Reprove, Rebuke, Exhort
Pastors who want to lead biblically find themselves caught in a bit of a paradox. One side of the paradox is that biblical pastors must be gentle. As servants of the Lord, they must not strive: they must not be verbal pugilists or quarrelsome individuals (2 Tim. 2:24). They can be disqualified from office if they are self-willed, quick-tempered, or bullies (1 Tim. 3:3; Ti. 1:7). They must offer instruction with meekness or gentleness (2 Tim. 2:25). They must display temperance or self-control (Ti. 1:8). They are to be tolerant and peaceable (1 Tim. 3:3). Biblical wisdom directs them to remain not only pure, but also peaceable, gentle, and willing to yield (Jas. 3:17).
The apostle Paul illustrated this attitude of gentleness with a startling image. He compared his own pastoral conduct to that of a mother with a nursing child at her breast. Just as the mother tenderly cherishes her own child, Paul was gentle with the believers under his care (1 Thess. 2:7-8).
Like every analogy, however, this illustration has its limitations. One is that church members rarely conduct themselves as nursing children. They often choose the more bumptious role of rowdy adolescents. They are no longer infants, but they are not yet mature. Because they lack maturity they sometimes make choices that place them in spiritual peril. They may be drawn to false beliefs or destructive patterns of conduct. Consequently, pastoral ministry must add another dimension to gentleness.
That dimension is grounded in the nature of Scripture. The pastor’s authority consists in his example and in his handling of Scripture. If he is to exercise his authority rightly, he must preach and teach the Bible so that it fulfills the functions that it is intended to perform. Those functions are named in 1 Timothy 3:16-17. All Scripture is profitable for teaching, reproof, correction, and child-training in righteousness. In other words, the Bible does more than to provide theological information. It also shows God’s people where they are wrong, how to be right, and how to grow and progress in sanctification. The preaching and teaching of a faithful pastor must reflect all of these emphases.
Pastoral teaching is not primarily about providing information. It is not primarily a matter of getting people to understand the facts of Scripture accurately, for faith is more than knowledge and assent (Jas. 2:18-19). Pastoral teaching must involve the application of the text of Scripture to the realities of life. When Christians live disorderly lives, they need Scriptural reproof and correction. If they are to grow in sanctification, they need Scriptural child-training in righteousness. The ministry of the Word—pastoral teaching and preaching—must implement these dimensions of Scripture.
Teaching is an ongoing aspect of a pastor’s life. Pastors should be teaching all of the time, not only in the public meetings of the church, but by their examples, in their private conversations, and on any other occasions that bring them into contact with the members of their congregations. Their most important responsibility is to bring the precepts and principles of God’s Word to bear upon the lives of the flock. Every interaction with church folks—a meal at the restaurant, a trip to a ball game, or a visit in the home—is an occasion for the communication of biblical perspectives and priorities.
In other words, pastors are supposed to meddle. They are supposed to find out what is going on in their people’s lives, in their families, in their vocations, and in their hearts. They are supposed to be diagnosticians of spiritual infirmities, skilled spiritual internists who know how to detect, prevent, and treat the pathologies of the Christian soul. To do their job, they do not have to wait for an invitation from their church members. They have a divine commission to oversee the spiritual wellbeing of all those who participate in the covenanted community of the local church. As they confront lethargy, apathy, distortion, and aberration, they have the blessing of that God who both wounds and heals.
In order to teach rightly, a pastor must reprove, rebuke, and exhort with great patience and instruction (2 Tim. 4:2). If his people are to be sound in the faith, sometimes his rebukes will have to be sharp (Ti. 1:13). No one is exempt from pastoral rebuke, though decorum must be maintained. Reproof may sometimes have to be administered publicly (1 Tim. 5:19-20). A faithful pastor must exhort and reprove with all authority, which implies that he has the authority to do these things (Ti. 3:15).
A pastor does not have to ask for his church’s permission to apply the Scriptures to their situation. He does not need to apologize when delivering reproof. His authority is part of his job description: he is a pastor and teacher (Eph. 4:11). The church has the right to call whomever it will as pastor, but once he has been called, the pastor does not get his authority to teach from the church. That authority is assigned to his office by the Lord Jesus Christ. If he fails to exercise it, he fails his people and he fails his Lord.
Neither does the pastor’s authority reside in his own person. When he announces his opinions, he has no more authority than any other person. His authority resides in the biblical text: his job is to teach and apply it. As a person he has no right at all to make demands, but as a minister of Jesus Christ, he has the obligation to demand exactly what the text demands—no less and no more.
This kind of ministry might seem autocratic to self-willed church members. Virtually every faithful pastor gets accused of being a dictator at some point. As long as he is pointing to the text, however, and as long as his commands arise from the declarations of the Bible, he has no reason to back down. Under such circumstances, the Word of God is clear: believers have a duty to submit and obey (Heb. 13:17).
Pastors do not need to exercise decision-making authority in order to lead. God gives them the right and the obligation to teach the churches over which He makes them overseers. Should Christians overrule the biblical teaching of their pastors, the Bible clearly warns that disregarding their instruction is “unprofitable for you” (Heb. 13:17). Every Christian has a responsibility to recognize the real authority of the pastor within the covenanted community of the local church.
This essay is by Kevin T. Bauder (Research Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Central Baptist Theological Seminary). Not every one of the professors, students, or alumni of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that it expresses.
George Herbert (1593–1633)
Chr. Alas, poore Death, where is thy glorie?
Where is thy famous force, the ancient sting?
Dea. Alas poore mortall, void of storie,
Go spell and reade how I have kill’d thy King.
Chr. Poore Death! and who was hurt thereby?
Thy curse being laid on him, makes thee accurst.
Dea. Let losers talk: yet thou shalt die;
These arms shall crush thee. Chr. Spare not, do thy worst.
I shall be one day better then before:
Thou so much worse, that thou shalt be no more.
About Kevin Bauder
Kevin T. Bauder is Research Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Central Baptist Theological Seminary. Not every one of the professors, students, or alumni of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that this post expresses.