The Private Rebuke

by | Jan 13, 2020 | Church Discipline, Practical Theology

In a previous post the subject of church discipline was considered and 6 introductory observations were given. In this post, step 1 of seeking forgiveness will be considered: The private individual rebuke. You can find the first post in the series here.

Matthew 18:15 – “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.”

This is the first step of seeking forgiveness from a brother or sister who has sinned against you. I want to consider this step under two questions: first, what is to be done and second, where is it to be done?

1.) What is to be Done?

The ESV reads, “if you brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault.” I think this translation is a bit too soft. It least it can be taken that way. The Greek actually says, “If your brother sins against you, go rebuke or reprove him.”

The word “reprove” means to expose and convict someone of his or her sin. The Bible teaches that reproving someone is what the three Persons of the Godhead do.

This is something Christ does:

Hebrews 12:5 says, “And have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons? ‘My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by Him.’”

He says to the church in Laodicea in Revelation 3:19: “Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent.”

This is something that the teaching of Jesus Christ does: John 3:20: For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed.

If you come to the light, if you allow the words of Christ to shine upon your heart and your actions, it will all be exposed. Nothing will remain hidden any longer.

This is something the Holy Spirit does when He is sent to the earth: John 16:8: And when He comes, He will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment:

This is something the law of God does: James 2:9: But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors.

And this is something God does to the wicked: Psalm 50:21: These things you have done, and I have been silent; you thought that I was one like yourself. But now I rebuke you and lay the charge before you.

God is rebuking the wicked by bringing his case against the wicked and laying out their wicked crimes against Him.

So, rebuking or reproving someone, in the context of Matthew 18, is more than just telling that person his fault. It means to formally accuse someone of wrongdoing. You are not to take someone to court over this, but your meeting should be court-like. It should reflect the very justice and judgment of God.

Your judgment should align with God’s judgment. You should have sufficient proof based on God’s law that someone has done wrong to you, and then you should go and issue a formal complaint against that person. So, the burden is on you to possess convincing and compelling evidence that someone has indeed sinned against you.

It can’t just be that I think you have sinned against me, or I feel like you have sinned against me, or it seems like you have sinned against me. No. It must be, “I have proof you have sinned against me and here it is.” Your accusation has to hold up not just in the court of public opinion but in the court of God’s law. If it doesn’t, your case against the brother or sister must be thrown out.

The Grounds for Rebuke – the Law of God

There is a great lesson here for us. And it’s this: if you are going to seek forgiveness with someone, make sure they have sinned against you. Jesus says, “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault.” The key word here is “sins.” He didn’t say, “If your brother offends you or irritates you or annoys you or makes you feel bad or crosses your traditions and customs or goes against your counsel and advice.” Maybe it’s not the best thing for a person to do those things, but you can only rebuke someone and start the process of church discipline if he or she breaks the law of God against you – if he or she violates one of the 6 commandments contained in the second table of the law. If that person does not love you in a biblical way according to the law of God, then you have a right to go to that person and tell him his fault.

We should thank and praise God for this! God has not left us in the dark to come up with our own definition of sin. He has graciously given us an objective, everlasting standard which is outside of us to know if someone has sinned against us. It is written down for all of us to read and examine in the Bible.

If this wasn’t the case, just think how dysfunctional the church would be. If we didn’t have the written law of God to tell us what righteousness is and what sin is, we would be accusing one another left and right of all kinds of things that aren’t actually sinful.

There would be so much chaos in the church, especially in today’s church where so many people simply emote. They don’t think; they don’t consider; they don’t weigh the evidence; they don’t exercise self-control; they simply are led by their emotions. Their feelings become their truth. And if they feel like they have been sinned against, well, how dare we question that they have indeed been sinned against! We are told to respect their version of truth as truth! Well, as one country singer says, “That ain’t gonna fly,” and that ain’t gonna fly in the church!

If your grievance with another brother or sister isn’t according to the biblical definition of sin, Jesus’ teaching here doesn’t apply to your case. I’m sorry, it just doesn’t. You can still go talk to that person. You can still share with that person how you feel and how you can better dwell in peace and unity with one another, but you would be the one in sin if you unrighteously accused someone of something that isn’t really sinful.

So, we should praise God for this, and we should be very careful about bringing a formal accusation against another brother or sister in Christ.

2.) Where is it to be Done?

Jesus teaches that this is to be a one-on-one, face-to-face private meeting. You are to go and rebuke the person to his face. Jesus said, “go and tell him.” He did not say, “Sit back and write a letter to him” or in our modern times “call him or text him or Facebook-message him.” For something as serious as this, those forms of communication are too impersonal. This needs to be said while looking the offender in the eye.

Jesus also did not say, “Go and appoint a representative to bring the complaint to the person you think has sinned against you, whether it be your pastors or a trustworthy friend.” No, He says, “You (in the singular) go.” In other words, go by yourself. “Go” here can mean “to depart” or “to withdraw” to a place. In other words, going means sinking out of sight and having this conversation covered in secrecy so others won’t know the contents of your conversation. But Jesus explicitly teaches this rebuke must be private when He says to rebuke your brother “between you and him alone.” Since this is a private sin, it should be a private confrontation. No one else is to be involved at this time. You are the offended party, the sin was against you in particular, and it is your responsibility to go confront that person privately.

Jesus is not teaching something new here. Confronting someone privately concerning his or her sin against you is the very essence of love taught in the Old Testament. This is what it means to love your neighbor as himself.

Leviticus 19:17-18 (HCSB) says, “You must not harbor hatred against your brother. Rebuke [same Greek verb is used in Matthew 18:15] your neighbor directly, and you will not incur guilt because of him. 18Do not take revenge or bear a grudge against members of your community, but love your neighbor as yourself; I am Yahweh.”

Proverbs 25:8-10: “8do not hastily bring into court, for what will you do in the end, when your neighbor puts you to shame? 9Argue your case with your neighbor himself, and do not reveal another’s secret, 10lest he who hears you bring shame upon you, and your ill repute have no end.”

A great illustration of this is Joseph’s actions against Mary, whom he was betrothed to. After she became pregnant by the powerful work of the Holy Spirit, Joseph incorrectly thought she had committed sexual immorality against him. But what did he do? Tell the whole world? No. He kept the matter private. Matthew 1:19 says, “And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly.”

We are not to blow up, not to refuse to talk to them, not to gossip by telling everybody else about their sins, but to talk to them and seek forgiveness and reconciliation privately.

Reconciliation Means the Sin Remains Private

Be careful not to make public another person’s sins which have been dealt with privately. If step 1 has born fruit and the brother or sister has listened to you and has repented, you have won him or her back to the truth, it all ends there.

There is not a step 2. And there is certainly not a step 3 or 4. The process is over. Reconciliation has occurred! And since the process is over, going around and telling others about how badly that person sinned against you is wicked, cruel, and not in line with loving your fellow Christian. The goal of step 1 is to cover sins, not expose them for all to see. It is to bury the hatchet, not to use the hatchet as a weapon to hack up your reconciled brother in Christ. As Proverbs 17:9 says, “Whoever covers an offense seeks love, but he who repeats a matter separates close friends.” Or as 1 Peter 4:8 says, “Love covers a multitude of sins.” If forgiveness has been established, in a qualified sense you need to forget that it ever happened. You need to let it die. That person’s dirty laundry has already been washed and cleansed by the blood of Christ. The sin has been dealt with and you have won your brother back. Hallelujah! At the very least, you need to make sure it never becomes the topic of conversation with others.

Confront the Brother Yourself

Make sure to confront someone privately about his or her sin before telling others about it. When someone sins against you, what is the first thing you do? Pray? Check your own heart to make sure you are not overreacting or being overly emotional? Search the Scriptures? Go directly to that person?

Or do you tell another person about it? Do you let your spouse know? Or your parents know? Or your closest friends know? Or do you post it on Facebook for everyone to know? And do you do this without ever going to that person?

Hopefully you understand how terribly childish this sort of approach is when you deal with someone who has wronged you. But it is so easy to do because it’s extremely hard to confront someone. For some here, it may be the most difficult thing you will ever have to do. None of us enjoy confronting ourselves about our own sins, let alone confronting another person about his or her sins. 

I will say this: if you come to one of your pastors & tell them about how someone has sinned against you, you should hear this counsel from them every time: “Have you gone to that person first? Have you followed the first step of seeking forgiveness laid out for you in Matthew 18:15?” If not, we are not going to say anything else to you. If we want to be faithful to Christ’s commands, we can’t say anything else to you.

So, you have to confront that person yourself. That takes courage. That takes strength. That takes faith. Cry out to God for these graces, and obey Christ’s commandment and go lovingly rebuke that person to his face. It may be one of the best things you ever do!

When You Are the Offender

If you have sinned against another, go tell that offended brother or sister your own fault. It’s a sad thing that discipline has to be taken to step 2, 3, and even 4 in some cases. It should remain at step 1. In fact, it shouldn’t even have to get to step 1. If you have sinned against someone, you should go to that person yourself and ask for forgiveness. Why wait for the person to come to you? Why does he have to hunt you down and confront you about your sin against him? Go and make things right yourself! Repent and humble yourself and seek that person’s forgiveness!

Something is not right with your heart if you can sin against someone without your conscience cutting you down and compelling you to go make things right. How can a believer go through life knowing that he has deeply hurt and offended another believer without seeking his forgiveness?

This is the very teaching of Christ. In Matthew 5:23-24, He says, “23So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, 24leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.” God will not accept your worship until you make things right with your offended brother.

But if you have really sinned against a person and he or she confronts you, you should love that person.

You shouldn’t get angry at that person. He or she had the courage to say something to you & the love to pursue you when you were doing astray. You should praise God for that person and thank him or her for dealing honestly * faithfully with your soul. As the Scriptures say, it is for your benefit & blessing.

Prov. 9:8-9: 8Do not reprove a scoffer, or he will hate you; reprove a wise man, & he will love you. 9Give instruction to a wise man, & he will be still wiser; teach a righteous man, & he will increase in learning.

Psalm 141:5: Let a righteous man strike me- it is a kindness; let him rebuke [same Greek verb used in Matthew 18:15] me- it is oil for my head; let my head not refuse it. Yet my prayer is continually against their evil deeds.

Prov. 27:6: Faithful are the wounds of a friend; profuse are the kisses of an enemy.

Lord-willing, in future posts we will consider steps 2-4. May God bless the preaching of His Word to the building up of His church, through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.

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