In Defense of Neatniks

No one likes being called a neatnik or a nitpick—especially a theological one. The nickname conjures an image of a guy sitting in his mom’s basement surrounded by Calvin’s Institutes, The Westminster Catechism, Systematic Theology (Horton’s, Berkhoff’s and Grudem’s) and dozens upon dozens of commentaries. Think a serious Star Wars fan—but sub in Jesus for Luke Skywalker.

Now to be sure, there are some folks who are definitely a bit too… intense about their preciseness and forget that misspeaking is different than being a heretic. Likewise, one can be so focused on the trees that they miss the forest (which a frustration I’ve got with a book I’m reading with my men’s group right now). But I wonder if sometimes we label some folks theological neatniks as a cover for our own sloppiness? That rather than own up to a mistake or do the hard work of making sure that what we’re saying is actually right in the first place, we allow our pride to take over and brush it off by saying, “Stop being such a nitpick!”

But as I’ve continued to read Excellence by Andreas Köstenberger, I’ve been wrestling more and more with whether or not this is the right attitude. In fact, in the second chapter, Köstenberger writes something completely blew my mind:

Far from being optional, excellence is in fact a divine mandate that applies to every aspect of our lives, for God himself is characterized by excellence. Mediocrity, sloppy workmanship, and a half-hearted effort do not bring glory to God or advance his kingdom.

If excellence is indeed a divine mandate (and it is, since Jesus declares that we are to “perfect, as your Heavenly Father is perfect” in Matt. 5:48), then it would seem that we do not have the luxury of not striving to be as precise as possible in what we say, think and do—especially when it comes to our theology. Indeed, if Köstenberger is correct in his assertion, then one could go so far as to say that God is glorified by theological precision. By no means does this mean that we cannot and will not make mistakes—we can and we will as long as the presence of sin remains. Nor does it mean that we can ignore context—like when you really, really want to correct the person who says “expresso” instead of “espresso,” but you don’t because then you’d just be annoying. (Sometimes you just have to let something slide if you don’t want to get punched at Starbucks.) But what it does mean is that we should always strive to be as accurate as possible and to be quick to admit error whenever our mistakes are brought to light.

So here’s the question—what does our conduct say about us? Are we more likely to brush off critics—whether they’re our critics or those of people whose work we appreciate—by calling them neatniks and nitpicks or are we willing to listen and be corrected when needed? A so-called neatnik might be annoying, but he might also be an instrument of grace being used by God to sharpen our minds and bring glory to Him through theological precision.

Posted by Aaron Armstrong

Aaron is the author of several books for adults and children, as well as multiple documentaries and Bible studies. His latest book, I'm a Christian—Now What?: A Guide to Your New Life with Christ is available now.

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3 Replies to “In Defense of Neatniks”

  1. I could write pages and pages about this… 🙂

    I think we should honestly weigh all criticism. Even if we are misunderstood, we need to examine if we could have prevented the misunderstanding by expressing ourselves more clearly. And even if the criticism is unjust, it can be an exercise enduring graciously.

    But often I read something that could probably have been expressed more elegantly, even though I think I understand what the writer was trying to say. And in those instances I cringe, because I can almost hear the pedants cracking their knuckles as they prepare to type their scathing responses and burn this poor soul. 

    Excessive criticism can breed pride and self-righteousness in the criticizer, and also make the person receiving the criticism less sensitive to correction that is justified.

    Like everything else, it boils down to the heart. Are we pointing out someone’s errors because we truly believe that they could lead people astray, or are we wanting to puff ourselves up by showing off our knowledge? And, are we rejecting criticism because it’s truly unjust, or are we missing a chance to learn and grow?

  2. My experience with theological neat-nicks is that they get so engaged in the discussions about the right theology that most of the time they do not even get to do the works but sadly they look down on people. It happened to me not so long ago, they could not consider me for a ministry work because I was not “educated” enough. meaning not enough biblical studies etc.
    It is very true also, that without studying the bible people come up with all sort of theology and they need to be corrected.While I might not be so theologically excellent, our ministries are very engaged in bringing the word to God, helping people in need and being on the field, things that those same neat-nicks can’t seem to be able to do. So in that case, what brings more glory to God ?But it is very true that we always set our goals to do things excellently, because we know that our God deserves this. Anyways, everything we do, we do it not by our own , but by God’s own spirit in us. If we let him drives things (with all that this implies), how can He not drive us to excellency.

  3. Is it possible to clarify the difference between excellence and comprehensiveness in a work?  

    A lot of criticism that comes from theological neatniks seems to stem from frustration with what a person did not say, or the accusation that they glossed over something imprecisely on the way to the main topic of the talk/book.

    I’m all for precision, but many of us have been trained that true precision pretty much requires an exhaustive dissertation.

    Could some of these standards show a difference between literary and oral cultures?

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