Giving Reproof “Before All Onlookers”
“The ridiculer you should strike, that the inexperienced one may become shrewd; and there should be a reproving of the understanding one, that he may discern knowledge.”—Prov. 19:25.
1. According to 1 Timothy 5:20, those who persist in sinning are to be reproved before whom, and why?
WHAT, then, of Paul’s instructions to Timothy to reprove “before all onlookers [literally, in Greek, “in the sight of all”]” those who persist in sinning? This has a definite purpose, namely, that “the rest also may have fear,” that is, fear of coming into the same course of sinning. (1 Tim. 5:20) What circumstances, then, call for reproving in this manner, and how can it be done “in the sight of all”?
2-4. What can be said as to the application of the phrase “before all onlookers,” and what Bible examples illustrate this?
2 The phrase “before all onlookers” or “in the sight of all” is not specific as to its application. It could mean that the reproof is given before the entire congregation or it could mean that reproof is given before all those who are in some way involved in or aware of the matter, including witnesses to the wrongdoing, and who are present when the wrongdoer is reproved. Whatever the case, it is evident that the reproof was to be of a public nature rather than purely a private affair.*
3 The same Greek phrase found at 1 Timothy 5:20 is also used at Luke 8:47 concerning the woman healed of a flow of blood by Jesus. The account says that she “disclosed before all [Greek, “in the sight of all”] the people the cause for which she touched him.” This clearly does not mean that she did this before the entire city population (possibly Capernaum) but before those in the crowd who happened to be there and who heard Jesus ask: “Who was it that touched me?”—Luke 8:43-47.
4 Somewhat similarly, the apostle Paul says of his reproving Peter in Antioch: “But when I saw they were not walking straight according to the truth of the good news, I said to Cephas [Peter] before them all . . .” While “before them all” could here mean before the whole congregation gathered in assembly, the pronoun “them” could also refer back to those whom Paul had just mentioned, ‘those who were not walking straight according to the truth of the good news.’ It could mean that he spoke his reproof in a gathering other than a congregational meeting, perhaps at a meal, where Jewish believers were, like Peter, segregating themselves.—Gal. 2:11-14.
5. In the absence of a specific Scriptural rule, what will guide us in this application?
5 Since we cannot be dogmatic as to just how comprehensive the phrase “before all onlookers” is in its application, it would seem that the need existing should guide in the way it is applied. If reproof needs to be brought to the attention of the whole congregation, then this should be done. If not, then it should be given before all who are concerned in the matter or who are for some reason in need of having the reproof in order to benefit therefrom.
GODLY LOVE GUIDES
6. According to the Scriptures, what controlling effect does love exercise in these matters?
6 There are Scriptural principles that rule against unnecessary publicizing of others’ trespasses and sins. The Bible as a whole shows that love should generally move one to cover over the sins of one’s brother rather than deliberately drawing attention to them. (Compare Proverbs 10:12; 11:12, 13; 16:27; 17:9; 1 Peter 4:8.) Jehovah speaks of reproving the one who, besides committing other wrongs, has exposed or ‘given away a fault’ against his own brother. (Ps. 50:20, 21) God’s Son gave the divine rule that applies in all cases: “All things, therefore, that you want men to do to you, you also must likewise do to them.” (Matt. 7:12) None of us would want to have our faults aired publicly if no real need existed. On the other hand, if our brothers needed to hear something for their own good, we would have to put ourselves in their place and recognize that we ourselves would not want to have necessary information withheld from us.
7, 8. Illustrate how an unnecessary publicizing of another’s wrongdoing could cause much needless hurt.
7 Where genuine need is lacking, the publicizing of others’ faults can cause much unnecessary hurt. To illustrate, consider an attractive young woman whose work involved traveling and who engaged in some wrongdoing a number of times while away on a trip. Suppose the elders were to hear of this from someone else and, in view of the young woman’s failure to approach them of her own accord, after talking with her and determining that the report was true, they then decided to make an announcement before the congregation that they had reproved her, giving her name. What would the congregation think? Suppose some assumed that the wrong was of a sexual nature, whereas in reality something else had happened. On this particular trip the young woman found herself near her home and used the opportunity to visit her family of non-Witnesses. She used to smoke and, influenced by their smoking habits, she weakened and also smoked a number of times. Actually, then, an announcement to the congregation that simply names her as reproved could cause many to develop a very distorted picture of her, resulting from unwarranted assumptions and false conjecture.
8 A similar situation might involve a husband who indulges in alcoholic beverages to the point of intoxication while at home, doing so a couple of times. Again, if an announcement of reproof were made before the congregation, some in the audience might wrongly suppose that the husband was an adulterer or guilty of some other serious sin quite far from the reality of the matter. How much genuine benefit—for the individuals and for the congregation—would such publicity actually accomplish, and would it really outweigh the hurt produced?
9, 10. (a) What does the handling of cases of wrongdoing in Israel indicate as to the publicizing of an individual’s faults? (b) It was about strong action relating to what kind of sins that the Israelites were to hear and develop fear?
9 The principle of not publicizing a person’s fault beyond what the need requires would also seem to find support from the general procedure followed in fleshly Israel under the Law covenant. The Bible regulations and accounts indicate that cases of wrongdoing came before the city elders at the gates primarily when controversies were involved, as in cases where an offender would not acknowledge having wronged another, and also when the community as a whole was seriously affected or endangered by the wrongdoing.—See Aid to Bible Understanding, pp. 384, 385, 1053, 1054.
10 The expression used by the apostle at 1 Timothy 5:20, “that the rest also may have fear,” calls to mind references in the Law covenant to strong action taken against certain wrongdoers, the phrase there being used, that “all Israel will hear and become afraid, and they will not do anything like this bad thing again in your midst.” But it is noteworthy that the sins involved were either such as could cause grave danger to the community, including the fomenting and advocating of apostasy, sins that called for the death penalty, or they were sins that had already become public knowledge, such as the bearing of false witness in open court.—Deut. 13:6-11; 17:8-13; 19:15-20.
11, 12. What attitude does Jesus encourage at Matthew 18:15-17 regarding the serious sins that his counsel embraced?
11 Jesus’ instructions at Matthew 18:15-17 also point to a proper concern that private problems be kept private where possible. The related passage at Luke 17:3, 4 indicates that this counsel deals with sins committed by one individual against another. Jesus said that the one sinned against was not to broadcast the matter but, rather, was to go to the offender and straighten out the matter in private. This could have a good effect, the wrongdoer noting the considerateness shown in not advertising the matter and thereby his becoming more receptive to reproof. Even though private efforts failed, the matter was still not to be spread around but, instead, the one sinned against would take along one or two others in a further effort. Only if this small group also failed would the matter be brought “to the congregation” (evidently meaning its representative members, the elders; compare Numbers 35:12, 24, 25 with Deuteronomy 19:12; Joshua 20:4).
12 It should be noted that the sins contemplated in Jesus’ counsel were actually serious sins, since he said that failure to respond to congregational reproof would lead to disfellowshiping. (Matt. 18:17) And yet, despite their seriousness, these sins were not to be publicized any more than the circumstances demanded. And, while this counsel directly relates to sins by one individual against another, it seems evident that the principle that God’s Son gave of avoiding unnecessary publicity should apply in all cases, whatever the particular type of wrongdoing involved.
13. In summary, when should sinning logically be reproved before an entire congregation, and when should this be done “with severity”?
13 From all the Scriptural evidence it would seem that occasions where sinning needs to be reproved before the entire congregation would be limited to cases of serious wrongdoing that are, or are certain to become, general knowledge, or to cases where more private efforts at bringing about repentance and a turning away from wrongdoing have brought uncertain results and it is felt that a potential danger remains for the congregation, a danger against which they need to be warned in order to protect themselves.* Where the wrongdoing is a source of widespread trouble for the congregation, the reproof needs to be “with severity” and persisted in until the wrongs are cleaned out.—Titus 1:13.
DELIVERING PUBLIC REPROOF
14. Why is it that an announcement simply stating that someone has been reproved does not really fulfill the instruction to ‘reprove before all onlookers’? What is needed?
14 Effective reproof of persistent wrongdoing requires the use of convincing evidence from God’s Word. To read off an announcement before a group that a person “has been reproved” could not of itself be a case of ‘reproving him before all onlookers.’ The announcement in fact says that he “has been reproved,” showing that the reproof is something that was done in the past—and evidently not in the presence of those hearing the announcement, for otherwise they would not need to hear such announcement. The announcement could be called a ‘rebuking before all onlookers’ but is not of itself reproof. It is an accusation or exposure, true, but not one accompanied by the convincing evidence that characterizes reproof. To give true reproof before the congregation, God’s Word must be brought forcefully to bear on the particular kind of sinning involved. This is vital if a godly fear of falling into such wrong is to be built up in the hearers.—2 Tim. 4:2.
15, 16. Is the naming of a person essential for reproving him “before all onlookers,” and how does 1 Corinthians 14:23-25 demonstrate this?
15 Is an actual naming of the person at fault required in order to reprove him “before all onlookers”? Since the Scriptures themselves give no indication that naming is involved, it would seem that this too would depend upon the need existing. That reproof can be given at a public gathering without identifying by name the one or ones reproved is evident, however.
16 For example, in his first letter to the Corinthians the apostle Paul describes an outsider’s coming into a Christian meeting. This stranger may not previously have realized the wrongness of his past actions and life course. He felt no need for repentance. But the apostle says that, upon hearing those at the meeting speak God’s truth, this person is “reproved [convinced of his sin, An American Translation] by them all, he is closely examined by all; the secrets of his heart become manifest.” It is not that all those present call out his name, since he is a stranger to them. But the powerful truths they speak cause him to see himself in a new light and stir his heart to repentance.—1 Cor. 14:23-25.
17. Why did some in Crete need severe reproof, and how could Titus “keep on reproving them”?
17 Writing to Titus on the island of Crete, Paul admonished him to “keep on reproving [certain ones] with severity, that they may be healthy in the faith.” The reason these needed severe reproof was that they were troublemakers in the congregation. They were ‘contradictory, unruly, profitless talkers and deceivers of the mind, who subverted entire households by teaching things they ought not’; others were given to lying and laziness. In order to “keep on” or persist in reproving them, it seems unlikely that Titus would repeatedly read off certain names with periodic announcements that these were engaging in wrong conduct. Rather, in private and in public meetings, he would persistently focus God’s Word and its commands on these wrongs. Thereby the congregation would be able to identify any who engaged in these as a bad influence against which to protect themselves. Strong Scriptural counsel would help the whole congregation to have a healthy fear of sharing in such practices.—Titus 1:9-13; compare 2 Timothy 4:2-4; 2 Thessalonians 3:6-15.*
18. What circumstances would particularly call for reproving wrongdoing in congregation meetings?
18 Undoubtedly most cases where congregation members fall into wrongdoing can be handled in a private way by the congregation shepherds. But if they have reason to believe that others may be tempted into the same kind of sin they should devote time in their meetings to reproof of that kind of wrongdoing. If a matter is of public knowledge or involves scandal, they should most certainly do so.
19. Under what circumstances might elders feel it advisable to make a brief announcement and name the wrongdoer?
19 If they feel that the circumstances demand it they could even name the person (though doing so apart from any talk on the subject), stating that they have reproved him. Where scandal is involved, this would enable the congregation members to defend the congregation against those who might accuse it of condoning wrongdoing. And even where the wrongdoing is not widely known, or has been practised in a secretive way, the elders might find it necessary to do this. For example, a young man may have engaged in certain indecent conduct (not necessarily fornication) with several young women, going from one to the other. Upon being reproved, he may express repentance. Yet the elders may still feel certain reservations about him. He may have had to be counseled in the past and may thus show some lack of determination to avoid wrongdoing. The elders may feel that the flock needs some statement to alert all, and particularly the younger sisters, that there is a need for a measure of caution in association with the young man. They may announce that they have reproved him, stating his name.
20. When only a brief announcement is made, what also is needed for the congregation to “have fear” of falling into similar wrongdoing?
20 Of course, where a brief statement is made in this manner, if the wrong itself was done in a secretive way, most of the congregation will have no idea of what kind of wrongdoing to be on guard against. They could hardly be expected to “have fear” of engaging in something if they do not know what it is. So at another meeting an elder could give Scriptural information dealing with the particular kind of wrongdoing involved, showing how it is that people are led into it and why it is so condemnable and harmful, as well as giving sound counsel on ways to fortify oneself against falling into such a snare. On the occasion of such a talk, however, there would be no names mentioned.
21. Even where no name is mentioned, how could congregation members be protected against wrongdoers or be made aware that those whose sinning produces obvious aftereffects have indeed been reproved before all?
21 In fact, elders might find that such a talk is all that is needed, for even though no name has been announced at an earlier meeting, the talk may suffice to provide all the information the congregation members need to defend themselves should the individual approach them and again engage in tactics like those described in the talk. Or, consider the case where an act of immorality results in a pregnancy out of wedlock or leads to a divorce on grounds of adultery. A talk showing how an individual can become involved in sexual wrongs could include the warning that ‘we should not feel this cannot happen to us, for it has happened in our congregation and we regret to say that it is now producing these unhappy results.’ Though no name was given, either before, during or after the talk, the congregation would know, when seeing the resulting pregnancy or the divorce action, that reproof had indeed been given.
22. (a) What Scriptural responsibility do elders have regarding wrongdoing and those engaging in it? (b) Though mercy is shown, why does the one sinning always pay for his sinning?
22 As shepherds, congregational elders can heal, reprove, reprimand (rebuke, 2 Timothy 4:2, Kingdom Interlinear Translation), can readjust and discipline by their use of God’s Word. (Gal. 6:1; 2 Tim. 3:16; Jas. 5:14-16) They can also “rebuke” by disfellowshiping unrepentant ones. (1 Cor. 5:1-13; 2 Cor. 2:6-8) Mercy may be shown by the congregation, but this does not mean that sinners can ever ‘get away with it.’ For though repentance may gain one Jehovah’s mercy, sin will bring its inescapable consequences. The natural outworkings of sinful action always produce hurt—whether minor or major—to the wrongdoer in a mental, emotional or even physical and material way. But for what he suffers he has no one but himself to blame. He is reaping what he has sown.—Gal. 6:7, 8.
23. What is the wise course for all of us to take with confidence and endurance?
23 Wisely, then, let us all strive to be “sowing,” not to the fallen flesh and its corrupt tendencies, but to the spirit, knowing that we can “reap everlasting life from the spirit.” Yes, “let us not give up in doing what is fine, for in due season we shall reap if we do not tire out” in pursuing the righteousness that assures God’s smile of approval and his rich blessings.—Gal. 6:8, 9.
A number of translations use the word “public” or “publicly” in translating 1 Timothy 5:20. However, several of these would also limit the ‘sinners’ referred to as being from among the elders mentioned in the previous verse (1Ti 5 verse 19). Knox’s translation, for example, which says, “Give a public rebuke to those who are living amiss,” has a footnote, saying: “‘To those,’ probably meaning ‘to those presbyters [elders]’; and the direction that they are to be rebuked in public is best understood as meaning ‘Before the other presbyters.’” With regard to the application of the phrase “before all” as applying either to ‘all the elders’ or to ‘all in the congregation,’ Schaff-Lange’s commentary states: “Grammatically, one is as allowable as the other.” We draw attention to these points only to show that the application of the phrase at 1 Timothy 5:20 “before all onlookers” (or, “in the sight of all”) grammatically can allow for more than one application: to a large group, such as an assembled congregation, or to a smaller group, such as a body of elders.
Many Bible commentaries, in discussing 1 Timothy 5:20, make expressions along this line. That of Albert Barnes says: “ . . . the direction here refers to the manner in which an offender should be treated who has been proved to be guilty, and where the case has become public. Then there is to be a public expression of disapprobation.” The commentary of Schaff-Lange says: “The nature of the case itself requires that ha·mar·taʹnon·tas should be specially understood of grosser crimes; indeed, of those which justly cause scandal.” Henry’s Bible Commentary observes: “Public, scandalous sinners must be rebuked publicly; as their sin has been public, and committed before many, or at least come to the hearing of all, so their reproof must be public, and before all.”
While certain individuals are unfavorably named in the writings of Paul and John, it may be noted that this was in letters written to individuals and for the purpose of warning them against apostates or persons actively opposing the work of the apostles. (1 Tim. 1:19, 20; 2 Tim. 1:15; 4:10, 14, 15; 3 John 9) By contrast, many letters written by the inspired writers contain much reproof that was clearly needed but the offenders are left unnamed.—Compare Romans 2:1-4, 17-24; 1 Corinthians 1:11-13; 3:1-4; 15:12; James 2:1-9.