Admitting faults to a critic is not pleasant. People often use our flaws as an excuse for not responding to our leadership. In spite of the fact that the Scriptures teach that we’re all sheep in need of growth, that we all require the Lord’s sanctifying grace, and that even a leader/shepherd should be allowed “progress” that everyone can observe (1 Tim 4:15), in the eyes of some, our credibility will irreparably suffer when we acknowledge a weakness. Hopefully, most will understand that we are just men, called of God, and trying to serve the needs of His flock while being an example.
When criticism comes, we must remember that our response is what we are modeling for others. The following principles help us eliminate defensiveness and pride:
(1) Search for any part of the criticism that is true and own it (Ps 51:4). If sin has occurred, seek forgiveness with humble gratitude for God’s leading through that person (Prov 28:13; James 5:16).
(2) Make no demands on others to readily accept your admission. Disagreement between two parties is awkward enough, and the tension doesn’t immediately wear off, even though sin has been confessed and dealt with. People often need time for the grief of relational disharmony to dissipate. Once you’ve acknowledged a weakness, the tendency is to expect that person to quickly “shield” you from feelings of embarrassment and from the consequences of having failed. Let the Lord do His healing work, and trust that He always “gives grace to the humble” (Ps 138:6; Prov 3:34; Matt 3:12; 1 Pet 5:6-7).
(3) When a criticism has no merit, seek to understand how the person could have drawn their conclusions. Sometimes, people form wrong perceptions because of misunderstandings, false assumptions, misinformation, hearsay, and so on. Learning how others have come to their ideas helps them to see your concern for how your actions and words might have contributed to misconceptions. Following a criticism with “Your concern is unfounded, but I can clearly see how you could’ve perceived it that way” gives others the benefit of the doubt without assuming foolish ignorance or a wrong motive on their part.
(4) If a complaint is leveled with sinful attitudes, forgive the offense quickly and lavishly, exercise self-control, and respond with carefully chosen words and attitudes.
Answering Fools Wisely
There are criticisms that come from those who are satisfied with nothing less than destroying the work of God. If leaders try to silence every critic, chase down every rumor, and argue toe-to-toe with every ministry opponent, the work of service would never get done! I recall a time as a young shepherd in ministry when a person began to strongly oppose my leadership and teaching, intent on starting a divisive movement against me. I asked a long-time veteran in the ministry what I should do. His counsel was clear, penetrating, and hugely encouraging. He said, “Well, you have the pulpit so you have the greatest platform for truth. Keep preaching powerful sermons. And remember, Nehemiah never came down off the wall to get embroiled in meetings with all of his critics. He had a job to do for the Lord, and nothing deterred him from it.” I was immediately energized. Satan loves to throw every possible distraction at us so that we forget to keep the main thing the main thing. If criticism comes from the mouth of a fool, we are not to descend to the level of petty arguments and non-essentials.
In Proverbs, we’re given a strange set of back-to-back principles at 26:4-5: “Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself. Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he become wise in his own eyes.” What are we to make of these seemingly contradictory admonitions? Notice that both texts involve the words and deeds of a fool, and also that both texts guarantee a result depending upon our response. According to verse 4, if we answer a fool with similar words and deeds, we will adopt the fool’s character and behavior as our own. But if, as indicated in verse 5, we answer the fool with words and deeds that challenge his folly and pride, we become an agent of truth and wisdom in his life. How does this apply to the criticism of a fool? It teaches us that we are to distinguish between critiques that originate from foolishness and those that come from wisdom.
A fool’s criticism will bear the following marks: (a) dishonesty, tale-bearing, and slander (Prov 11:13; 3 John 10); separation from accountability (Prov 18:1); and a quarrelsome spirit and strife-mongering (Prov 26:20; 6:19; 15:18). The complaint of a fool deserves a response filled with strong truth and a stern warning. It is a waste of time to get involved in worthless disputes and petty arguments with those whose interest is divisiveness. The Scriptures strictly warn leaders and shepherds not to get enmeshed in “foolish controversies … dissensions, and quarrels … for they are unprofitable and worthless. As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing more to do with him, knowing that such a person is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned” (Titus 3:9-11).
For spiritual leaders, criticism is a painful inevitability. It can come when we least expect it, and sometimes from the least likely sources. How we respond will be the difference between an excellent ministry and one that is plagued with strife. We need to hone our listening skills. We must resist taking personal offense when complaints are thrown at us. The kingdom work is God’s business, and His glory is to be our highest pursuit. When our reputations, our names, our achievements are paramount, we view criticism as a negative to be constantly avoided. But criticism is a sanctifying grace in the believer’s life, and we can learn from the perceptions of others, from both the accurate and the mistaken.
Jerry Wragg is one of our seven TES campus pastors—having served as the Pastor-Teacher of Grace Immanuel Bible Church in Jupiter, FL since 2001. He also serves as President of The Expositors Seminary. This article was adapted from Jerry’s book, Exemplary Spiritual Leadership: Facing the Challenges, Escaping the Dangers (Day One Publications, 2010).