything to make themselves look mature. In Bible classes, they make (usually) pointless observations. In public prayers, vain repetition and long words are thrown in. In their Bible study, they make assertions and believe doctrines without any Biblical backing because they are so eager to discover new truths or see old truths in a more modern way than their elders. Basically, young men just want to talk about things that are too big for them! But understand what Solomon says in Proverbs 13:3, “The one who guards his mouth preserves his life; the one who opens wide his lips comes to ruin.”
One of the most difficult aspects of offering criticism is knowing our limitations in a particular subject. Admittedly, we do not know everything and are, therefore, not always qualified to offer a correction to others. For example, it is not a single young man’s place to criticize somebody else’s marriage. In the same way, that young person knows very little about raising children, holding and maintaining a career for many years, or leading as the spiritual head of a household. If we have not been educated in grammar or literature, we should not be quick to judge another person’s linguistic capabilities. If we are a recently converted Christian, it would not be wise to constantly rebuke an elder, or incessantly doubt the assertions of more experienced Christians.
If we are going to criticize another person – and we are obligated to do so at times – we must make sure that we are credible. Our facts must be straight. Our approach must be proper. Our attitude must be impeccable. As we have noted in previous lessons, we are told in 1 Timothy 5:19 to never accept an accusation against an elder until reliable witnesses come forward and all of the facts are weighed. Furthermore, James writes, “This you know, my beloved brethren. But let everyone be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger” (James 1:19). Before criticizing or rebuking, we should consider what we will say, and approach the situation with great discipline and deliberation. Nothing is more detrimental to successful criticism than falsehood. If it becomes necessary for me to approach a brother in sin, or if I simply want to help correct a misunderstanding, I should always have a Bible verse to offer. If the Bible is not on my side, then there is no reason why I should be criticizing others – I myself should undergo self-examination and change!
Part of credibility is knowing our Bibles front to back. When we criticize another person for what we perceive is a sin, we ought to always know what the scriptures say on the subject – all of the scriptures! Oh how easy it is for sinners to take verses out of context, as is made clear by Matthew 4:1-11. Even Satan himself knows how to quote scripture, so we should be mindful of context, application, and our own opinions that might be skewing our interpretation of a particular section of the Bible.
One of the most important lessons that we can apply to our criticism is the idea of sympathizing with the object of our rebuke. Understand that you too have been criticized for mistakes and misinterpretations – your own family would not be what it is without the loving encouragement of other people, your marriage would not as successful, your evangelism flat and unfruitful, your attitudes, your words, your thoughts, everything about you has been, at least in part, shaped by criticism you have received.
As we close the lesson, consider as a prime example of criticism the work of Aquila and Priscilla in Acts 18:24-28. Notice a few important points from the text that help us understood the delicate balance that must exist between accepting and offering criticism. Apollos was, first of all, an educated man (18:24), so it was not necessary for Aquila and Priscilla to patronize him. They respected his knowledge and approached him in a manner worthy of God. Knowing that his mistake was out of ignorance, they knew it would be best not to squelch his enthusiasm by criticizing him publicly. Therefore, “they took him aside” to a place where he would not be embarrassed and explained to Apollos the truth about baptism. What made these two so successful in the criticism is that they remained humble and never saw this as an opportunity to “get ahead” in the church by tearing down a very influential preacher. What made Apollos was accepting of the criticism was the fact that he was focused entirely on God and understanding the scriptures to the fullest. He was not discouraged by the words, nor was he angry with the couple. But he went on preaching the word powerfully!
If we can learn to take criticism, we will become better critics ourselves. Nobody is perfect, and one of the greatest advantages that we have in becoming better people is each other. Let us utilize the wisdom of our elders. Let us remain humble and understand that we are not experts in everything. We all need help, and we all have the God-given task of helping when it is appropriate!