What Is the Bible’s View?
Criticizing Another’s Religion—Is It Unchristian?
THE Catholic Review, a diocese paper in Baltimore, Maryland, published an article about an American religious group that figured prominently in the local news at the time.
In reaction the paper received a number of complaining letters. Why? In a following issue the editor of the Catholic Review said that those who complained felt “that we have no right, in this ecumenical age, to publish anything that anybody might consider critical of any religious group.” Do you agree?
Many persons would answer “Yes,” saying that ‘there is good in all religions’ or that ‘all religions lead to God.’ For example, Awake! recently published an article that examined Buddhist teachings in the light of the Bible. A Buddhist bishop objected, saying that this is a time for “interracial, international and interreligious understanding.” Yes, many individuals feel that this is the time for a liberal, ecumenical outlook.
However, is this not also a time when honesty and candor are encouraged and needed? And should not this apply in the field of religion too? Some persons do not think so. Jesuit General Pedro Arrupe, as quoted by a Catholic newspaper in Madrid, stated: “I am strictly opposed to any criticism of the Church. . . . It is intolerable that any defect, however real, should be broached publicly by individuals, or groups, regardless of the goodwill they might have.” But, commenting on that statement, The Catholic World said that the head of the Jesuits “was echoing the ideal of a prior age. The Church has turned a corner.” Similarly, one of Europe’s leading Catholic theologians observed: “We do not have to give our assent and amen to everything in the Church. Criticism, indeed loud criticism, can be a duty.”—The Council, Reform and Reunion.
But there is a view that is even more important. What can we conclude from the Bible, especially its record of Christ’s life, as to whether it is unchristian to criticize another’s religion?
Some persons who frown on any such criticizing of religion quote Jesus’ words: “Judge not, that you may not be judged.” (Matt. 7:1, Douay) And Christ went on to tell his listeners to overlook ‘the straw in their brother’s eye’ until they had taken the rafter from their own eye. (Matt. 7:3-5) But what did he mean?
The commentary by Jamieson, Fausset and Brown says: “The context makes it clear that the thing here condemned is that disposition to look unfavourably on the character and actions of others, which leads invariably to the pronouncing of rash, unjust and unlovely judgments upon them.” And, bearing out that Jesus meant a personal type of ‘judging,’ commentator Albert Barnes says that Jesus “refers to private judgment . . . and perhaps primarily to the habits of the scribes and Pharisees.” Jesus’ counsel should be applied by each Christian in not being rash in judging the personal habits and preferences of others. (Compare Romans 14:1-4, 10.) So at Matthew 7:1-5 Jesus was not forbidding the offering of frank Bible-based comments about another religion’s beliefs and practices. How can we be sure? Note Jesus’ own example.
On one occasion Jesus spoke about certain Jewish religious leaders who paid more attention to their traditions than to following the principles of God’s word. Did Christ carefully avoid criticizing another’s religion? On the contrary, he said: “In this way you have made God’s word null and void by means of your tradition. Hypocrites! It was you Isaiah meant when he so rightly prophesied: ‘This people honours me only with lip-service, while their hearts are far from me. The worship they offer me is worthless.’” (Matt. 15:6-9, Jerusalem Bible) What is your reaction to such critical words? They might offend the sensibilities of some persons. But was Jesus being “unchristian”? Obviously not.
Perhaps even more pointed is his discourse in Matthew chapter 23. He called the religious leaders “blind fools,” “blind leaders” and ‘serpents, a brood of vipers.’ (Matt. 23:16, 17, 24, 33, Knox) Should we be shocked by such words? Again, was Jesus being “unchristian”? Roman Catholic priest Bruce Vawter, CM, says that this “discourse is somewhat embarrassing both in its length and in its harshness, but it must be faced up to both as an historical record and as part of the Gospel message.”—The Four Gospels: An Introduction.
But ask yourself: Why did Jesus publicly criticize religious men who claimed to serve the same God he preached? Was his motive bad? Not at all. Though he was mild-tempered and kind, his love for righteousness and his desire to aid honest-hearted persons moved him to criticize those who were teaching or acting contrary to God’s revealed will.—Matt. 11:28-30; Heb. 1:9.
Also, Jesus’ frank comments could help persons. For example, what if, in learning to use a dangerous machine, you kept making a serious error. Would you not be benefited if someone corrected you before you hurt or killed yourself or others? Accordingly, Jews hearing Jesus’ truthful criticism could be helped on the way to God’s approval and salvation.
Was it only Christ who could properly make such comments? No, for the Bible shows clearly that Jesus’ disciples also called attention to religious error. For example, read Stephen’s bold denunciation of the Jewish leaders. (Acts 7:51-54) And note that the apostle Paul branded the Athenian worship of idols as “ignorance.” (Acts 17:29, 30) Further, out of love for truth these first-century Christians exposed deviations from true Christianity by ones professing to be Christians.—1 Tim. 1:19, 20; 2 Tim. 2:16-19.
What, though, if you had lived then and Jesus’ followers criticized the religion of your friends and relatives? As now, it would have been easy to take offense. Still, we cannot deny that the disciples’ comments—critical though they were—were right, and they are included in God’s Word. As with Jesus, the motive behind the criticism was good. So the disciples were being Christian—not unchristian—in pointing out religious error.
Consequently, is it unchristian today to offer Bible-based comments about another’s religion? The Scriptural answer must be No. True, criticism that reveals faults in the teachings or practices of someone’s religion might at first seem severe. Yet, how should one react? Not like those who became violently enraged over Stephen’s criticism. Rather, note the fine reaction of some Athenians who heard Paul’s comments. They accepted the Bible truth and became believers, to their eternal benefit.—Compare Acts 17:11, 12.
Far from being rejected as unchristian, then, criticism based on God’s Word should be carefully considered, for it can bring real benefits.