Who or what decides when a rebuke is valid? What standard or process can Christians look to when there is a conflict and one or more side is confronted for bad behavior?
To answer these and related questions, I write a follow-up to my first Christian Rebuke Today article concerning unreliable reasons to dismiss or object to a rebuke.
As I wrote in that first article, I will remind the reader that the feelings of the person being rebuked are not reliable criteria. The person being rebuked getting upset does not mean that the rebuke was mistaken, or that the one delivering the rebuke erred in how they delivered it.
But the question then becomes: if such things do not tell us when a rebuke is off-base, which tell us when a rebuke is valid? The answer to this question should be intuitive to the student of God’s Word.
Who or what determined whether John the Baptist’s rebuke of Herod for taking his brother’s wife was valid? Herod certainly took exception to it – that’s why he had John arrested and beheaded. Yet we know this was not the conclusion of the matter. Might does not make right! And Herod did not prove the illegitimacy of John’s rebuke by imprisoning and executing him.
Ultimately God decides whether a rebuke is valid. And we need not be ignorant concerning the mind of God. On the contrary, if we are tempted to throw our hands up and misquote “Who has known the mind of the Lord?” we would do well to remember that God has given us His Word, the Bible, to know what of His mind we need to.
Do Not Judge By Appearances
At one point Jesus commands, “Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgement.”
What then is right judgment?
To begin to answer this question, I am reminded of something Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote in his famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail.
“A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law.”
So then, to judge with right judgment is to judge according to God’s standards. By contrast, to judge by appearances is often not at all the same thing.
What is judging by appearances? The example of John the Baptist is again illustrative since we know that he lived in the desert wearing camel skins, eating locusts and honey. In other words, he was something of a wild man. And if you would not call him eccentric, I do not know who you would
Yet would we today condemn John or dismiss his rebukes and ministry because of his appearance? If we would, then we are not yet obedient to Jesus where we are commanded not to judge by appearances.
Similarly, would we excuse a wealthy, powerful, domineering, and ruthless man of authority like Herod Antipas for having made moves to silence a critic of his iniquity because his father, Herod “the Great” built many impressive works throughout Judea? If so, we have not yet become obedient to Jesus where we are told to judge with right judgement.
Consider also that what Herod Antipas had done in committing adultery was a capital offense in the Law God gave to Moses. Yet nothing John was arrested and beheaded for was.
Examining The Scriptures Daily
Consider the Bereans.
We read in Acts that “these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so.”
“These things” was a reference to the gospel of repentance and salvation in Christ Jesus. Note that the Bereans were not scolded for looking to God’s Word to verify what Paul and Silas preached in their synagogue. If we were judging by appearances, we might expect them to be.
A friend of mine in high school once told me about attending a Roman Catholic service and being scolded by one of the men there for having her Bible open. He assumed she was checking whether what she was hearing was Biblical, and was insulted that she did not just take the priest’s word for it. Surely that man was unfamiliar with the Bereans, and was not himself “more noble” like they.
Yet we see in Acts that the Bereans wanted to judge with right judgment. And it seems fair to assume that if they had found anything in what Paul and Silas preached which was contrary to what God had said in His Word, they would have rebuked that, or at very least rejected it personally.
We are encouraged most adamantly throughout the rest of the New Testament to have the same mindset. For instance, we read in one place that we are to “not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world.”
Similarly, it is written: “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.”
Suppose there is a conflict in the church.
For instance, a man knows that his brother is upset with him for some reason, and so he obeys the command of Jesus. “So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.”
For another example, suppose a man has been sinned against, and so he obeys the command of Jesus. “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.”
In neither of these scenarios can the conflict be resolved without rebuke and repentance. Indeed, in both cases Christ clearly commands that we are to be reconciled. Yet reconciliation is not commanded absent confronting the issue.
Some will say that we should just show ourselves and whoever we are at odds with “grace.” And by this, they mean that we should ignore and forget about what has happened. Yet that is not at all what Jesus commands.
Indeed, though it would perhaps appear gracious and peaceable to ignore and avoid conflict, we are commanded to “judge with right judgement.” If our brother sins against us, that speaks to a violation of God’s commands for how we treat one another.
Yet someone cannot say that rebuking sin is itself the great sin because we are commanded to rebuke sin. “All Scripture is breathed out by God and suitable for,” among other things, “rebuking.”
Just so, our sense of urgency must be such that we would even postpone worship and giving our offering to God to pursue meaningful reconciliation.
This righteous process is sabotaged when we cease evaluating on the basis of conformity to God’s standards.
Distractions and diversions come in many varieties; they include, but are not limited to:
- Fear – we are more afraid of offending one or more party concerned in a conflict than with dishonoring God.
- Fatigue – we are more concerned with how tired we are of conflict than we are with resolving conflict like Jesus commands.
- Pride – we take exception to someone else becoming assertive or authoritative, even if they are right.
- Ambition – we are more focused on pursuing our own personal goals than on obeying God’s commands.
Due to these and related concerns, the church in our day has mostly avoided the conflict inherent to rebuke and calls to repentance.
Whether “the bigger picture” is seen as not risking everything achieved thus far, or we have become weary in doing good, or we arrogantly suppose we have evolved beyond the need for correction, or we are single-mindedly pursuing our own plans and therefore refuse to be diverted – any way you slice it, the conclusion is that we as Christians are avoiding our responsibility.
Rebuke and resist this larger trend also.
Yet here again we come back to the question of who or what decides the validity of a rebuke. Supposing one attempts to rebuke an individual because what they are saying or doing is contrary to God’s Word. They not only are rebuffed, but then are themselves rebuked by the church – leadership and lay alike – due to factors like the aforementioned. What then?
The disciples answered the religious leaders when they were commanded to stop preaching and teaching in Jesus’ name, “We must obey God rather than men.” So should our answer be.