I winced a little as I wrote the title of this post because I know that I’m guilty. It’s is far easier for me to criticize what others are doing than to look at how I can encourage them. It’s far easier for me to poke holes than it is for me to help build up. Let me say, before I get too far, there are times in which criticism is necessary. Criticism, if used correctly, can lead to some positive change in a Christian’s life. For example, I have been helped immensely by criticisms my wife has given me in the times she has heard me preach. If I take these valid criticisms and apply them to my preaching, they will only make me better preacher and communicator.
But this is not the sort of criticism I am writing about. The criticism I’m concerned about is the overall critical spirit that I have seen on social media among Christians (some of you reading are already criticizing this post because once again I am calling for charitable living and love of neighbor). This pandemic season has not been an easy one for most. Loss of job, loss of social interaction, and loss of life have plagued us all. The stressful situations around us have created a natural breeding ground for discontentment and complaint. Unfortunately, this has manifested itself in criticism which goes far beyond matters of discerning between right and wrong. Social media has been filled with overly-critical posts on a variety of issues, but one such incident has bugged me more than any other. I will try to tread lightly as I mention this because I know that I can easily display the same overly-critical spirit.
When the pandemic began, churches closed rather quickly in order to stop the spread of Covid-19. The hope was that if churches stopped gathering, they could best slow the spread of the virus and protect those in the congregation, especially those who were most vulnerable. As the spread of the virus slowed and it became safe to gather again, some churches began to meet again at half or less than half capacity. Some churches were creative in the ways they could meet which included outdoor services, drive-in services, and a combination of indoor and outdoor services. Some requiring masks, some did not. Other churches chose to continue to meet online. Fast forward to mid-to-late July and the Coronavirus is still raging through the country, over a hundred thousand people have died, and churches are still asking similar questions about regathering. This has forced church leaders to make difficult decisions impacting the spiritual and physical health of their congregation..
Two weeks ago now, Grace Community Church issued a statement from their elders which stated that they “cannot and will not acquiesce to a government-imposed moratorium on our weekly congregational worship or other regular corporate gatherings” even though the state of California passed an order which mandated churches to limit or suspend their church services. Their statement is well written and filled with Scripture, containing many points that pastors should honestly think through. I have no qualms or quarrels with John MacArthur or Grace Community Church for deciding to continue to gather. It was rather what has been said or written by some other Christians who zealously support JM and GCC. A number of tweets and status updates from this group have criticized other churches for “bowing to Caesar” because they are not following in GCC’s footsteps. This is a problem.
I will repeat what I wrote above (with more emphasis): Church leaders in this pandemic have a nearly impossible job. It is hard enough trying to sift through the confusing and contradictory information that is floating through the internet. It’s even harder to make a decision with all of this contradictory information when they are being criticized for their decisions. Christians, instead of criticizing the leaders of other churches or the leaders of their own church, should be in constant prayer for them. Given the debate over whether churches should gather or not, I find it a bit ironic that one of the places this word encouragement shows up is in the same passage that promotes gathering as a church
Let us hold on to the confession of our hope without wavering, since he who promised is faithful. And let us consider one another in order to provoke love and good works, not neglecting to gather together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging each other, and all the more as you see the day approaching. (Hebrews 10:23-25)
The gathering of believers is important. Scripture is clear on this. But its the reason for gathering that should draw our attention. We are to consider one another to provoke love and good works. We are to encourage one another. We aren’t gathering (physically or digitally) in order to criticize them for their incorrect response.We are gathering for the purpose of spurring one another up in love. We are gathering in order to encourage those who need encouragement.
First Thessalonians relays a similar message:
Therefore encourage one another and build each other up as you are already doing. Now we ask you, brothers and sisters, to give recognition to those who labor among you and lead you in the Lord and admonish you, and to regard them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves. And we exhort you, brothers and sisters: warn those who are idle, comfort the discouraged, help the weak, be patient with everyone. (1 Thessalonians 5:11-14)
The commandment is once again very clear. We are to encourage and build each other up. This is what the family of God is supposed to look like! Yes, we call out sin as sin. Yes, we condemn false doctrine. But we should still always be defined by how we love each other! We should always be looking for ways to encourage our brothers and sisters in this time! This is how the church will be attractive to a world who doesn’t know Christ. We must ask ourselves: How can we expect the world to desire being a part of our churches if we are constantly complaining and criticizing those who are in them?
I want to reiterate that this is not a post to criticize the decision JM and GCC have made. That being said, I don’t necessarily believe that churches are bowing to Caesar if they are restricting their services or changing their normal formatting during this pandemic. There have been several great articles (linked at the bottom) written addressing the decision by GCC. I think they are worth reading and considering for anyone who wants another godly perspective. My hope after reading this is that you and I won’t be so quick to criticize those God has placed over us. Instead, may we devote ourselves to prayer for these men who lead our churches. May we find ways to encourage them in this tough season. It may be a letter, a text or simply a status update/tweet stating your appreciation for them. Seek to build up, not tear down. May God be glorified by our love for neighbor and for Him!
A Time for Civil Disobedience? – Jonathan Leeman
Should Churches in Government Defy Government Restrictions? – Gavin Ortlund