Given some of the most relentless and malicious criticism ever endured by a leader, it is astounding that the apostle Paul never resorted to personal defensiveness or vengeful counter-attacks. In fact, when the Corinthian assembly finally repented for having believed lies about Paul and run him out of town, they put Paul’s main opponent under such severe discipline that Paul, rather than defend his own name and reputation, reminded them to forgive and comfort the man (2 Cor 2:6-7). Just when the temptation to vindicate himself might have been strongest, Paul defended the cause of truth. How could he be so strong on doctrine and yet so absorbing of personal attacks? Because Paul never took himself so seriously that he lost sight of his place in the kingdom work. He knew he was an expendable servant commissioned to do God’s bidding; he was fully aware that ministry life, with its heartaches and disappointments, was a grace in his sanctification process. That’s how he lived!
I’m frequently asked to explain the difficult balance between correcting false charges and resisting a personal defense. This is not a simple issue, but there are two principles that, as they did Paul, help us respond well to personal attacks.
Leaders serve the purposes of God.
We must not confuse what offends us and what offends God. Our personal pain and grief over unfair criticism must never overshadow the reality that all men do what they do in the presence of God (Heb 4:13)! Criticism of our leadership may be personally offensive and distasteful, especially when based upon falsities, but our allegiance is to the character and glory of the One who called us into service. Where God’s name and character are belittled, we ought to be indignant. But when others attack our life and ministry, God remains the issue. He will bring everything to light at the proper time for the vindication of His glory and power (Mat 10:26; 1 Cor 4:5). We serve His purposes, which inevitably include attacks against His servants. People will “assail their leaders’ character, criticize their decisions, speak evil behind their backs, and take advantage of their love” (Alexander Strauch), but none of these things come close to how such behavior offends God. Taking personal offense at the attacks of others makes our reputation the issue and stores up personal “baggage” in our hearts, leading to bitter grudges. As Paul told the Corinthians in his first epistle: “What then is Apollos? And what is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, even as the Lord gave opportunity to each one…. So then neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but God who causes the growth” (1 Cor 3:5, 7).
Defending our personal reputation by going on the attack directs attention toward us instead of toward the authority and glory of God. Criticism should be challenged, not when our reputation is maligned, but when God is. That’s why Paul, in his second letter to the Corinthians, defended his role as the servant of God in spite of harsh attacks against him personally. When he did defend his character, it was not with personal or vengeful counter-attacks against his critics, but rather by holding his character and ministry up to the scrutiny of God’s standard. Reading the following defense of his ministry, there is not even a hint of self-vindication:
But as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: by great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger; by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, the Holy Spirit, genuine love, by truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left; through honor and dishonor, through slander and praise. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and behold, we live; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, yet possessing everything (2 Cor 6:4-10).
Paul doesn’t concern himself with the many persecutions, hardships, afflictions, or smear campaigns. He simply commends to others his life and ministry as a servant of the living God. Even though the entire second epistle to the Corinthian church was written as a defense of Paul’s apostleship, he personally saw himself as of no personal account (2 Cor 12:12). Whatever the Lord willed was where Paul set his heart.
Leaders can learn through the purposes of God.
Criticism should be viewed as a tool for growth and change. Several temptations arise when we experience criticism: (a) we fear the loss of respect; (b) we look for reasons to challenge the data; (c) we search for flaws in the process; (d) we point out weakness in the other person; (e) we demand credit for our strengths; and (f) we play the martyr, reeling under the unjust complaints of others. Yet, when we run away at the slightest hint of criticism we forfeit the very means by which the Lord wants to make us more effective and godly in our leadership. “Reproofs of discipline are the way of life” (Pro 6:23), Solomon said, and so we must use criticism to our spiritual advantage. We’re frequently too afraid that others won’t respect us if we acknowledge a shortfall, but the opposite is true. Self-defensiveness is a behavior that drains respectability from our leadership. On the danger of not “earning” the confidence of others, Brian Borgman writes, “There is something very unbecoming about a man of God who is always defending himself. Whenever one makes an observation, raises a question or offers a rebuke, if walls of defense immediately go up, it erodes respect.” We need the sharpening that occurs when someone says, “I disagree,” or “I have a criticism” (see Prov 27:17). In fact, instead of yielding to the temptation of pride and fear of man, we ought to consider every criticism as a providential gift from the Lord to teach us some beneficial lessons. (For some of the following lessons, I am indebted to Dr. Wayne Mack.)
(1) Criticism drives us to prayer. A greater degree of dependency results when we’re burdened over the criticism of others. We are compelled to take every matter before the Lord so that our hearts are guarded (Phil 4:6).
(2) Criticism drives us to the Scriptures. We are constrained to search the Word of God for clarity, wisdom, and understanding (Ps 119:98-100; Prov 3:5-6; 2 Tim 3:16-17).
(3) Criticism refines our communication skills. We benefit from having to rearticulate what we believe in clearer terms and with a more careful disposition (Eph 4:29; Col 4:6).
(4) Criticism forces us to examine our hearts. Criticism causes us to look carefully at our attitudes and motives, and we are reminded of our own sinfulness (1 Cor 4:3-5; Gal 6:4-5).
(5) Criticism produces spiritual endurance. Being criticized may be painful, but God uses it to wean us from our own resources and make us stronger in His grace and strength (James 1:2-4; 2 Cor 12:7-10).
(6) Criticism provides unique opportunities to model godly humility. When others disagree, even sharply, we should be an example of humble submission to the Lord’s sanctifying grace in our lives (Prov 9:8-9; 12:15).
(7) Criticism offers greater opportunity to give God glory – God is exalted and His glory magnified when His servants bear up graciously under harsh treatment (1 Pet 2:20; 3:15-17).
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).