Private Conversation and Public Rebuke

March 9, 2015 at 4:15 am Leave a comment


Bible 1When I was in college, I had a professor tell me that if you get five churchmen in a room to discuss a particular issue, they will have six different opinions. It’s true. Disagreements – especially in ecclesiastical contexts – arise often. Offenses against others are committed often. Jesus, as Lord of the Church, knows this. This is why Jesus gives us instruction on how to address disagreements and offenses among us:

If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that “every matter may be established by the testimony 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, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.  (Matthew 18:15-17)

Jesus is clear. Disagreements and offenses are best and first addressed privately before they are addressed publicly. Sadly, in the church body of which I am a part, the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod, I have seen Jesus’ pattern disregarded again and again.

Over the past few months, I have been able to attend two conferences hosted by different congregations of my church body. During these events, some took to social media to malign these conferences – often in acerbic and sarcastic ways – over differences they had with the presenters and presentations. When confronted about these uncharitable comments in light of Jesus’ words in Matthew 18, some of the people posting these comments maintained that because the teaching at these conferences was public and, in their opinion, false, the rebuke of these teachers was also appropriately public. They cited Martin Luther’s words: “Where the sin is public, the rebuke also must be public, that everyone may learn to guard against it.”[1] These people saw no need to have a private conversation with those with whom they disagreed.

Because my church body is doggedly committed to properly and carefully interpreting Scripture, I believe it is worth reminding ourselves what Scripture says concerning how to address disagreements among us. For I believe that those who argue for public rebuke apart from any private conversation are either misled, or perhaps even misleading.

First, it needs to be said that sarcasm that only attacks instead of seeking to correct is always wrong. As Solomon sagely warns, “Whoever belittles his neighbor lacks sense” (Proverbs 11:12). In our disagreements with each other, we must be careful never to be belittling of each other.

Second, it is important to note that the Scriptures – and especially the Pauline letters – are full of public rebukes. For instance, Paul rebukes a member of the church at Corinth for his gross sexual immorality, of which the Corinthians were foolishly approving (cf. 1 Corinthians 5:1-2). He also rebukes his fellow apostle Peter for refusing to eat with Gentile believers (cf. Galatians 2:11-14). Then, in 1 Timothy 5:19-20, Paul provides his young pastor protégé with some guidance on how to publicly rebuke false teaching:

Do not entertain an accusation against an elder unless it is brought by two or three witnesses. Those who sin are to be rebuked publicly, so that the others may take warning.

Two points are worth noting in this passage. First, accusations of false teachings are not to be made ad hoc. Just because one person sees false teaching in someone’s ministry does not mean that there is, in fact, false teaching. False teaching must be discerned corporately; not individually. After all, an accuser may himself turn out to be a false teacher – or, in some instances, a false accuser! Second, the primary reason for a public rebuke is “so that others may take warning.” In other words, public rebukes are for those who are in danger of being swayed by false teaching. They are not for the false teacher.

But what about the false teacher? How does one deal with him? Here is where Jesus’ words concerning private conversation commend themselves to us. For they are meant to help a false teacher see the error of his ways and, by God’s grace, come to repentance.

This leads me to my concern with much of the discussion surrounding public rebuke in my church body. There are some who use Paul’s words concerning public rebuke as an excuse to not heed Jesus’ words concerning private conversation. But both private conversation and public rebuke are needed, for both false teachers and those who are falsely taught need help. Public rebuke cannot be used to supplant private conversation.

I know that, sometimes, private conversation is impossible. Indeed, I have warned against false teachers and teachings on this very blog. False teaching is worthy of a warning! But if we can have private conversations with teachers about whom we have concerns, I see no reason not to have these conversations. Scripture commands it. The integrity of our consciences demands it.

Allow me to offer one final distinction as a kind of postscript. When confronting false teaching, we must be careful that we don’t characterize a person’s unintentional misstatement as a malicious falsehood. Malicious liars are very different from unclear communicators. One needs to be firmly rebuked. The other needs to be gently corrected. May we be wise enough to know the difference – and pastoral enough to care both for those who teach and for those who are taught.

__________________________

[1] Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions, Second Edition, Paul McCain, ed. (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2006), 391 (LC 284).

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