In Defense of the Critics of the Church

The late Roger Ebert (1942-2013) was something of a hero of mine. In some ways, I identified with him. Like me, he was a portly writer with a good sense of humor who lived in Chicago, my second-favorite city. Mostly, though, I respected him, especially for the Roger Ebertcourage and fortitude he showed while suffering a debilitating and disfiguring cancer which ultimately took his life.

Roger Ebert was a professional critic. He criticized movies for a living, and he was good at it. He was the first film critic to win the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism.

I did not always think highly of professional critics. As a young man, I often quoted the popular maxim: Those who can, do; those who cannot, teach; those who can neither do nor teach become critics. Later, as a teacher, I took issue with part of that saying. Today, I reject it completely. Good teachers and good critics are as essential for a healthy society as those who do stuff and make things.

Roger Ebert was a good film critic for one primary reason: he loved movies. He loved every aspect of movie-making—from the development of a screenplay to casting to acting (2)and directing. Even when he didn’t like a particular movie, or specific aspects of a movie, his readers still knew that he pointed out flaws or weaknesses in movies in order to help the industry to improve. He panned bad movies in the hope that his criticism would result in fewer bad movies and more good ones. As far as I know, even the actors and directors in the movies he did not recommend had no reason to question his integrity.

You see where I am going with this. The Christian church, particularly in America, is awash in critics. That has probably been true throughout church history, coming to something of a head at the time of the Reformation in the sixteenth century. In recent years, however, the internet—Facebook, the blogosphere, etc.—has given critics an unprecedented platform from which to share their observations and critiques.

Some of the resultant cacophony is the mindless ranting of those who are perpetually unhappy with everything. People whose only satisfaction comes, it would seem, from constantly making known how dissatisfied they are. Even what we call “constructive” criticism can deteriorate into burdensome griping and complaining without any positive or redemptive purpose. Thoughtful critics need to be aware of that inevitable tendency and do their best to forestall it.

On the other hand, most of the criticism of the church that I am reading these days is not simply the nitpicking of bellyachers who cannot or will not be satisfied. Most of it, in fact, reflects the critics’ lament—sometimes overt, often implied—that their critique is even necessary.

Seldom do I read criticism of the church that suggests the critic could not wait to use a blog or Facebook post to point out yet another flaw in the church. Most contemporary (1)critics of the church are not seeking her demise. They aren’t suggesting that the idea of church needs to be abandoned since its product is irreparably damaged.

Most of the critics I am reading recognize the role that God intends the church to play in human experience. The church, it is understood, is the visible body of Christ in the world. Irrespective of its foibles and glaring inadequacies as a human institution, the church has been around for two thousand years and will continue to exist, in one form or another, until there is no more need for it in the day when “the earth shall be filled with the glory of God as the water covers the sea.”

The church is unique among human institutions. It serves a divine purpose, but it is composed of flawed and fallible people. That latter reality means that it will, over time, suffer the consequences of human fallibility. It will experience imbalance, misdirection, and, sometimes, intentional corruption.

Because it serves a divine purpose, however, we have reason to hope that, when necessary, it can be purged of its excesses and reformed so that it once again serves the purpose of God more faithfully.

I have more to say on this important theme, but I’ll save that for tomorrow.

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