All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. 2 Timothy 3:16-17
The New Testament’s vision of “church” is a far cry from much of our modern experiences of it. The Bible takes for granted that the church will be a family: not merely in the sense of a group of people who feel generally friendly towards each other, but a real family, complete with squabbles, intimacy, and up-close-and-personal, long-term relationships.
The pastors who authored the New Testament’s letters expected the members of their congregations to know about each other’s sin problems (James 5:16), to be talking about heart-level issues every day (Hebrews 3:13), to feel the suffering of other Christians as their own suffering (Hebrews 12:3). To them, no people had closer ties or more fundamental unity than believers in the church. Jesus believed the same thing (Luke 8:19-21).
Because the Bible takes the family nature of the church for granted, it also treats something we cringe at as normal: rebuke. A rebuke is an urgent confrontation in which one person confronts another about sin in their life, using God’s word, with the goal of repentance and restoration to God.
Doesn’t even the thought of that seem uncomfortable? And anyway, didn’t Jesus tell us not to judge (Matthew 7:1)?
‘You shall not hate your brother in your heart. You shall surely rebuke your neighbor, and not bear sin because of him. You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the children of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD. Leviticus 19:17:18 (NKJV)
In the Bible, there is no such thing as “passive love.” God does not accept generalized wishes of well-being as genuine love, nor is that how he loves. God’s love was and is both active and intentional. This crucial passage from Leviticus presents rebuke as the opposite of hatred and the companion of real love. Clearly, if we are not practicing this, we are missing something big.
Rebuke very clearly may NOT be…
- an opportunity for angry accusations, bitterness, or revenge (“You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge…”).
- an excuse to express pride (“You hypocrite! First take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye”). Herein comes the explanation about Jesus’ command not to judge. In Matthew 7:1-5, he attacks the pride and hypocrisy which so easily replaces genuine rebuke with the unforgettable analogy of a person who tries to help someone remove a speck of dust from their eye, meanwhile ignoring the 2 x 4 sticking out of their own eye. Love and self-righteous condescension are simply incompatible. He maintained the expectation, however, that his disciples would be people who are concerned with helping each other remove the “specks” in each other’s eyes.
- motivated by anything at all besides love.
Rebuke takes love, and sin, very seriously. It loves the sinner enough to confront sin and hates sin enough to the help the sinner. As paradoxical as it might sound, love of people and hatred of sin go hand in hand.
The Bible gives a reason for rebuke in Hebrews 3:12-13. The reason is that sin is deceitful and hardening. It deceives us so that we do not recognize it for what it is: something evil and abhorrent to God; and hardens us so that we hate it less and less, and depend on it more and more, the longer we fraternize with it. Sin’s deception and the growing unwillingness to change it produces are the reasons Christians need rebuke from each other. Rebuke is designed to open blind eyes and soften hard hearts.
The Bible also provides a method. Jesus describes it in Matthew 18:15-17. First, he says, try to deal with it in private. Hope that the person will respond immediately by rejecting sin and embracing God (i.e., repentance). If not, bring along a trusted friend who will back you up as well place a check on you if your rebuke is unwarranted. If the person rejects them as well, church discipline – which is an important, but different, topic – may be the last step. Paul also gives direction on how to go about rebuke in Galatians 6:1, saying to do it in a spirit of gentleness.
Nearly everything about God, the Bible, Jesus Christ, and the Christian life, is uncomfortable. This is because we are a sinful race alienated by nature from the ways of God and the path of real love. God is good, though, and is not satisfied with leaving his children comfortable if it means they are deceived, or “happy” if it means they are far from him. We can never know true happiness away from God, anyway. That is why he commands us to rebuke each other, with frequency, urgency, and conviction.
One final question to test the condition of our hearts: are we ready, and eager, to receive rebuke, as well as give it?
Let a righteous man strike me—it is a kindness;
let him rebuke me—it is oil for my head;
let my head not refuse it. Psalm 141:5