Is it okay to “name and shame” religious leaders who abuse their position? Specifically, those who are hypocrites and false teachers, things like that? Some people in the Bible did, including Jesus while on earth, and the apostle Paul. As examples, I’m thinking of Matthew 23, and 2 Timothy 4:14.
Your question appears in all corners of Christianity. Conservative leaders want to call out teachers of soft-heresies such as the prosperity gospel. Midstream-types want to ignore the serious differences in professing Christendom and focus on external groups. From the “progressive” side, some want to call out Paul the apostle as a misogynist! There’s not much agreement on either the “naming” or the “shaming.”
I believe there is a biblical precedent for publicly naming people who abuse the Scriptures or the sheep, but it comes with high standards. “Let your reasonableness be known to everyone” (Phil.4:5). “Speaking the truth in love” (Eph.4:14–15). “Let everything you do be done in love” (1 Cor.16:14). “Let love be without hypocrisy” (Rom.12:9). “Love covers a multitude of sins” (1 Pet.4:8).
Note that that love does not overlook a multitude of sins. Sin must be addressed before it can be covered. But that requires wisdom and sobriety, two things that vanish when you and I start believing our thoughts and feelings instead of “[taking] captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Cor.10:5).
Will the rebuke have moral authority?
The person speaking must be reasonable, humble, and faithful to the truth. Their words carry real weight, the “moral authority” that brings conviction. The audience might not like the message, but nobody can fairly respond, “Well, what else did we expect from such a poor messenger?”
In our flesh, we tend toward harsh, judgmental states of mind at the moments when we feel depressed, anxious, neglected, or abused. Some people turn those feelings inward, against themselves. Others turn them outward, against other people. Rebukes given in that state have little moral authority, even when true, and often harm everyone. “Be angry and do not sin” (Eph. 4:26–26). “The anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God” (James 1:20).
Jesus and the Pharisees
As your question indicated, the Lord Jesus had strong words for the Pharisees, including Matthew 23. The Pharisees were religious leaders who controlled the religious and political life of the Jewish nation at that time. Let’s review the context.
First, look at what the Pharisees did. They applied double standards (Mat.23:3–4), engaged in self-glorification (vv.5–7), hid the truth while promoting evil in their followers (vv.13–15), ignored their own heart problems (vv.25–28), and killed God’s true messengers (vv.29–35). Later, that included the Lord Jesus Christ (Mat.27:20). Critically, they attributed the Lord’s miraculous works to the power of Satan (Mat.12:24), rejecting the power of the Holy Spirit and leaving themselves in a hopeless state (vv.31–32). They were professors of their faith, but unbelievers.
Second, compare how the Lord usually dealt with difficult people. He always spoke plain truth, but stinging rebukes were rare. He was routinely dismissed, criticized, and misunderstood, yet maintained extraordinary grace in His speech and conduct. The Lord’s words for the Pharisees were atypical, indicating how extreme their evil had become.
Yet after all this, the Lord Jesus willingly died for all these people’s sins. Are you willing to sacrifice everything to facilitate tomorrow’s restoration of someone who requires a strong rebuke today? If not, can you give that rebuke without hypocrisy? Think about it, especially in this day where social media enable everyone’s hot-take criticisms to be instantly shared.
Paul’s Christian life reflected His Lord’s path. Paul endured ongoing opposition from both governments and his natural Jewish kin (Acts 9:19–25, 16:16–40, 2 Cor.16:28). He sometimes had strong disagreements with other Christians (Acts 15:36–41, 21:10–14). Entire sections of 2 Corinthians are Paul’s defense of apostolic ministry against antagonism from the local church (assembly) at Corinth!
On two rare occasions where Paul used a strong, public rebuke, one was on-point and addressed a serious problem (Gal.2:11–14), while the other proved embarrassing to Paul when more facts became known (Acts 23:1–5). In that second case, the high priest acted wrongly, but Paul acted wrongly in reply. “Do not repay evil for evil” (Rom.12:17–21).
So, when Paul actually calls out someone in his letters, like Alexander the Coppersmith (2 Tim.4:14), we should pause. Just how awful was this man’s activity? It’s also worth noting that most of the “names” in Paul’s letters are commendations! Only rarely does an Alexander appear. A lesson: find as much good as possible, and restore relationships if you can, before denouncing evil. Doing so will stabilize your mind and help you avoid hypocrisy (Mat.7:1–5, Gal. 6:1).
Sometimes, “naming names” is a necessary response to evil. The “naming” should be a response to ongoing, unrepentant sin or error, and still leave room for restoration if possible. A solid rebuke must be simultaneously truthful and gracious. It must be built upon verifiable facts, not feelings or vague accusations. Strong feelings are too easily justified by partial truths, while genuine truth always challenges your own heart first. Are you calm and collected right now, or worked up and angry? Are you occupied with Christ, or occupied with your brother’s faults?
Above all, the action must honor the name of the Lord Jesus. That requires deep humility. When I give a rebuke, I must identify myself with those who receive it. Their weakness is my weakness, and their sin is my sin, because we are made of the same natural stuff while professing to belong to the same body of Christ. Our standard is the Lord Jesus, who was willing to bear our sins in His own body on the cross (1 Peter 2:24).
I recommend a careful study of 1 Timothy 5 and Titus 1–3 for additional help. With all that in mind, if there is still a good reason to “name names,” then proceed—carefully.
Excellent! There is far too much mockery being flung around. Another thing to consider…if it were not for our hyper-connectedness, we would not even be aware of many of the problems in Christendom. It is not for everyone, this social media thing and I’ve increasingly found myself just not saying anything and hoping someone else will. Amy Carmichael said before you said something, to ask yourself ,”Is it true,is it kind, is it necessary?”
This is a solid read, thanks Aaron. I really appreciated the bit about rebukes given in a wrong state having little moral authority, even when true.
The verse, “The anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God” (James 1:20) really hit home when I read it, and is a very good verse (I think) to counter the “righteous anger” stance people have for their actions.