Creative Leadership

Criticizing Religious Leadership in the Digital Age

Whenever I mention a highly public religious leader on my blog, I always get a barrage of responses from people who either support or criticize that person.  The supporters accuse me of speaking out of turn, warn me against judging, and disapprove that I didn’t go to the ministry leader privately first.  The other side cites accountability issues, ministry abuse, and financial indiscretion as evidence that some leaders should be looked at more carefully and publicly.  Either way – it brings up a really good question:

“In the age of public media, when some religious personalities choose to live their lives in the fishbowl of public scrutiny, is it OK to discuss their actions publically as well?

It’s a good question, and here’s a few thoughts: 

First, is technology.  Social media demands discussions and conversations.  This generation thrives on wrestling with issues online, so if you think you can stop that wave, you’re about to be surprised.  Check out the multiple theology and culture blogs and you’ll find Christians engaged in very vigorous and lively debates about people, issues, and ideas.  To this generation, it’s not about hard feelings or judging.  They believe arguments live very well online.

Next, remember that the admonition about judging from Matthew 7 actually isn’t about not judging, it’s about not being a hypocrite.   Remove the plank in your own eye first before you judge the splinter in someone else’s.  It’s actually about being able to judge more honestly and accurately.  Second, in 1 Corinthians 5:13 it says, “What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside?  God will judge those outside. Expel the wicked man from among you.”  That indicates that we are indeed to hold believers to account.  Further, there are numerous warnings throughout the New Testament about authority in the church, and how leaders should be held to a higher standard.

From my perspective, we’ve actually spent too much time criticizing the outside world (which the scripture tells us not to do), and not enough time holding each other to account.  As a result, we’ve allowed great shame to come into the Christian community under the misguided principle of “not judging.” We can’t judge motivations, and only God can judge hearts.  But I don’t see anything scripturally wrong with judging actions and whether they help or hinder the gospel.

What about Matthew 18 and the teaching about privately going to a brother who has wronged you?  On a personal level, I support that completely.  I would certainly do it in our local church body.  But in today’s celebrity driven ministry world, how exactly do you reach major ministry leaders?  It’s not like they’re able to take every phone call.

Finally, I wonder if the media age has forever changed the dynamic of criticism and confrontation.  For instance, when you move outside the local pulpit and put your teaching, actions, or ideas on the web or international television in an attempt to reach millions of people, doesn’t that make it legitimate for those millions of people to talk about what you’ve just said or done publically as well?

To be clear, let me say that I’m not necessarily talking about pastors at the local church level.  When they speak in front of a congregation, it’s an in-house thing, not being broadcast across the country.  Plus, I understand how criticism can undermine the ministry of a local pastor and we need to respect that.  They minister locally and in privacy with members of  their congregation.  Even if a local pastor blogs about ministry issues – particularly the task of ministering to his local congregation, I would respect and honor that role.

However, if that same local pastor began blogging, speaking outside the church, or broadcasting his views on theology, leadership, politics, culture, or other public issues, then he opens himself up to public discussion about his perspectives and positions.

So the issue becomes, regardless of their private motivations and intentions, when ministry leaders live their lives in public, and present their ideas, actions, and teachings online and in the mass media, is it OK to discuss and debate those ideas, actions, and teachings publically as well?

What do you think?

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  1. Proverbs 10:17


    He is in the way of life who heeds correction, but he who forsakes reproof leads others astray.”


    If Phil’s critique was anonymous, I would agree with those who take exception. But it’s not. He puts his name to it. And I notice that there are many criticisms of him on his very public blog: did everyone try to reach him personally first? Food for thought… but I, and Phil, think they did the right thing in replying to him in his forum of choice.


    It’s the big glass house: if your ministry is in the mass media, and your appeal is to a congregation in the mass media, then you should expect to hear from them in the mass media.


    Jesus warns many times about being wary of people, coming in His name, who will lead many astray. A media preacher has the means to lead millions astray. There used to be a real reason for all those local pastors and deacons sitting on the platform in the tent. It wasn’t just a place of honor: they were keeping a watchful eye on the traveling preachers. We need to do the same with mass media preachers.


    The biggest issue is stewardship. (It should be theology, but that’s for another day…)


    One gets the feeling from much of Christian media that God is constantly on the verge of personal bankruptcy: as if God’s kingdom itself were fueled by money.


    Responsibility, accountability, transparency: all vital to the Christian mission. These are the issues Phil is trying to start a conversation about, and he’s doing the right thing. And he’s doing it in the right forum.


    Not that he’s always right… and when he isn’t, he hears about it. Rightly so.



  2. Surely tone is critical in any public criticism of believers or nonbelievers, living or dead. All our remarks should be couched in terms that we would feel comfortable addressing to the person in person. It is here that the technology often gets us in trouble, i.e., email flaming, et. al. What is said in print has a much greater potential for being misunderstood than that which is said in person. 

    I have not always followed this rule, but recently I spoke in person to someone about whom I was writing a very negative review of his book. It taught me a lesson and made my remarks much closer to the mark.

    On the whole, Phil’s comments make sense to me. But it should be noted that we live in a highly polarized, slash and burn society infused with a hermeneutic of suspicion. It makes operationalizing John 17 much harder.



  3. Mr. Seel makes a very good point. Reason and Christian compassion must form the foundation of all our communication, and the anonymity of the internet emboldens our worst impulses. I am certainly guilty. It’s why I started using my real name. It makes me think twice before I hit “post”.

    And the phrase “hermaneutic of suspicion” is wonderful.

  4. How did one use to criticise christian leaders?

    Is there such a thing as constructive public criticism?

    I suspect a leader be more open to listen to criticism in private than in public.



  5. I see it as pretty cut and dried.

    People who reach me with their message by the public airwaves be they tv, radio or internet and who solicit for followers and financial supporters are fair game to discuss in the same forum in which they initiate their message.

    More often than not, those who complain about response and invoke Matt 18 are more concerned about squelching dissent, minimizing impact to that persons reputation and revenue or asserting their own power by attempting to censor what others have to say.

    That doesn’t excuse things like being rude or unfair in one’s response, but Matt 18 is something that is given in the context of a local body of believers with already established personal relationships.

    Claiming that others have the right to give their message in public but then attempting to silence dissent or response is more about manipulation and control than any sincere concern over the individuals involved.  A response at the same level the original message was made doesn’t strike me as unreasonable or unbiblical.  That doesn’t mean it is always wise or that it itself is not subject to the same, but let’s leave off with the holy guilt trips that in the end only serve to empower irresponsible conduct for those initiating communications in a public forum.

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