Tuesday, November 17, 2015

On Harsh Words and Public Rebuke

Some small remnant of you readers may not be aware of the fact that I have, in the past, not shied away from engaging in rather harsh public rebuke toward certain individuals by means of my blog. I doubt this ignorance extends to very many of you because these posts have received far more views than any of the others. It's pretty much a no contest. This is the case in spite of the fact that these posts make up about 5% of everything I've written about over the years.

I wanted to say a few words about this. I've received varied responses to this type of thing, ranging from "yeah, go get em!" to "how dare you, you unchristlike, arrogant jerk!"

In order to address this issue, I simply want to summarize what my philosophy of public rebuke is as briefly as I can, and then try to extend some applications and precautions both to my readers and to myself.

My first assumption, and this should be obvious at this point, is that public rebuke is a biblical concept. It continues to surprise me how many people are not even willing to consider the fact that this is the case. Public rebuke, including naming names and naming sins loudly and publicly is not beneath the example of the Old Testament prophets, the Apostles and Christ himself.

Second, I believe that public rebuke is only for public sin. Given what my areas of study are, I am mainly referring to the public promotion of false doctrine and sinful living. This is generally the approach we see in scripture. Paul did not shy away from warning against apostates by name (2 Timothy 2:17). Jesus did not shy away from strong words of rebuke and condemnation toward those who led God's people astray (Matthew 23). Peter did not shy away from the most scathing condemnation imaginable when addressing teachers who would lead their followers into sin (2 Peter 2).

Third, I believe a person should make sure they are qualified to engage in this type of thing. I obviously am operating under the assumption that I fall into that category. While it is nearly impossible to try to make this point without risking self promotion and pride (or at least the appearance of it), I will simply point out that I have formally studied theology for several years and have completed a masters degree on the topic. I am also submitted to the elders of a local church who are able to (and have) corrected my failings in this area, as well as others. I also have recently begun teaching systematic theology in that context.

Fourth and finally, I believe that biblical rebuke takes a variety of forms, and these do not exclude solemn seriousness, tears, and pleading. Nor does it exclude harsh words, sarcasm, jokes, even name calling (see Matthew 23 and 2 Peter 2 for the most shocking examples of this).

I think Doug Wilson (notorious for his use of satire) summarized this point well when he said,

"Prophets, the apostles and our Lord Jesus all exhibit a vast array of verbal behavior, including tenderness, love, insults, jokes, anger, and more. What standard do we use to sort this Material out? When this standard is a scriptural one, the same range of expression will be found in those who imitate the Scriptures, and that range will exhibit scriptural proportions. But when the standard is nonscriptural, and has excluded a certain type of expression as being a priori un-Christ-like, it then will not matter how many passages are cited which show Christ being un-Christ-like. And at that point we may take a jibe from Christ's arsenal and say that wisdom is vindicated by her children."

The most difficult aspect of engaging people about this issue is that, even if they concede that such a category of rebuke is necessary, they often have a one size fits all category of what Christlikeness looks like in such a situation.

I will admit, discerning what Christ would say or do is not always easy. I am sure that I've failed at this at times in my writing. The mistake we make is in thinking there is a simplistic feel good answer that will make everyone comfortable.

One of the things we must not do is allow the response of the person being rebuked to be the deciding factor in how we judge the merits of the rebuke we extend to them. What we must realize is that if a person slips into an unbiblical worldview, in part or in total, their taste for language that describes their worldview will inevitably shift as well. The more heretical and vile the error they embrace is, the more heretical and vile they will find your rebuke, unless the Spirit grants them repentance (2 Timothy 2:25).

To extend that thought to my readers as well, this should also compel us to judge our own hearts. If we find the rebuke that a teacher extends to someone (that someone not being us) offensive, there may be multiple reasons for this. It may well be that the teacher has gone too far and is no longer showing tough love. He's just being tough.

However, this offense may come from a shift in our taste buds concerning the doctrine at hand. It may be that we have come to agree with a false teacher where we shouldn't... or we at least don't see his error as being as serious as it actually is. For this reason, we must pray for discernment.

Ironically, I think this often comes down to not being judgmental, a charge that is often leveled at those who practice public rebuke. By judgmental, I don't mean making judgments. Contrary to popular opinion, Jesus did not tell us not to judge. He told us not to judge without the knowledge that the same standard will be used against us (Matthew 7:1-5). Hypocracy is a sin, not discernment.

When I say judgmental, I'm talking about thinking you can magically see what is in a brother's heart, a feat only God can pull off (1 Samuel 16:7). God does not call us to judge someone's heart, but rather what comes out of their mouth and life. You will know them by their fruit (Matthew 7:16). Yet we often turn this around and defend a false teacher, whose teaching is clearly a bad fruit, by appealing to the fact that we don't know their heart. We do this while simultaneously rebuking someone who tries to correct the false teaching, thinking we know the state of their heart. This is of course based on what we perceive to be the harshness of their words. We cannot assume that strong rebuke is bad fruit. It often is only treated as such because the person doing so has an unbiblical and unexamined presupposition concerning what kind of rebuke is or is not appropriate.

In summary, my goal here is simply to encourage us to be more well rounded when it comes to following scripture. We often times think we know what this means, but our definition is based on our personal sensitivities more than the Bible itself. This applies to me as well as all of my brothers and sisters in Christ. I have definitely had to repent for my words before, and I'm sure I will have to again. At the same time, I know there are some of you awaiting repentance on my part, but it may be time for you to realize, depending on what offended you, that there just might be none forthcoming.

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