Was Jesus allowed to call a group of people “white-washed tombs” while being the same person who could weep over Jerusalem? Could the Apostle Paul be the same person who told the Ephesian elders that he had wept over the challenges of the church day and night, while at the same time telling Titus to “rebuke them [i.e. false teachers] strongly?” (Titus 1:13). What these questions illustrate is that Biblical interactions and confrontation is not a “one-size fits all,” but actually is something highly tailored to a specific context. For instance, a right understanding of Jesus considers all that he said and did, including both the easier things to accept (he wept over Jerusalem) and the difficult things he said and did (calling people “white-washed tombs”).
As we examine the following select 22 Biblical personal interactions we observe that the Bible makes radical distinctions between how different individuals or groups of people were addressed. The false prophet named Elymas, for instance received a rebuke from the Apostle Paul consisting of: “You son of the devil, you enemy of all righteousness, full of all deceit and villainy, will you not stop making crooked the straight paths of the Lord?” (Acts 13:10). The same Apostle, with compassion and tenderness, however, addressed two women by their personal names and said, “I plead with Euodia and I plead with Syntyche to agree with each other” (Philippians 4:2). From the data we will group the interactions by the nature of the people being addressed, which we might group into four very general categories consisting of:
- individuals needing help in a certain way
- disciples/religious people needing help in a certain way
- churches needing help in a certain way
- teachers promoting actual error
Individuals needing help in a certain way
- The anonymous prophet told King Jeroboam that the altar where he was burning incense was going to be split and be the location of judgement in the future (I Kings 13:1-10)
- John the Baptist told King Herod that marrying his brother’s wife was “unlawful” (Matthew 14:4).
- Jesus told the rich young ruler to sell everything that he had in order to confront the heart of darkness of the young man who had has wealth as an idol (Matthew 19:16-22).
- Jesus told the Samaritan woman at the well that although he knew that she had multiple marriages, yet he could give her the very thing that her heart of heart needed. He treated her as a bruised reed that he would not crush (John 4 c.f. Isaiah 42:3).
- The Apostle Paul told Felix the profligate and cruel Roman procurator about “righteousness, self-control and the judgment to come” (Acts 24:25).
- The Apostle Paul advises his young prodigy, Timothy that in his interactions with non-believers he should “avoid foolish and undisciplined questions, knowing that they produce quarrels” and that “a servant of the Lord must not quarrel, but must be gentle toward all, skillful in teaching, patient, one who courteously instructs those who oppose themselves, if perhaps God may grant to them conversion unto a genuine knowledge of truth” (2 Timothy 2:23-25 c.f. 1 Peter 3:15).
Disciples/religious people needing help in a certain way
- Nehemiah was so shocked at the spiritual adultery of the Jewish people of Jerusalem who had intermarried contrary to the law of God that he pulled out some of the men’s hair and cursed them (Nehemiah 13:25).
- John the Baptist told the crowds who came out to see him and prided themselves on being sons of Abraham as “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” (Luke 3:1-9 cf. John 8:44).
- Jesus told the disciples that if someone has sinned against another of them, they were to go back to that disciple and “tell him his fault” in private (Matthew 18:15).
- The Apostle Paul confronted Simon Peter “to his face” for his cowardice (Galatians 2:11-14) and in the same book advised that “if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness” (6:1).
- Jude told the church that they were to have “mercy on those who doubt; save others by snatching them out of the fire; to others show mercy with fear, hating even the garment stained by the flesh” (Jude 22).
Churches needing help in a certain way
- The Apostle Paul confronted the super-spiritual Corinthian church that they should have mourned over the situation in their church where a man lived with his father’s wife, but that they responded arrogantly. He recommended that the person be delivered over to Satan with the hope of saving his spirit (I Corinthian 5:1-5).
- The Apostle Paul, while being in prison urged the Ephesian church to “walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called,with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:1-4).
- The preacher addressing the Hebrews who likely lived in Rome strongly advised that they needed to pay close attention to what they had learned because of the chance of drifting away from it (Hebrews 2:1).
- The Apostle Peter in his letter to believers who he compared to sojourners and exiles on this earth and who were no strangers to persecution advised them to “keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins” (I Peter 4:8).
- James the brother of Jesus said to the church, “You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God?” (4:4) and at the same time said “Do not speak evil against one another, brothers/sisters” (4:11).
- To the church of Sardis, Jesus told them that in spite of their reputation for being alive, they were actually quite dead. He then goes on to give them a formula for their restoration and a threat if it is not obeyed (Revelation 3:1-6).
Teachers promoting error
- After mentioning all of his dear friends at the end of the letter to the Romans, the Apostle Paul warns against false teachers: “For such persons do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the naive” (Romans 16:18).
- The Apostle Paul told Timothy concerning elders who persisted in sin that he should “rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear” (I Timothy 5:20).
- The Apostle Paul told Titus that with respect to teachers moving towards false doctrine that he should “rebuke them sharply that they may be sound in the faith” (Titus 1:13).
- 2 Peter 2 goes at length to describe false teachers and uses the most politically incorrect language of “irrational animals” (v. 12) to describe them.
- Jude describes false teachers as those who had crept in by stealth and “pervert the grace of our God into sensuality and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ” (Jude 4).
In very general words, the most tender and kind words are reserved for those who are weak, wounded and needing great grace, and the harshest words are reserved for those who promote false teaching or are legalistically religious. It is of very little help to try to assert that only a kind tone is appropriate for all situations, just as it would be of very little help to assert that a harsh tone would be appropriate for all situations. Some reproofs must be private, but some are public, largely dependent on the position of the person being challenged.
Even the appeal to “what would Jesus do” is one that must examine all of what Jesus did in his various interactions. The same Jesus could take a cord and drive out the money changers in the temple, weep at the tomb of Lazarus, show an attitude of non-condemnation to the woman caught in adultery, but also warn her to sin no more so that her eternal state would not be placed in jeopardy. He could castigate the church at Thyatira for tolerating a woman named Jezebel, tell the Laodician church that they were neither hot nor cold, challenge the Ephesian church for losing its first love, as well as promising great gifts to the overcomers in all of them.
It appears that Jesus the God-man is our great model, “full of grace and truth” who knew exactly what words to use when, largely dependant on the person(s) in front of him. Let us examine a practical situation to see how all of this might play out.
A Practical Situation:
Person “A” publishes a so-called Gospel tract which has a number of doctrinal errors but they are somewhat cleverly disguised. This tract is put on-line and available in multiple languages.
In response another person “B” publishes a document that reveals the exact nature of these errors, and although respectful, does so without mincing any words as to its insidious nature. This document is placed in the public domain and is available on-line.
The author of the so-called Gospel tract cries foul, and says that the person “B” is not using the conventions of kind words or the “Jesus tone” to address the issue, and should have approached them to discuss the matter in private along the lines of Matthew 18.
- Is this a Matthew 18 issue where one believer sins against another, or is it a case of a false-teacher publicly advocating false doctrine who should be reproved publicly?
- Can you see how invoking the “Jesus tone” or “kind words” can obscure the issue at hand? The issue is the sly propagation of error and yet the false teacher appeals to tone and style more than content, while clearly there is an issue with the content of the material.
- In a day and age of tolerance can you see how easy it would be to take the category of gentle reproof designed for an erring believer and then apply it in all situations? Can you see how this might effectively be a gag order to have any kind of clear exposure of false teaching brought to the light?
- In a day and age where relativism is all the rage, and it is popular for each person to hold their own opinion as their own sacred right, is it not extremely rude to call someone a false teacher? How do the Biblical examples above deal with this?