Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. — James 3:1
Is it right to reprove Church leaders when they err in the conduct of their sacred duties as mouthpieces of God? Or put more succinctly, is it a sin to criticize or take a stand against men of God? This tacky question is one of the most sensitive in modern Christian discourses as it borders on the manner preachers of the gospel of Christ should be treated when they stumble in the discharge of their duties.
Attempts to answer this teaser over the years, have thrown up two major schools of thought. While the first is of the view that Church leaders should be called to order whenever they deviate from their core functions as the shepherds of God’s earthly flock, which is premised on the thinking that Church leaders are supposed to be role models who should be above board in their conduct, the other side of the divide is of the view that it is a grievous sacrilege to condemn men of God, who, as ordained mouthpieces of Christ, should not be castigated, even when they go astray. For this school of thought, stumbling Church leaders are answerable only to God, not mere mortals.
So, which of these lines of argument is correct? Before taking any stand on this matter, it would be necessary to clarify the concept, “Man of God”. Who is a man of God? Man of God is a biblical title of respect applied to prophets and beloved religious leaders. The term appears 78 times in 72 verses of the Bible, in reference to certain individuals who had unalloyed loyalty to God. A true man of God is, amenable to rebuke and correction; he is humble and willing to learn. He doesn’t care about being famous, but about being in right standing with God. He cares about the truth, and confronts error.
A man of God speaks God’s word; he does not deviate from God’s laws. A man of God is obedient; he does not question God’s judgments. You cannot be called a man of God unless you obey the Word of God. God does not use men who are not obeying Scripture. God “has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8)? A regenerated man is a new creation in Christ, having new inclinations for Christ (2 Cor 5:17). He will seek the things of God; His Word, His Spirit, and His fellowship.
Our love for God will be reflected by our obedience to God (John 14:15). Those who do the will of the Father are truly the children of God (Matt 12:50; Mark 3:35), and men of God are in that category. The Bible tells us that God “raised up David to be their king, of whom he testified and said, ‘I have found in David the son of Jesse a man after my heart, who will do all my will” (Acts 13:22). A man of God is a man after God’s own heart…if they “will do all [His] will.”
A man of God is a servant leader, who is not measured by the number of people who serve him, but by the number of people he serves. A man of God is not a man of himself. If he is truly a man of God, he has sacrificed his own time and interests for the benefit of others. Even to his detriment, he will serve others because “even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life. He sees himself as someone called by God to “wash the feet of the saints.” If Jesus, who was God could humble Himself to wash the disciples feet, a true man of God should humble himself in service to others; he should esteem others rather than himself.
From the forgoing definition of the concept in view, the picture that emerges is that of a humble, unassuming, altruistic, dedicated and obedient individual with a servant disposition to the things of God; one who denies himself of worldly pleasures, is fully committed to serving God and daily bears the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ. Thus, any individual lacking these attributes does not qualify to bear the title, Man of God; he is, in fact, a man of the world or of the devil.
Now, back to the main thrust of this piece: Should true men of God be criticized? This writer’s answer is, YES, but only when they err in their duties as servants of the Most High God. They should not just be condemned for the sake of it. The truth is that Church leaders are not above criticism. Sometimes they deserve it and need it.
Church leaders who deviate from preaching the gospel in its purest form can be called to order. Church leaders who regularly engage in mortal sins or unhealthy habits that would disqualify them from the exalted office they occupy deserve reproof. A Church leader who cheats on his wife by engaging in sexual immorality, is always dead drunk, lacks self-control, is inhospitable and violent, can be called to order. A church leader, who is domineering, psychologically abusive, is argumentative, greedy, exploitative, does not submit to the authorities, can be reproofed. A Church leader, who doesn’t rebuke those who contradict sound doctrine, won’t correct heresy, or protect the flock from wolves and teaches doctrine in contradiction to the tenets of the historic Christian faith, deserves criticism.
Apostles Paul, Peter and John cautioned the believers about false shepherds and erring brothers, mentioning the names of these impostors in most cases. Christians are told of the standards by which they should assess preachers (they will be known by their fruits). This is captured in Matthew 7:15-20, which says: “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes from thornbushes or figs from thistles? Even so, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Therefore by their fruits you will know them.
The Bible is strewn with cases where men of God were criticized for straying from their divine callings. For instance, Paul who was Peter’s junior in the Christian faith condemned him openly for his two-faced stance on the issue of circumcision. “But when Peter came to Antioch, I had to oppose him to his face, for what he did was very wrong. When he first arrived, he ate with the Gentile believers, who were not circumcised. But afterward, when some friends of James came, Peter wouldn’t eat with the Gentiles anymore. He was afraid of criticism from these people who insisted on the necessity of circumcision. As a result, other Jewish believers followed Peter’s hypocrisy, and even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy” (See Galatians 2:11-13, New Living Translation).
John the Baptist condemned the Pharisees and Sadducees as a “brood of vipers” in Matthew 3:7. A “brood of vipers” is a “family of snakes.” Because vipers are venomous, John was essentially calling the religious leaders “deadly sons of serpents.” It’s quite a bold denunciation—and one Jesus repeated to the Pharisees in Matthew 12:34.
The Pharisees and Sadducees were the religious leaders in Israel during the time of John the Baptist and Jesus. The Pharisees were the Law-keepers and promoters of tradition, and the Sadducees comprised the wealthier ruling class. Over the centuries, these well-meaning groups had become corrupt, legalistic, and hypocritical and would eventually be responsible for crucifying the Son of God. They earned their label “brood of vipers,” a sobriquet with deeper meaning than is obvious at first glance.
During the priesthood of Eli, “there came a man of God to Eli” and told him that his priesthood was about to be removed and told him why (1 Sam 2). The “man of God” had good reason to confront the Eli because he was a representative of God before the people, and Eli’s sons were profaning the temple.
Despite his good intentions, Apostle Peter, who Jesus Christ referred to as the “Rock” on which he would build his Church, was sternly chided by our Lord with the statement “get behind me Satan” (Matthew 16:23) for speaking out of turn concerning the incoming tribulation. Peter’s statement was careless, worldly and rebellious. He was guilty of attempting to obstruct events that had been divinely preordained to happen; a sort of challenge to the spoken word of God; one that deserved to be quickly repudiated. He was concerned with just the human issue of protecting His master and had lost sight of divine things. He was not reflecting the concerns of God in his desire to thwart those who would put His master to death. It was a case of misplaced zeal.
Even in contemporary times, some erring men of God have been heavily castigated for their intransigence by the public, fellow shepherds and other adherents of the faith. The alleged offences of these shepherds of the flock range from greed, money mongering, lasciviousness, larceny and other despicable offences which have tended to portray Christianity in negative light in contradistinction with other religions.
Now, it is pertinent to make a distinction between Judging and criticizing somebody. From a Biblical standpoint, judging someone is the same thing as condemning that person, while criticism is meant to discern, rebuke, refute, instruct, warn/admonish, expose, correct and examine a matter before drawing conclusions. The Bible frowns at judging/condemning others, but sees nothing wrong with a true believer committed to the good fight of faith, and is always ready to rebuke, refute and expose those who contradict Christ’s glorious Gospel of salvation for mankind.
Any Christian, whether Church leader or regular member is amenable to criticism when they err, irrespective of status or influence. A true man of God shouldn’t be offended by objective criticism. He should, in fact embrace it and amend his ways. When Paul publicly chided Peter for hypocrisy on the matter of circumcision, as earlier mentioned, Peter did not pick offense, but adjusted his teachings as depicted in his Letters.
So, it is not a sin to criticize Church leaders who do not display the fruits which the bible says they would display. The truth is that not every impostor, who registers a Church, rents a building, and starts organizing regular programs, qualifies as a genuine man of God. If it was so, all the false prophets/ teachers the bible warned us about would qualify to this exalted office.