On Public Rebuke

As with so many things biblical, there is a lot of fuzzy thinking in our churches when it comes to dealing with public controversies. I refer especially to when very public leaders and figures in the church veer off course doctrinally or in other ways. Can and should overtly public errors be publicly addressed?

Or are we only to deal with such things in private? This of course involves issues such as church discipline, which as I have written elsewhere, is almost non-existent in so many churches today. Dealing with an individual believer and his private sin is not what I wish to mainly discuss here however.

The topic at hand is when Christians in public need correction and reproof. How is this to be dealt with? Actually things are rather straightforward here. The biblical principle is this: private sin, private rebuke; public sin, public rebuke.

Although I have spoken about this before, I keep getting upset Christians slamming me for daring to publicly address other leaders and their very public teachings or actions. They think only private rebuke is called for, and it is wrong to ever publicly reprove a wayward brother.

They are simply wrong here, and need to read their New Testaments more carefully. But since I again got someone chewing me out about this just recently, I thought I had better address this topic once again. This brother – who chose to remain anonymous – said I should be taking my “points of ‘difference/ challenge’ to each of the ‘brothers’- individiually, quietly” (spelling mistakes his/hers).

This person was quite insistent that I not post his comment, and not address it publically. Well sorry, I am not going to repeat myself ad infinitum, ad nauseam here. Instead of constantly having to address these person’s concerns, I will do a public piece here, and save myself having to keep repeating myself down the road.

This person is obviously one of those who thinks that one can never publically address public issues in a critical fashion. But as I said, the biblical position is quite different. Matthew 18 teaches us about how we should deal with private sin in private. But of course texts like 1 Corinthians 5 teach us about how we must address public sin publicly.

(For just a bit of context here, the comment from this person was directed to my post about the Prosperity Gospel. Even though this is a very public and very open teaching, this person obviously thought I was quite amiss to even raise the issue critically in a public forum.)

So let me again explain briefly how the biblical principles work here. If I have a Christian friend, and let’s say I discovered in his room a collection of porn magazines, what do I do? Matthew 18 makes it clear. It is a private sin (albeit it may well have public consequences, at least down the road) so I approach him in private.

I obviously should pray first and seek God’s wisdom and the guidance of the Holy Spirit, but I am required to go to this brother and privately chat with him about his particular sin. Hopefully he takes heed of the rebuke and changes his course. If he does not, I can take back with me one or two others to challenge him.

If that fails, then the sin can be dealt with before the entire church. In a case like this it most certainly would be wrong and unbiblical to initially shout his sin from the roof tops. You don’t write a blog post about it, you don’t send a letter to the editor about it, you deal with it in private – one on one.

To repeat, Matt 18 (specifically vv. 15-20) is about private sin. Jesus is discussing how two brothers should deal with a sin or dispute between themselves. The rebuke of a Christian who has acted sinfully or unscripturally in a public fashion is simply not being discussed here. When a brother sins before all, that sin deserves a rebuke before all. This is especially the case when the gospel itself is being twisted and damaged, whether by bad teaching or sinful practices.

So the issue of questionable theology and unbiblical practice done openly and in public is quite another matter. In the case of the Prosperity Gospel this is of course as open and public as you can get. They have their books, videos, conferences and teachings splattered all over the world.

And if it is biblically faulty or heretical, then of course a public discussion is in order, and a public rebuke may well be required. We find this happening often in Scripture. When Paul for example found teachers – either false teachers or just misguided teachers – publicly teaching questionable and faulty doctrine, he immediately reprimanded them in public.

This is because the gospel was at stake, and immediate public criticism was needed to avoid even further damage. Paul thus was quite happy to rebuke Peter to his face in public, as we read about in Galatians 2:11-21. As it says in vv. 11-14:

“When Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. 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 did not tell Peter, “Can you make an appointment with me in my office sometime next week? I have a little private matter I need to chat with you about.” No, he instantly and very publically reprimanded Peter. Indeed, poor Peter: Jesus did the same thing to Peter, reprimanding him in front of everyone else for his bad ideas (see Mark 8:31-33).

Or consider 1 Corinthians 5, which I already mentioned. This is the classic (and tragic) case of known sin in the Corinthian congregation. A guy was actually sleeping with his own father’s wife, and Paul is amazed that no one has rebuked this guy.

He says he should immediately be put out of the fellowship, and wonders why this has not already been done. As he says in v. 3, “For my part, even though I am not physically present, I am with you in spirit. As one who is present with you in this way, I have already passed judgment in the name of our Lord Jesus on the one who has been doing this.”

My critics would probably have also condemned Paul for this however: “Oh Paul, you can’t do this – you were not even there. You should have first had some private one-on-one meetings with the guy before taking any action!” Um, nope. Drastic sin, just like drastic theological error, needs a drastic – and swift – response.

Such clearly public sinning deserves a swift and strong public rebuke. Whether people are openly teaching dangerous doctrines or openly living a sinful lifestyle, that earns a public rebuke. So back to the prosperity gospellers. Not only is what they are doing extremely public and in your face, but of course when they push this in public, they certainly should expect public scrutiny.

The idea that I should set up some sort of private meeting with them first is ludicrous. First of all they live on another continent on the other side of the globe. Secondly, these big cheeses are very unlikely indeed to take any time out to have a chat with someone like me. Thirdly, many concerned believers would undoubtedly already have had such chats with these guys. Fourthly, such public teaching requires a public response.

And of course there are simply so many other texts which could be offered here. Space does not permit this, so let me just offer one: “Them that sin rebuke before all, that others also may fear” (1 Timothy 5:20). There is clearly a place for public rebuke in the church and we need to stop pretending there is not.

So I have to say to my critics, sorry but you are simply wrong here. Private sin? Yes by all means then, private rebuke. But public sin deserves public rebuke. And when leaders are raking in millions of dollars from gullible believers as they peddle their doctrines of greed and materialism, then they had better well be publicly exposed and critiqued.

At stake is the very heart of the gospel. When the core of the gospel message is at risk, we don’t fool around with pleasantries and man-made protocols. That is just mere cowardice. Instead, we stand up for the gospel publicly. It is our calling as believers to always publicly defend the faith when it comes under public attack, derision or twisting.

I hope this will suffice on this matter. But I know I will keep on getting these critics with their misplaced criticisms. At least I won’t have to rehash all this again – I can just point them to this article.

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10 Replies to “On Public Rebuke”

  1. I appreciate your posts. Especially informing me of all the snakes and false teachers out there. It would be awful if nobody ever warned the rest of us publicly about these heretical teachers.

    Jenna Priest

  2. I agree completely. There would be perhaps a little bit of value if someone wrote to Bishop Spong and told him his or her concerns, but when the opportunity comes to tell widely the fact that he is far from the gospel, and publicly makes that clear, it alerts others not to be deceived.

    And common sense dictates that people who make public statements are opening themselves to public comment.

    David Morrison

  3. This is a very informed piece. I myself have been criticised for speaking the truth about dangerous teachers and ideologies. I write at blog at goodwritingandfun.blogspot.com.au. Now you can see why!

    Janice Tooh

  4. Thank you Bill for helping me to sort this out in my own mind.
    Another example I believe is in acts where Peter or Paul, can’t remember which one said to Simon “may you and your money perish together” when Simon tried to buy the “right to baptise” in the Holy Spirit.
    May we all have courage to speak the truth in love when it is required of us.
    Many blessings
    Ursula Bennett

  5. “You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason frankly with your neighbor, lest you incur sin because of him.” – Leviticus 19:17 [ESV]

    This divine command to ancient Israel surely suggests that failure to rebuke or reason with a brother or neighbour regarding his or her unethical opinions or actions constitutes an act of hatred towards the brother or neighbour in question! Loving one’s neighbour in the biblical manner is bound to be rather uncomfortable at times.

    John Wigg

  6. It is true that private sin, private rebuke; and public sin, public rebuke. The problem is, irrespective of which, we will still upset people. For this reason, most people, Christians included, keep silent in order to avoid upsetting anyone. Every Christian counsellor is aware of what is known as the “confidentiality trap” and have to make the decision whether to break confidentiality and rebuke publicly.

    Eddie Sim

  7. It is rarely necessary to publicly rebuke an individual, but when it is necessary, it is very wrong to not do it.

    Mario Del Giudice

  8. Such a refreshing teaching even more so in these days we live in.

    Stay blessed!

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