How to Respond to Those Who Disagree
Dr. Neil T. Anderson
Peoples’ lives are governed by what they have chosen to believe. That is why an unshakable faith in God and an uncompromising belief in His Word is the only foundation for Christian living. The Christian’s calling is to walk by faith according to what God says is true. The Word of God is to be lived, not just intellectually discussed. Our credibility does not hinge upon our ability to argue, nor does it depend upon our ability to convince others that we are right and therefore they must be wrong.
We will be deemed credible only when we live what we profess to believe. We best defend the faith when we glorify God in our bodies. In this way we manifest His presence in the world. Jesus said, “You will know them by their fruits” (Matt. 7:20). I would take that to mean the fruit of reproduction, as well as the fruit of the Spirit. Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control are the measure of a Spirit-filled Christian. “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (Jn. 13:35).
The credibility of the church is at stake. Is Christ the answer and does the truth set us free? I have never been more convinced that the answer is an unqualified “yes,” and I have dedicated my life to help liberate the church and establish each member alive and free in Christ. I have made every effort to share the truth in love and stay committed to the authority of Scripture. It would grieve me to discover that what I share with others isn’t true, and I would readily correct my message if it were shown to be erroneous.
That is why I have chosen to be accountable to credible people for my message, as well as my morals. I am deeply thankful for the friendship of Dr. Robert Saucy who has been on my board from the beginning. He is one of the most gracious and intelligent theologians I know. I asked him to personally hold me accountable for my message. It was a privilege to co-author The Common Made Holy with him, which is a rather exhaustive book on sanctification. If you are interested in the message of Freedom in Christ, I would urge you to read this book.
I highly value higher education, but often Christian education is not accomplishing what it should. In many cases it has the wrong goal. In too many cases we have made doctrine or knowledge an end in itself. Such efforts will distort the very purpose for sound doctrine. Paul says, “The goal of our instruction is love from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith” (1 Tim. 1:5). You can graduate from a good seminary on the basis that you answered most, not even all, of the questions right. You could do that and not even be a Christian. In a similar fashion, you can know all about God and not know Him at all.
Paul is even more pointed when he says, “If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, I have become a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing” (1 Cor. 13:1,2). It is possible to be theologically correct and spiritually wrong, which will be revealed by our character. We are “servants of a new covenant, not of the letter, but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (2 Cor. 3:6). It is tragic to capture the letter of the law, but then live in such a way that reveals little understanding of the Spirit who gives life. Scripture says that “he who wins souls is wise” (Prov. 11:30) and “by this all men will know you are My disciples, if you love one another” (Jn.13:35). A godly theologian and a humble apologist will utilize their God-given gifts and talents to bolster your confidence in God and His Word, establish you alive and free in Christ, and set you on the path of conforming to His image.
Responding to Criticism
I must confess to a certain degree of naiveté about having an international ministry which resources the church with printed material. One veteran author suggested I better develop “thick skin” if I continued writing books. I was determined not to do that. The Lord led me through a lot of pain in order to develop a compassionate heart. I fight every day to keep my heart tender toward God and others by not letting a root of bitterness spring up or becoming indifferent to others and how they feel. This can be a real test of one’s character and convictions.
One of Satan’s major strategies is to discredit legitimate Christian leaders. The same is true for bearing fruit. The more fruit you bear the greater the opposition. The painful part is that it frequently comes from within the church! I am thankful for the experience I had when I was a young Christian, attending a growing church. The pastor was a real spiritual dynamo. In seven years the church tripled in size. As a new believer, I was very impressed by this man. One day I was playing golf with the music director. On the first tee, I asked him what he thought about the pastor. He responded, “Frankly, I can’t stand the man!” For the next eighteen holes, the music director shared every little character defect he saw in the pastor. For the next six months, I heard little of what the pastor said; I only saw his character defects.
My heart had been poisoned. I began to dislike the pastor and was tempted to talk negatively about him. I came under deep conviction for my attitude. I had no peace until I made an appointment with him. I asked him to forgive me for not loving him. His character was revealed when he asked me to join his staff at the end of our conversation. I never felt so humbled in all my life. We developed a good friendship.
How should I or any Christian respond to criticism or attacks upon his ministry or character? I have always taught that we should not be defensive for three reasons. First, because Jesus wasn’t. He was dumb before His accusers and “while being reviled, He did not revile in return” (1 Pet. 2:23). Second, if we are wrong, we don’t have a defense. Third, if we are right, we don’t need one. That is a hard example to follow, but it is Christlike to do so. Like Jesus, we must keep entrusting ourselves to Him who judges righteously (1 Pet. 2:23).
Growing through Legitimate Criticism
“Is there any truth in what they are saying?” That is the first question we should ask when our message and methods are criticized. Any ministry will suffer if it doesn’t pay attention to concerned critics. Our message and methods are sharpened by those who disagree. If what we have said isn’t true or our methods aren’t right, then we should humble ourselves and make the appropriate adjustments. The Book of Proverbs says, “Whoever loves discipline loves knowledge, but he who hates reproof is stupid” (12:1). ” . . . He who regards reproof is prudent” (15:5). “He who regards reproof will be honored” (13:18).
Good and not harm will come of criticism if the reproof is directed toward the message and method and not the person. The Evangelical Christian Publishers Association (ECPA) asked me to write and present a paper on “Ethics in Christian Publishing.” One important point which I covered was to focus on issues and not personalities. The former will sharpen the Christian community, but the latter will divide.
When I was a lead systems engineer I had to submit to design reviews. If the original system design was not correct, then all the rest that followed would not work as well. I had to invite the sharpest people in the company to review my design. Their job was to find anything and everything wrong about it. It was a little intimidating, but when the meeting was over, it was still my design and I left with a greater degree of confidence. Even in a secular setting, I could tell if people were picking on me or my design. For instance, someone could say, “Neil, I’m not sure you have enough feedback in the system.” That criticism is directed toward the design which is legitimate. But someone could also say, “Neil, that is a stupid design. How can you call yourself an engineer?” That is a personal attack, and even if it comes from a friend, it is counterproductive to the process.
Not only how the criticism comes, but who offers it is of great importance. The Book of Proverbs says, “Faithful are the wounds of a friend, but deceitful are the kisses of an enemy” (27:6). One has to consider the source of the criticism and be discerning. You need to put up the shield of faith against fiery darts which come from the enemy and keep entrusting yourself to God. In Psalm 119, David has some advice for such attacks. “The arrogant utterly deride me, yet I do not turn aside from Your law” (vs. 51). “The arrogant have forged a lie against me; with all my heart I will observe Your precepts” (vs. 69). “It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I may learn Your statutes” (vs. 71). In other words, David didn’t receive their criticism. Rather it drove him to the Word of God and he grew through the crisis. You can’t let critical people determine who you are.
When in Doubt, Choose the Path of Humility
But how do you know if the criticism is legitimate? Let me illustrate how I responded one time to criticism. One particular group made public a very negative two-page paper about our ministry, which I felt was untrue. What should a person do? What would you do? In this case, I sent their critique to twenty-five churches and/or ministries who had hosted our conferences in the past. In the cover letter I explained that this is what was being said about my ministry. If any of the paper were saying were true, then I would need to repent, but in my heart I felt that none of it were true. Since we all have blind spots, I allowed that I could be coming across in a way of which I was unaware. I invited these churches and/or ministries to share with me any concerns they had about what I was teaching or how I was coming across. On the other hand, if they agreed with me that the content of this paper wasn’t true, I asked them to write a letter informing the group of their observations so that no more damage would be done to either the group or my ministry.
I received no corrective reproof, because none of these ministries agreed with the group who published the paper. You would think that would have put an end to it, but it hasn’t. There is no way you can stop negative criticism, but you can choose to do what Peter says (1 Pet. 5:6-10):
Therefore humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you at the proper time, casting all your anxiety on Him, because He cares for you. Be of sober spirit, be on the alert. Your adversary, the devil, prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. But resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same experiences of suffering are being accomplished by your brethren who are in the world. After you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who called you to His eternal glory in Christ, will Himself perfect, confirm, strengthen and establish you.
Personally, I would be grieved to think that I had publicly said something negative about another person or ministry that was not true. Christians are admonished by God to support, build up and encourage one another. If we have a disagreement with someone, we are supposed to go in private and give him or her an opportunity to repent or change. One important guideline for working with other people and ministries is given in Philippians 2:3-5:
Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus.
Intellectual Arrogance or Honest Inquiry
John Stott said it well, “We cannot pander to their intellectual arrogance, but we must cater to their intellectual integrity.” I appreciate any pastor who wants to be sure that what is shared with his congregation is true. A pastor is responsible before God for shepherding his flock. Any legitimate ministry would gladly cooperate with such a pastor and answer any theological or methodological questions he may have. We should always be ready to give an answer for the hope that lies within us with gentleness and reverence (1 Pet. 3:15). But it bears little if any fruit to spend time with those who don’t abide by any rules of scriptural order or decency. The field is white unto harvest and we must reach as many as we can for Christ. We cannot be distracted from being the persons God created us to be or stop doing what He has called us to do.
Does such criticism hurt? Of course it does! But we can survive if we know who we are in Christ. Many good people have withdrawn from ministry or refused to run for political office because of the barrage of criticism they know they will receive. If we are secure in Christ, then we can stand alone if we have to. My pain is for the millions of people who are living in bondage. I believe our ministry and many others like it can help them, but many will never be given that opportunity because of bad press. That greatly disappoints me, because the body of Christ and our witness to a lost world gets tarnished.
If other ministries disagree with what I am saying, then logically I would disagree with them. In fact I probably do disagree with the message and method of many ministries, but I’m not sharing my concerns in public. If I disagree with someone, I go to that person first, giving him or her a chance to clarify their position and to change and respond in private if they have been shown to be wrong. I do this to protect their reputation and the reputation of the Church. Mature people don’t slander their Christian brothers and sisters in public. Healthy Christians are known for what they do believe, not for what they don’t believe.
Responding to Personal Attacks
How should Christians respond to critics who publicly attack personalities instead of issues? First, I think we need to realize who we are dealing with. It could be a ploy of the enemy, in which case you need to resist such attacks by standing firm in your position in Christ, put up the shield of faith, and take every thought captive to the obedience of Christ. If properly discerned, external attacks upon the body of Christ can actually unite true believers together. The attacks that can do the most damage usually come from deceived, hurting or very immature Christians. It has helped me to realize that mature Christians don’t tear down one another. Struggling and hurting Christians do, however, have a tendency to berate others or themselves. Nobody tears down another person out of a position of strength. Mature people, and especially those who are secure in Christ, don’t need to do that, and they are wise enough to understand why. Realizing this has helped me to respond appropriately to these hurting people.
The Church will never be destroyed from without. But if the enemy can get Christians to turn on one another, our witness and credibility will be severely damaged.
Second, I think we need to pray for these critical people. Don’t pray judgment upon them. If anything, ask God to be merciful to them. Jesus admonished those who would hear Him, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you” (Lk. 6:27,28). It takes the grace of God to be merciful as He has been merciful, and to forgive as He has forgiven. Unless we freely give what we have freely received, we will never realize our potential in Christ.
I have often said in my conferences, “If we could memorize the following verse, put it into practice and never violate it, half of the problems in our churches and homes would disappear overnight. ‘Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word as is good for edification according to the need of the moment, so that it will give grace to those who hear’ (Eph. 4:29). The next verse tells us how God feels when we tear down one another. ‘Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.”
Peter must have received his share of condemnation, because he writes so much about suffering. In the face of such opposition he writes, “But you are A CHOSEN RACE, A ROYAL PRIESTHOOD, A HOLY NATION, A PEOPLE FOR GOD’S OWN POSSESSION, so that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light; for you once were not a PEOPLE, but now you are THE PEOPLE OF GOD; you had NOT RECEIVED MERCY, but now you have RECEIVED MERCY” (1 Pet. 2:9,10). The world says you are nothing, therefore scheme, maneuver, and compete in order to get ahead and be someone. The Bible says you are something, therefore:
Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether to a king as one in authority, or to governors as sent by him for the punishment of evil doers and the praise of those who do right. For such is the will of God that by doing what is right you may silence the ignorance of foolish men. Act as free men, and do not use your freedom as a covering for evil, but use it as bondslaves of God. Honor all people, love the brotherhood, fear God, honor the king (1 Pet. 2:13-17).
Reject a Factious Man
Finally, the church at large and local expressions of the body of Christ may have to exercise church discipline for those who cause division according to Titus 3:9-11:
But avoid foolish controversies and genealogies and strife and disputes about the law, for they are unprofitable and worthless. Reject a factious man after a first and second warning, knowing that such a man is perverted and is sinning, being self-condemned.
The literal definition of a heretic is “one who causes schisms.” Such a person could actually be right according to the letter of the law, but dead wrong spiritually. Usually they are struggling with a root of bitterness which is causing many to be defiled. That is why forgiveness is the core of our Christian experience with God and each other. “Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you” (Eph. 4:31,32). We are called to be “servants of a new covenant, not of the letter, but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (2 Cor. 3:6). Anybody can divide the body of Christ, but it takes the Spirit of God to bring unity among those who are called children of God. Let me close with these words of Paul in Ephesians 4:1-3:
Therefore I, the prisoner of the Lord, implore you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, showing tolerance for one another in love, being diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.