Prepared by Dr. John E. Marshall
Eph. 5:11b “. . .but rather reprove them.”
These words reveal how the Church is to respond to the sins of the culture around it. “Them” refers to “the unfruitful works of darkness” (5:11a). Paul is bringing us face to face with the role we are to fill in the midst of a lost society. Our Lord said believers are to be the light of “the world” (MT 5:14), not of the Church. We are to influence our culture. A church is to be an uplifting force in the life of society. “Christians should be, as it were, the incarnate conscience of a community” (Maclaren).
To understand our task, and to accurately define our role in society, it is critical that we make sure we understand the definition of the word “reprove.” The verb means to seek to convince by means of evidence. The term always carries an argumentative reference, and means to question, to confute, to disprove, to debate, to seek to prove another person’s position wrong. The same word is used to describe the Holy Spirit’s task, “He will reprove the world of sin” (JN 16:8). He seeks to expose and to refute, to reveal sins for what they really are, and to convince sinners to forsake evil.
To “reprove” is not a popular activity in our culture. Ours is an age and society which increasingly bows down at the altar of unlimited tolerance. Anything goes. Anyone who tries to make a moral judgment or an ethical pronouncement is deemed neanderthal. If one calls any activity an abomination to God people look at the spokesman as if he were the missing link. To some in our culture, the one thing not tolerated is intolerance. The latter has become the ultimate taboo. “Live and let live” is the theme voiced abroad. I see us moving toward such an open society that almost every conceivable vice is legal, legitimatized, and highly visible.
This cultural hyper-tolerance makes our task as Christians difficult, but we can never abdicate our role to “reprove” the sins of the world. For believers, there are two problems with adopting society’s mindset wholesale: we cannot adhere to it and at the same time please God or help others.
Whatever the culture thinks, believers must please God at all cost. Christians never have the luxury of being neutral and passive about evil. We are never at liberty to connive at sin, or to be casual in its presence. “A dumb Church is a dying Church, and it ought to be; for Christ has sent us here in order, amongst other things, that we may bring Christian principles to bear upon the actions of the community; and not be afraid to speak when we are called upon by conscience to do so” (Maclaren).
It is never enough to silently abstain from evil. We do need to lead pure lives and display consistent moral conduct, but must add to godliness oral moral reproof. Without doubt, our first duty toward the darkness is to shine in it. Holiness in everyday living is our mightiest weapon, but it is with the voice that we wield it effectively in battle. A voice converts that which is passive into a dagger which penetrates deep into enemy territory.
Whatever the culture thinks, believers must help others at all cost. We must speak up and “reprove” sins, not only to please God, but also to help others. Fellow Fundamentalists, hear this well. Our goal is not merely to blame or to censure. Our task is to “reprove,” which includes the meaning of seeking to convince and to convert. Our ultimate objective is to win people, not arguments. We are not to use the Bible as a billy club.
I readily confess, it is at times hard not to be disgusted and downright angry. Our first reaction is often to do a knee-jerk, to reprimand, to condemn, to denounce. We need to feel anger in order to stimulate us to action, but must seek to leave it behind when we come to doing our duty of reproof. Try not to show disgust, or be severe. The latter is what the Pharisees did. They were the ones who curled up their noses in disdain.
Our purpose is to redeem, to help, never to crush and destroy. Our task is to show people the error of their way, for their sake. We rebuke in order to convict, to convince, and to convert. We should humbly–emphasize humbly–seek to produce correction in the lives of others. Without “holier-than-thou” attitudes, without prying as detectives or spies, we need to try to foster improvement in the lives of others.
We want to help people, to be of benefit to others, but this does not mean our efforts will be automatically appreciated. Sinners usually do not like reproof. They want their vices to be deemed virtues, and want us to leave them alone, but we who are in the light must never give up trying to help those in the darkness. We never do someone a favor when by our silence we make a sinner feel he or she is a fine person. Never humor a tumor. It is no act of love to know another person’s peril and not to warn.
To “reprove” properly requires us to be loving, to be cautious, to be wise, and to do our homework. Our approach to the culture must not be merely to denounce evil, but to provide irrefutable evidence which proves the misery and fallacy of sin. We want to reveal the perils of evil in such a way that people are led to abandon their sinful ways.
To “reprove” requires us to appeal to people’s understanding. We are to reason with them on their level, in terms they can comprehend. When discussing behavior with a lost person, we cannot use as an argument, God is upset, the Bible says, my church teaches, etc. God, Scripture, and the Church have sway with us, but hold no authority to the lost. What we have to do is deal with facts, talk about studies and polls which have been done, speak of research findings, converse about personal experiences. Our advantage as believers is that the Bible way is always the best way. We have the light. When the facts are known, our position will be vindicated.
We need to do our homework. When we speak against alcohol, we must be able to speak with authority about its effect on homes, on businesses, on health-care costs. When we speak against gambling, we need to have our statistics before us. It is not enough to speak of the Protestant Work Ethic. We must state facts about its adverse effect on crime and how addiction to it destroys homes.
When we tackle pornography, we cannot simply quote the Bible and expect to carry the day. We must have statistics and studies which show how pornography produces demeaning attitudes, and dehumanizes women and children. I have long said pornography could be ended in this country if women en masse took it on as a women’s rights issue. In fact, the overall moral tenor of any society is determined by women. Men as a group are hopelessly depraved. Women are a culture’s only hope.
When we talk about sex outside marriage, it is not enough to quote, “Thou shalt not commit adultery.” We need to know about the growing number of HIV cases among teens. We need to be able to speak with authority about STD and about the problem of teen pregnancies.
When speaking with the lost about conduct, believers also have the advantage of being able to talk with authority about the root cause of problems. We talk not only about their sins, but also about their souls and their spiritual danger. We can speak of their relationship to God. For instance, we can speak to the alcoholic not only about an addiction to alcohol, but also deal with the inner emptiness which can be filled by knowing God.
We must do anything and everything we can to point people to a better way of life. One thing is sure, if we do nothing, floodgates will be opened to filth. We must at least try to stem the tide. “The devil has no more cunning way of securing a long lease of life for any evil than getting Christian people and Christian churches to give it their sanction” (Maclaren). Why did slavery last as long as it did? Because the Church spoke with a divided voice. Why is abortion still a curse upon our land? Because the Church speaks with a divided voice. Why has gambling made an astounding resurgence in recent years? Because the Church speaks with a divided voice. In the United States, when the Church speaks with a clear, consistent, united voice, the rest of the nation follows. We still have potential power and influence, if we will exercise it. If judgment rains down upon our land, be not surprised if much of the blame rests with the Church.
In many ways, these are exciting days for the Church in our country. These are the kinds of times which test our mettle. Evil deeds surround us, but we are not to sound a retreat, or to hunker down in a defensive posture. The Church never needs to curl up into a fetal position.
When Christ came from the grave, He left an example for His followers to imitate forever. We are not a defeated people, we are a victorious army, ever taking the initiative in our spiritual warfare, totally unintimidated by the evil deeds around us. Our Lord said He would build His Church and the gates of Hell would not be able to prevail against it (MT 16:18). He assumed His Kingdom would ever be on the offensive, attacking the bastions of evil. The Church must be aggressive to “reprove” forms of sin. To do anything less is to deny what God has called us to do.