Balancing biblical truths is always a tough gig. We can easily go off into one extreme while trying to avoid another. Consider the issue of dealing with other believers. On the one hand, we are told repeatedly in Scripture that we are to be kind to others, forbearing, patient, forgiving, gentle, humble, and so on.
The main reason for all this is that we tend to be guilty of the same things we dislike in others. We all can be just as proud and rude and impatient and unloving and unfair as the next person. So we need to offer grace to others, just as God offers us grace. Let me share just three verses on this.
Paul in Ephesians 4:32 puts it this way: “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” And Galatians 6:1 speaks about how we should consider ourselves while we deal with others and their sin.
He says this: “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.” That verse does deal with the issue of rebuking others and calling out sin – but more on that in a moment.
A third text we should bear in mind is Matthew 18:21-22: “Then Peter came up and said to him, ‘Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times’.” That is actually one of the most encouraging texts in all of Scripture. I fail the Lord every single day, and yet he still forgives ME. So I need to extend that much forgiveness to others as well.
But on the other hand, Scripture tells us repeatedly that we are to call out sinful behaviour and false teaching. It tells us often about the need to challenge one another, to rebuke, to warn, and to sound the alarm. We are not to be indifferent or careless about the need to hold others to account, just as we are to hold ourselves to account.
So how are we to reconcile these two seemingly opposing sets of commands of Scripture? How can we love and be forbearing with others, yet at the same time uphold high standards and call out sin? One way to understand this is to keep this oft-heard principle in mind: private sin, private rebuke; public sin, public rebuke. I have discussed this elsewhere.
As I explain in that piece, there is in fact a place for calling out others – but it depends on when and where and how we do this. If a person I know of has some sin problem, I am to go to him alone, as in Matthew 18:15-20. The whole world does not need to know about the matter, and a private conversation will do, hopefully.
But if, say, a person writes a book for the whole world to see, and it contains some rather unhelpful and even unbiblical material, then one can publicly deal with that book if needed. Some years ago a noted Australian Christian leader put out a quite bad book with the title, You Need More Money. It was so bad that I penned a review of it, and also shared that review with other Christian publications.
As is often the case, we need some care, wisdom and discernment as to when and how we might deal with the sin, error or failings of others. But contrary to the views of some, there certainly is a place for public rebuke – even for naming and shaming. It is interesting to see this with the Apostle Paul for example.
There seem to have been at least eight individuals who were publicly named by Paul as having failed him or gone off the rails. Whether for betrayal or for sinful activity, Paul had no problem in calling them out in public. Here are eight individuals he calls out by name:
Peter and Barnabas in Galatians 2:11-14: But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For before certain men came from James, he was eating with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party. And the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. But when I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?”
Phygelus and Hermogenes in 2 Timothy 1:15: You are aware that all who are in Asia turned away from me, among whom are Phygelus and Hermogenes.
Hymenaeus and Philetus in 2 Timothy 2:16-18: But avoid irreverent babble, for it will lead people into more and more ungodliness, and their talk will spread like gangrene. Among them are Hymenaeus and Philetus, who have swerved from the truth, saying that the resurrection has already happened. They are upsetting the faith of some.
Demas and Alexander in 2 Timothy 4:9-14: Do your best to come to me soon. For Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica. Crescens has gone to Galatia, Titus to Dalmatia. Luke alone is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is very useful to me for ministry. Tychicus I have sent to Ephesus. When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, also the books, and above all the parchments. Alexander the coppersmith did me great harm; the Lord will repay him according to his deeds.
Of interest, Demas is mentioned elsewhere (Colossians 4:14 and Philemon 1:24). Assuming this is the same person, Paul’s once faithful companion had now abandoned him. We could look at others who had made public rebukes. Consider another:
Diotrephes in 3 John 1:9-11: “I have written something to the church, but Diotrephes, who likes to put himself first, does not acknowledge our authority. So if I come, I will bring up what he is doing, talking wicked nonsense against us. And not content with that, he refuses to welcome the brothers, and also stops those who want to and puts them out of the church.”
And Jesus for example in fact would do such things. Consider his very strong and stinging rebuke of Peter. As we read in Mark 8:31-34:
And he began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again. And he said this plainly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and seeing his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.” And calling the crowd to him with his disciples, he said to them, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.
While he did not offer this rebuke in front of the crowds, he clearly did so in front of the other disciples. So those believers who claim we must never make a public rebuke certainly have Jesus and Paul – and others – to deal with here.
As I said at the outset, we need the biblical balance here. Never calling out sin or false doctrine when necessary is not acceptable from a biblical point of view. But neither is going around and lashing out at everyone, especially in the public arena (be it on the social media, from the pulpit, or wherever).
We need to get things right in this regard. And that means we need humility, caution, wisdom and a lot of prayer.
In my daily reading, I recently came upon a passage that ties in here. So let me offer this partly serious, partly humorous remark in closing. It has long been my practice to use the ‘3 strikes and you’re out’ rule on trolls, arguers, troublemakers, etc.
But Paul seems to have run with the ‘2 strikes’ rule: “As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing more to do with him, knowing that such a person is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned.” (Titus 3:10-11)