In the year 399 B. C. the Greek philosopher Socrates was forced to drink the poison, hemlock, after being found guilty on two counts of "impiety." While much of the charge was politically motivated, it is fairly clear that Socrates was critical of the social and religious situation of 5th century B.C. Athens. His willingness to speak what he considered to be the truth led to his ultimate death. That kind of persecution has been around ever since, and will probably continue for a long time to come. Societies and organizations cannot allow for men to speak words which are critical of the status quo, for in so doing they are risking the danger of finding out that they have been wrong for so long. This is a prominent feature of Denominationalism. Heresy cannot even be expressed. If it is the person is booted out.
I believe the church, of the Lord is quickly reaching, if it has not already reached, the state of denominationalism on this point. We believe we have "restored" the New Testament church and all that we have to do now is to reaffirm that fact. We believe we are the "One True Church," and no departure from that notion will be allowed. The persecution which arises today is what I call "journalistic hemlock." Some well meaning brother who has gone out on a financial limb to begin publishing a religious journal believes that it is his duty to protect the church from every sort of intrusion upon the well settled order which we believe we have discovered and restored. If he publishes an article which he disagrees, with, it must always be accompanied by a response because the readers are surely not sufficiently wise to discern any false teaching in it. By that means the churches are then served fair warning that if they have that particular preacher for a meeting they will be counted to be "unsound" also.
The result of all that process is that preachers who would like to present a well meaning criticism of the status quo are driven underground completely, or they write anonymously as I am in this journal. Ultimately, that deprives the church of a much needed thing--criticism from within. No organization or group of people can long exist without internal criticism, and we dare not drive those critics away.
What do I mean by criticism? Is it negativism? Certainly not! Criticism which is effective is a positive approach to the current situation. The critic does not merely express what is wrong about something, but in both word and deed demonstrates a better way. I need to point out here that it is easy to be critical of the other fellow, but it is very difficult to be critical of the self. Yet, genuine criticism must always begin with one's own person. Jesus said, "Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother's eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye" (Matt. 7:3)? (I might point out in passing that it is hypocritical of me to expect "perfect" behavior of another when I have not achieved it myself.) .
Having said all of that, let me describe criticism. It is the process of honestly examining one's current teaching and practice. That, of necessity, demands that the critic will express thoughts which will possibly be considered "heretical" by the group. The group must be willing to listen. The group must not immediately cast the person off as a false teacher. Rather, it must be willing to allow time and wisdom to help them discover the truth. But that is not what we do. We believe we must first brand the person as a false teacher, and then spend all of our time trying to prove him wrong. We do not listen. If we do listen, isn't it so we can find out where he is wrong rather than trying to see if he might be right? Brethren, we are not defending the truth. We are defending a system which is intent on protecting itself ,from any kind of intrusion from a strange idea. No matter that the idea might be right, it is different.
Now why does the modern church need internal criticism? First, because criticism is healthy to anyone. If our errors are not pointed out to us, then we generally will not correct them. But having our errors pointed out required us to run the risk that we might be wrong. How many of us have said to denominational people that we want them to tell us where we are wrong? Do we mean that? Or is it merely a facade to. try to appear open minded? The willingness to listen to what we may consider to be "novel doctrine" without branding the speaker as a false teacher is absolutely necessary to the health of the church. Once we have branded the man we will not openly and honestly listen. Everything he says is taken in with the proverbial "grain of salt." He can no longer be trusted because he is a false teacher. We can profess to be open minded all we want, but when we brand someone as a false teacher we have practically destroyed the possibility that people will listen to him openly to try to discover if he might be right. Of course, some are afraid we will allow the church to be corrupted if we follow that approach to criticism. I suggest exactly the opposite. Healthy criticism is the only way we can keep the church from being corrupted. Catholicism became so corrupt because it prevented any deviation, in thought from the "approved" doctrine. When we do not allow any deviation in thought we will become corrupt as they did.
Second, a positive approach to criticism as I have expressed it will help us to avoid some of the division which has plagued the church for the past several years. Division nearly always arises because men are unwilling to listen to one another when they differ. When someone expresses a novel approach to an issue the security of the status quo is threatened, and most people cannot abide that. The result is division. And you know it is kind of strange that we find a way to remain united when it comes to a matter which the Bible deals with specifically (e.g. the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, head coverings for women, etc.), but when it comes to a matter which the Bible says nothing about (instrumental music in worship, missionary societies, orphan homes, church sponsored recreation, etc.) we think it is necessary to divide to protect the "purity of the church." There is something unholy about that. What is the difference? If I can manage to work together with a man who differs with me on the mode of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, then why can't I manage to work together with a man who differs with me on instrumental music in worship? Is it because I have predetermined that I am willing to listen to one while I am not willing to listen to the other? Is it possible that the man who believes "error" on instrumental music is somehow more dangerous to the church than the man who believes "error" on the indwelling of the Holy Spirit? Is an improper view on head coverings for women less detrimental to the welfare of the church than an improper view on church sponsored recreation?
We have essentially become like the Pharisees. We have become more concerned with the external features of the church than with the internal features of it. The church is people called for the praise of God (1 Pet. 2:9) and its fundamental characteristic must never be made subservient to external features of work and organization, which are merely means to achieve the primary goal. It is time we became truly open to one another so that we might be renewed to true service for the majestic Lord. (Epaphroditus may be addressed in care of the editor. This excellent article deserves serious study by every Christian. - CAH)