By James Heine
The LCMS Commission on Theology and Church Relations (CTCR) adopted a statement about the public rebuke of public sin at its May 1-3 meeting in St. Louis. (For other actions taken at the meeting, see related story.)
The statement, “Public Rebuke of Public Sin: Considerations in Light of the Large Catechism Explanation of the Eighth Commandment,” was prepared in response to a 2002 request from LCMS President Gerald B. Kieschnick.
In preparing its report, the commission considered the context of Luther’s comments on public rebuke in his explanation to the Eighth Commandment, what Scripture has to say — particularly Matt. 18 and 23, Gal. 2, and 1 Tim. 5 — and the approach of the Lutheran Confessions to the issue. The commission also considered how understanding of public life has changed from the 16th century to the present.
When Luther mentions public sins, “we might better translate ‘public’ as ‘notorious’ or ‘scandalous,'” the commission notes. In Luther’s day, people lived in relatively small communities and in close proximity to one another and routinely knew each other’s business. In this respect, almost all of life was “public,” it says.
In most cases, also, the community was identical to the local congregation. While such great familiarity might have led to more upright behavior, it also led people to endure their neighbors’ failings rather than risk division in the community, and in his explanation to the Eighth Commandment, Luther suggests as much, the commission says (“Rather, we should use our tongues to speak only the best about all people, to cover the sins and infirmities of our neighbors, to justify their actions, and to cloak and veil them with our own honor” [LC I 285]).
Compared with the 16th century, our world is very different, the commission observes. Much of life in western society is considered private, and we guard that privacy jealously. Many members of a community, even a church community, know little about one another; therefore, any rebuke of sin, whether public or private, is often construed as an invasion of privacy because the sphere of what is considered “private” is nearly all-encompassing.
“In fact, we rarely need to consider the distinction because we seldom rebuke sin either publicly or privately,” the commission says.
The commission notes that although society has enlarged the circle of what may be considered private, there is also the ability to instantly make any information public, especially through e-mail and the Internet. Today, there is capacity to communicate and exchange information on a scale and at a rate Luther could have never fathomed. The local can become global with a keystroke, and what was once the concern of a few is now broadcast to the world.
The application of what the Scriptures and the Confessions say concerning the public rebuke of public sin today is no easy task, the commission observes. It adds that careful distinction should be made between public rebuke and other public responses, such as debate.
“With reference to our present situation today, the decision to debate rather than rebuke could result from the recognition that some, perhaps even most, members of the Synod need to be convinced that a particular public statement or action is in fact sinful,” the commission says.
It also is important to remember that rebuke should be distinguished from an activity such as removal from the clergy roster, the commission notes. Such action is governed by policies established by the Synod by common agreement for the sake of good order.
“A rebuke has no specific consequences attached,” the commission says. “The one offering a rebuke has only the moral force of bearing witness to the church concerning the truths of Scripture.”
As LCMS members seek to be faithful to Scripture and the Confessions, the commission cautions that the conduct of an individual must not be elevated to the level of sin without a clear biblical warrant. “While a given action may be a violation of our synodical covenant and of the principles of Christian love, this does not automatically mean that such action falls into the category of public sin requiring public rebuke,” the commission says.
To help LCMS members consider and apply the idea of public rebuke of public sin, the commission concludes its report with nine statements of guidance and counsel. Summarized, those statements are as follows:
1. Public rebuke should not be a first response to a first offense. A rapid rush to judgment should be avoided. “Public sin” suggests a pattern of behavior or a lack of recognition of sin and repentance when correction takes place.
2. Public rebuke should be pursued first by those who have the office of correction in the church in their assigned areas of responsibility. In the case of public sin, those affected should consult with each other and with those having responsibility for ecclesiastical supervision.
3. If those charged with ecclesiastical supervision fail to carry out their duties, public rebuke may be pursued by any Christian.
4. Matthew 18 does not speak specifically to cases of public sin, as Luther declares in his explanation of the Eighth Commandment. The steps outlined in Matthew 18, therefore, are not absolute requirements mandated by Scripture or the Confessions in cases of public sin. However, these steps may be part of synodical processes that lead to specific consequences for public sin. Public rebuke is not the same as filing formal charges.
5. One who decides on public rebuke should be certain that he himself properly understands the nature of the sin so that the rebuke offered may have the appropriate effect.
6. Public rebuke should not be undertaken lightly, but only after much prayer, deliberation and consultation with others who know of the sin.
7. In cases where the sin is not apparent to all (and perhaps for that reason, not truly public), a call for discussion rather than a rebuke might best serve the needs of the church. Debate (in forums that may be provided for this purpose), rather than rebuke, may be a more appropriate initial response in some cases.
8. Public rebuke, if it is to be effective, should be rare and used primarily in cases of notorious or scandalous teaching or conduct in which the Gospel is at stake.
9. The purposes of public rebuke are both to warn and instruct the church and to offer spiritual care to the offender. Public rebuke is intended to enlist the aid of fellow Christians in correcting offenders and, upon repentance, to assure them of God’s absolving and restorative grace in Word and Sacrament.
“[We offer] this brief r