I was listening to a sermon on YouTube a friend of mine sent me. As I watched, the cogs in my mind were busy at work, analysing and evaluating what was being said. While I was doing this I asked myself if it was the right thing. I was genuinely surprised that sought of question crept up on me. I usually get on with the business of ruthlessly taking the message apart. I say “ruthless” because I try not to regard who is speaking but rather wrestle with the content of his message. What prompted that sudden question was an awareness of who the person was. The preacher had tragically died a few years ago. I briefly felt it was insensitive to judge his work after serving God faithfully for years. It was like an indictment on his character. I did not dwell on that slight sense of guilt for long anyway. After all, I thought to myself, he is not the only one I have done that to, why should I stop now? Why should I privilege him above anyone else? I continued unfazed in a spirit of critical democracy. Little did I know I would be dealing with the question again quite soon after.
This time it I was in conversation with a friend. I criticised an up and coming preacher in my city as a bad teacher. He was immediately taken aback by what I said and told me to stop saying it. Now my friend did not have a proverbial dog in the race. The preacher in question was not his pastor neither was he remotely interested in him yet he had a fairly strong reaction to my statements. As stubborn as I am, I not only continued, but I tried to clearly elaborate what I meant by it and why I think it is an accurate observation. Thankfully, he understood me. He passed another comment which was very telling. The reason why he disliked what I said was because he thought I disliked the pastor in question because of my harsh criticism. I told him I don’t even know the guy, how do I dislike him? If I got to know him personally we might hit it off. Who knows? His statement revealed the principal difficulty of untangling an idea from the person who espouses it. It is further complicated by another challenge in separating the minister from ministry. The second one is particularly difficult to deal with because we believe ministry to be a divine calling, so how can we judge someone God has called?
First of all, I am not saying there is no relationship between what a person says and does and who they are. A person’s actions does reflect on and contribute to their identity. However, these actions are not the sum total of the individual. At the core there is something that does not increase, diminish or change based on what the individual does, that is, their humanity. Recognising the difference between the core and contributory elements of personhood means we can address one facet or aspect of the individual without necessarily referring to the other. This difference between the essential and non-essential elements of personal identity means not all facets are of equal value. This also means different value statements about different aspects of the individual can be made. Whether that assessment is fair and accurate is another question altogether.
Paul in 1 Corinthians 3, for example, compares ministry with a building made up of different quality materials that will be tested by fire (yep, I know. That’s a strange analogy but that’s how Paul’s mind works!) He says a person can be saved through the fire. The person will survive but what they did won’t. He clearly separates the minister from the ministry such that a person’s core value is not compromised by the role they play or how they accomplish a task, which is a facet but not the basis of their identity. In that section in 1 Corinthians, Paul talks about spiritual maturity, that is, being wise and discerning in a Spirit-energized, Messiah-centred understanding of the Gospel. In his mind he clearly believes not everything is by default acceptable because it comes from a man or woman of God. In that same analogy he talks about the care and attention he gives in doing ministry. This recognition Paul and the rest of scripture had, that God does have standards and he will make definitive judgments based on them, made them acutely aware of the significance of what they did in the present, careful reviewing their thoughts and actions to match up with the Lord’s criteria.
This is a hard thing to accept that even though we are equally God’s people, not all that we do and say is equal. There are critical standards that need to be applied if we want to get what is right and true. This is not only true of what happens in the Church but is the simple reality of the market place of ideas. People are equal, ideas aren’t. This is especially important for the Christian who has a truth claim about a profoundly world altering event. The stakes are very high. The New Testament therefore, constantly emphasizes being sober, circumspect, wise and discerning. God not only expects us to think critically but I believe scripture portrays the honest, discerning use of the intellect as a virtue. If it is a moral imperative for us to be always discerning, why should it stop short of what the preacher has to say when his work is itself not above scrutiny?
This is of course not to say people don’t make mistakes and get it wrong, I know I certainly do. If not for any other reason, since these things do happen because people are not infallible, we need to be careful and not accept every single thing without discrimination. Well intentioned-people do get it wrong. What about those with sinister motives? How then do we tell the difference between the good, the well-meaning, the bad and the down-right diabolical unless we are critical of all? These are real practical concerns that help protect us from the dangers of false teaching. Being discerning also helps us to learn and grow. Paul in fact prays for believers to grow in knowledge and discernment (Philippians 1:9.) He certainly does not say we should suspend it in certain cases depending on who is speaking. In his letters he critically engaged the various congregations he wrote. He encouraged them to carefully reflect on what he had to say trusting that God by his spirit will lead them to the truth (1 Timothy 2:7.) If this was the attitude of a first rate teacher and thinker, I believe as hearers of the word we have a strong precedent to do the same. Besides, God actually expects this of us for own sakes.
…test everything; hold fast what is good. – 1 Thessalonians 5:21 ESV