Charitable Criticism

It astounds me how inconsistent our hermeneutics become between those we favor and those we view as our enemies. Charity without criticism in the former, criticism without charity in the latter.

Social media has only seemed to exasperate this problem. “Whataboutism” consumes and shuts down dialogue. One side brands the other as heretical for failing to meet its narrow definition of orthodoxy. The other does the same but for a failure to meet its definition of orthopraxy. Quote-tweets and virtue signaling are found in rich supply, while humility and understanding are found grossly wanting.

This is not a universal appeal for charity. That is another article for another day. This is an appeal to be charitable in our criticism. That is to say, there is an anticipation and even an expectation of criticism. For the believer to declare there is such a thing as objective truth is to assert in the same breath that there is also objective falsehood. On a worldview scale, this means there is an objective metaphysics and epistemology, an objective theology and anthropology, and an objective ethics. 

And yet, there is no one category which cleanly unites all believers in universal thought or practice. There is a general agreement in metaphysics of the natural and spiritual worlds, but the degrees to which these interact, or the extent of the fall’s effect are negotiated across traditions. Sources of truth within epistemology debate over definitions of inspiration and inerrancy and uphold disparate standards toward the roles of tradition, experience, and reason. Theology has become both an academic discipline for which there is no end of incongruous contest and at the same time a united base of doxology and faith. Today’s anthropology is less concerned with treatment of the Image of God as it is with culture’s ever-shifting delineations of not just maleness or femaleness, but which description of masculinity or femininity is accurate, historical, or good. On top of it all, to then determine what is truly virtuous and right in our being, thoughts, actions, and words is a near impossibility. It seems that Christians will never agree on everything (or anything, for that matter). 

Can we then, as believers, really believe that there is still such a thing as objective truth? 

Yes. 

Resolutely, yes. 

         Our faith itself is an appeal to a truth outside of ourselves: the truth of the gospel and the kingdom of God. Historically, the creeds have served to set clear boundaries and give clarity to orthodoxy. More recently, taxonomies like theological triage have been given to show which aspects of the above are essential, which are secondary, and which are tertiary.[1] Here is how Ortlund summarizes the tiers, ““first-rank doctrines are essential to the gospel itself; second-rank doctrines are urgent for the health and practice of the church such that they frequently cause Christians to separate at the level of local church, denomination, and/or ministry; third-rank doctrines are important to Christian theology, but not enough to justify separation or division among Christians; and fourth-rank doctrines are unimportant to our gospel witness and ministry collaboration.”[2]

This is a helpful tool, and yet even here there is some disagreement. It seems that when Jesus personally bound the first Bible right before he ascended to heaven (no doubt in soft leather and in the King James Version), he remembered the maps for Paul’s missionary journeys, but forgot the list of which issues are second tier, and which are third. Many, it seems, are willing to make their hobby horse issue or pet doctrine a watershed moment for the faith, and that anything less than adherence to their interpretation (possibly to them?) is a slippery slope into the fires of hell. 

         Somewhat ironically then, my first appeal towards a more charitable criticism is to be less compromising. We must hold the essence of the faith without negotiation. There is a humble orthodoxy of one Lord and one faith. We believe in one God in trinity and the trinity in unity. We believe in the bodily death and resurrection of Christ.  We believe in the communion of the saints. These things are certain for us. And so, we must narrow the charge of heretic exclusively to those that commit heresy in the first order. 

To do this well, we must recognize what is universal for all believers at all times. Any an assertion that “Christians must always/never …” offers an absolute which is absent in the biblical text, it becomes the new circumcision party. No longer does the party assert that to be a Christian, one must first become a Jew. Instead, it says that in order to be a Christian, you must vote like me, carry yourself like me, condemn those I condemn, and praise those I praise. Not only does this legalism fail to be charitable. It fails to be Christian. The forced ascription of a non-essential doctrine as an essential one is to bind the conscience of another believer and to be found in sin.

Herein lies the second appeal, because you do not have the authority to bind the conscience of another believer, be careful what you deem unconscionable. When Paul addresses the Corinthians bearing with one another concerning meat sacrificed to idols, there was a clear category in Paul’s mind of both objective truth and a weak conscience. Today’s examples are more complex. Many have made the connection to the treatment of alcohol consumption around recovering alcoholics­—while there may be liberty to partake, wisdom would offer a more gracious approach. T. B. Maston explains, “a thing that may be all right within itself for one to do becomes a sin against Christ if it is a cause of stumbling to one who is weaker.”[3]

Charity is not without severity. Scripture calls us to have nothing to do with those who refuse to acknowledge truth (2 Tim. 3:1), those who denounce truth (Eph. 5:6-7), those who stir up division (Tit. 3:10), those who bear wicked fruit (2 Cor. 6:17), those who peddle foolish myths (1 Tim. 4:7) and ignorant controversies (2 Tim. 2:23). Even still, the appeal is to not regard this one as an enemy but to warn them as a brother (2 Th. 3:15).

Christ’s own final end in ecclesial discipline is to regard the unrepentant as a tax collector and a sinner (Matt. 18:17). We naturally see the cultural distance of such classes and the severity of removal from the church community in church discipline. But we must keep in mind at the same time that the man who penned the words of Christ in that gospel was himself once a tax collector who found himself hosting this Friend of Sinners in his home (Matt. 9:10-13). That which is bound and loosed on earth ought also to come with the invitation to enter into heaven and be made well. This is a gracious and charitable act. 

My third appeal is to limit criticism to that which accompanies an intention to restore and protect. It is easy for us to have an opinion on everything. It is easier when we think we possess a unique knowledge or expertise—just ask any first-year seminary student. We must dignify those with whom we disagree as first made in the image of God, and second, for those that are in Christ, as our brothers and sisters. In this sense, our criticism is to have a critical mind, but a charitable heart. Consider Paul’s rebuke of Peter in Galatians 2:11–14. It was easy for Paul to see the error of Peter’s partiality. Even Barnabas was led astray! This heart and action was out of step with the Gospel, and that is the key difference. 

We are not called to voice every criticism. Every rebuke is not necessary or beneficial. Every opinion is not wrong. We are called to walk in step with the gospel and to correct that which is out of step. To rebuke falsehood, not opinion. In order to protect. In order to expand. To critique what is said, not what is lacking or unstated. And once that rebuke is received to be restored to one another in the full fellowship of that Gospel! This holds all people to the same standard of faithfulness and truth. Paul does not dismiss Barnabas’ error, but restores him as well. 

The fourth appeal is to ask questions. There is a danger in loaded terminologies and pretentious jargon. The late 20th century systematic theologian, James Leo Garrett, was said to tell his classes frequently that, “Only when you can state your opponent’s position so well that they themselves say, ‘Yes, that’s what I believe,’ can you then begin to debate.” Oh, how we would fail this test. 

It is quite possible that those whom we view as opponents and we have more in common than not, and that we are speaking past one another in primary part because we are using the same words to mean very different things.

Finally, my fifth appeal is to trust the Lord. To “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.  Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ To the contrary, ‘if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Rom. 12:14–21). 

Paul J. Morrison (Ph.D., Southwestern Seminary) is the Director and Co-founder of Ohio Theological Institute, where he teaches in the fields of Christian Ethics and Biblical Theology. Paul also serves as Theologian in Residence at City Church in Cleveland Heights, Ohio. Paul and his wife Sarah have called Northeast Ohio home since 2015 and have one daughter. 


[1]Consider such works as Gavin Ortlund, Finding the Right Hills to Die On: The Case for Theological Triage, (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2020), and Rhyne R. Putman, When Doctrine Divides the People of God: An Evangelical Approach to Theological Diversity, (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2020).

[2]Ortlund, Finding the Right Hills to Die On, 19.

[3]T.B. Maston, Biblical Ethics: A Guide to the Ethical Message of the Scriptures from Genesis  
through Revelation
, (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1982), 179.