Christians often cite Luke 17.3 as commanding us to condemn sin in the lives of other Christians: “If your brother sins, rebuke him.” This is sometimes followed by a reference to Ephesians 4.15, where we are admonished to “speak the truth in love.” Given these clear teachings, Christians are to eschew timid tolerance in favor of boldly confronting the sin in our fellow Christian’s lives. We are responsible for holding one another accountable for our actions and we are remiss if we let obvious transgressions go unchallenged. Surely if we had some unknown sin in our own life we would want to be told about it — so we have a Christian obligation to do the same when we see sin in others.
Or possibly not. The above interpretations might sound like a rigorous recipe for robust discipleship, but unfortunately they are not faithful to the biblical text.
Luke 17.3 is followed by verse four, which emphasizes the need for forgiveness and clarifies the nature of the sin to be rebuked as being “against you.” Darrell Bock says of this passage:
The sin that needs forgiveness involves the participants (“if he sins against you”). This means that accountability for keeping relationships working comes from those involved in the events. Often in such situations, the participants refuse to interact with each other, but Jesus argues that maturity handles such matters directly.
N.T. Wright brings this point out in his translation of Luke 17.3-4:
‘If your brother sins against you, rebuke him; and if he apologizes, forgive him. Even if he sins against you seven times, and turns round seven times and says “sorry” to you, you must forgive him.’
The point is not that we are to seek out sin in other’s lives, it is that if someone sins against us, we are to let them know and graciously accept their repentance. We are to deal with transgressions against us directly with the transgressor, not by running to others or by engaging in idle gossip and spiteful complaining. We are to willingly and repeatedly offer forgiveness, not as an act of moral superiority, but as a demonstration of humility and submission.
As for Ephesians 4.15, Paul is definitely not saying that we should run around telling each other where we fall short. This verse does not give Christians the right to speak into the lives of others. John Stott says:
‘Speaking the truth in love’ is not the best rendering of his expression, for the Greek verb makes no reference to our speech. Literally, it means, ‘truthing in love’, and includes the notions of ‘maintaining’, ‘living’ and ‘doing’ the truth.
Paul is saying we should live out the truth in word and action and that this practice of truth is not in relation to other Christians, but is in opposition to the deceit of false teachers mentioned in the previous verse. Paul is admonishing Christians to grow into spiritual maturity instead of being “tossed back and forth by waves” of false teaching. It is a personal call to individually cling to truth, not a call to tell others where they seem to be lacking in the truth.
As Christians, we are responsible to our community of faith. We are required to live out the love that Jesus taught and seek the truth in word and action. But we are not called to sniff out and expose the transgressions of others. We need to help each other grow to maturity, but we do not need to point out each other’s sins. We are all fallen and sinful, but we need to focus on our own shortcomings instead of the shortcomings of others. And when the faults of others do impose upon us we are called to lovingly forgive them.
Finally, as to the holier-than-thou attitude that surely we would want someone else to point out overlooked sin in our own lives, so therefore we should freely point it out in the lives of others: rarely, if ever, does someone truly have unrecognized ongoing sin in their life. Yes, I want someone to let me know when I have spinach stuck in my teeth or when my fly is undone. But I don’t need someone telling me when I’ve screwed up, when I’ve fallen short of expectations or when I’ve let God and myself down — I need someone to be supportive and understanding and empathetic. This isn’t to say we should cast a blind eye to any and all offenses — if someone’s committing a crime or hurting someone else or engaging in self-destructive behavior, we have a moral obligation to speak up and help out. But we must do so with careful judgement, recognizing that we often do not have all the facts regarding the situation and that we do not occupy a moral high ground. It is not our job to be the sin police, it is our job to exhibit love and grace.