Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord. [Romans 12: 9-11]
Sometimes it takes time to discover that something is a blessing, for another reason than initially thought. When I first stumbled upon my fellowship here at college, I believed it was the most “perfect” a church could get, in terms of seeing people who were passionate and really lived out what they believed and what was true (living out what you believe isn’t enough, if it’s not grounded in truth). However, within the past few months, I’m starting to see that there really is no such thing as the “perfect” church; each has its own problems. On this side of heaven, there really is no sustainable and constant perfection in anything.
Every church has a leadership structure; it is only natural, as there are logistical aspects to a church which must be taken care of, and mentorship and discipleship are important for spiritual growth. There are a few different ways that leadership can become corrupted, but for the purposes of this post, I’ll just be focusing on the concept of rebuking. Titus 1 outlines how church elders, the leaders, should be, For an overseer, as God’s steward, must be above reproach. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent o greedy for gain, but hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined. He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it [Titus 1: 7-9]. Rebuking is therefore acceptable when there are many who are insubordinate, empty talkers and deceivers…. Therefore rebuke them sharply, that they may be sound in the faith [Titus 1:10,13].
Rebuking is not quite the same as correcting. Rebuking, I think, is the most extreme, and thus rare, form of correction. It is the purest form of correction, in that rebuking must come from a place of truly wanting what is best for the other person’s spiritual growth, never from a place of selfishness, arrogance, or pride. Correction, on the other hand, such as in the workplace, does not always come from a place of love, which is why it is so dangerous, also because it is much more common and easy to correct someone. Rebuking should be thought of as more of a last resort, when nothing else has worked, and their sinful behavior is harmful to either others, themselves, or both.
As with many other verses in the Bible, there are many caveats to this passage from Titus on the relationship between leaders and churchgoers.
1) The one rebuking must be above reproach, and doing it out of love. Shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock [1 Peter 5:2-3]. Leaders should be examples, rather than hypocrites like the Pharisees, whom Jesus actually rebukes (it is worth noting that Jesus never actually rebukes His disciples, except to tell them when they have little faith). Leaders never rebuke for their own gain, or simply because they have the authority to do so, but rather for the sake of the one being rebuked.
2) There must be a mutual understanding between the rebuker and the rebuked that the rebuked wants to grow in their faith. The premise for rebuking, as it says to do in Titus 1:13, is that the purpose is so that the rebuked will be sound in their faith, as it says in Titus 1:16 that those that profess to know God, but they deny Him by their works…are detestable, disobedient, unfit for any good work.
3) There must be a close relationship between the rebuker and the rebuked. People do not respond well to unwarranted advice that is given by someone that doesn’t even know them. Rebuking requires a multi-faceted perspective of the person being rebuked, and the sin being rebuked as well.
Any organization revolving around something that really matters must use correction in order to achieve their goals; failure is not really an option, or at the very least, tolerable. In an organization like a business, the concrete actions for correction are more straightforward, as they are rooted in contracts, but the concrete actions for correction are not so black-and-white and clear in the church, in the spiritual and very personal realm. However, there is no growth without love and discipline, to prevent us from continually growing into the type of person that has completely turned from God.
Yes, leaders do have the right to rebuke, but this “power” should not be what is emphasized and exercised, but rather a genuine love that happens to manifest itself in the form of pointing out what needs to be done in order to get back onto the path to God. However, there is not one “right,” or universal, way to walk our lives; all that matters is that Jesus is the way that we walk it — it will look different for everyone, and leaders should not advocate for a single “right” way of growing or doing things.
Ultimately, because we are all flawed humans, God is who we submit to, not necessarily our leaders, parents, or other authority figures—when we submit to them, it is because we are submitting to God working through them. We never like to be corrected, and thus by extension, rebuked. However, if someone is bold enough to tell you the truth, hopefully it really is in love, because it’s a hard task for them to open their mouth to correct you. Rebuking should be convicting, as conviction comes from God, but guilt, shame, and condemnation are not from God.
Talent is God-given. Be humble. Fame is man-given. Be grateful. Conceit is self-given. Be careful. [John Wooden]
*Special thanks to my friend (you know who you are, if you’re reading this) for even bringing this issue in our church to my attention, and for talking all of this through with me.