By Bradley Yam, Class of ’21
There is one way of reading the Bible that involves nodding to the parts of the text that affirm a pre-supposed moral framework and lightly skimming over the parts that seem puzzling, culturally irrelevant or simply difficult. This is merely an exercise in self-congratulatory confirmation bias. Addressing these systematic omissions – that are only too easy for the lay reader to make – is a task for a longer and more thorough piece of writing. Instead, I want to focus our attention on one topic that is easy to assume we have understood, but actually challenges our thinking and living far more than we realize: “Rebuke”.
First, a few brief observations about how rebuke appears in the scriptures.
1) Rebuking fellow believers is always given as an imperative. It is not a suggestion, or helpful advice, it is a key part of our duty to brothers and sisters in the church. (1 Timothy 5:20, Matthew 18:15-17, Titus 2:15)
2) Rebuke always occurs with the intent of restoration to a standard of righteousness, it is often paired with the command to exhort (2 Timothy 4:2, Galatians 6:1, Titus 2:15)
3) Rebuke demands gentleness, patience and truth (in other words, complete Love) on the part of the rebuker (Luke 17:3-4, 2 Timothy 4:2, Galatians 6:1) .
It is clear from a brief survey of the Scriptures that rebuke has an incredibly prominent role in Christian life. Rebuke functions as a process through which moral truth is preached, sin is uncovered, repentance is expected, sanctification happens on a spiritual level and restoration happens on a social level. In other words, rebuke is hard. It is extraordinarily hard. We might ignore it precisely because it is so hard. And if we find ourselves rebuking someone and finding it easy, the likelihood is, we are probably the ones in need of rebuke. It is hard because rebuke is the loving use of verbal force for the purposes of sanctification and righteousness.
Unfortunately, a mental picture of rebuke that involves both force and love might appear difficult or even completely alien to us, because there are far too few good examples of rebuking and being rebuked. Instead, we are used to being shamed into obedience, and penalized into agreement; paternalistic means of compliance arising out of a misunderstanding of true biblical hierarchy. What we suffer, we then go on to inflict on others. Or perhaps, we retreat into a comfortable hesitancy and false-tolerance that doesn’t demand anything of us or our brothers and sisters in Christ.
In other words, rebuke is not just calling someone out, it definitely isn’t scolding someone for annoying you, and it clearly cannot be shaming someone for disagreeing with you. The call to rebuke is far loftier and far higher than that – it is a call to love someone so radically that you are willing to enter into the discomfort of risking your relationship and good-standing with them in order to bring them further from sin and closer to God. Even if you were hurt, rebuke involves forgiveness and love. Even if you are angry, rebuke involves peace and gentleness. Even if you are right, rebuke involves God’s justice, not yours. Rebuke is not self-congralutory, it is self-sacrificial.
Because rebuke is loving, there are many conditions we must pay attention to in terms of who, when and how to rebuke. Because rebuke is the use of verbal force, we must examine ourselves to know how and why we are rebuking, to ensure we do not fall into error ourselves (Galatians 6:1) Kevin DeYoung provides some excellent guidelines to properly rebuke in his three-part TGC article: https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/kevin-deyoung/the-ministry-of-rebuke-1/
Instead of reproducing DeYoung’s good work, I will focus on interpreting what the simultaneous unwillingness and overzealousness to “rebuke” reveals for us in the Church. Full disclosure: such an analysis is necessarily speculative, but the hope is that we will be more aware to the temptations that are before us, and in understanding them, we would be able to give or receive rebuke to prevent ourselves and our brothers and sisters in Christ from falling into sin.
1) We fail to rebuke because we fail to love others.
If we find ourselves constantly worrying about what others will think about us or if we will continue to be liked, included or admired, perhaps we value our own comfort and reputation more than the well-being of our brothers and sisters. There is no such thing as unloving rebuke, because all rebuke comes out of a genuine desire for the flourishing of the Church. The flourishing of the Church is synonymous with the holiness of the Church. If we want to be liked more than we want others to be holy, then we probably love ourselves more than we love them.
If we find ourselves unable to rebuke because we surround ourselves with merely social relationships in the Church that do not involve spiritual realities, then we short-change ourselves from the fellowship and community that the Scripture calls us to. If we are comfortable treating church like a social activity, then we do not love the Church enough to be vulnerable with them, or love the Church enough to build deep relationships with them.
2) We fail to rebuke because we fail to love God and his righteousness.
If we are perpetually comfortable with everything that happens in the Church and with our fellow believers, and we are able to somehow justify that with a casual indifference, then we fail to understand God’s righteousness and its deep necessity in our lives. We need to know the Scripture, to be convicted of its truth, and to have a vision of the Church – we do not need this vision to be perfect, or claim to know the full absolute truth, but we must persist in the process of mutual correction.
Perhaps we do care about God, and we do care about our believers, but we have never taken the time to study the word to be convicted enough to engage in rebuke. In this case, we have failed to equip ourselves with the knowledge that enables practical love.
1) We are too quick to “rebuke” when something makes us uncomfortable.
If we rush to rebuke before we consult Scripture to fix the grounds of our contention, then we replace the authority of the text with our own personal barometer of comfort. If we persist in this behavior, we do not love the word, or our neighbor, we only care about own moral sentiments. But we do not care enough to verify these sentiments.
2) We are too quick to “rebuke” when we feel self-righteous.
The last thing we should use rebuke for is a nasty means of self-justification. We can easily make ourselves feel superior and better about our own moral failings by pointing out the (supposedly worse) moral failings of others. The truth is, rebuke ought to expose equally our own failure to adhere to the standard that we are exhorting others to, and more often than not, rebuke is accompanied by repentance of our own.
And Why Should We Care:
We must think about rebuke because of what it reveals about the shallowness of our religion. In addition, in an time where people everywhere struggle to preach the truth in love, rebuke offers us a paradigm of both truth and love that is fully coherent, and helps us understand our areas of growth. I know I need to grow in this as well.
1 Timothy 5:20 ESV
As for those who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear.
2 Timothy 4:2 ESV
Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching.
Galatians 6:1 ESV
Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted.
Titus 2:15 ESV
Declare these things; exhort and rebuke with all authority. Let no one disregard you.
Matthew 18:15-17 ESV
“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.
Luke 17:3-4 ESV
Pay attention to yourselves! If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him, and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.”