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Rebuking Sin: A How-To

I remember about 25 years ago a video called “Are You Ready for Church?” circulated around my world. The producers desired to “warn the SDA Church of the changes taking place.” It featured clips of raucous rock music and theatrics being performed in various Seventh-day Adventist forums. My friends and I watched it, eyes wide with shock.

Did the video help? It caused its share of hand-wringing, but did it succeed in reforming the church back toward reverence and restraint? I’m not sure.

Exposing sin has its place. Old Testament prophets enumerated Israel’s sins. John the Baptist called out Herod for adultery. Jesus Himself rebuked the scribes and Pharisees. Clearly the practice of the rebuking of sin can be done in righteousness.

Public rebuke can actually help victims. Those struggling with hurt caused by flagrant folly, abuse of power, sexual immorality, oppression of the weak, or other sin feel validated by truth-tellers. At the risk of his life, Nathan the prophet told David the truth about his sin, and we’re all better off for it. Because it signals accountability and thus safety within the church, rebuke can even be, in a sense, evangelistic.

I think the defining feature of biblical rebuke is that it is redemptive. It builds up rather than tear down. The purpose is not to exult over failure, but to see it corrected for the good of all. Even when the calling out of sin must be public, the motive of love and good will remains in place.

In contrast, organizations wholly devoted to rebuking the church can become acrimonious and counter-evangelistic. Biblically, the gifts of discernment and prophecy (1 Cor. 12; 1 Tim. 4:2) take place connected to the body, as part of Jesus’ overarching, all-important call to build the kingdom of God on earth. If a ministry’s sole purpose is to call out sin in the church, it will be impelled to find sin in order to validate its existence. This can lead to exaggeration and sensationalism, a stretching of the truth in order to feed a marketable narrative. It can also taint the hearts of the “whistleblowers” with a self-righteous spirit.

Church can’t be a safe place while it’s a safe place for unsafe people. Therefore, rebuke of unsafe people is needed. But if the rebukers themselves, by revealing a disposition to vindictively and haphazardly expose private and delicate matters, themselves become unsafe, we have again made the church unsafe.

I work in abuse prevention and response within the Seventh-day Adventist Church. I understand the need for dealing strongly with hidden sin, particularly sexual sin. But I’ve often pondered the fact that Jesus didn’t publicly expose Simon the Pharisee, who had sexually abused Mary Magdalene. Through a parable He revealed His knowledge of Simon’s guilt, but rather than lay him out before his brethren, he gave the man a chance to repent.

Here are some helpful words from Desire of Ages (441). The author speaks of Jesus’ Matthew 18 method, and how to handle the sin of an individual who has been disfellowshipped. It illuminates the broader issue of sin in the church beautifully: “But it is to the wrongdoer himself that we are to present the wrong. We are not to make it a matter of comment and criticism among ourselves; nor even after it is told to the church, are we at liberty to repeat it to others. A knowledge of the faults of Christians will be only a cause of stumbling to the unbelieving world; and by dwelling upon these things, we ourselves can receive only harm; for it is by beholding that we become changed. While we seek to correct the errors of a brother, the Spirit of Christ will lead us to shield him, as far as possible, from the criticism of even his own brethren, and how much more from the censure of the unbelieving world. We ourselves are erring, and need Christ's pity and forgiveness, and just as we wish Him to deal with us, He bids us deal with one another.”

Have we stood by passively, leaving sin unrebuked? Or have we fallen into the other ditch, approaching sin ungraciously? Or have we allowed God’s Spirit to lead us to work toward restoration in a spirit of meekness, considering ourselves lest we also be tempted?

We must ask ourselves these questions.

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