Responding to Critics: the Contrast of Brian Mclaren and Perry Noble

Two men with so much in common. Both pastors who have a heart for people to know God and experience the new life that Jesus brings. In doing the work of ministry their own unique way, both have had to listen to incredible criticism and even endure name-calling from a variety of directions. The obvious difference between the two is how they have chosen to respond to the pressure of criticism.

As I was re-reading Brian Mclaren’s illuminating chapter on the subject of fasting inFinding Our Way Again, he was explaining the impact that the spiritual practice of fasting had made in his life. Mainly, he found that as he intentionally said “no” to some of his desires and impulses for a time, it has had a cumulative effect that has enabled him to say “no” to the larger temptations in life. One of those temptations he found himself facing was in desiring to respond harshly to critics of his writings and theology.

Here’s what he wrote:

“I think back to last week, when someone sent me a link to a website where a critic of my work indulged in some high-flying religious character assassination. My reaction to being misrepresented, insulted, and mocked was quite literally visceral. I felt something tighten in my gut, strangely similar in some ways to the craving for a chocolate-covered glazed doughnut. I started thinking about ways I could get back at this fellow, things I could write that would prove to him and to all virtual reality who the better man is. It was a kind of hunger…for revenge, I’m ashamed to say, and for self-justification, and to win and to hurt rather than lose and be hurt. And sitting here not, I wonder if my ability to let that feeling go last week didn’t have something to do with letting five hundred calories drop behind the Thank You sign on a trash can door one day. A little practice at impulse control, a little practice at facing my weakness, a little practice at laughing at my pretensions to maturity and spirituality, and a new possibility was actualized…thanks to a tradition carried by a community, embodied in some mentors who shared “elbow knowledge” with me. They say that practice makes perfect, but I wouldn’t know about that. What I do know is that practice makes possible some things that would otherwise have been impossible.”

Reading through the wisdom that Brian has gained through fasting gives me hope that over the next 20 or 30 years in ministry, I will be able to make the same wise decision to respond graciously and not satisfy my carnal urges for revenge. As I thought through this I realized that thanks to Out of Ur and a whole host of other bloggers, Perry Noble has come to serve as a contrast to the kind of graciousness of which Mclaren wrote.

I write this not to indict Perry Noble, for I do not know him, nor do I fully understand the stress that he is under as a leader in a large church. It’s hard enough to sleep at night as a pastor of a smaller community. But it seems from the videos that he has not been able to say no to the temptation to respond to critics in a way that could be described as “less than generous”. As I read Brian’s description about what he initially desired to do but refrained from; namely, “getting back” at his critic, “proving to him who the better man is”, “seeking revenge”, “self-justification”, “having a desire to win”, I couldn’t stop thinking of those words describing adequately what Perry Noble has been seeking by videotaping his responses to critics and then posting them on You Tube the following week.

And sadly, while there are plenty of other venues available when you fall into the trap of feeling the need to justify yourself, he has chosen to use the stage from which God has given him the responsibility of preaching His Word on Sundays. Once you start using the “pulpit” to respond to public critics and bloggers, the church ceases to be about a gathered community of Christ-followers worshiping together, and more about a pastor dealing with the hurt that comes from critics taking shots. Sunday morning is far from the ideal platform to respond to critics and unfortunately it is on those mornings where his videos have gone from ironic and embarrassing (talking bad about pastors who talk bad about pastors from the stage), to straight up self-justification (scoreboard).

As pastors, there is no doubt that we all need to process the hurt and anxiety that comes from critics as well as ask questions like, “why does this bother me so much?” After all, some criticisms are more justified than others and should in fact be taken into account, even if the critic is not a close friend. But the place for that to happen doesn’t come on Sunday mornings in a sermon. It comes in the context of trusted mentors and spiritual friends who help us process why the critics’ voice feels so destructive to our soul.

In processing the contrast of Mclaren and Noble this week, my prayer is that I will have the ability to say no to those urges that rise up within me as a pastor to seek recognition, attention, justification, and self-worth from the ministry that Jesus has commissioned me with. But instead look to the person of Jesus himself who tells me that my worth and value come from what he has done through his death and resurrection and are ultimately found in God alone.

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Does John Piper Know About the Resurrection?

While continuing to read and enjoy the challenge of “Don’t Waste Your Life” by John Piper, I’ve noticed something that I would have guessed without reading the book. John Piper is OBSESSED with the cross of Jesus Christ. And why not? Paul was too. He made statements like, “Far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.”Gal. 6:14

Piper takes this and runs with it, making it the central focus of all of life and ministry. Piper interprets Paul to be saying, “Only rejoice in the cross of Christ. Paul says, Let this be your single passion, your single boast and joy and exultation.”

It’s not that this is all-in-all a bad thing. The cross is of crucial importance for us and our salvation! I even agree with Piper that one of the facets of Jesus’ work on the cross is that he was a substitute; that he took the punishment that we deserved for our sins. He stood in our place. That is one of the easiest facets of the cross to see from Scripture. Not the only one, but an important one.

But I’m left wondering, where is the resurrection in all of this? If the resurrection didn’t happen, what Jesus did on the cross is worthless! (1 Cor. 15) It still didn’t achieve harmony between God and humanity. There is still not conquering of death or sin. So what’s the point? You can’t focus on the cross at the expense of the resurrection.

Piper states: “…for redeemed sinners, every good thing-indeed every bad thing that God turns for good-was obtained for us by the cross of Christ. Apart from the death of Christ, sinners get nothing but judgment. Apart from the cross of Christ, there is only condemnation. Therefore, everything that you enjoy in Christ-as a Christian, as a person who trusts Christ-is owing to the death of Christ. And all your rejoicing in all things should therefore be a rejoicing in the cross where all your blessings were purchased for you at the cost of the death of the Son of God, Jesus Christ.”

Again, I wonder, where is the resurrection? Does it even matter in Piper’s scheme? Why not make all of these statements as “the death (cross) and resurrection of Christ?” Why ONLY the cross? This seems to be a serious omission theologically.

I hope I’m wrong and Piper focuses on the significance of the resurrection somewhere in the book. I hope I can come back and apologize for jumping on his too quickly. But I’ve got a sneaking suspicion that the lack of resurrection will continue!

To be fair Piper mentions this: “God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God,” as the old Nicene Creed says, and since his death and resurrection are the central act of God in history…”

He acknowledges it is central but so far has only addressed the cross at the expense of resurrection.