To rebuke someone is to criticize him or her sharply. The Greek word most often translated “rebuke” in the New Testament is elegchó. In its fullest sense, elegchó means “to reprimand and convict by exposing (sometimes publicly) a wrong.” There are times when all of us need to be rebuked, and there are times when a believer needs to rebuke another believer.
We normally think of a rebuke in a negative sense, but Proverbs 27:5–6 says, “Better is open rebuke than hidden love. Wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses.” Paul instructs Titus, as an overseer of the church, to “speak, and exhort, and rebuke with all authority” (Titus 2:15), implying that all three activities are of equal importance. We know we should always encourage each other and speak the truth (1 Thessalonians 5:11; Ephesians 4:25), but how do we know when to rebuke another believer?
Scriptural rebuke begins in the heart. Before we confront anyone about anything, we should first examine our own motives. First Corinthians 16:14 says, “Let everything be done in love.” That includes rebuke. There is a right way and a wrong way to rebuke someone. Wrong rebuking stems from pride, anger, malice, jealousy, or another selfish attitude. The goal of an unscriptural rebuke is to injure, shame, or otherwise injure a Christian brother or sister. Often, hypocrisy is involved. Most of the Bible’s warnings against judging others pertain to those who condemn others for the very things they do themselves (Matthew 7:3–5). Paul wrote, “I discipline my body and make it my slave, so that, after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified” (1 Corinthians 9:27).
Jesus gave clear instructions for handling situations in which a brother or sister is caught up in a sin: “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over” (Matthew 18:15). There is discernment implied in this verse. We are not to be watchdogs over each other, because we all sin in many ways every day (1 John 1:8; James 3:2). We all sin in thought, word, attitude, or motivation. But when another believer is choosing sin that harms himself, someone else, or the body of Christ, we are to intervene. A rebuke is necessary at times, as we must look out for each other. James 5:20 says, “Whoever turns a sinner from the error of their way will save them from death and cover over a multitude of sins.” Confrontation may be difficult, but it is not loving to allow a professing Christian to continue in a sin that will bring God’s consequences upon him or his family or his church.
Matthew 18 goes on to clarify what is to be done in church discipline if a confronted believer refuses to listen to a loving rebuke. Jesus says, “But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector” (verses 16–17). This may sound harsh to our tolerance-saturated minds, but this is Jesus talking. The purity of His church is of utmost importance to Him. People who want to claim His name while defiling His reputation must be rebuked, not overlooked or excused.
If the church as a whole took Jesus’ words more seriously, our voice would be more respected in the world. When we neglect to address grievous sins in the church, we appear to take sin lightly. Skeptics can’t respect our claim to honor the Bible as God’s Word while we ignore those of our number who are overtly disobeying it.
Sometimes, believers are hesitant to rebuke those who need it because of abuses in the past. Some churches or pastors have been overly eager to rebuke others or have used Scripture to humiliate and ostracize those who disagreed with them. Such judgmental behavior has led some church leaders to forego the application of the Matthew 18 standards entirely.
A simple checklist can help individuals know when it may be necessary to rebuke a sinning Christian. We should never be hasty or rash in a rebuke. We should evaluate each situation carefully and prayerfully and ask ourselves these questions:
1. Is my life free from similar sin? (Romans 2:1)
2. Do I have a relationship with this person that allows me to speak into his life? (Galatians 6:2)
3. Is my motive that of restoration rather than condemnation? (Galatians 6:1)
4. Would I be willing to have someone rebuke me in the same way? (Matthew 7:12)
5. Do I understand Scripture well enough to know how and why this person is violating it? (2 Timothy 2:15)
6. Am I prepared to go to my pastor or elders on this person’s behalf if he refuses to listen to me?
7. Am I willing to commit to praying for this person’s healing and restoration before and after I confront him? (Matthew 26:41)
8. Is this offense truly a sin or simply an act of immaturity or preference? (Ephesians 4:2)
9. Am I acting in love? (1 Corinthians 13:1)
Galatians 6:1 tells us, “Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently. But watch yourselves, or you also may be tempted.” When we are called to confront or rebuke a fellow believer, we must always do so in an attitude of humility, knowing that we too are prone to sin. We can follow Jesus’ golden words in this and every other situation: “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you” (Matthew 7:12).