Is It Okay to Criticize Pastors?

In the last couple weeks, there have been several stories in the news and in the Christian blogosphere about Steven Furtick, pastor of Elevation Church in Matthews, NC. He’s certainly no stranger to criticism, for everything from his unorthodox ecclesiology to his association with prominent “Word-Faith” pastors to his 16,000 sq. ft. mega-mansion. For a run-down on the most recent brouhaha—involving the methods used by Elevation Church to engineer mass baptisms—check out this post by Jeff Wright, pastor of Midway Baptist Church here in Cookeville.

As I’ve seen Jeff’s post and many others like it appear on social media in recent days, there has been one response that seems to insert itself into every comment thread. It goes something like this:

Paul wrote in Philippians 1:18 that we should rejoice whenever the gospel is preached, no matter the motive, so what gives you the right to criticize any Christian pastor?

First of all, let me applaud those who have asked this question. I appreciate arguments made from Scriptural authority, even when I may disagree with someone’s conclusions from that Scripture. But the question for today is, does Philippians 1:18 mean that we are never to call out pastors who we believe to be in error?

Let’s turn to J. Gresham Machen, who addressed this very question in his book Christianity and Liberalism (my review) way back in 1923:

In short, the rival preachers made of the preaching of the gospel a means to the gratification of low personal ambition; it seems to have been about as mean a piece of business as could well be conceived. But Paul was not disturbed. “Whether in pretence, or in truth,” he said, “Christ is preached; and I therein do rejoice, ye, and will rejoice” (Phil. i. 18). The way in which the preaching was being carried on was wrong, but the message itself was true; and Paul was far more interested in the content of the message than in the manner of its presentation. It is impossible to conceive a finer piece of broad-minded tolerance.

But the tolerance of Paul was not indiscriminate. He displayed no tolerance, for example, in Galatia. There, too, there were rival preachers. But Paul had no tolerance for them. “But though we,” he said, “or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed” (Gal. i. 8). What is the reason for the difference in the apostle’s attitude in the two cases? What is the reason for the broad tolerance in Rome, and the fierce anathemas in Galatia? The answer is perfectly plain. In Rome, Paul was tolerant, because there the content of the message that was being proclaimed by the rival teachers was true; in Galatia he was intolerant, because there the content of the rival message was false. In neither case did personalities have anything to do with Paul’s attitude. (p. 22, emphasis mine)

So whether it’s Furtick or any other pastor, the real question is whether the Jesus he preaches is the real one. If so, then our task is to correct with gentleness whatever errors may be present in his teaching. If not, our task is to warn sheep about the wolf in the fold.

3 comments on “Is It Okay to Criticize Pastors?

  1. Great thoughts, I was just wondering where you stood on the manner of this criticism. Social media has made it much easier for us to voice our opinions and concerns. I am in whole-hearted agreement that we should keep pastors and teachers accountable (though not infallible). Is it healthy for us to use social media as a place for this though? Or should these discussions come from a place of relationship? I’ve been pondering John 13:35, how do we advance the kingdom when to the world it looks like we’re squabbling with each other? Or is an element of transparency good?

    • John Gardner says:

      Hello, and thanks for your comments!

      Accountability is always best in person, but I do think we treat public figures differently. Public error (e.g., false teaching in the pulpit) needs to be confronted publicly.

      Mark Driscoll is a good recent example. He has taught some erroneous things that have found a very wide audience due to his “celebrity” status. Many pastors (including other very influential, famous men) have publicly confronted the errors in his teaching, while simultaneously reaching out to him in private. He has also surrounded himself with those in his own church who can hold him accountable. As a result of this public & private accountability, he issued an open letter of apology this week which, if genuine, is a very encouraging step in the right direction. The aim of challenging false teachers (whether famous or not) should always be reconciliation, and it seems to have worked in this instance at least.

      As far as John 13:35 and public perception are concerned, I think the world does need to see Christians holding each other accountable. The love which they need to see us show to one another is the love of Jesus. Christ’s love was certainly not manifested during his earthly ministry as a superficial acceptance of false teachers and a lack of confrontation. Rather, he loved his sheep enough to protect them from wolves. He loved the Word enough to confront those who used it abusively or taught it incorrectly. When we correct opponents with gentleness and a desire for their repentance (2 Timothy 2:25), we ARE showing the love of Christ to the world.

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