One of the great battles in being a Christian and a ministry leader is not being “one of those” types of leaders. In my over twenty plus years being a Christian and being in the Church, I’ve learned that Christians do not like being labeled as “judgmental”, “critical” and even more they suspect people who say they are “discerning”. I’m struck by the fact though that the Apostle Paul commends a group of Christians called the Bereans in Acts 17:11 for doing just that, namely being critical of his own statements.
Luke compares the worshipers at the Berean synagogue with those at Thessalonica and praises the Bereans. Paul developed a close and loving relationship with the Thessalonians (1 Thess. 2:11); nevertheless, in respect to noble-mindedness the Bereans excelled. They were more open to the truth of God’s Word than the people of Thessalonica.
The reason for the openness of the Bereans resides in their receptivity and love for God’s Word. For them, the Scriptures are much more than a written scroll or book that conveys a divine message. They use the Old Testament as the touchstone of truth, so that when Paul proclaims the gospel they immediately went to God’s written Word for verification. They did so, Luke adds, with great eagerness. The adjective great indicates they treasured the Word of God. Luke ascribed the same diligence to the Bereans as Peter does to the Old Testament prophets, who intently and diligently searched the Word and inquired into its meaning (1 Peter 1:10). The Bereans opened the Scriptures and with ready minds learned that Jesus had fulfilled the Messianic prophecies.
Day by day, the Bereans examined the Scriptures to see whether the teaching of Paul and Silas was in accord with God’s written Word. They did so not from unbelief and doubt but rather from honest analysis and eagerness to learn the message of God’s revelation. Although Luke fails to mention that God opened the hearts of the Bereans in verse 12 he records that “many of the Jews” believed the gospel. These people believed because they knew God’s Word. The situation in Berea differed from that in Thessalonica where “some of the Jews were persuaded” (v.4).
The news of what was happening in Berea somehow reached Thessalonica and those Jews who had incited the mob in Thessalonica repeated their accusations in Berea. The result was that Paul had to leave immediately.
In reading this text one is struck by the manner in which those Jews who began their persecution in Thessalonica simply for reasons of jealousy and who presented false accusations before the authorities, now persecuted the missionaries as far as Berea, a city several days’ journey away.
At the beginning of this post I noted how “critical, judgmental, and discerning” are often viewed by Christians as terms one wants to avoid. The Bereans are critical in a good way, they searched the Scriptures to see if what Paul was saying was the Truth. The Jews who persecuted Paul did not want anything to do with searching the Scriptures. The contrast here is so strong I cannot help but point it out.
Christians are to be people of the Book. The difference between being critical and searching the Scriptures is the focus of our engagement. If we are truly engaged with the text, we will grow in the Word of God and thus the gospel of God. If we are only interested in what we think, we will be just like the Jews going after people who faithfully declare the message.
Many people are like this. They would rather attack the messenger than deal with the message of the text. Such people reveal their hearts are not right with God. Being critical without engaging the Scriptures to see if they contain the Truth of God is to commit the same error of the Jews from Thessalonica. Many Christians do this perhaps unintentionally by functionally denying the authority of Scripture by making much of their opinions rather than what the Bible teaches. Some Christians do this intentionally by setting up their traditions above the text of Scripture. Whether it is intentional or unintentional, such an attitude is not the one commended by Paul, namely the necessity to “search the Scriptures”. To search the Scriptures is to do just that; search the Scriptures which testify of Jesus.
Being critical without engaging the text of Scripture is to fall into the trap of judgmentalism. To twist and pervert the Scriptures is an egregious error, one that ought to be avoided by every Christian.
To be critical in the biblical sense is to engage the text of Scripture in understanding what it means. Many Christians think they are critically engaged with the text but instead, dump their systematic theology (what they have been taught about theology) onto the text rather than deal with the text. This is not searching the Scriptures to see if this teaching is the point of the passage.
To search the Scriptures means to see if what the preacher or teacher is saying aligns with the Truth of the Word. If the teaching is not aligned with Scripture, one must discard it because it is not worthwhile. To be a discerning Christian is to be one that is focused on the Word of God. This is why lifting up our opinions above what the text of Scripture says is more than wrong it is error.
I recently read a book where the author claimed he was engaging the Bible. In reality, he did nothing more than provide a litany of verses. The author never established his point biblically nor defined the issue from Scripture. Sadly, this type of exegesis is exactly what I am describing about being critical in the wrong way. To be critical and discerning in the biblical sense is to be like the Bereans. As our culture continues to decline, we are going to see more of this type of attitude typified by the author I described, namely men and women who lift up their opinions rather than the Bible text, giving their own meaning to the text instead of what the text says thus failing to grasp the point of the text which is always Jesus Christ.
How should Christians respond to fellow Christians who are overly critical, judgmental and who lack discernment? From the passage and the context that surrounds it we are to do what Paul and his companions did specifically continue preaching, teaching, and living the gospel.
People may not like us preaching the Word of God. As our culture will only continue to get worse, Christians must adhere to definitive Word from God as it alone is our authority. If some Christians refuse to heed the Word instead choosing to judge it, then we as faithful believers must continue all the more to proclaim the Word as authoritative, sufficient, and as the truth from God which testifies to His Son.
As we do so, it is imperative to place ourselves in humble submission to the Word of God so that we might apply what it teaches to our lives. As you put yourself under the authority of the Word, do not neglect to be under godly leadership in a local church that preaches and teaches the Word of God. Only then will you not be like the Jews who sought to destroy Paul’s ministry but rather like the Bereans who encouraged Paul and grew in the knowledge of the Word of God and the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ.