“It is better to hear the rebuke of the wise than for a man to hear the song of fools.” (Ecclesiastes 7:5)
Few Christians enjoy confrontations. We desire peace and harmony, so we avoid displays of disagreement as much as possible. Yet, it is easy to go too far in avoiding conflicts. Satan’s influence remains in the world. If we do not take a stand against evil, then evil wins. All Satan needs to further his cause is for Christians to do nothing. We cannot be timid about doing things we don’t like to do (II Timothy 1:7).
It is a fact of our lives that we all make mistakes. None of us are perfect and we all will commit sins from time to time (Romans 3:9-23). A person on the path of sin needs his course corrected, whether he is unaware of the sin or ignoring its harmful influence in his life. A rebuke is required to make a person aware of his need to change his life.
While all Christians should be able to rebuke someone in error, rebuking is a duty assigned to elders and preachers. Elders must be “able, by sound doctrine, both to exhort and convict those who contradict” (Titus 1:9). Preachers are to “Preach the word! Be ready in season and out of season. Convince, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching” (II Timothy 4:2). These men have the authority of God given to them to perform this duty and it is not to be ignored (Titus 2:15). This is not to say that elders and preachers are the dictators of a congregation. They have no authority to make up rules for the church. However, when they see a fellow Christian straying from the laws of Christ, it is their duty to see that Christ’s laws are upheld.
When people neglect to rebuke those who are straying from the truth, it gives falsehood the opportunity to spread. “For there are many insubordinate, both idle talkers and deceivers, especially those of the circumcision, whose mouths must be stopped, who subvert whole households, teaching things which they ought not, for the sake of dishonest gain” (Titus 1:10-11). Uncorrected problems never shrink, they grow until they sweep whole congregations away from the truth. “Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Therefore purge out the old leaven, that you may be a new lump” (I Corinthians 5:6-7). Even in the Old Testament, God complained that the Israelite leaders were silent dogs; they were unable to give warning when danger approached and so Israel became corrupted by sin (Isaiah 56:10-11).
Three Levels of Rebukes
There are three main words used to in connection with rebuking another. The Greek word noutheteo means to caution or gently reprove. It is often translated as admonished or warn. It is used in regards to preachers and elders warning people (Colossians 1:28, I Thessalonians 5:12) or Christians admonishing each other in song (Colossians 3:16). The Greek word elegcho refers to convincing a person of his fault. It is generally translated convict, rebuke, or reprove. It is used of convincing the wicked they are in sin (Ephesians 5:11, 13; Titus 1:9) or reproving elders publicly for their unrepented sins (I Timothy 5:20). Finally, the Greek word epitimao means to censure or forbid. It is usually translated as rebuke or charge. It is the specific charge to preachers to rebuke when needed (II Timothy 4:2). All Christians are charged to rebuke a brother who sins (Luke 17:3).
How to Rebuke Effectively
It should go without saying that Christians should always stick to the truth (Ephesians 4:25). Frequently we become upset with people for what we assume they are thinking instead of what we know they are doing. We tend to ascribe motivations to a person’s action, but we need to realize that only God knows the mind of other people (Hebrews 4:12-13). It is true that wrongful action originates from wrongful thoughts (Matthew 15:18-19), but unless the offender admits to why he is doing wrong, we must stick to rebuking the wrongful deeds. “If your brother sins against you, rebuke him” (Luke 17:3).
The standard of truth is the Scriptures. Since most people assume they are right, few based their rebukes upon the teachings in the Scriptures. The Pharisees are remembered for scolding Jesus’ disciples for eating without washing their hands, but such a law is not found in the Scriptures (Matthew 15:1-3). God’s laws are profitable as the basis of reproof (II Timothy 3:16-17), not laws of human origin.
When we show partiality for or against a person, let us say because of the way they dress or their nationality, we become judges with evil motives (James 2:4). We have a different agenda than seeing that a person lives righteously before God. When we deliver a rebuke, it must be done because it will better the person (Colossians 1:28-29; Titus 1:13).
Rebukes must also be given for the benefit of others who hear of the rebuke. Sin left uncorrected spreads (I Corinthians 5:6). At times even elders might sin and those who refuse to leave their sins are to be publicly rebuked by a preacher. “Those who are sinning rebuke in the presence of all, that the rest also may fear” (I Timothy 5:20).
When delivering rebukes, the Israelites were warned not to do so from hatred (Leviticus 19:17). The psalmist noted that when the righteous chasten, it is a kindness to the one being chastened (Psalm 141:5). Not that being corrected is enjoyable, but when you know that a good man is doing it for your own good, it is more tolerable. “Now no chastening seems to be joyful for the present, but painful; nevertheless, afterward it yields the peaceable fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it” (Hebrews 12:11). Rebuke the wrong action, but do not attack the person’s character. When a Christian is caught up in sin, he is to be admonished (gently corrected or cautioned) as a brother (II Thessalonians 3:15). Older men are to be treated respectfully, so sharp rebukes are to be avoided (I Timothy 5:1). As God told the Israelites, “You shall rise before the gray headed and honor the presence of an old man, and fear your God: I am the LORD” (Leviticus 19:32).
Rebukes should always be balanced with encouragement. If everything you say is always negative, people will come to dread your presence. We should not make a hobby of condemning others. “Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness, considering yourself lest you also be tempted. Bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:1-2). One way to keep a proper perspective is to note the positive points a person has before you tell them what they are currently doing wrong.
Because of our general reluctance to correct a person, we sometimes procrastinate until so many things have gone wrong that we can no longer tolerate it. Then we let the person have it with everything they have done wrong in the past. The problem with this approach is that it overwhelms the person. He tends to block out everything that you say; and so, little or nothing is actually corrected. Paul tells us that love keeps no records of wrongs (I Corinthians 13:5). One way to accomplish this is to address problems as they happen, one problem at a time. Parents quickly learn they cannot give complex instructions to children because they forget and end up accomplishing nothing. The same rule needs to be used when correcting bad behavior. Address one issue at a time and it will more likely be addressed.
In a similar vein, correction should be given as soon after the wrong behavior as possible. The longer you delay, the less effective the correction because the bad behavior will have become ingrained in the person. This is one reason why Paul warned, “‘Be angry, and do not sin’: do not let the sun go down on your wrath, nor give place to the devil” (Ephesians 4:26-27). A major reason most congregations are unable to bring erring members out of sin is because they delay addressing problems for months or sometimes even years.
Good and Bad Rebukes
A wife may complain to her husband, “We don’t go out very often.” It is a general statement of fact that leaves the reason why they are not getting out wide open. The statement doesn’t assign blame but points out a problem that needs to be addressed. A poor way to approach the same problem would be to say, “You never take me anywhere.” With the latter statement full blame is placed on the person. The problem itself takes a backseat. The latter statement is also an over-generalization. Few couples never leave the house together. The person on the receiving end of this rebuke will feel obligated to defend himself. Since it is not a fair representation of the situation, the true problem is not addressed.
A parent may say, “There are dirty dishes in the sink when I came home. We had agreed this morning that you would wash them.” Here, once again, the focus is placed on the problem. Contrast this to “You left dirty dishes in the sink again. You promised you wouldn’t. I just can’t trust you, can I?” In the latter statement, the current problem is overshadowed by past problems. Instead of waiting to learn the reason for the neglect, the child’s character is attacked and a prejudgement is given that the child is unworthy of future trust. The child receiving the former rebuke has an opportunity to explain what happened. The child receiving the latter rebuke will feel that there is no reason to reply because the decision has already been made.
Another complaint might be, “I was expecting you to come straight home. You didn’t even call.” Notice that the focus is on what happened. The speaker doesn’t assign a reason as to why it happened, thereby inviting a discussion of the problem. Suppose the following was said instead, “You never think to call and tell me you’ll be late. You always leave me hanging. You care more about your friends than me.” Now the person’s character is prejudged – he doesn’t think and he has the wrong priorities. In addition, the past is being brought up and over-generalized. Once again, the person receiving the later complaint will focus on defending his character and not address the problem at hand.
Responses to Rebukes
Rebukes are necessary, but they are rarely enjoyable. Godly people will struggle with their dislike of being criticized and will make an effort to learn from the rebuke. “Rebuke is more effective for a wise man than a hundred blows on a fool” (Proverbs 17:10). Afterward, when there is a chance to look back, most people hold a grudging admiration for the one who gave an honest rebuke (Proverbs 28:23). “Yes men” are ever present looking for ways to use you to their advantage. When we want an honest assessment, we’ll seek out someone who will point out our flaws along with our strengths. Honest rebukes will make us look better in the long run (Proverbs 25:12).
The wicked, of course, hate rebuke. They do not want their sins pointed out because they would rather believe their actions are not sins (Proverbs 13:1). As a result, the scoffer will not seek out the wise for advice because he is not interested in an honest assessment (Proverbs 15:12; 1:25, 30). If a person does try to rebuke a wicked person, the typical response is a personal hatred for the one delivering the rebuke. “He who corrects a scoffer gets shame for himself, And he who rebukes a wicked man only harms himself. Do not correct a scoffer, lest he hate you; Rebuke a wise man, and he will love you” (Proverbs 9:7-8). As Amos pointed out, “They hate the one who rebukes in the gate, and they abhor the one who speaks uprightly” (Amos 5:10). This is the reason the prophets were killed in the past (Nehemiah 9:26). The death of Stephen well illustrates the hatred the wicked have for those who rebuke their sins (Acts 7:51-58).
Sometimes when a person is rebuked he responds by hiding his faults instead of correcting them (Proverbs 19:25). Progress appears to have been made on the surface, but instead, the problems are hidden under additional layers of deceit.
Some hate rebuke because they hate themselves (Proverbs 15:31-32). They already feel guilty about their sins and they hate being reminded of them. Their sins have been swept under the rug without correction. Because they are out of sight, they can pretend that they do not exist, so long as certain people do not provide reminders.
When the rebuke is towards someone else, people are more fair-minded. They want the wicked corrected. They desire that justice is done. “He who says to the wicked, "You are righteous," him the people will curse; nations will abhor him. But those who rebuke the wicked will have delight, and a good blessing will come upon them” (Proverbs 24:24-25).
At times objections are made in regards to how a rebuke is delivered. Especially when on the receiving end, a person will argue that all rebukes must first be done privately and cite Matthew 18:15-18. What is overlooked is that Jesus was discussing how to deal with a private dispute between two brothers. In general, the principle is that the least number of people who need to know about a problem in order to get it resolved, the better. In Matthew 18:15-18, others are not aware of the problem between brothers until they are called in to witness. The church is not aware of the problem until the brothers and the witnesses bring it to the church’s attention. But we must remember that not all problems are of a private nature. When Paul and Barnabas encountered false teaching, they publically disputed the claims of the false teachers (Acts 15:1-2). When Ananias lied before the church, he was rebuked before the church (Acts 5:1-5). When a man sinned so that the entire community knew of the sin, the church was commanded to withdraw from him immediately (I Corinthians 5:1-5).
Similarly, public rebukes are sometimes required when the sinning person holds a position of reputation and refuses to leave his sin. “Do not receive an accusation against an elder except from two or three witnesses. Those who are sinning rebuke in the presence of all, that the rest also may fear” (I Timothy 5:19-20).
In all cases, the need for public rebukes is to both change the sinner and to create a fear to sin in those who witness or hear about the rebuke. People who see others getting away with sins will soon justify their own misdeeds. But when a consistent standard is enforced, people will be less inclined to excuse their own actions. To keep public sins from spreading, it must be addressed in a public manner.
1) Locate, if you can, passages where a public sin is dealt with privately.
2) Is there ever a case where a public sin is better dealt with privately?
3) Around 2000, the Roman Catholic church came under pressure for how they dealt with priests who had committed sexual sins. Why did their method of dealing with such sins privately not solve their problems?