Today I want to turn our attention away from the “externals” (what is a rebuke, who can give one, how harsh can they be, etc.) and look at something a little less tangible. What should be the motive for making a stern rebuke? It’s an important question, because, as Paul teaches in 1 Corinthians 13:1-3, it doesn’t matter how “correct” someone might be if he speaks with a wrong motive. As I see it, there are three primary motives for delivering a pastoral rebuke in a biblical manner.
Expose a False Message
For the safety of the sheep, a shepherd must be able and willing to refute false teaching (Titus 1:9). As the man responsible for presenting his congregation as a pure bride for Christ, a pastor must feel a “divine jealousy” for his people (1 Corinthians 11:1-4). If he fears that they are being led astray by false doctrine, he has an obligation to expose the false message, and the wolves who’ve brought it into the flock.
Not all love is pleasant. Sometimes the most loving thing someone can do is to correct another person’s error, such as Paul did when he confronted Peter about his hypocrisy. However, this correction should be done with gentleness and love. The Bible is quite clear on this matter. When Paul defended his ministry to the Corinthians, he did it with gentleness (2 Corinthians 10:1). He taught that pastors should correct their opponents with gentleness (2 Timothy 2:25). Peter likewise taught that we respond to opponents with gentleness and respect (1 Peter 3:15).
Incidentally, we can see by now that the triune God is fully active in a truly biblical rebuke. God the Father is the supreme judge, and humans judge only based on His delegated authority. Scripture, which is Christ’s Word, is the means by which we correct others (1 Timothy 3:16). And correction is to be done with gentleness — a fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23).
Draw to Repentance
If someone has mistakenly placed his eternal security in a false gospel, a firm rebuke or a prophetic proclamation of God’s judgment may be God’s means of granting a lost sinner repentance and genuine salvation. We see this in Scripture in 1 Corinthians 5:5, 1 Timothy 1:20, and 2 Timothy 2:25-26.
Different Strokes for Different Folks
Does every rebuke need to have all three of these motives? Perhaps to some degree, but I believe the counsel of Scripture is that no one response is suitable for every situation. We must exercise discernment, trusting that the Holy Spirit will show us what to say. In the words of Jesus, we must be “wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16). Paul said, “Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person” (Colossians 4:6). Despite the Bible’s exhortation of gentleness, we read as well that sometimes our speech should be a little salty.
Most of the time, a pastor (or any other Christian) is in the position of encouraging and/or correcting those who look to him for guidance, whether they are a part of his congregation, a Christian from another fold, or an unbeliever. These situations call for patience, grace, and gentleness. As we saw earlier this week, though, the harshest words in Scripture are reserved for those who have set themselves up as teachers of God’s Word, yet who teach a false gospel.
While a rebuke of a false teacher should still ultimately have that teacher’s repentance in mind, there is a greater sense of urgency. A teacher’s sin affects not only himself, but many others as well. Accordingly, he will be judged with greater strictness (James 3:1). When a false teacher is leading others astray, the time for gentleness has passed. People must be warned about error in the strongest terms, as John MacArthur explains here:
Back to John and Joel
As this whole discussion was started because of a rebuke and condemnation of Joel Osteen by John MacArthur, it is probably fitting that we see whether this particular rebuke fits the description I’ve been setting out as a biblically warranted response to Osteen’s preaching. I’ll do that in the next and last post in this series.
First, though, I’d like to say a few personal thoughts about Dr. MacArthur. As many who know me well could attest, I’m by no means a John MacArthur apologist. I disagree with him on some doctrinal issues, and I think that on occasion he comes across as intentionally and unnecessarily hostile toward brothers in Christ, often berating them on what I would consider secondary issues (for instance, on eschatology).
That said, I also have great respect for the man, and am very thankful for his ministry and faithful preaching. On most occasions, I believe he models gracious and gentle instruction and correction better than most anyone else. On top of this, God has blessed him with a platform for reaching many, which very few pastors attain. Most notably, MacArthur has appeared numerous times on Larry King’s television program, speaking truth to many who might otherwise never hear it. Let me point you to just a few clips that I believe demonstrate firm, but gentle, defense of the Christian faith that is motivated by the desire to see many repent and believe.
In this clip, MacArthur explains to a young man (and a national TV audience) what the Bible teaches about sin and its consequences. Chances are that young man will never agree with him, but there is no denying the gentleness with which he was corrected. God may perhaps grant him a repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth.
On another occasion, MacArthur participated in a debate called “Who Is Jesus”, which primarily included people who really don’t have an answer to that question. MacArthur held firm to what I would affirm is the Bible’s position, yet his speech was always gracious, seasoned with salt. You can see the first of three videos from this debate here, and will find links to the remaining videos there.
Last but not least, here’s an excellent sermon/conference talk by Mark Driscoll (who is, ironically, an example of someone John MacArthur has rebuked on multiple occasions, sometimes overstepping the bounds of necessity, in my opinion) on the use of harsh and cutting language. It’s long, but well worth it when you have the time: