In the mid-19th century there were two friends who were very devout and effective pastors in Scotland: Robert Murray McCheyne and Horatius Bonar. They would regularly get together on Monday mornings to compare notes on the previous Sabbath’s ministry. As the story goes, on one Monday morning McCheyne asked Bonar what he had preached on the day before. Bonar replied: I preached on “The wicked shall be turned into hell.” McCheyne’s response: “And, could you do it with tenderness, Horace?”

I thought of that this past week when I got some thoughtful comments on my Blog on the subject of the ministry of rebuke and reproof. One person commented that it was one thing to utter rebukes to the grossly immoral from a distance … but something else to lovingly confront those with whom you interact every day, so that it becomes easier to just remain silent. Yes. So true. And yet, that doesn’t resolve the reality that it is an act of love to find some way to remind such persons that their words or behavior cross the boundary of what is constructive and purposeful.

I was reminded of that discipline again when noting II Timothy 3:16 the other day: “All scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, …” God knows that we need guidelines for our behavior and thinking in such a life full of contradictions, ambiguities, temptations, difficult personalities, and border-line ethics. I don’t have any simple formula. There are a whole lot of gray areas and marginal decisions out there.

But one thing I do know is that we do not forsake those fruits of the Holy Spirit as we confront others, those fruits of love and gentleness and goodness, nor do we forsake the gift of wisdom. I think, also, that our responsibility for rebuke and reproof rests mostly with those persons with whom we have good relationships. I think, first-of-all, of my own need of rebuke and reproof. I have the capacity to come on too strong often, or to overstate a case, and to be a bit over the line in dealing with questionable situations. Ah, but God gave me a wife, who could rebuke me with a simple pat on my hand, which communicated the unmistakable message: “Cool it, Bob!” I got the message. Or a gentle question: “Don’t you think you came on a bit strong with him?” Or, “you might have been a bit more sensitive to what he/she is going through.” She was a gift.

Plus, I had a wonderfully helpful and challenging friend for years, who early in our relationship insisted that we establish the “right to intimidate each other,” which gave us an honesty in our relationship and an openness with each other that was very fruitful over many years.

Rebuke and reproof are a ministry that is mandated in scripture, but it need not be brutal or insensitive. A gentle question, or your own response to some word or action spoken in love. Confrontation should definitely not be hostile, but then it also is part of the commandment to love. To rebuke and to reprove is usually linked with the ministry of teaching one another, and is always to be done with longsuffering, gentleness, and love.

I hope this may help. We need each other’s corrections. That is what we’re about in this community of God’s new creation. For those outside of the community, it might only be a gentle question over coffee/beer: “Would you be offended if I offered you a suggestion?”  We need to earn the right, then to get their permission. Then do it with tenderness. OK?

About rthenderson

Sixty years a pastor-teacher within the Presbyterian Church. Author of several books, the latest of which are a trilogy on missional ecclesiology: ENCHANTED COMMUNITY: JOURNEY INTO THE MYSTERY OF THE CHURCH, then, REFOUNDING THE CHURCH FROM THE UNDERSIDE, then THE CHURCH AND THE RELENTLESS DARKNESS. Previous to this trilogy was A DOOR OF HOPE: SPIRITUAL CONFLICT IN PASTORAL MINISTRY, and SUBVERSIVE JESUS, RADICAL FAITH. I am a native of West Palm Beach, Florida, a graduate of Davidson College, then of Columbia and Westminster Theological Seminaries.
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  1. margaret harris says:

    Yes, Betty was a gift to me also. A wonderful, amazing woman.

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