Is Private Contact Required Before Publicly Rebuking Public Sin?
One common claim is that any disagreement between Christian brothers should always be handled in private. It is said that every disagreement, argument, rebuke, reproof, or correction should only be made public when one has already contacted them privately and they did not listen. This is often based upon a misinterpretation of Matthew 18, and is actually scripturally unfounded.
This practice of not making a disagreement with a fellow Christian public is one that is not consistent with the actions of the Apostles, particularly Paul. In Galatians 2, Paul tells the Church in Galatia about his dispute with Peter. Peter had been very tolerant of a sub-Christian sect known as the “Circumcision Party” (More commonly known as “Judaizers”, these people added Circumcision to Salvation), and this tolerance led Peter to pull away from gentile Christians in order to please these Judaizers. Peter’s acceptance of these false teachers and promoters of heresy led many others to also pull away from the non-Jewish believers, including the missionary Barnabas. Galatians 2:11-14 (ESV) said,
“But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For before certain men came from James, he was eating with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party. And the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. But when I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, ‘If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?'”
This disagreement was surely public. In fact, Paul said it “before them all”. Right in front of Barnabas, the Jews, the Circumcision Party, and probably the gentile believers. Nothing was first said in private. It was a clear, public rebuke. This was likely done so that all of those who saw Peter’s actions and thought that it would be permissible for them to act accordingly would also stand corrected. Not only did Paul publicly rebuke Peter in that moment, but even afterwards Paul recorded it in an epistle that he sent to the Church in Galatia (A Church that had been plagued by this false movement), which was intended to be passed around to different Churches and was inspired by the Holy Spirit to be a part of the Biblical canon for all believers everywhere to read. As far as disagreements go, this was one of the least private disputes in history, and yet it was a dispute between two fellow Christian teachers.
Is there a contradiction, then, between Matthew 18 and Galatians 2? Or did Paul sin and violate Jesus’s words in Matthew 18? Certainly not. The passage in question was written in reference to the Local Church, as evidenced by verse 17. This is not a universal command for all disputes between believers in all contexts. Therefore, this does not apply to public sins committed by Christians or false professors outside your local body.
If we are to imitate Paul as he imitates Christ (1 Corinthians 11:1), then we should handle a public sin committed by a teacher outside your body in a public manner. This is to be done so that those who look to their actions and think that they are acceptable will see the error and not follow in their footsteps. Certainly, it would not hurt to contact them privately, but it is not mandated by Scripture nor was it put into practice by the Apostle Paul.
[Contributed by Brandon C. Hines]
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