Some time ago we received the following inquiry from one of our readers, "Do you think it possible to be too critical of Christians (?) nowadays? The reason I put a question mark after 'Christians' was because I wondered if some of them really are born again of the Spirit. We cannot always tell, can we? Are we not, at all events, to speak the Truth in love? This is a very practical question with us just now."
It is a practical question for all who (by grace) really desire to conduct themselves according to the revealed will of God and follow the example which Christ Himself has left us. The wording of these questions indicates that the inquirer does not have in mind the matter of how I should act toward one who has wronged me personally—but rather, what is my duty unto professing Christians with whom I come into contact and whose ways grieve me and whose walk causes me to doubt their regeneration? As others of our readers may be exercised upon these points, we will here amplify the answer given to our friend.
First, let us turn the light of Holy Writ upon this matter, "Do not hate your brother in your heart. Rebuke your neighbor frankly—so you will not share in his guilt" (Lev 19:17). There are three things which call for our prayerful response.
First, this is a plain precept bidding us to rebuke an erring brother—it is not optional but obligatory; this duty must not be omitted under any pretense. God requires His people to uphold the demands of righteousness. He will not wink at sin—nor must they.
Second, God would also correct our innate self-centeredness. We are so occupied with our own well-being as to be in danger of neglecting the good of our neighbor. This verse plainly denotes it is a lack of love for others—if we see them commit sin with indifference, and make no effort to bring them to repentance and forsake their evil course. A mild, plain, and seasonable reproof is the best way of expressing our solicitude for an erring brother, though it is distasteful to us and unwelcome to him.
Third,"So you will not share in his guilt" means that you become not an accessory of the act. Silence gives consent—if I don't rebuke him—I condone evil and share the guilt.
The basic issue which is here raised narrows down to this—what is it for a Christian to "act in love" towards others, particularly the wayward?
Few words have been used more inaccurately and loosely in recent years, than has "love." With a great many people it is but a synonym for moral laxity, weakness of character, a taking the line of least resistance, a quiet tolerating of what is felt to be wrong. Multitudes of parents have supposed they were treating their children "lovingly" when they overlooked their folly, make excuses for their wildness, and refused to discipline them for disobedience. They have prided themselves on being "kinder" toward their children than the "stern measures" which were meted out to themselves in their own youth. But it is laxity—and not love—which allows a child to have its own way. "He who spares his rod hates his son—but he who loves him, chastens him early" (Prov 13:24). Let those of our readers who have young children ponder Proverbs 19:18; 22:15; 23:13, 14; 29:15, 17, and remember those are the words of Him who is Love!
That which we have referred to in the above paragraph has been by no means confined to home life—the same evil has held sway in the "churches." Leniency and weakness have overridden righteousness and faithfulness. Instead of maintaining and enforcing the discipline which God's Word enjoins—the great majority of the "churches" have winked at even glaring sins, refusing to deal with those who walk disorderly. This reprehensible laxity is misnamed "love." A maudlin sentimentality which shrank from "hurting the feelings" of others—ousted all concern for the glory of Christ and the honor of His "house."
This is one of the inevitable effects of the lopsided preaching of the pulpit, where the love and grace of God were constantly proclaimed—while His justice and wrath were studiously ignored. God is "light" (1 John 1:5) as well as "love" (1 John 4:8), 'holy' as well as 'merciful', 'severe' as well as 'good' (Romans 11:22), and unless the balance is preserved between those two sides of the Divine character, not only will He be grievously misrepresented—but the most serious results will follow!
"Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God—and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God" (1 John 4:7). Christian love is not a thing of nature—but is entirely supernatural. It is not a part of our "personality" or anything which issues from our "disposition," but is a Divine communication received at the new birth. It is neither a sentiment nor an emotion—but a holy principle which is spiritual in its origin, its nature, its characteristics, and its manifestations.
But alas, many of God's own children are today so ill-taught, so ignorant, and so carnal—that they are unable to recognize true Christian love when they see it in exercise. Their thinking is so much colored by the world, they are so much corrupted by mingling with hollow professors—that they mistake pleasant personality and cordiality—for spiritual love. They forget that some who make no profession at all, are naturally congenial, kind, warm-hearted, courteous, and sympathetic. Christian love is neither the milk of human kindness—nor creature congeniality. Much that passes for Christian love—is merely the amiability and affability of the flesh!
How are we to know when we truly "love one another"? When we feel our hearts drawn out to them because of their affableness, their charming demeanor, their "sweet" ways? No! for appearances are deceptive. A winsome smile, a hearty hand-shake, a kiss—is no sign of the new nature—as Judas' kissing of Christ demonstrated. Nor does a polite demeanor or honeyed-mouth expressions prove anything to the point—rather does the Christian need to be doubly on his guard in the company of those who flatter him—ponder Proverbs 20:19; 26:28; Psalm 12:3.
Then how are we to know when we "love one another" —and when they love us? When we truly seek their highest good—when we aim at their spiritual well-being. The one who evidences the most spiritual love for me—is he who is ever seeking to promote my eternal interests—by wise counsels, by beneficial warnings, by timely rebukes, by godly encouragements.
And if I am spiritual—I shall love others for their piety, heavenly-mindedness, and faithfulness.
"Open rebuke is better than secret love. Faithful are the wounds of a friend—but the kisses of an enemy are deceitful" (Prov 27:25,26). Ah, my reader, as little as you may like it—the one who "wounds" you the most—may be the best friend you have, and who has the most spiritual love for you. But the one who winks at your faults, is silent about your sins, and refuses to rebuke you for what is dishonoring to God—is your enemy and hates you!
Alas, what a low plane even the people of God are now living upon. Many of them are so easily ruffled—that with the least criticism of them—they are "hurt," and offended; which shows they have more self-love than the love of God in them. O for grace to say with the Psalmist, "Let the godly strike me! It will be a kindness! If they reprove me—it is soothing medicine. Don't let me refuse it" (141:5). "Rebuke a wise man—and he will love you" (Prov 9:8), how few of the "wise" are now left!
"This is how we know that we love the children of God: by loving God and carrying out his commands" (1 John 5:2). Go back to the previous verse for the connection, "Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God, and everyone who loves the father loves his child as well." We love the brethren, because they have been made "partakers of the Divine nature" —it is that, and nothing pertaining to the old creation, which is the uniting bond. How that lifts us entirely out of the realm of nature, into the spiritual sphere! It is love for God—which produces love for those who bear His image. And what is the touch-stone of my love to God? Not rapturous feelings, nor beautiful words of devotion, nor heartily singing His praises—but by keeping His commandments —John 14:15, 21, 24; 15:10. The strength of my love for God—is to be gauged by the measure of my obedience to His Word. The same principle holds good in my relations with the brethren—love to them will be manifested by efforts to encourage them in the path of obedience—and that necessarily involves rebuking them for disobedience.
To come more immediately to the opening questions. "Is it possible to be too critical of Christians (?) nowadays?" Why the qualifying "nowadays"? Has God lowered His standard—to meet these evil times? Is it permissible or expedient for me to compromise because the present generation is so lax and carnal? Do not the days in which our lot is cast, call for a clearer drawing of the line between the Church and the world? If so, should not this help to determine my conduct toward the individual?
We are mindful that large numbers hold the view that God requires less from people in degenerate times—but we know of nothing in His Word which supports them. Rather are such days the very time when the Christian most needs to show his colors, when shallowness and hollowness marks the religious profession all around, there is greater urgency for us to make manifest the reality that we are "strangers and pilgrims" in this scene. The Scriptures are just as much the Rule—and the sole rule for us to walk by—as they were for our more godly forebears. In the Day to come, we shall be judged by them as truly as they will be. It is never right to do wrong—nor to condone wrong.
John, the apostle of love, began his third epistle with these words, "The elder unto the well-beloved Gaius, whom I love in the Truth." What a needed word is this for today, when so much that passes for love, even in avowedly Christian circles, is nothing but a sickly sentimentality at the expense of the Truth. One of the outstanding cries in the religious world, is to this effect— "though we have differed in our beliefs and practices, let us now sink our differences and come together in love." When I was the pastor of a church in Sydney, I was regarded as a narrow-minded bigot, because on what Rome calls "good Friday" I refused to take part in an "ecumenical Communion service," where Fundamentalists, Liberals, Unitarians, and Evolutionists were invited to gather together, and thereby express "brotherly love" for one another. What a travesty and mockery! The wisdom which is from above is "first pure, then peaceable" (James 3:17). The more I am walking in the Truth and the more my brother is doing the same—the more cause have we to love one another.
It may be helpful to answer the opening question by changing the form of it—Is it possible to be too critical of myself? May I permit myself a certain amount of indulgence, exclude some part of my life from the control of God, be less strict about some matter than others? In the light of such verses as "Catch the foxes, the little foxes, that spoil the vines" (Song of Sol 2:15), "grow up into Him in all things, who is the Head, even Christ" (Eph 4:15), "whatever you do, do all to the glory of God" (1 Cor 10:31) —is there any difficulty in answering that question! If not, am I justified in countenancing a lower standard for others than I seek to apply to myself? Am I not required to love my neighbor as myself? And am I doing so—if I gloss over something in him which I know to be against his or her spiritual interests and can only work ill for him? If it is my plain duty to warn him against physical evils—then on what ground am I justified in being silent when I see spiritual danger menacing him?
But let it be pointed out, that I certainly am not warranted in being "critical" about the conduct of others, unless I am accustomed to unsparingly judge myself. It is the very worst species of hypocrisy to point the finger of condemnation at another, while I am guilty of something equally as bad. I must first cast the beam out of my own eye—before I am qualified to perform so delicate an operation as seeking to remove a mote from my brother's eye. Since there has been a "beam" in my own eye—that is cause for humility; and if the humility is real and deep—it will preserve me from acting proudly and haughtily when seeking not to "criticize," but "help" my brother. Nothing is more un-Christianlike than for me to berate an erring one in a spirit of self-righteousness and in tones of self-superiority, rather than in the spirit of "consider yourself, lest you also be tempted" (Gal 6:1). If I am to wash my brother's feet from the defilements of the way—then I must needs take the place of lowliness in order to serve him.
On the other hand, we must guard against going to an opposite extreme. If pride and haughtiness are to be reprehended; then mock humility or even an undue occupation with our own frailty and faultiness, is not to be commended. If we must wait until we are blameless, then there are many precepts of Scripture we cannot act upon. If we must tarry until our own character and conduct be faultless, then we are disqualified from rebuking anybody. We greatly fear that many have created their own difficulty or deterrent through a wrongful appropriation of those words "he who is without sin—let him first cast a stone" (John 8:7). How often have we heard professing Christians say, when it had become their manifest duty to admonish another, "Who am I—to cast stones at others?" It should be remembered, that John 8:7 was not spoken to conscientious saints, jealous of the honor of the Lord, anxious to promote the good of others—but to hypocritical pharisees, who were deliberately seeking to ensnare Christ.
Is it possible to be too critical of Christians? It is certainly possible to expect too much from them—and then be irritated because they fail to produce what we look for. If our thoughts be governed by Scripture, which declares, "We all stumble in many ways" (James 3:2); if we bear in mind the frailties—some of them glaring ones—of the most eminent characters mentioned in the Word; if we constantly remind ourselves of how far short we come of the standard God has set before us—then we ought to be preserved from looking for anything approaching perfection in Christians. They too are men and women of "like passions" as ourselves. Hence the force of "bearing with one another in love" (Eph 4:2); yet that must not be twisted into "winking at one another's faults" or condoning sin—under the pretense of love.
No, we cannot "always tell" whether a professing Christian is a regenerate or unregenerate person, and therefore it behooves us to be cautious and conservative, lest we be guilty of giving that which is holy—unto dogs (Matt 7:6). It is a very serious and solemn matter to encourage a deluded soul in his deception, as we do when we lead him to believe that we regard him as a Christian. But how is this to be avoided? By a withholding the tokens of fellowship; for example, refusing to address as "Brother" or "Sister" —from all whom we stand in doubt of, especially from those whose walk is manifestly worldly and contrary to the precepts of Scripture. While we cannot read the hearts of those we mix with—we can test their outward life by the Word, and if its general tenor is opposed to the requirements of holiness, and is contrary to the example of Christ—we certainly are not warranted in regarding them as children of God.
Certainly we should be "loving" in rebuking sin. It is in love, that God chastens His people, that they "might be partakers of His holiness" (Heb 12:6,10). We are bidden to "speak the Truth in love," and Christ was doing so—as truly when denouncing the pharisees in Matthew 23—as when He was comforting His disciples in John 14. But does that mean that His countenance, the tone of His voice, or His general bearing was the same? He ever spoke the Truth in love—but if some would re-read the four Gospels with this particular thought in mind—it might cause them to revise, or at least modify their present conception of what "speaking the truth in love" really is. Something depends upon the particular fault committed. Mole-hills are not to be magnified into mountains. There are times when it is fitting to rebuke "sharply" (Titus 1:13), as Christ did in Luke 24:25. But for the most part, it should be done in "the spirit of meekness" (Gal 6:1). There is a happy medium between harshness and firmness, as there is between sentimentality and tenderness.
We know of a small church, far removed from these parts, the pastor and members of which are seeking to act one toward another in a spirit and manner which we deem highly commendable. Its minister tells us "I have never seen a congregation more pliable to the Word of God, more willing to rectify wrongs —endeavoring to walk as Christ would have them walk. Each member is interviewed by the joint-elders group concerning their position listed in the church discipline; and further, each one applying for membership specifies that it is his desire to have a pastor who will deal with the sin problems of that member, as a shepherd would the problems of the sheep." That admirably expresses our own convictions—love ministering to the needy—as a shepherd to the sheep.