Critiquing Expressions of Devotion

Rob Looper

Is it appropriate for Protestants to embrace the observance of Lent--or, even further, any of the Orthodox holy days and seasons? Members of Protestant and Evangelical churches in our day have made these frequently asked and widely disputed questions. Others have thoughtfully raised the issue of the lack biblical and historical support for Protestants embracing Lent. For instance, Carl Trueman wrote about Ash Wednesday, in particular, on this site a number of years back. I wholeheartedly agree with what he had to say. I also urge you to read Richard Barcellos' excellent response to a recent TGC devotional guide on Lent. I am certainly more than a little concerned with the growing Protestant evangelical infatuation with the orthodox church calendar and orthodox expressions of devotion. My concern is not so much Roman Catholicism and other orthodox traditions for practicing these rituals. After all, it's who they are and what they do. I fundamentally disagree with their theological foundation, not their expression. Nevertheless, I would like to offer a few thoughts--not so much on the question about the appropriateness of Protestants observing Lent but on the question of the appropriateness of critiquing someone's personal expressions of devotion to God.

First. I do not agree that it is never appropriate to question or criticize a person's expression of devotion to God.  Biblically speaking, sometimes critique is necessary because one's devotion may be misplaced or in error, as Paul did with the unbelieving Athenians (Acts 17:23).  Other times it is necessary because of ignorance, as Priscilla and Aquila did with Apollos (Acts 18:24-26) or as Paul did with the believers he met in Ephesus (Acts 19:1-6).  In each case critique is matter of truth, love and, ultimately, honor to the Lord.

Additionally, the idea that criticism of personal devotion to God is verboten relativizes spirituality beyond any truthful examination or discussion, which ultimately means that Christian expressions of devotion are not so much matters of truth as, well, matters of expression, subjective "existentialities" that have truth and value relative to the person who expresses the devotion.  In other words, my expression of devotion to Christ is mine and that's the end of the discussion.  The problem with this is that it is just the same old liberal argument that one's faith is an existential act that is beyond any test of factual scrutiny.  The further problem is that this also means that my faith is essentially irrelevant to anything outside of my personal, mystical experience. If my action of devotion is beyond critical evaluation, then the object of my devotion is beyond critical evaluation; words like truth, error, heresy--even right and wrong--cannot be meaningfully used in any discussion of Christianity or, for that matter, of religion, period.

Second.There is a right way to make such a critique.  No one--least of all liberals--functionally believes that it is never appropriate to criticize one's personal faith.  Hypocrisy abounds, as witnessed by the fact that the greatest champions of religious tolerance are most often the greatest offenders; find a car with a 'coexist' decal and you are likely to find in it someone utterly intolerant of any form of Christianity that assents to absolute truth or the exclusivity of Christ as Savior. For this reason, I completely ignore shouts of protest about critiquing expressions of faith that start from the assumption that all critiques are off-limits; those who say this are almost never willing to play by their own rules.

Still, every critique must be God-honoring, which means not only with a view to the purity of doctrine but also with regard to the peace of the church and our witness to a skeptical world. Christ-like love, respect and gentleness must underlie every inquiry and, when necessary, every firm admonition. Critique should never be mean and it must always be respectful, but in today's climate "mean" and "respectful" are constantly redefined by those who all too often find everyone but their own tribe to be mean and disrespectful.

Third. Christians--and by that I mean those who believe in sola Scriptura, that the Bible alone is God's authoritative voice in this age--above all people ought to be the most open to the scrutiny of their faith and its expression. To start, we do not merely believe in absolute truth, we believe it is found in the Bible as God's Word.  We further believe that, as sinners, without God's intervening correction we will misapprehend what the Bible says, misapply what it teaches--and, worse of all, make up unbiblical doctrines and perform unbiblical expressions of devotion to God.  A truly humble Christian is that son or daughter of God through Christ who, like the wise son spoken of in Proverbs, loves instruction and does not despise reproof. Simply put, I want to know what is an appropriate expression of devotion--and I want to know what is not an appropriate expression of devotion.  If it is possible that what I express in my practice is in conflict with sound doctrine or could lead me further into confusion or into outright error, then I want to know.

Fourth (and last). Just because an expression of devotion to God is unfamiliar, outside of my tradition or not immediately clear to me does not mean it is wrong.  But all of those reasons make it an appropriate candidate for biblical examination, which will result in one of three things:  I discover that I am wrong to be critical and acknowledge the biblical freedom of others to express their devotion as they have been expressing it; I discover I am right to be critical and must find a loving way to challenge those who so express their devotion to biblical reexamination and, ultimately, repentance; or I discover I am wrong to be critical and may myself choose to widen my biblical expression of devotion.