Christian Living

A rebuke in love: Fostering a culture of change in churches

It had been an exhausting day and tired children were pushing all my buttons.  I would love to say that I rose above the bickering with words of kindness, but that sadly was not the case!  Later, children in bed and cup of tea in hand, my husband and I were talking about our days.  All was going well and then he gently asked me how I was finding being patient with the children. The question hung in the air… How did I respond?

If I’m honest, my train of thought went something like this… Betrayal: why is he not on my side here? Self-defence: the children were doing the wrong thing and I was in the right. Justify by comparison: if he was in that situation how patient would he have been? Embarrassment and resentment: how can I dodge this conversation?

Does this sound familiar?

This is exactly how the world teaches us to respond. You don’t have to look very far to see that tolerance and acceptance have become the buzz words of the day. We are free to say anything… as long as you don’t suggest that anyone is wrong. Change has become something of a byword, and the right to ‘be who you are’ reigns supreme.

Yet we believe in a gospel of change! At the beginning of the final section of Romans, Paul spells out what it means to live in light of the gospel. His words speak so aptly to us: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind” (Rom 12:2).

We are called to be different to the world around us. This is not a ‘pull your socks up’, New Year’s resolution kind of change; no, Paul is clear that his appeal here flows from “the mercies of God”. It’s a call to respond in whole hearted worship to the gospel of undeserved grace that he has been teaching for the first 11 chapters of Romans.

We are all sinners, deserving God’s judgement, but “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8). As Christians we have been changed, “we know that our old self was crucified with him” (Rom 6:6) and God’s whole design for our good is to bring us to “be conformed to the image of his Son” (Rom 8:29).

We have been changed. We are being changed. And so we are called to change.

Yet we are so reluctant to let this truth shape our relationships with other Christians! We shy away from challenge and rebuke, but why? Why am I so unsettled when my cross words are named, as though my potential for anger is a huge secret that has been uncovered for the first time?! I am a sinner saved by grace, and every Christian around me knows that. Why is it so hard for us speak about?

I think the answer is simple: it’s pride.

It is striking that the transformation that Paul speaks of begins with the “renewal of your mind” (Rom 12:2). In the very next verse he shows us how our thinking needs to be changed. Paul continues, “I say to every one among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgement, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned” (Rom 12:3). How is this transformation going to come about? Well, it will begin with humility. Central to any change is seeing ourselves with “sober judgement”, as we recognise that everything we have comes only “by the mercies of God” (Rom 12:1), received by faith alone, and even this faith is assigned by God.

All too often the world around us presents humility as weakness. If you don’t put yourself forward, then you are seen as a doormat. If you listen to the opinions of others, then you are feeble-minded. If you change your mind about something, then you are lacking backbone. If you apologise for something, then others are vindicated in their judgement of you.

Yet we are called not to conform to the world around us.

Humility is foundational to our relationship with God. We can—indeed we must—come before God honestly, admitting our sin and seeking his forgiveness. The wonder of the gospel is that as we do, we are not slapped down and cast aside as a weakling, but raised up, forgiven, exalted to the position of God’s sons and heirs.

Paul doesn’t leave his argument with us standing in humility before God. Paul makes it clear that humility is also to be the basis of our relationships with others.

His very next point in Romans 12 is to apply this sober mindedness to the church. Our relationships will be transformed as humble thinking flows out in every member of the body selflessly serving one another. God has graciously called us on this journey of transformation, not just as individuals, but as a body of believers.  God’s desire isn’t that we just each cultivate our own relationship with him, but to use the Christians he has placed around us to help us to change (Eph 4:15).

Our pride always stands in opposition to this God-given help. We want to keep up appearances; we long to earn people’s good opinion and can feel hurt, embarrassed or angry if anyone ventures to challenge our character or competencies in any way. Isn’t this perverse? In a Christian community each one of us has acknowledged our sin, our weakness, our inadequacy before God; and yet our pride still hates it whenever anyone speaks of it.

As God’s people, we are called to “let the Word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom” (Col 3:16). When was the last time that someone admonished you? How about if you exclude rebukes from family members? My experience is that this is not something that happens often, yet the Bible seems to expect it to be a regular feature of normal, healthy Christian relationships, as part of God’s plan for our good!

How can we foster this in our families, friendship groups, small groups or church families? What contexts can we create where people are able to admonish us for things that we are doing that are not honouring to God? How can we start conversations about growing and changing that gives people permission to ask about things, notice things, make comments and suggestions? 

Under God, this has the potential to be a truly wonderful thing. We are in the business of growing in godliness—we should make full use of the resources God has given to us to do this! God tells us that, “like an earring of gold or an ornament of fine gold is the rebuke of a wise judge to a listening ear” (Prov 25:12) and “faithful are the wounds of a friend” (Prov 27:6).

If we truly saw ourselves humbly, then our response to admonition wouldn’t be embarrassment or fear, anger or self-defence. The truth of the gospel frees us to respond with thanks to God for using this person to speak his word into our lives, bringing us to repentance and growth. As Christians we are in the business of change. God is at work in us, transforming us from one degree of glory to another. Let’s embrace this vision for our lives, and pray that God would give us the grace and humility to actively create a culture that invites others to help us to grow; to foster a culture of change.