Confronting One Another - Matthew 18:15-17
|Copyright © 2001, 2002 - All rights retained by author|
|Written by: C. W. Booth|
Do you believe that God hates you when He disciplines you? No one who is familiar in any way with the scriptures will allow that statement to stand for even a moment before protesting with passages such as Revelation 3:19 ("Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline; be zealous therefore, and repent.") or Hebrews 12:4-11.
Why then when another brother or sister in Christ offers to correct our doctrine or a misbehavior of ours do we immediately take offense? If God’s motive is love, why would we assume that His children’s motives would be something less?
Note: The following article is an extract from a larger work entitled: In Fear of Punishment. This extract deals with appropriate brother-to-brother and sister-to-sister confrontation as outlined by Matthew 18 and other scriptures.
God’s Response to the Sins of Christians
"You have not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood in your striving against sin; and you have forgotten the exhortation which is addressed to you as sons, ‘My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor faint when your are reproved by Him; for those whom the Lord loves He disciplines, and He scourges every son whom He receives.’ If is for discipline that you endure; God deals with you as with sons; for what son is there whom his father does not discipline? But if you are without discipline, of which all have become partakers, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Furthermore, we had earthly fathers to discipline us, and we respected them; shall we not much rather be subject to the Father of spirits, and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as seemed best to them, but He disciplines us for our good, that we may share His holiness. All discipline for the moment seems not to be joyful, but sorrowful; yet to those who have been trained by it, afterwards it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness." Hebrews 12:4-11
Hebrews 12 is most fascinating. Even though we are children of God, saved from the fear of eternal punishment, God requires us to be "trained" through discipline during our time on Earth. Is the discipline light? No. The passage says that one may be tempted to "faint" dead-away from the severity of the scourging by the God who is love.
Precisely what method of discipline will God subject us to? It is not for us to choose or to know. Just as our own fathers chose for us the disciplinary method that "seemed best to them", God will do the same. It is rare that the children are permitted to select this for themselves. God selects the discipline that will not only train, but will also protect His glory; even to the point of bringing death to some (1Cor.11:28-34) if necessary.
Why would a God who is love purposely subject us to discipline so violent that it is called "scourging" and may even cause us to faint under the weight of its severity? Verse 11 of Hebrews 12 says that the result of discipline is sorrow. Sorrow can lead to genuine repentance. Repentance leads to the "peaceful fruit of righteousness."
"I now rejoice, not that you were made sorrowful, but that you were made sorrowful to the point of repentance; for you were made sorrowful according to the will of God, in order that you might not suffer loss in anything through us. For the sorrow that is according to the will of God produces a repentance without regret, leading to salvation; but the sorrow of the world produces death." 2Cor.7:9-10
Godly sorrow produces repentance, which leads to salvation. There is another type of sorrow. A sorrow of the world that leads to death. What kind of sorrow is that? It is the sorrow of regret, in other words, "I regret this happened to me. I do not deserve this and I am so upset that this was inflicted on me. In fact, I so regret this injury to me, that I will get my revenge…" The sorrow of the world is injured pride, hurt feelings, regret for getting caught instead of sadness over the error of having committed a sin.
How Does God Discipline His People?
To bring sorrow (and therefore repentance) to His people, God may invoke discipline via the government (Romans 12), through supernatural disaster (Exodus 15:12), by invading armies, or by speaking directly out of the depths of a whirlwind or a raging storm (Job 38:1,40:6). But often, the Lord Who is love, uses His own army on Earth, the church, to bring discipline.
And if your brother sins, go and reprove him in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother. But if he does not listen to you, take one or two more with you, so that by the mouth of two or three witnesses every fact may be confirmed. And 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-gatherer. Matthew 18:15-17
And if your brother sins, go and reprove him in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother. Matthew 18:15
[Some manuscripts include the words "against you" in verse 15; making it read as follows, "And if your brother sins against you, go and reprove him in private." This changes very little with respect to how we must interpret this passage.
Therefore, we should not in any way expect our conduct to be different whether the phrase "against you" is genuine or not. We must confront sinners who have sinned openly enough that we can witness it. To turn the other way and pretend we do not see this sin would be "arrogance" (1Cor.5:1,2). Likewise, we must not "confront" or "discipline" those who merely make use of their liberty to act differently than we act, so long as they do not sin against God. Finally, we must also forgive those who repent, in the same way we have been forgiven by God.]
Matthew 18:15-20 defines the process whereby God’s people discipline each other. Any ordinary member of the church universal, any believer, who witnesses another believer commit a sin, is to approach the sinner and rebuke him privately. If the sinning brother repents, "you have won your brother" and the matter is closed forever.
If the sinning brother refuses to repent, you are commanded to bring one or two additional witnesses and rebuke him again. If he still refuses to repent, you must inform the church and they will have to treat him the same way they would treat any unbeliever. This is not absolute isolation (shunning), it is the process of witnessing to the sinner all over again in the hopes that he may some day repent. The goal is to let him know that he is not acting like a believer and indeed may not be one, so he cannot be numbered among the active congregation as a member.
What is the goal? To see the man repent and return to the church. This entire process is called "church discipline". All of 1Corinthians chapter 5 is dedicated to Paul ordering the church to implement "church discipline", or punishment, on a man who is having sex with "his father’s wife" and who refuses to repent. In 2Corinthians 2:4-11 Paul rejoices in the fact that the punishment worked, the man repents, and Paul encourages the church to accept the repentant sinner back into their membership.
Exposing the sinner to the "fear of punishment" and the "sorrow of discipline" has one primary goal, restoring the person back to fellowship with God and man—repentance.
How Many Times Forgiven?
How often may a believer sin, repent, and still be forgiven without being banished from the church? Just how long-suffering must we be? "Then Peter came and said to Him, ‘Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Up to seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven.’" Matthew 18:21,22
It may be tempting at times to say, "That guy has finally lied one time too many. I have had it! I will never forgive him again!" But God has called us to rebuke the liar and to forgive every time he repents. If we are unwilling to forgive every repentance, God calls into question our very salvation. "But if you do not forgive men, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions." Matthew 6:15.
What Kind of Sins Should be Rebuked?
We are each just one member of the church. Most of us are ordinary in the respect that we do not hold offices as pastors or elders. But the commands to rebuke and reprove are directed at the ordinary believer. We do not necessarily have special training. So by what standard do we determine who has sinned and must be rebuked, and who has not sinned and should not be rebuked?
There is but one standard. One standard of conduct for the entire church. From the beginning of the book of Genesis to the last pages of Revelation God defines a sin as "disobeying a command of God". The standard for when to rebuke someone is: when they break or disobey an actual command written in the pages of the Bible. In Genesis Chapter Three, the first two humans created by God had only one command from God, and they broke it. It was the first time that fear of punishment came upon mankind (Gen.3:10).
Throughout history, false prophets and false teachers have attempted to add false new laws to the Bible, ignore the genuine laws, or deny God’s sovereignty or the need to follow His word. God’s response is constant: "This people honors Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me. But in vain do they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men." Matthew 15:9 Precepts of men are just man’s own traditions. Man’s traditions do not qualify as scriptures. Therefore, you cannot use man’s traditions as the criteria (standard) for deciding whether to rebuke someone. Breaking a man’s tradition is not a sin.
A sin is only a sin when a command of God is violated. A violation of a "precept of men" is not a sin. Matthew 18 commands us only to rebuke sins, genuine violations of God’s law.
When an offender sins (breaks a law of God), then he ought to be rebuked under the guidelines of Matthew 18. Be quite careful to rebuke the offender only for the specific law of God that was violated.
Is There Such a Thing as Sinning Against Man?
Sometimes a person will violate a law of God with regard to one or more people. Some sins are solely against God, such as blasphemy. Other sins violate the laws that God gave to protect men from the crimes of men, such as murder, theft, and adultery. For example, a man may steal a car from another person. The Bible says that the thief has broken the biblical prohibition against stealing from another man. The thief has not only sinned against God and His law, but also transgressed against another man (Romans 13:8-10).
When a man violates a biblical law and by doing so sins against another man, he must repent to God, but he must also repent (apologize and/or make restitution) to the man he sinned against (Numbers 5:6,7). As often as the man repents, the sinned against must accept his apology with forgiveness (Matthew 18:21,22).
What Can I Do About An Insult?
No one will be a Christian for very long before becoming "offended", the recipient of an insult. How should this be handled? Does it have equal standing with a sin against God’s word and can the offender be rebuked? Is causing an insult even a sin at all?
The American Heritage Dictionary lists the definition of the verb "to offend" as: "To create or excite anger, resentment, or annoyance in; hurt the feelings of…to insult". This means that someone has offended you; done something to you that causes feelings of anger, resentment, or hurt feelings. This is the very definition of "suffering an insult."
This can get complicated to sort out, but most of life is indeed complicated. If the individual who has offended you did so by violating a specific law of God (for example by telling a lie about you), he should be rebuked under the Matthew 18 guidelines, but only for telling the lie. The man should then repent to God and apologize to you for telling the lie.
But what about those hurt feelings of anger and resentment? Anger and resentment are the natural emotions associated with almost every affront that a man endures. No one else is ever responsible, biblically, for your emotions, or the actions you take as a result of your emotions. Your actions and your emotions cannot be blamed on others.
The anger, resentment, and feelings of hurt you experience when wronged or offended, are God’s gift to you as natural motivators to take action. No one can force you to feel an emotion. They cannot be pumped into you from the outside. All the stimuli must be filtered through your own eyes, ears, and brain. Emotions well up inside the person as a natural response to what is happening outside. God is shown in the Bible to have experienced the emotions of anger/wrath, peace, love, joy, sadness, sorrow, jealousy, rage, etc… We are made in His image, and our emotions are made in His image.
The emotion of fear jolts the body into absolute alertness in preparation to locate and identify the danger. The emotion of joy prepares the body to sing, laugh, and yell—to express the joy physically. The emotion of anger prepares the body for quick and often decisive physical action (such as overturning the tables of illicit moneychangers or engaging in combat). Emotions are personal and internal, ready to assist the body to take the appropriate godly actions.
As with almost every aspect of human life, God calls on us not just to use our emotions, but to control them as well. For example, we are not to be men with lifestyles of anger nor quick to become hot tempered, however we are permitted to "be angry without sinning". We are also not to become creatures who live in fear of men, but rather fearing God alone, although, short term fear such as that which Christ experienced when He sweated blood is acceptable. (Luke 22:44 uses the word "agony", agonia in the Greek, which literally means "great fear"; fear probably induced from anticipation of having to be punished for the sins of the world while the Father momentarily must "forsake" the Son.) Momentary fear, like momentary anger, is acceptable, so long as we do not continue in it and sin as a result of it. Experiencing a brief emotion is not a sin.
It will happen sooner or later that someone will insult you (most often unintentionally) by some off-hand word or some deed done in innocence that negatively impacts you. The result is a feeling of being insulted: hurt feelings, anger, resentment. The result of an insult is that you feel emotions which upset you; anger, resentment, hurt feelings, sorrow.
When insulted, the Bible gives us this remedy, "To sum up, let all be harmonious, sympathetic, brotherly, kind hearted, and humble in spirit; not returning evil for evil, or insult for insult, but giving a blessing instead; for you were called for the very purpose that you might inherit a blessing." 1Peter 3:8,9 In other words, ignore the insult and the feelings of hurt and communicate back a blessing instead. A genuine blessing, not sarcasm.
We are also instructed to "turn the other cheek" when someone insults us with a slap across the face (Matthew 5:39). Insults are to be forgiven and forgotten without comment (Proverbs 10:12, 17:9, 1Peter 4:8), covered in love and put away. Even 1 Corinthians 13:5 says that a loving individual will not hold a grudge against someone who offends (inflicts a wrong) or insults them. Insults are to be ignored by the offended party and then the insulted party is to bless the offender.
Some may ask, "But what about my hurt feelings? Can I not ask the offender to repent or at least apologize under Matthew 18 guidelines?" No, there was no violation of any biblical law or command. Confrontation for sin is reserved for violations of God’s laws, not for violations of the "precepts of men". Unintentional insults and hurt feelings are easily forgiven under the law of love, and forgotten.
Can I Share My Hurt Feelings?
Is it a "sin" for me if I do tell someone else my feelings were "hurt" by their words or actions? Let us assume that your "hurt feelings" are not due to someone else committing a genuine sin, and that your reaction is just due to an innocent comment or decision the other person made. Should you tell that person that "they hurt you?" First keep in mind that they did not actually "hurt you". You feel emotionally bad, but they did not compel you to feel that way. Your response to them is how you decided to feel based on your past experiences, present emotional state, and current spiritual condition.
So, is it a "sin" for me if I tell someone else my feelings were "hurt" by their words or actions? This can only be answered by examining your own motives. Why do you want that person to know? What reason do you have for telling them? Ephesians 4:29 tells us only to use speech that brings edification to the hearer. Is it your intention to somehow encourage that person to excel in Christ? Or is your motivation to get rid of your unhappy emotions of "hurt", "anger", and "sorrow" by dumping on the other person so they feel bad too? Is this motivation "loving", "encouraging", "pure", or being "kind"? Just dumping your emotions on others to make yourself "feel better" is merely selfish and is itself insulting to the hearer.
The next question to ask yourself before you expose your "hurt feelings" to the one you perceive as having initiated the hurt is, "What do I want that person to do when they find out?" Do you want them to just feel bad? Do you want them to repent? Do you want a personal apology? Do you want them to feel indebted to you? Do you want them to fight back? Whatever response you are attempting to invoke, you must ensure it is the one that God endorses in His word: repentance of sin against God and encouragement to serve Him better.
An example may help: A woman gets her hair cut and styled. Filled with anticipation about the comments she will receive, she casually stops by her friend’s home. Her friend does not appear to notice and does not comment on the new hair style. The woman is insulted and finally blurts out, "Didn’t you notice my new hair cut?" The friend is caught in a trap. She does not like the new hair cut, but did not want to tell her friend because she knew it would be "insulting". But now, the friend is forced to either tell the truth and insult the woman all over again, or to lie and offend God.
The woman with the haircut was selfishly fishing for compliments. When she did not get any, she was "insulted". Next she asked, "Didn’t you notice my new hair cut?" Why did she ask? Because she wanted the other woman to know she was already insulted and to force her friend to respond (hopefully with an apology and a compliment, "Oh, I am sorry dear, I did not notice…it looks great!") By forcing the friend to respond, she was only furthering her own selfish goals and was not thinking about the implications and complications her friend was being forced into. In no way is this confrontation going to be edifying for the poor trapped friend.
If you are genuinely motivated by serving others and being encouraging to your brothers and sisters in Christ, you must most often respond to "hurt feelings" and "insults" in the only manner I have found that the scriptures command: "turn the other cheek" (Matthew 5:39).
"A man’s discretion makes him slow to anger, and it is his glory to overlook a transgression." (Proverbs 19:11)
"Hatred stirs up strife, but love covers all transgressions." (Prov.10:12)
"He who covers a transgression seeks love, but he who repeats a matter separates intimate friends." (Prov.17:9)
"Above all, keep fervent in your love for one another, because love covers a multitude of sins." (1Peter 4:8)
"[Love] does not act unbecomingly; it does not seek its own, is not provoked, does not take into account a wrong suffered," (1Cor.13:5)
"not returning evil for evil, or insult for insult" (1Peter 3:9a)
"A prudent man conceals knowledge" (Proverbs 12:23a)
Nowhere have I yet found in scripture even a single example or command where a man is required to apologize for insulting another; only when the "insult" is first an actual sin against God is an apology required. For example, Jesus is told that the Pharisees were insulted by His teaching (Matthew 15:12), but instead of apologizing He insults them again by calling them "blind guides of the blind". In Luke 11:45 Jesus is told by a lawyer, "Teacher…you insult us" and He responds not with an apology but with the words, "Woe to you lawyers as well."
To the one who feels inspired to compel someone else to apologize for an insult, first they must find the command of Christ that endorses such behavior. If they cannot find such a command, let them instead "cover the transgression in love". Compelling others to apologize for the "feelings" in our own hearts is a dangerous road to walk. Why do we feel these feelings? Are our own hearts not filled with wickedness already? Why do we feel the hurt has to be blamed on someone else…maybe the "hurt" is a result of our own wicked heart. "He who trusts in his own heart is a fool, but he who walks wisely will be delivered." (Proverbs 28:26)
Could it be that you feel others will benefit from knowing how "hurt" you are, even though they are innocent of an actual sin? Have you considered how such a revelation may impact them? "A fool does not delight in understanding, but only in revealing his own mind." (Proverbs 18:2) "When there are many words, transgression is unavoidable, but he who restrains his lips is wise." (Proverbs 10:19)
Is it lawful to tell the other person about your "feelings of hurt"? If your motives are pure and selfless; if you are not seeking an apology because you have already forgiven the affront; and if your goal is to build, encourage, and edify the other person, it may be "lawful". But is sharing your "feelings of hurt" a biblically suggested approach? Bear in mind, the scriptures advocate that the wise person will simply "cover the matter in love"—to place it safely out of sight.
You may well wonder how you can live with all this "hurt" and "anger" inside. The answer is, you do not and cannot live with the anger, you turn it away (Proverbs 29:8). Anger is just an emotion, it only endures if it is fed. You put it away by the process of love and forgiveness, "bearing with one another, and forgiving each other, whoever has a complaint against anyone; just as the Lord forgave you, so also should you." Cols. 3:13 Forgiveness, will remove the hurt and anger. Say to yourself, "I forgive that insult". Take the insult off your mental "book of accounting" (1Cor.13:5). That debt is now paid.
Confrontation for sin is reserved for violations of God’s laws, not for violations of the "precepts of men". Unintentional insults and hurt feelings are to be forgiven under the law of love, and forgotten. Proverbs 14:30 "A tranquil heart is life to the body, but passion is rottenness to the bones." "A man’s discretion makes him slow to anger, and it is his glory to overlook a transgression." (Proverbs 19:11)
Why Are Insults Exempted from Matthew 18 Discipline?
The primary reason that insults are exempted from Matthew 18 discipline may be that insults are not always sins. The offender did not have to violate any law of God to cause an offense. Let us use a story as an example: I am throwing a formal party. I forget to invite a good friend who is also my neighbor. The friend becomes offended and insulted; she feels hurt, anger, sorrow, and resentment. The insulted friend chooses not to ignore the absent-minded insult, nor does she forgive, nor does she bless the offender, but rather decides on a hasty course of action. She runs across the lawn shouting and screaming about how I have hurt her and how awful must be my heart to have not invited her. This begins a long-lasting quarrel and a feud erupts, even splitting the neighborhood into competing factions.
Instead of the above outcome, what if the offended friend says to herself, "He did not invite me! Boy am I hurt! But, he is my friend. I don’t know why he would do something like that, but I will forgive him. In fact, I will go over and tell him how much his friendship means to me." Upon seeing the friend, I ask, "are you ready for the party?" My friend replies, "well, I never actually got an invitation." How embarrassed I am, how apologetic, how certain I am that she gets the best seat at the table!
The offense in the above example was a lapse of memory. An innocent mistake of a fallible human mind. There was no sin (nor any evil intent, not that anyone could ever know the true intent of another—intent can only be guessed at, which usually does more harm than good) and there can be no rebuke. This insult must be covered in love and forgotten.
Another reason that insults are to be suffered in silence and forgiven is that no sin against God’s law has been experienced. If I have certain rules of conduct that I live by, which are nowhere imposed by God onto other people as a requirement for them to live by, then it is my own personal tradition. In this example, let us say the tradition is hugging my family goodnight. Everyone hugs, sons, daughters, mothers, and fathers. A visiting house guest has an aversion to being touched, so he politely steps out of the room during the goodnight hug. This violation of a personal tradition could easily be taken as an insult. Whether intentional or not, the visitor has broken your traditions. However, breaking man-made (personal) traditions is not a sin. No rebuke may be made, and no apology may be forced. Forgive the offense in your heart, and let it go.
Imagine for a moment that not only did you hold everyone you met accountable to honor all your personal traditions, but all your friends held you and each other accountable to remember and abide by each of their traditions? Or worse, what if everyone you met, every stranger, expected you to know and honor their personal traditions, and if you did not honor their traditions because of lack of knowledge, mistake, or purposeful intent, the strangers were allowed to bring you up on charges of sin? The resulting chaos would either end in outright warfare; or, no one would ever communicate with anyone ever again, except under extreme necessity, and always grudgingly. The world would be in a perpetual state of insult.
It is true and certain that not all insults are done in innocence. However, no-one can read the heart or intentions of the one giving the insult. How do you know, really know, what the offender intended when he did what he did? You cannot know unless he tells you, "For who among men knows the thoughts of a man except the spirit of the man, which is in him?" 1Cor.2:11. If he does not tell you why he did what he did, you cannot accuse and rebuke him of sinful intent on the basis of assumptions or hurt feelings. Only when you see an actual sin (such as lying) may you confront and rebuke under Matthew 18.
If it is not a sinful action (and speaking is an action) as defined in the Bible, but it insulted you, forgive it, make no account of it, and move on with serving God. Or, maybe you suspect this was a genuine intentional and malicious insult, and it hurt; then accept the resulting anger, control the amount and duration of your anger, do not sin, and forgive the offender if there is no obvious sin present. Do not seek revenge or vengeance. God does that in His own timing if it suits His plan.
How Long Can I Hold a Grudge?
Families and close friends often, if not inevitably, find themselves in a mutual conflict—warring with each other over some perceived wrong which could be major or minor. Sadly, the Bible tells us that brotherly quarreling and conflicts come not from Satan, but from our own self-centered minds: "What is the source of quarrels and conflicts among you? Is not the source your pleasures that wage war in your members?" James 4:1
These quarrels if not resolved by day’s end will result in grudge matches. This leads to bitterness. If you ever find yourself in a grudge match, consider the words of Matthew 5:23,24: "If therefore you are presenting your offering at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your offering there before the altar, and go your way; first be reconciled with your brother, and then come and present your offering."
How to reconcile of course depends on the manner of the offense. If the brother has sinned, rebuke him. If you have sinned, repent and apologize. The goal in the end is forgiveness.
How Can I Apologize?
Assuming a man commits a biblical sin, let us say lying to his neighbor, he has committed two sins, breaking the ninth commandment and sinning against his brother (Lev.6:2-7). Without getting too excited about semantics, an apology is virtually the same as repentance which is also the same as "confess your sins". American Heritage defines an apology as: "A statement of acknowledgment expressing regret or asking pardon for a fault or offense."
When you sin against God, the Bible requires you to repent and confess your sins to Him, "If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness." 1John 1:10
If at the same time he sins against God a man also sins against some other man, he is obligated to apologize or repent to the man he has wronged, "And if he sins against you seven times a day, and returns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent’, forgive him." Luke 17:4. Again, it should be noted that the sinner needs to apologize very specifically each time he returns for the given sin of the moment. Similarly, the sinned-against person should "forgive" the man verbally and specifically.
Can I Yell Now?
When you observe your brother commit a sin, you seek to rebuke him privately in accordance with the Matthew 18 guidelines so that he will repent. What manner of words, voice, and volume should you use? Should you shout, or should you whisper; should you first praise them and then indict, or should you cry, or maybe just frown a lot?
On this Matthew 18 is silent. God leaves it up to us to apply all the other passages in His holy word to define the appropriate words, voice, facial expression, and tone that are appropriate to the individual and the circumstances of the moment.
All we really have is the goal—bring the man to the point of repentance:
"I now rejoice, not that you were made sorrowful, but that you were made sorrowful to the point of repentance; for you were made sorrowful according to the will of God, in order that you might not suffer loss in anything through us. For the sorrow that is according to the will of God produces a repentance without regret, leading to salvation; but the sorrow of the world produces death." 2Cor.7:9-10
We do have guidance in abundance on the techniques we might employ to the benefit of the brother we are trying to restore:
Ephs. 4:26 Be angry
Ephs. 4:29 Use no unwholesome words
2Tim.1:7 Do not be timid
1Peter 5:5 Be humble
Acts 4:31 Be bold
Ephs. 4:15 Speak the truth in love
1Thes.5:14 Admonish the unruly
Romans 12:15 Weep with those who weep
Proverbs 16:23 Be persuasive
James 3:14 Do not be arrogant
Colossians 3:9 Be honest, do not lie
Luke 6:42 Be innocent of that same sin
1Thes.5:11 Be encouraging
Isaiah 5:20 Do not call good evil or evil good
2Peter 3:9 Be patient
With all these choices, are there some approaches that are simply wrong? Yes, any word or phrase that would be a sin under normal circumstances is also a sin when you are correcting a sinner. But what emotions are right or wrong? How soft or loud should I speak? Is all angry communication evil and unloving? Asked another way, is all yelling (especially angry yelling) a sin?
This can be answered with straightforward renderings of God’s word, assuming we are willing to believe every passage is indeed God’s word and equal with all other scripture. It can also be answered with the use of Greek dictionaries and a little work.
Many find the following verse uncomfortable: , "Be angry and yet do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger," Ephs.4:26. However, we are under a rather strong standing-order not to "take away from" Gods inspired words, so we must accept that short, controlled, feelings of anger are acceptable in God’s sight.
But does this permission to "be angry" contradict what appears to be a complete prohibition on anger in Galatians 5?
"Now the deeds of the flesh are evident, which are: immorality, impurity, sensuality…jealousy, outbursts of anger…those who practice such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God." Gals. 5:19,20,21
I have heard it said (wrongly) about this passage that every time someone speaks or yells in an angry voice it is the Galatians 5:20 "outburst of anger" and that the person who raises his voice is sinning and may even be going to hell (shall not inherit the kingdom). Sadly, this improper interpretation is based on an inadequate English translation.
Much of the New Testament is translated from ancient Greek manuscripts. There are many different Greek words for different types of anger. The Galatians 5 "outbursts of anger" is an unusual word. The ancient Greek word for "outburst of anger" is thumos, from the root word thuo—to kill, butcher, or sacrifice a life. A more complete and proper translation of thumos is "rage of a murderer", "wrath resulting in death", or, "angry enough to kill"—literally. There are many words for anger in the Greek New Testament, but thumos is a very special word for anger, and only used sparingly. It is restricted in use to when actual death and slaughter resulted from this extreme rage or where murder was intended due to mob rage.
Let us explore some examples of how this specialized word is used to describe a person who has become ready, able, and intent to kill another human due to being full of wrath and rage. This word is used of Herod when he flew into a rage and ordered the slaughter of all the infants in Bethlehem (Matthew 2:16). This word is also used to describe desperate and bitter combat between two warring nations. It is used in reference to the mob that attempted to kill Jesus by throwing Him from a cliff (Luke 4:28,29). It is most frequently used to refer to God being so angry at the sin of unrepentant men that He damns them to hell (Rev.14:10).
Galatians 5:20 is about a person who is so consumed and in the control of rage that his intention is to murder somebody, thumos. Thumos does not refer to the normal emotion of becoming angry. Anger itself is not a sin, "Be angry and yet do not sin…". There are numerous passages where Jesus appears to angrily confront the Pharisees by calling them names, or where Paul confronts the Galatians with passionate, if not angry, appeals (Gals.3:1-3). Paul calls his own words "terrifying", "weighty", and "strong" (2Cor.10:9,10). Even John the Baptist was prophesied as "one crying in the wilderness" (crying—literally, "calling out loudly, shouting"). Is it possible that John was shouting to the Pharisees, "You brood of vipers…" (Matthew 3:7, Luke 3:7)?
Matthew Henry, the great Bible commentator from the 1700s writes on anger:
"Observe, Though anger in itself is not sinful, yet there is the upmost danger of its becoming so if it be not carefully watched and speedily suppressed. And therefore, though anger may come into the bosom of a wise man, it rests only in the bosom of fools." … "Anger is a natural passion; there are cases in which it is lawful and laudable; but it is then sinful, when we are angry without cause. The word is eike, which signifies, sine causâ, sine effectu, et sine modo--without cause, without any good effect, without moderation; so that the anger is then sinful, (1.) When it is without any just provocation given; either for no cause, or no good cause, or no great and proportionable cause; when we are angry at children or servants for that which could not be helped, which was only a piece of forgetfulness or mistake, that we ourselves might easily have been guilty of, and for which we should not have been angry at ourselves; when we are angry upon groundless surmises, or for trivial affronts not worth speaking of. (2.) When it is without any good end aimed at…to let people know our resentments, then it is in vain, it is to do hurt; whereas if we are at any time angry, it should be to awaken the offender to repentance, and prevent his doing so again… (3.) When it exceeds due bounds; …violent and vehement, outrageous and mischievous, and when we seek the hurt of those we are displeased at… would kill if he could…he is a murderer in the account of God, who knows his heart, whence murder proceeds".
John MacArthur, contemporary preacher, writes concerning anger and angry speech:
"We know from other Scripture, and from Jesus’ own life, that He does not prohibit every form of anger. It was in righteous anger that He cleansed the Temple of those who defiled it (John 2:14-17; Matt.21:12-13). Paul tells us to "be angry, and yet do not sin" (Eph.4:26). Although the principle is often abused and misapplied it is possible to have righteous anger. Faithfulness to Christ will sometimes demand it.
In our day of peace and harmony at any cost, of positive thinking, and of confusing godly love with human sentimentality, we often need to show more anger against certain things. There are things in our country…and even our churches about which we have no excuse for not being angry, vocally angry."
Anger is not always a sin, it is an emotion given to us to motivate us to action; and shouting as a result is not always a sin either. The Galatians 5:20 use of thumos, "outburst of anger" has nothing to do with verbal communications, vocal outbursts, talking, calling out loud, or shouting, and it cannot be interpreted as merely "yelling in anger". Thumos is a felonious rage that leads to murder, which is why it is a mortal sin. As the scriptures state, make certain that you control your anger by keeping it brief, "do not let the sun go down on your anger".
It is of great importance that a person be very slow to, and cautious about, leveling an accusation at another Christian of being guilty of violating Galatians 5:20. To do so means that you have eyewitness evidence that the accused man has attempted to kill someone out of blind rage. Attempted murder is a crime against God, man, and the government. This is a rare and dangerous charge, not to be thrown about lightly and not to be invoked without absolute certainty of guilt.
To sum up, you must assume the responsibility to select the words, the tone of voice (Gals.4:20), and even the volume of your voice when initiating a Matthew 18 confrontation. Use wisdom, fear, and humility when choosing. Your goal is to cause the sinner to genuinely see his sin against God (and also man if it applies) and then to repent. But far more important than superficial aspects such as tone and volume of voice is the content of your speech; keep your words precisely accurate, no exaggerations or hyperbole; be absolutely honest; ensure accurate use of scripture; and avoid at all times imposing a "precept of men" (personal opinions which are not violations of specific biblical commands).
What Does "Speak the Truth in Love" Mean?
We have already examined how a person is permitted to be stirred to anger for a short time without sinning. We have also seen that Jesus, John the Baptist, and Paul used very strong words (such as "you vipers") and strong actions (such as making a whip and running off the vendors’ livestock) and at times employed loud voices (shouting in the wilderness). In addition 2Timothy 1:7 says, "For God has not given us a spirit of timidity, but of power and love and discipline."
How can these behaviors be reconciled with passages such as:
"As a result, we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves, and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming; but speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him, who is the head, even Christ," Ephs.4:14,15
"But refuse foolish and ignorant speculations, knowing that they produce quarrels. And the Lord’s bondservant must not be quarrelsome, but be kind to all, able to teach, patient when wronged, with gentleness correcting those who are in opposition, if perhaps God may grant them repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth," 2Timothy 2:23-25
In truth, I do not believe there is a conflict between passages that requires resolution. I believe the true problem is in our human desire to impose our own private and personal interpretations on words such as "kind" and "gentle". For example, in Ephs.4:15 we are told to speak "the truth in love (agape)". The truth is God’s truth, which can be a harsh truth (even very harsh) at times. Even though it can be a very harsh truth, it is still kind (gentle).
The love we are to show is agape love, fellowship love in Christ. Vine’s states it this way in part, "Christian love has God for its primary object, and expresses itself first of all in implicit obedience to His commandments. … Self-will … self-pleasing is the negation of love to God. Christian love, whether exercised toward the brethren, or toward men generally, is not an impulse from the feelings, it does not always run with the natural inclinations, nor does it spend itself only upon those for whom some affinity is discovered. Love seeks the welfare of all…works no ill to any".
At no time does love become an excuse to stop obeying Christ’s commandments. Love IS obeying Christ. As Vine’s points out, love is not a feeling or emotion, it is a set of actions. Actions which sometimes violate our "natural inclinations". But ultimately, love seeks to bring all men to obedience in Christ through the scriptures. This may take on many approaches, methods, and individual styles.
In much the same way as love works, so does kindness (which also means gentle). Being kind is a relative term which has no specific criteria. When does speech become unkind? When is action not gentle? All our communications are to be used to encourage, rebuke, build-up, refute wrong doctrines, and in general to be employed to further the gospel. Withholding a rebuke from a sinner due to your own self-embarrassment is not a kindness, quite the opposite. But, to outside observers, some might call the decision not to issue a rebuke a kindness while others might find it appalling that a sinner was left uncorrected. But no one really knows if the act was out of genuine kindness, disobedience, or ignorance of God’s word because no one knows the heart and intent of a man.
It is literally impossible for someone to judge whether another’s actions or words are "unkind". This criteria is simply not defined in specific terms we can use to objectively measure another against. When a female wolf gives birth to pups, the pups experiment and test all their abilities—including their teeth. When they bite mom, she quickly turns around and bites the young pup in return; the pup yelps in pain and learns a lesson. Was the mother wolf being kind and gentle? If your criteria is that no mothers should ever inflict pain on their offspring then you feel this mother was unkind and not gentle. On the other hand, the mother knows how hard to bite to avoid inflicting life-threatening injury and she also knows that a pup that does not learn appropriate social behavior in a pack will soon die. The mother was being gentle and kind from this perspective: gentle—she could have killed the pup easily with one crushing move of her jaws, but she did not; kind—she taught the pup a lesson that will save his very life.
Should anyone ever pose the counter-argument that using harsh and painful methods (while also pursuing the truth in kindness, love, mercy and patience) is only the domain for God to impose on men (and only for wolves to impose on their pups) then some scriptural references and paraphrases may help establish what "kindness" and "gentleness" can mean:
How gentle is gentle? How kind is kind? Who is the judge of gentle and kind? It often comes down to motives. Is God gentle and kind? Does He discipline us; is it painful? Just because an action taken by someone else feels painful, that is not proof that it was unkind or not gentle.
With all such verses on love, kindness, tenderness, gentleness, one must constantly ask, "Who is the judge?" God certainly is because He can see the heart of man. A man can certainly judge his own actions because he knows his own motives and heart (though often even he can deceive himself). But no-one is able to judge the motives and heart of anyone else. What is harsh and unkind sounding to one man may be the sweet loving sound of salvation wrapped-up in the thunder of a hell-fire and brimstone message calling men to repentance.
Fear of punishment is a God-given emotion to prompt men to take the action of repentance. Matthew 18 confrontations and "church discipline" are just two methods God has ordained to encourage His church to act as it should and to help redirect it when it strays off-course.
Confronting and rebuking someone for acting sinfully places an enormous burden on the Christian that is not revocable or transferable. However, God does give us a great deal of liberty in how we approach and discharge this responsibility.
As we attempt to prove obedient to this awesome obligation, we will decidedly injure the feelings of others and suffer our own insults. Insults are often not sins and over and over in the scriptures we are commanded to forgive the one who hurts our feelings and forget the insult without a Matthew 18 confrontation.
Finally, all confrontations must be on the basis that someone has violated an actual command from the word of God. If we begin judging anyone on the basis of our own preferences and our own standards of "righteousness", we ourselves stand to be judged by God as sinners. We are not permitted to tell others how to act or to judge their hearts. "Who are you to judge the servant of another? To his own master he stands or falls; and stand he will, for the Lord is able to make him stand." Romans 14:4
May God grant us the mercy, strength, and boldness to accomplish His commission without stumbling or fainting.