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Reproof and correction

14 March, 2013 Julian Harydman

A part of the preacher’s task is remedial: to correct misunderstanding; to reprove deviant behaviour and to challenge rebellious attitudes.

It is worth pondering the difficulties of these activities. Some of us are fearful of confrontation. For us it will be hard, either in person or from the pulpit. We prefer to encourage and empower. We have to work at overcoming our natural reticence. Realising the responsibility God has given us, we must work out what remedial words are needed – and deliver them.  To shy away from the correction of ideas or habits which deviate from biblical norms is a serious dereliction of duty, for which we are accountable.

We must ask where our discomfort comes from. It is clearly not from Christlikeness, because Jesus Himself corrected all sorts of people on an almost hourly basis. Likewise Paul wrote remedial letter after remedial letter.

There are two main underlying problems. The first is fear. A fear that people will reject us if we correct them; that correction will result in rejection. This feeling sits deep in many hearts. It has some benefits. It enables preachers to build apparently good relationships and superficially warm church communities. However, it cripples real Gospel work and prevents true Gospel depth.

The answer is in the Gospel itself, which is God’s own corrective remedial message, unveiling to us a pattern of personal failure far more serious than we imagine even in our most difficult moments of self-incriminating angst. And with it a promise of superabundant grace beyond our most optimistic ‘hope-sos’. The Gospel overcomes not just our law-breaking, but also our fear: in Christ we find an acceptance and security which enable us to risk the rejection of others – because God has said He will never now reject us.

The second source of discomfort with the prospect of correcting others is more subtle. It requires some soul-searching: some of us find it very hard to correct others for faults we see in ourselves. We don’t want to be hypocrites so we go easy on the same faults in others – as easy as we are on ourselves. This sounds like a position of integrity, but is actually intolerable and there is only one answer: the Gospel. Repentance, forgiveness and a moving forward on a better path.

Others of us are more naturally at ease with confrontation. For us there is a different danger. We may adopt it as our normal posture towards the congregation. Even if it is based on the reality of their lives and the norms of the Biblical text, that will lead to a serious imbalance. Encouragement and comfort are equally part of the minister’s brief.

We need to check this by quantifying the weight and quantity of each in our preaching. How has my preaching been imbalanced recently? Which way am I leaning? Have I said very much at all to comfort or encourage the congregation recently, or have they seen little more than a wagging finger for the last two months? When I preached through Jeremiah I became acutely aware of this possibility and did my best to remedy it by picking up whatever scent there was of Gospel hope in those early chapters and ensuring it was aired.

Then there is the vital question of tone. When we correct, do we sound as if we are scolding?  Is there a chiding, nagging harshness about us? Too often preachers are blind to their ‘ethos’, to how they sound. A tone which reminds people of a nagging parent is unlikely to build them up. In our cultural moment, the stentorian firmness of a few decades ago grates and jars like a flat note. Those of us nurtured in pulpiteering traditions must assess our shouting, harshness, and shrillness. Denunciation must be done delicately (if at all!) or it will not be heard. Even if believers nurtured in those traditions congratulate us, that does not mean that other folk, especially non-Christians, will find it easy to hear a message about Jesus through our dated-sounding posturing and pounding. There may well be habits of pulpit speech which need re-examining and adjusting if we are to be effective.

However it was right for the tone of Jeremiah’s prophecies to be communicated to the congregation. If a passage is encouraging then we should encourage; if it challenges, so should we. The difficulty is that we tend to adapt the passage to our mood rather than the other way round!

That provokes a further question: what does that scolding voice reveal about our attitudes to the congregation? It is normal for pastors to become frustrated with their congregations. We want quick results and compliant responses to our sermons: their lives are more complicated than that. God’s timescale for His work in their hearts is different to ours. There is a mystery about the ‘proper time’ when the harvest will be reaped and it is rarely as soon as we would like it (Galatians 6:9).

The natural human response to this is frustration. Why don’t more people come to the prayer meeting? Why don’t they invite their friends to guest services? Often this boils over into anger. Untreated anger freezes into bitterness. For so many pastors, their love for their congregations is mixed with frustration, anger and bitterness.

If those negative emotions and attitudes are in our hearts, it is impossible for us keep them there. They will show in our preaching. One way or another they will reveal themselves. Sensitive folk will pick up the dog whistle sound of our anger more quickly than others, but eventually it will be plain to all: perhaps in an unscripted aside – a Freudian slip; perhaps as we find ourselves speaking far more harshly than we had intended in a part of a sermon where we were trying to issue a gentle challenge about giving (and aware of the deacon who has a new kitchen and the house group leader whose family are going skiing when the church say they can’t afford to repaint the manse bathroom or church toilets).  To our surprise there will be moments of shrillness in sermons and our announcement of even the notices may sound edgy. We cannot hide our true feelings for long.

What is the answer to this? It is in the Gospel: in the great promise of forgiveness and the gift of the Holy Spirit. That means asking ourselves uncomfortable questions: why is it so important to me that people do what I say, whether in my sermons or in other ways? What idols are lurking behind my desire for influence and control? Why do I find myself losing heart so quickly when my preaching seems to make little difference? Do I really believe that, in God’s economy, sowing Gospel seeds produces Gospel results eventually (Galatians 6: 7-8). Why am I so determined that my church must grow at a certain measured and visible rate? Is it all about Christ or is it partly about me and my desire to feel good about myself through my own successes, to build a little empire that is at least the equal of my friends’ little empires?

It means seeing others as loved by God, and His works-in-progess; seeing them from His point of view with tenderness and understanding. They are His children, not our tools. Too often pastors want to bask in the reflected glory of their people, like parents who find kudos in their children’s brilliant careers. We must renounce such parasitical attitudes and allow the Spirit to generate much better ones.

It lies in our ministering God’s grace in a grace-driven, grace-shaped, grace-promoting, grace-illustrating, grace-experiencing way. It means understanding our hearts and ministering out of our own brokenness with confidence in our justification and adoption. It means keeping in step with the Holy Spirit of God whose work is to free us from fear, and enable us to grow in patience, love and hope towards others.

Rebuke and correction, from a pastor who knows himself and loves his people, sound very different and are deeply effective. We need more of them!

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