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Blog // Thoughts
April 23, 2008

Criticism As A Sign Of Loyalty

In Who’s Your City, Richard Florida references Albert O. Hirschman’s contention that discontent and loyalty can be deeply intertwined. “In his 1970 classic Exit, Voice and Loyalty, Hirschman argued that when faced with an unsatisfactory situation we can either “exit” the situation or “voice” our discontent. The more “loyalty” we feel, the more likely we […]

In Who’s Your City, Richard Florida references Albert O. Hirschman’s contention that discontent and loyalty can be deeply intertwined.

“In his 1970 classic Exit, Voice and Loyalty, Hirschman argued that when faced with an unsatisfactory situation we can either “exit” the situation or “voice” our discontent. The more “loyalty” we feel, the more likely we are to use the latter option.”

What I find challenging and not a little unnerving about this argument is that my experience of church (both my personal journey and what I’ve seen around me) suggests that when people voice their discontent they are, more frequently than not, treated as being disloyal.

What a fundamentally disorienting response – people voicing their discontent out of loyalty, out a caring concern for things to be better, but treated as if they are being disloyal (with all the implications of untrustworthyness, subversion and inconstancy that carries).

steve 16 years ago

I agree with the argument.

I think, though, that we learn from a young age that if we stand stand for unpopular truth, we’ll be labelled as disloyal or untrustworthy. It crushes our spirits and makes us less likely to point out a flaw, a wrong, or a discontent. And sadly, I think the Church is the worst place for this!

I think this sort of thing comes from our mistaken premise that Christians are inherently good. Or perhaps that we *pretend* to be good in our happy little churches – I can’t possibly let them know my faults, I won’t then measure up!

I think once we all realize *and accept* that we’re inherently evil and propensed to do evil things, we’ll be able to recognize (oh sorry, that’s recognise to you 😉 ) that someone voicing a ‘discontent’ is being *more* loyal than the brother who walks away.

Fernando Gros 16 years ago

Steve – you make a very good point there about how our assumption of goodness can shape unhelpful reponses to criticism/critical thinking.

I can’t help but think of the phrase “critical spirit” that gets thrown around some churches. It goes a long way to implying that anyone who voices a criticism is really demon-possessed. No subtlety there.

Do you see a connection between the presumption of goodness and the drive to conformity?

Toni 16 years ago

There’s a big depends in this.

There are those that critique the church, wishing it to grow stronger. Then some criticise the church, wishing it to grow weaker. Finally we those that will bitch about anything because that reflects what is on their inside.

Criticism needs to be done from a place of respect and relationship if it is to be effective. Without trust and respect, criticism is just an attack, and is therefore naturally unwelcome and rejected. This may reflect an issue at the heart of church problems: that relationships are built in corporate gatherings with brief superficial contact and without any real depth. How can a church leader know his people when he only seems them on their way out the door after a service? It doesn’t help to only have a rope bridge between you if you need to drive an excavator across.

On top of that, church leaders are probably familiar with being attacked for real, and may not be ready to handle their own people differently. This is likely to be especially true of those that were taught to be pastors in college, rather than exercising the gifting as part of who they are. Certainly a danger to those who are ‘career pastors’ that move from church to church in the traditional way.

There’s an option that’s not been mentioned so far. Accepting the church is flawed and just getting on with it. This doesn’t have to be passive, but instead can recognise that the thinker is part of that church, therefore part of the problem, and to strive to fix it within themselves.

And recognising when to speak, when to shut up, is a great gift.

Fernando Gros 16 years ago

Toni – I agree with everything you’ve said there and particularly how, in the light of real attacks and malfeasant criticism, it can be hard to see the criticism that comes “from the right place.” I don’t think that justifies the way the critical thinker is often treated in churches, but it does put that treatment in context.

I also agree strongly with the suggestion that we just accept the church’s eternally flawed nature. That ties in with what Steve was saying and that kind of ecclesiological realism, if we can call it that, is surely an essential form of wisdom for being church together.

The problem as I see it is that so much church language and leadership language is axiomatically opposed to that kind of realism. It’s tantamount to saying we have failed, as churches, as leaders as Christians; or simply that we lack faith.

Paul 16 years ago

perhaps it’s more about how we voice criticism? and of course how we react to criticism.

How do we make something constructive and loving rather than shooting from the lip?

On the flip side how do we encourage feedback, questions, and challenge – in ways that encourage people to be involved and allow us to respond rather than react?

Fernando Gros 16 years ago

Paul – you are right that the “how” of criticising is really important. We should seek to be critical in progressive ways that build towards solutions and in ways that avoid destroying people.

But, I can certainly think of quite a few situations where the manner of expressing the criticism would have made no difference at all. The mere fact of being critical was in and of itself, a moral and character failing.

Personally, I believe we should link loyal criticism directly to creativity. I’ve heard lots of pastors and church leaders talk about fostering creativity, but we never have creativity without problems and limitations. Naming problems and limitations is always a critical act.

But do churches draw the critical into the centres of creativity, or push them out into rehabilition and indoctrination – sorry, I mean discipleship – programmes?

Toni 16 years ago

One of the things that our group of churches does every few years is undergo a review by mature Christians from outside the area, but from within salt and light. The idea is that there will be an unbiased critique of how specific local churches are run. The reviewers usually request to interview a proportion of committed members, but anyone that is part of the body can get to speak with them. At the end they will normally present detailed findings, with suggestions for change and growth (in maturity).

If one were insecure I could see this might seem threatening, but for us it seems a very healthy and sensible thing to do.

I would imagine this could not work in a conventional church setting because many conventional churches have an established pattern that is maintained and authority is distributed differently. Where authority is insecure then it is natural to defend oneself against criticism. Where authority is recognised as God-given and distributed among men of integrity and wisdom whose first desire is to see the Kingdom of God made real then there is much less to fear and many more reasons to be able to listen.

Fernando Gros 16 years ago

Toni – thanks for posting that. It’s a really grown up and well focussed way of handling the local church issue. I think you are right that the stumbling block for many churches (well, certainly for some churches I’ve seen) is that authority is clung to so tightly because really it is so fragile. There’s a lot of ugly things that happen under the guise of making sure the pastor “has a strong arm.”

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