We are living in the final days of human history, and Satan is “having great wrath, because he knows that he has a short time” (Rev. 12:12). In his battle against the remnant people “who keep the commandments of God and the faith of Jesus” (verse 17), Satan uses human instruments from among God’s own people as his most effective agents (see Matt. 13:24-30). Claiming to be part of God’s people and demonstrating a superior zeal for the truth, those agents are very successful in bringing into the church the same bellicose spirit that has always characterized “the accuser of our brethren” (Rev. 12:10).
While warning us not to judge people’s inner intentions (Matt. 7:1), Christ also encourages us to evaluate the personal characteristics of the supposed heralds of truth so that we can avoid being misled by them (Matt. 7:15-23). In the book The Remnant Church, Ellen G. White admonishes us to be on guard against the accusers of the church. Thus, I am convinced that we should consider in more detail the critics’ characteristics and strategies so that they will not mislead us and divide our congregations.
Throughout this article, I am using the word “critics” to refer not to those who admonish the church positively and try to help her overcome her challenges, but to those who take a negative posture of blaming and undermining the church.
CHARACTERISTICS OF THE CRITICS
Some critics of the church apparently live normal lives and have no personal problems. Therefore, it would be wrong to attribute the same characteristics to all critics. But many (whom I know personally or through biographical information provided by others) reveal at least some of the following characteristics.
1. Accusing spirit. The critics are usually not satisfied to only discuss ideas and concepts; to receive attention, they feel compelled to accuse influential people and label them negatively. With such a mechanism of self-defense, they can transfer the focus of attention from their own personal problems to the alleged problems of others. In this process, they use falsehoods which are not always identifiable to those who hear them.
2. Personal frustrations. Many critics are also people who are frustrated because they have not been placed in a position of leadership or obtained public recognition or because they have lost a position of social prominence. Unable to endure the grief for such a loss, they project upon others their own personal bitterness.
3. Moral and family problems. A large number of critics have been emotionally affected by the fallout from adultery or traumatized by the loss of a spouse (either by death or separation). Without the stability of a well-structured family, these individuals tend to disrupt other social segments, including the church.
4. Financial difficulties. Some of the bitterest critics are people who used to be economically stable but who fell into financial instability. In many cases, the individual became unfaithful in tithes and offerings. Accusing the church leadership of corruption and misuse of finances, some critics use church funds for their own enterprises.
5. Self-esteem issues. Some people who were molested in childhood or who have a physical or emotional deficiency look constantly for something else to bolster their low selfesteem. Unable to project themselves positively within the local church, they use criticism as a means to compensate for their personal frustrations. Not allowed to preach, they often remain at the back of the church, criticizing the preacher.
6. Selfishness. Almost all the critics I have known are egocentric people who establish themselves and their ideas as the pattern for the spirituality of others. Those who agree with them, they consider good Christians; those who disagree with them are, in the critics’ opinion, in apostasy. They see their ideas as the best ones and their judgments as the most reliable.
7. Individualism and an independent attitude. The selfishness of the critics generates in them an individualistic and independent attitude that distances them from the collective thinking of the church. For them, the freedom of individual thinking is far more important than the counsel of the brethren. They usually consider those who disagree with them as inferior and lacking the right democratic spirit.
8. Emotional disorder. Many critics of the church seem to suffer from the so-called Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). They demonstrate an uncontrolled aggressiveobsessive compulsion against all those who disagree with them. They consider all who oppose them as enemies to be fought in the name of God.
9. A generalizing tendency. Human beings have a natural tendency to generalize, but critics are masters in this area. They take the misbehavior of a church leader or a small group of leaders and project it as a prevailing characteristic of the entire denomination. Consequently, they make the almost 20 million church members around the world responsible for the misbehavior of one or more individuals (cf. Ezek. 18:20).
The above-mentioned characteristics are frequently found among church critics, and an awareness of these characteristics can help us better understand the profile of the critics. But just identifying those characteristics per se cannot explain why such people are able to attract a significant number of followers. Therefore, we should also consider some strategies the critics use to propagate their views.
STRATEGIES OF THE CRITICS
Strategies that critics use to spread their criticisms can vary as much as the characteristics of the critics themselves. Among the most common strategies, one can find the following:
1. A “deeper” knowledge of the Bible and the writings of Ellen G. White. In an age when many church members lack a deeper knowledge of the Bible and the writings of Ellen G. White, the critics promote themselves as the exclusive owners of that knowledge. Once they achieve such recognition, they are not afraid to overemphasize what they like in the inspired writings while simply ignoring what does not interest them.
2. Psycho-social manipulation. One of the most common ways to get attention from listeners is to memorize and publicly recite many texts from the Bible and passages from the writings of Ellen White. By reciting passages that no one else in the audience has memorized, the critics sell the notion that they know more than everybody else and that their knowledge should be accepted as “new light” of divine origin.
3. Supposed originality. Many critics ignore or even distort the historical roots of their ideas, leaving the impression that—finally!—someone honest has appeared on the scene to restore truth in its biblical purity and to reveal the deceptions of the denomination. In this way, lessinformed listeners do not realize that the supposed “new light” is nothing more than an old doctrinal distortion that the church already faced in the past.
4. Undermining the leadership of the church. Unable to convince the church leadership of their personal views, the critics begin to accuse, trying to get followers to trust them more than the church leaders. The apostle Peter warned that in the last days, there would be insolent and arrogant people who would “despise authority” and “speak evil of dignitaries” (2 Pet. 2:10, NKJV).
5. Autobiographical discourses. Another strategy used by the critics, consciously or unconsciously, is to project on the church and its leadership their own anti-Christian and anti-ethical profile. Using the mirror principle, the critics reflect themselves on others, accusing them of their own behavior. An attitude of self-despair leads them to project on others their own personal frustrations.
6. Posing as “saviors” of the church or from the church. After undermining the confidence in the leadership of the church, the critics put themselves in a position to be recognized as the only heralds of truth and as the true leaders of God’s people. So, they are finally able to assume leadership positions that would otherwise never be entrusted to them by the church.
7. Martyr syndrome. When the church decides to apply proper discipline to them, the critics usually portray themselves as victims of the ecclesiastical system, which they consider to be as intolerant as the one that persecuted Martin Luther. With this martyr analogy, they get even more sympathizers, generated by the natural human tendency to promote justice by defending the victims (those who are being disciplined) and punishing the aggressors (those who apply the discipline).
8. Dividing the churches. As attractive and convincing as someone’s speech can be, listeners must evaluate what they hear by asking the following questions: What are the “fruits” of the work of this individual (Matt. 7:20)? Do his or her words strengthen the faith, the love, and the unity of the believers (John 17:21)? Unfortunately, the work of such critics usually generates a strong critical spirit and a great sense of personal superiority, which is in direct opposition to Christ’s religion (see Matt. 5:43-48).
Critics may use other strategies, but those mentioned above are among the most common ones. As members of Christ’s body, we should not allow such strategies to distance us from “the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3).
Many critics can be sincere in their claims, but their accusing work neither strengthens the faith nor promotes church unity. Ellen G. White warns that such people will never enter the kingdom of God. She states, “I saw that some are withering spiritually. They have lived some time watching to keep their brethren straight—watching for every fault to make trouble with them. And while doing this, their minds are not on God, nor on heaven, nor on the truth; but just where Satan wants them—on someone else. Their souls are neglected; they seldom see or feel their own faults, for they have had enough to do to watch the faults of others without so much as looking to their own souls or searching their own hearts. A person’s dress, bonnet, or apron takes their attention. They must talk to this one or that one, and it is sufficient to dwell upon for weeks. I saw that all the religion a few poor souls have consists in watching the garments and acts of others, and finding fault with them. Unless they reform, there will be no place in heaven for them, for they would find fault with the Lord Himself.”1
Throughout history, God’s remnant church has always faced bellicose critics, and this will occur more frequently as we approach the end of time. But the church retains the glorious promise of Isaiah 54:17: “‘No weapon formed against you shall prosper, and every tongue which rises against you in judgment you shall condemn. This is the heritage of the servants of the Lord, and their righteousness is from Me,’ says the Lord.”
1 Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church, 1:145.
This article was first published as “A Igreja e seus críticos,” in Revista Adventista (Brazil), April 2005, pages 16, 17. It has been lightly edited for Elder’s Digest.
Alberto R. Timm is an associate director of the Ellen G. White Estate at the General Conference World Headquarters.