Pastoring my first church, things were going rather well, I thought. Perhaps that contributed to my hubris as I stood in the pulpit one Sunday morning and told the church that God wanted us to commit to a wonderful missions project that would cost $6,000 over and above our budget. The money would have to be gathered within a month, I told them, and I was grateful in advance for what they were going to do.
Somewhere I'd heard that visionaries do this sort of thing … and that people love it.
Walking into the church's board meeting the next night, I honestly expected to be affirmed for my bold leadership. So I was taken off guard when the chairman opened the meeting and immediately turned to Ernest Krost, the highly respected 75-year-old father-figure of the congregation.
"Mr. Krost has a comment," the chairman said.
"Brother Gordon," he said, "I have a rebuke for you."
As I sucked in my breath, Mr. Krost began: "You may have thought that your announcement yesterday morning was a worthy cause. But this board wants you to never again go to this congregation and ask for money without consulting us first.
"We want to stand with you in your leadership, but we cannot do it when you surprise us the way you did yesterday. We have a budget in this church, and we can always expand it if God wills. But you are not permitted to do that by yourself.
"Now we will back you on this project, but we will only do so this one time. Have you heard what I have said?"
I heard him, and told him so. And I never played the role of solo-visionary again.
When I was a 16 year old, a track coach had told me, "It looks to me as if you will always have to learn things the hard way." This on the heels of a defeat in a race I should have won if I had followed the coach's instructions. I had walked off the track that day vowing, "That's the last time I learn something the hard way."
Unfortunately, it was far from the last time. My life is paved with rebukes. From my father, from teachers, friends, critics, and from the people in my four congregations.
I like to think that each of the rebukes stuck and affected my character and my behavior. But no doubt some sailed right over my head and denied me their benefits.
What rebukes are and aren't
Generally defined, to rebuke means to confront someone with the wrongness of an action or attitude and to help them see the consequences.
This is different from what often happens in church. I know what unsigned letters look like. I have had my motives, my integrity, my theology, and my politics unkindly questioned. I have had people talk warmly to my face and coldly behind my back. These are not rebukes.
A rebuke is different. A genuine rebuke is a noble communication; its intention is to free a person for growth and effectiveness by speaking, as Paul puts it, "truth in love" (Eph. 4:15). In the Bible, such rebukes were often tough.
Samuel to Saul: "You acted foolishly . …You have not kept the command the Lord your God gave you; if you had, he would have established your kingdom over Israel for all time … but now your kingdom will not endure" (1 Sam. 13:13-14).
Jesus to Simon Peter: "You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men" (Matt. 16:23).
Paul to the Corinthians: "Brothers, I could not address you as spiritual, but as worldly—mere infants in Christ. I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it" (1 Cor. 3:1-2).
Not all rebukes were welcomed. King Ahab, for example, discouraged an appearance from the prophet Micaiah, saying, "I hate him because he never prophesies anything good about me, but always bad" (1 Kings 22:8).