Recently, while reading a devotional, I paused when I stumbled over the following mandate: “Don’t be critical of your pastor or of those in political office. It’s a sin.”
I have encountered this sentiment in several places over the years. Pastors from the pulpits of churches I’ve attended have pleaded for congregations to be gentler and kinder to them in speech and in bearing. Former pastors and leaders in Christian public life often advocate for those behind the pulpit, expressing the idea that laymen and laywomen can’t understand the difficulties of shepherding a flock.
Often, these discussions have a Scriptural basis, or at the very least a Scriptural beginning. Along with the many Bible verses about the dangers of the tongue, of malice, and of foolish talk, they invoke verses like 1 Samuel 26:9 (“Who can lay a hand on the Lord’s anointed and be guiltless?”) and Romans 16:17 (“I urge you, brothers and sisters, to watch out for those who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way that are contrary to the teaching you have learned”).
Unfortunately, in some of these discussions, there is a vague sense that the pastor must be protected at all costs, given nothing at all times but encouragement and support – and that to do otherwise, to utter a negative word or any admonishment whatsoever, is sinful. Is destructive. Is un-Christian.
To me, that’s a dangerous game. Because like it or not, pastors are some of the most powerful and influential figures in Christian public life. They are as flawed as any of us, but they have been invested with a tremendous amount of authority. With that should come – indeed, must come – increased accountability. And when we simply toss out “don’t criticize the pastor” as some unquestioning edict without thinking through the nuances of what it actually means, we create a space where corruption, sin, darkness, false knowledge, and destruction can grow unchecked.
The key is to understand what “criticism” or “bad speech” really means before we tell people not to do it to the pastor. And the answer isn’t that difficult to find. A read-through of the Bible’s verses on speech and the dangers of the tongue will show that God abhors certain kinds of speaking: deception, flattery, words meant to provoke or cause conflict, malice, slander, gossip, and words spoken in haste.
I do think it’s fair that we encourage congregations not to gossip or backbite their pastors and church leadership from the sanctity of the pew. It is absolutely vile to spread rumors, lies, or falsehoods about the leader of your church – or about anyone! We should think twice or three or four times before we say something incendiary, and we shouldn’t let any words that are hateful, malicious, or slanderous cross our lips.
But that’s not the same thing as never saying anything negative at all.
Because the truth is that pastors and church leaders do slip up, and sometimes they do need to be addressed in a way that is not always positive and encouraging. I have been in churches where pastors said wildly incorrect and inappropriate things from the pulpit; I have been in a church when a pastor personally attacked an elderly congregant by name from the pulpit because he felt she didn’t view him fairly. I have seen pastors make financial mistakes and misspend church money; I have been in churches where, either intentionally or unintentionally, pastors are not fulfilling the obligations that the church requires of them. And on more than one occasion I have heard of deacons asking a pastor to step down or step back from the pulpit when their flagrant public sin became a detriment to the ministry of the church itself.
In these cases and in doubtless others – I am thinking of the Catholic church’s sexual assault crisis in particular – there are times when believers must speak out. Not in malice, no, not in gossip or in rumor, not without measured consideration, and not without prayer – but they must, indeed, speak in truth and in love and sometimes in admonishment. Many times, churches have a mechanism that permits that, often based on Matthew 18:15-17. Sometimes they don’t, and it is up to the individual believer or individual believers to move forward as best they can with Scriptural guidance.
I do believe that every church would benefit from a little less backbiting, griping, malice, slander, and gossip. I even believe that pastors are too often the target of those kinds of speech, and even of unfair criticism; I’ve heard of poor pastors being sniped at for everything from their weight to their hair to their speaking style.
But we would do better to be clear about what we mean when we say “don’t criticize the pastor.” Because when we release those words into the air unthinkingly, we create a culture that occasionally permits figures of great authority and influence to exert that authority unchecked and unchallenged even in cases where there is a clear problem. Comparing a pastor to an anointed Israelite king, as some do when invoking 1 Samuel 26:9, ignores 2 Corinthians 1:21-22: “[God] anointed us, set his seal of ownership on us, and put his Spirit in our hearts as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.”
All believers, pastors included, serve together, love together, and have a mandate to encourage each other. All believers, pastors included, must be honest and considered with each other, willing to speak the truth in love and to keep each other on the right path. No one is exempt.