Rebuke Me Already!
If there is one word which flies in the face of today's western culture it's got to be the word "rebuke." It means to reprove or correct someone pointedly and directly, even sharply. For example, if you use foul language or, say, fall asleep in church, the way your parents (or spouse!) speak to you will likely be a rebuke. You'll hear firm words which expose your fault and demand correction. Those words hit and sting. They address us and sometimes dress us down for bad behaviour. Who likes to be rebuked?
Rebuking certainly isn't cool in our post-modern society. The big idea in our time is to be "tolerant," to let everyone have their own opinion and act their own way. Tolerance is demanded for everything from your personal beliefs to your lifestyle choices, just so long as you don't impose your ideas on other people. You can do whatever you want (as long as it's mostly legal) but – and this is key – you must let other people do whatever they want too. In our age of tolerance, the only thing not tolerated is intolerance. The only sin is daring to tell people that their ideas or choices are wrong and they need to change. Ironically, there's no tolerance for that kind of talk!
Are we letting this idea make headway in the church? It can creep in silently, unaware. For example, when was the last time you felt rebuked from the pulpit? Does your minister feel free to reprove and correct your congregation in the preaching when the text calls for it? Or is that something he is afraid to do because of the backlash he thinks he'll receive? Do we as churches tolerate public rebuke of our lives? This is one of the functions of preaching as Paul tells us plainly, "All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness..." (2 Tim 3:16). Do you encourage your pastor to include words of correction and rebuke in his preaching?
Rebuking is to be done publicly via the preaching but God also calls ministers and elders to rebuke church members in person when they sin: "These, then, are the things you should teach. Encourage and rebuke with all authority. Do not let anyone despise you" (Titus 2:15). Do our office bearers still dare to rebuke us when we sin? Do we welcome such correction? I once had a church member say to me, "You can come for a visit, but don't bring any admonition." What kind of message are we silently (or otherwise!) sending to our elders?
If the official ministry of the church is facing pressure to keep quiet about people's choices, is it any easier for individuals to speak up person-to-person about choices friends make which don't square with their confession? Here, I think, is where we feel the greatest burden to keep our mouths shut, even among friends – perhaps especially among friends because we don't want to lose their friendship.
Maybe you've noticed that your friend has a problem with anger or perhaps there's a drinking issue. Suppose you've observed mistreatment in the marriage or maybe he sleeps regularly in church or she does not attend faithfully. Do you feel free to sit your friend down and discuss that concern? If you were this individual, would you welcome your friend to begin such a conversation? Most of us, I think, would prefer to be left alone and as a result, we tend to leave others alone too. We like the pathway of least resistance. Even if we want to truly help our brother or sister out of their sin, the walls they erect are so high and so thick, we can't think of way to scale them and keep the friendship – so we leave it be.
Correction a blessing
This is deeply regrettable. As sinners, we don't self-correct very easily or very well. We stray into sin very quickly and need help to break out of it. In his grace, God at times works this correction directly in our lives by shaping our circumstances and experiences to teach us lessons. God's hand of discipline can and does hurt but it brings us good:
And have you completely forgotten this word of encouragement that addresses you as a father addresses his son? It says, "My son, do not make light of the Lord's discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and he chastens everyone he accepts as his son" (Heb 12:5, 6).
In the same way, the Lord's verbal rebuke, found in Scripture, is designed to warn us of the consequences of our disobedience and call us back to the pathway of life. Rebuke and discipline may indeed feel unpleasant at the time but if we listen and respond obediently, they are a great blessing!
Part of God's design in placing us together in his church is to provide this kind of help to one another. When we see a brother or sister fall into sin (without repenting), we must not keep our mouths shut. God demanded this of the Israelites already: "Do not hate your brother in your heart. Rebuke your neighbor frankly so you will not share in his guilt." To rebuke is an act of love! To say nothing is an act of self-love (which amounts to neighbour-hatred) which is more concerned about avoiding difficulty than saving our brother's soul.
The Lord Jesus also commands us to take up matters of sin with the person, to "show him his fault" in order to win him over (see Matthew 18:15ff). Call it admonition, reproof, or correction, it's all part and parcel of godly, healthy rebuke - and it's good for us! The reality is, we all need a course-correction from time to time and we should not just tolerate a rebuke but we should seek it out and welcome it!
That probably sounds strange, but Scripture teaches us to invite rebuke. Think of the many proverbs that connect wisdom with receiving rebuke: "A rebuke impresses a man of discernment more than a hundred lashes a fool" (Prov 17:10); "He who listens to a life-giving rebuke will be at home among the wise" (Prov 15:31); "Like an earring of gold or an ornament of fine gold is a wise man's rebuke to a listening ear" (Prov 25:12). Even more clear is Psalm 141:5, "Let a righteous man strike me – it is a kindness; let him rebuke me – it is oil on my head. My head will not refuse it."
Is that the feeling you have in your heart? Are these the messages we are sending to our fellow church members? What about our spouse or parents or adult children? Do they feel free to approach us regarding our behaviour, decisions, or even ideas we hold? Or do they walk on egg shells around us, fearful to raise certain points of discussion because they know we'll blow up in anger and refuse to talk about the issue? Such tension is a sure sign that we are hiding some sin, that we are quashing all possibility for rebuke – isn't it time to repent of this and open ourselves for a wise person's godly rebuke?
There is a pride in all of us that naturally dislikes anyone telling us what to do. That's the main source for resisting rebuke. But on top of that, we as Christians haven't always rebuked one another very well and that also makes us hesitant, even afraid to open ourselves to correction. Sometimes we have lambasted people publicly, or taken them to task in such a way as to make them feel worthless in their shame. At times, we have come down too hard on people or we've acted as if we are superior to them and have our life all together. That kind of rebuke is wrong and needs to be replaced with a humble word of correction that seeks to bless and not beat down.
Scripture directs us to bring our reproofs with wisdom and love as Paul says in Ephesians 4:15, "Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ." In our marriages, families, friendships, and in the church fellowship, we must be honest with each other but not in a brutal, unkind way. We have to safeguard the vulnerability of the other person, to realize that beneath the surface is a child whom God has claimed for Himself and whom we should thus treat with compassion and dignity.
We need to be courageous enough to say what needs to be said, to raise subjects that need raising, but then to do so in a caring manner and because we care for them. In humility, seek first to understand by asking good, honest questions. Listen carefully so that you grasp the situation fully and equitably. The other person should know that you accurately see the whole picture – and then address the sin that is apparent. Yes, the words may need to be sharp at times (Titus 1:13) but only when necessary and only because we love God and our neighbour and have a powerful desire to see our loved one return to the right path and be reconciled to God.
The goal is to win your brother back! If you bring a rebuke with a cold, unfeeling heart or merely out of a sense of duty, you have missed the point and you have gutted your reproof of any power to persuade. Your body language, your tone, and your actions will communicate more loudly than your words – people need to sense and feel that what's driving you is genuine love. If they sense otherwise, they'll only dismiss you as a hypocrite.
Rebuking must be reserved for sins and not simply for actions we feel uncomfortable with. That can be a fine line at times, but there is among believers a degree of Christian liberty (e.g. Romans 14). Not all things are spelled out in Scripture as being right or wrong. Where they are, we must speak clearly and firmly. Where they are not, we may have brotherly discussions about the wisdom of the idea or action in an effort to sharpen one another and out of a desire to busy our lives with things which truly honour God, build up the church, and strengthen our faith. It's good to ask ourselves, even if something may be permissible, "Is it beneficial?" (1 Cor 10:23). We may express warning or caution about a pathway that is less than beneficial, but we do not call someone to repentance simply for holding an opinion different from our own or acting contrary to our preference.
So, the best way we can bring godly rebuke back into our friendships, families, and the family of God, is to open ourselves up for it. Lead the way by being vulnerable yourself. Tell the people around you: If you have concerns about the direction of my life, I want you to feel free to discuss them with me. If you think my lifestyle or any view I hold goes against God's Word in any way, please tell me. I promise I won't get angry. I will listen carefully and thank you for your Christian care. I want only to live close to the Lord, so go ahead: rebuke me, already!