When is it necessary to rebuke another believer?To rebuke is to: "express sharp disapproval or criticism of (someone) because of their behavior or actions." In the New Testament, the Greek word elegchó is most commonly translated as "rebuke" and it means "to reprimand and convict by exposing (sometimes publicly) a wrong." We are all sinners who fall short of God's glory, which means we all need to be rebuked at times (Romans 3:23). There are also times when, as believers, we will need to rebuke another believer.
It is common in our day and age to consider rebuke a negative action, but done well, it can be an extremely positive one. We see this in Proverbs 27:5–6, which says: "Better is open rebuke than hidden love. Faithful are the wounds of a friend; profuse are the kisses of an enemy." We all have blind spots in our lives and make unwise decisions from time to time. Someone who is being a true friend will step up to the plate and speak the truth in love to us, even if it is uncomfortable in the moment. We need to be prepared to do the same for them. Paul encouraged Titus along these lines when he told him to "Declare these things; exhort and rebuke with all authority" (Titus 2:15). It is important for us to speak encouraging and truthful words to one another (1 Thessalonians 5:11; Ephesians 4:25), but what are the signs that let us know when we need to rebuke another believer?
We all sin, whether in thought, word, or deed (1 John 1:8; James 3:2), so when we rebuke someone it needs to be done from a position of personal humility. We need to check our own motives before we rebuke someone. First Corinthians 16:14 says, "Let all that you do be done in love." Even rebuke needs to be approached from a place of love, care, and genuine exhortation. Rebuke that is rooted in personal pride, jealousy, anger, or any other selfish ambition will not be spiritually productive. It could have the opposite of the intended effect and induce shame in the believer who is being rebuked. We should be vigilant to maintain our own Christian walk first rather than looking for opportunities to rebuke others for their shortcomings (Matthew 7:2–5).
It is our Christian responsibility to rebuke, exhort, and encourage each other to remain faithful to the calling we have in Christ (Hebrews 10:24–25; 1 Thessalonians 5:11; James 5:20). It becomes necessary to rebuke another believer when they have a habitual pattern of sin in their life. When a believer continues choosing to live in sin, they are not only causing harm to themselves but also to others, whether that be the body of Christ or a specific person(s). When we are saved, we are to put our old ways of sin behind us (Ephesians 4:22–24). This requires consistent dedication and actions that match our decision to follow Christ. If a believer is living in consistent sin, there is an area of their Christian life which has not been submitted to Christ. Jesus said: "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" (Matthew 18:15).
Continuing on in Matthew 18, Jesus gives instructions of how to handle a believer who refuses to repent after a loving rebuke: "But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence 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, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector" (Matthew 18:16–17). These stipulations may seem a bit severe to our modern minds. We tend to equate love with tolerance, but Jesus shows us that because He loves His church, He cannot tolerate impurity within it. It is wrong to allow people within the church to claim to follow Him while profaning His name and reputation with their actions.
The church needs to take the words of Christ seriously. When sin within the church is neglected, it hinders our Christian witness because outsiders are able to see the hypocrisy that is allowed to stay present within the church. Upholding the standards of Christ may cause there to be fewer people within the church, but it will also help the genuineness of our faith to be more evident to non-believers. At the same time, we must be careful to follow the biblical instructions regarding rebuke appropriately. Some Christians within the church, whether pastors, leaders, or members, have abused Matthew 18 and similar biblical instructions, using it to puff themselves up and judge others.
This brings us back to the original point about rebuking a believer: it must be done in love, from a place of personal relationship. The goal of rebuke should always be restoration rather than condemnation. We should ask ourselves these questions:
1. Do I struggle with the same type of sin? (Romans 2:1)
2. What is my motivation for this rebuke? Is it love? Am I seeking restoration? (Galatians 6:1)
3. Am I personally close enough with this person to speak into his life? (Galatians 6:2)
4. How would I respond if someone else rebuked me in this way? (Matthew 7:12)
5. Am I prepared to explain how this issue is a sin and show it in the Scripture? (2 Timothy 2:15)
6. If my friend doesn't receive my rebuke, am I ready to take this issue to my spiritual leaders? Matthew 18:15–17)
7. Am I actually committed and prepared to walk with my friend during the restoration process? (Matthew 26:41; James 5:19–20)
We are warned in Galatians that when we rebuke a fellow believer for living in sin, we need to watch out for temptation ourselves: "Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ" (Galatians 6:1–2). Stay loving; stay humble; and in every situation, do to others what you would have them do to you (Matthew 7:12).
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