On Public Rebukes

Someone on another site said recently that it really bothered him that Christians criticise other Christian leaders in public. He wanted absolutely nothing to do with this and thought it was absolutely disgraceful and unchristian behaviour.

So what do I think? I’m glad you asked. The short answer is yes and no. Yes, there is often too much unseemly bickering amongst believers in public, and much of it is often over rather minor issues. Yes there are plenty of self-appointed heresy hunters out there who seem to attack everyone and anyone who dares to take a slightly different line from them.

Yes we have biblical procedures in place as found in Matthew 18 where often – but not always – a public rebuke should be a last resort. Yes biblical unity is very important indeed. Yes we do much damage with so much of this public mudslinging.

Yes we often fail in showing Christian love to one another, and this can often turn off non-believers. Yes we are often too quick to judge and too slow to forgive. Yes we are often rather poor at extending grace to those with whom we disagree.

So in all these ways and many more, this person is quite right. However, that is not the end of the story. These are not the only considerations to bring to this question. This in fact is only half the picture as presented in the biblical data. The point is, there is another side to all this, and as is so often the case, we must strive to get the biblical balance right.

Love and unity are vitally important, but so too is truth. There are in fact times when we are commanded in Scripture to take a stand, even publically, and if necessary to offer public rebuke to Christian brothers – even leaders – who are going astray.

They can be going astray doctrinally or they can be going astray morally. But Scripture in fact insists that in cases of public sin, or leadership failure, there can be a need for public rebuke. A general rule of thumb is normally helpful here: private sin warrants private rebuke; public sin warrants public rebuke (see for example 1 Tim. 5:20).

But I need to define what I mean by rebuke here. Biblically speaking this always includes instruction, correction and aiming for restoration. This is part of the bigger issue of church discipline, which is all but lost in the modern church. The aim of church discipline is always to restore the wayward brother.

That may not always be the result of course, and Scripture is also clear that at times expulsion from the fellowship of believers is the only option left. But I have elsewhere looked more closely at issues of church discipline and the like:

For that matter, I have already penned a number of pieces exploring the relationships between love, unity, and truth:

But let me look a bit more at the flip side of this equation: the need to rebuke, to publicly correct, to make a stand, to even risk the breaking of fellowship. Plenty of biblical passages speak to this, and one can find numerous examples of this in the Bible.

An obvious place to begin is the famous episode involving Paul and Peter as recorded in Galatians 2:11: “When Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he was clearly in the wrong.” The next three verses provide the context, and elaborate upon this statement:

“For before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray. When I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas in front of them all, ‘You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs?’”

He goes on in the rest of the chapter to explain how we are justified by being in Christ, not by keeping the works of the law. The broader issue is how Jews and Gentiles are saved and expected to live out their new faith. The particular issue has to do with table fellowship between the two groups. While we learn of the founding of the church in Antioch in Acts 11:19-30, we have very little background material on this dispute.

And while most of the details of this dispute are unknown to us as well, we know that things were bad enough for Paul to have to publicly rebuke Peter. It was both personal (“to his face” – v. 11) and public (“in front of them all” – v. 14). We don’t even know if Paul first followed Matt 18:15 in all this. Thus plenty of questions arise here.

Richard Longenecker offers some help here: “Paul is certainly neither gentle nor tolerant in his confrontation of Peter here! As something of a partial answer, it must simply be said that for Paul the issues raised at Antioch were not of the nature of adiaphora (‘matters of secondary importance’). … Peter’s withdrawal of fellowship turned them into matters of great theological import. And so Paul dealt with Peter’s action not as an incidental or secondary difference between believers but as a direct threat to ‘the truth of the gospel,’ whether so intended by Peter or not.”

By allowing Peter’s actions to go unchecked, the very heart of the Christian gospel was under threat. In these circumstances Paul felt compelled to engage in a public confrontation. He could do no other; too much was at risk.

I really like what Walter Martin once said in this regard: “Controversy for the sake of controversy is a sin: controversy for the sake of truth is a Divine command.” Yet most believers today are terrified of confrontation. They have absorbed worldly notions of love, acceptance and tolerance, and have no desire whatsoever to take a strong stand for anything.

As Philip Graham Ryken writes, “Some people are like Peter. They hate confrontation. They do not want to cause any trouble or make a scene, so they avoid conflict. However, Paul was not one of those people. He really didn’t care what anybody else thought. Even when it came to another apostle, Paul cared enough to confront. For him, it was not peace at any price, but the gospel at all costs.”

Or as G. Walter Hansen put it, “A public confrontation is not pleasant. … But when a leader avoids public confrontation with one who is causing others to lose their faith in the completeness of God’s grace expressed in the gospel of Christ, the cost is the loss of their experience of God’s grace. Paul was not willing for the church of Antioch to suffer that terrible loss.”

Of course such confrontations are unpleasant and unwanted. As John Stott says, this “was just the kind of open head-on collision which the church would seek at any cost to avoid today.” But sometimes the stakes are too high to try to avoid confrontation. Of course the trick is to discern what is worth fighting over and what is not.

As Stott explains, “When the issue between us is trivial, we must be as pliable as possible. But when the truth of the gospel is at stake, we must stand our ground.” And as I noted earlier, seeking to get the biblical balance right here must be our aim, even though it may be difficult to achieve.

Thomas Schreiner offers this summarising comment: “As believers we are responsible to both encourage and rebuke fellow believers. We hesitate to correct others, for we are keenly conscious of our own sins. Still, God calls us to restore gently those who have wandered from the right way (6:1). So many in our culture define love as leaving others alone, but the Scriptures teach that love has the courage to confront, that we rebuke others in humility because we love them and want them to know God deeply.”

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3 Replies to “On Public Rebukes”

  1. Thanks Bill,
    very pertinent to me. What do I do where a church member is seeking denominational ordination but strongly objects to me advocating that no person persisting in an active same-sex sexual relationship should be permitted membership or office in the church? But simultaneously he refuses to concede that his position implicitly would allow active homosexuals to hold office in the church.

    I have been implicitly threatened with disciplinary action, accused of: lacking grace and love; being uncaring of the poor; being judgmental and making it hard for Gays to become Christians, and that we must forgive seventy times seven.

    Minor detail that the Bible says sin (sexual and otherwise) is an abomination and that we must repent and sin no more. In my book, claiming the ‘right’ to persistently sin and to identify ourselves with that sin is rebellion – not repentance – and leads to damnation. OK that’s judgmental, but also true and is something that we have a duty to make known.

    Here are two formal statements that emerged after a prolonged email discussion on the topic and an arbitrated ‘conciliation’:
    He wrote:
    “My position is not nor has it ever been one that supports homosexuality per se – however I would be find a Church that wittingly or unwittingly sets stumbling blocks for homosexuals on their journey with God to be less than gracious in the full Christ-like meaning of the word by either allowing them to fall into sin or by intentionally preventing them being full members of God’s people.”
    I wrote:
    “My position is and has always been that we should love sinners and earnestly seek their salvation. In relation to homosexuality we should never condone that lifestyle by allowing people who insist on remaining in same-sex sexual relationships to remain in membership or to hold any office in the church.”

    Should I confront? If so, how?

    Peter Herbert

  2. Thanks Peter

    Of course I am not really in a position to offer detailed counsel here, knowing so little about the case. Different churches and denominations have different structures in place for dealing with such disputes. I don’t know what yours is, or if it even has one. So I can only offer rather general remarks. The Matt 18 process is the sort of three-step model to follow, generally speaking. Also, if your church or denomination as a whole is going down the tubes in this regard, it leads to the age-old question: flight or fight? Sometimes if things have gotten so bad, the best option may be to go to a church where biblical truths and standards are affirmed. Aside from that rather vague advice, lots of prayer and counsel from other Christians more closely involved in this situation is obviously important as well.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  3. Hi Peter
    I feel for you in this situation. In my mind your a man of God and taking the how to win friends route, so that tells me your brave. And say you do leave, whats to say the next church is better. Im praying for you.
    Daniel Kempton

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