We live in an age hostile to correction. “No” has become a four-letter word in the modern vernacular. Our non-Christian friends don’t want to be told their unbelief warrants God’s judgment. That’s to be expected. But often our Christian friends don’t want to be corrected, either. And that’s sad, because a rebuke can be good for the soul. “The wise of heart,” says Solomon, “will receive correction” (Prov 10:8).
So how do you know when to correct a brother or sister in Christ? “To make an apt answer is a joy to a man, and a word in season, how good it is!” (Prov. 15:23). How do we know when to give that word? Thankfully, Scripture provides a trustworthy answer. It tells us when to correct and when to overlook.
When to Correct
Correct when the salvation of a brother or sister is in question.
The author of Hebrews warns us, “Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God” (Heb 3:12). Notice that this word is addressed to brothers. It’s those of us who call ourselves Christians who need to closely examine our hearts. But this kind of examination is not merely a call to private, personal introspection. It’s a group project: “But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today,’ that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin” (Heb 3:13).
When you see a brother or sister persisting in a pattern of unbelief, a pattern that calls into question the genuineness of his profession of faith, you should speak up. It is your word of exhortation that the Holy Spirit may use to soften your sister’s heart, lead her into an attitude of repentance, and spare her from God’s wrath.
Jesus taught us to correct one another because he understood the danger of unrepentant sin. In Matthew 18:15-18 he carefully lays out a process of correcting a brother whose sinned against another brother. Jesus doesn’t reveal the nature of the sin. However, he makes it quite clear that if the sinner doesn’t repent of that sin, he shouldn’t be treated as a brother or sister in Christ. But how will this sinner come to realize his fault? He needs a word of correction. Jesus tells us to confront the sinner individually (v. 15). If the sinner’s heart remains hard, a few others should offer the corrective word (v. 16). And if that doesn’t work, Jesus indicates that the entire church must get involved (v. 18).
We all want to know what kind of sin warrants this kind of repeated confrontation. It’s important for us to see that the fundamental issue isn’t the nature of the sin but the nature of the response when the sin is pointed out. Years ago I counseled a young Christian who had chosen to live with his girlfriend. We looked at a number of Bible passages about sexual purity, and he was immediately overwhelmed by the wrong he had done. No further correction was needed and he was married a few days later. A few months later I counseled a married woman who chose to leave her husband for another man. When presented with corrective verses from the Bible, her response was quite different, “Aaron,” she said, “I can’t go back to my husband.” But the truth is, she wouldn’t go back. Her heart was hardened. In both of these examples, a pattern of sin called the salvation of the sinner in question and the response to correction brought the heart to light.
Many other places in the New Testament speak to the value of correction. James commands us to warn brothers wandering away from the faith (James 5:19-20). Paul tells us to caution those who ignore his teaching (2 Thess 3:14-15). It’s a loving thing to point out the sin in the life of a brother or sister.
However, before you correct your brother or sister, work through the following questions:
1. Have you observed the sin? There may be times when you need to confront on the basis of another person’s testimony. However, in most cases, it is best to correct a brother or sister over sin that you have witnesses yourself.
2. Can you point out, from Scripture, how your brother or sister is sinning? Biblical correction should be just that, “biblical.” We shouldn’t care if other people are failing to live up to our standards; the question is whether they are heeding God’s standards. Job’s friends assumed that Job had sinned. They were wrong. Their misguided assumptions frustrated Job and angered God. Don’t be like them.
3. Has a pattern of sin developed? Each one of us falls short of God’s standard every day. If we corrected one another every time we sinned, there wouldn’t be time to do anything else but speak words of correction. So unless the sin is unusually public and unseemly (see 1 Cor 5), consider overlooking it.
4. Is the honor of Christ or the clarity of the gospel at stake? When the churches in Galatia started down the road of accepting a false gospel, Paul quickly and decisively spoke against them, “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel” (Gal 1:6). A “different gospel” than Paul preached is really no gospel. It can’t save anyone. And worse yet, it may lead others to think they are saved when they are not. Facing such a scandal, we must speak like Paul.
Generally speaking, you should correct a brother or sister when you see a pattern of sin that calls his or her salvation into question. If we love our brothers and sister then we will carefully point out their sins. Remaining silent in the face of ongoing rebellion against God is like piling wood in the arms of a man standing in the middle of a burning house. This truth should make us zealous to speak out, to be in accountability groups where private sins can be addressed, and to build relationships where we don’t just talk about the weather but we dig into each others personal lives.
When to overlook
However, a word of caution is in order. There are times where no response is the best response. Consider the following verses:
o Proverbs 19:11, “Good sense makes one slow to anger, and it is his glory to overlook an offense.”
o Proverbs 10:12, “Hatred stirs up strife, but love covers over all offenses.”
o 1 Peter 4:8, “Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins.”
In light of passages like this, we must keep in mind that the Christian response to sin is, at times, silence. This refusal to correct can be an act of grace that points people to the gospel. When we overlook another’s sin we are lovingly modeling for them the mercy and patience that we ourselves have received from God.
Consider overlooking the sin of another Christian if you can answer yes to any of the following questions:
1. Is the scope of offense the small, limited to you? If so, this may be a wonderful opportunity not to confront your brother or sister. It’s an chance for you to turn the other cheek, to patiently endure wrong, and to display the humility of Christ who instead of punishing you, died in your stead.
2. Have you failed to repent of sin in your own life? Jesus warns us not to be the kind of disciple who is quick to point out the failures in other’s lives but slow to recognize the sin in his own life. “Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?” (Matt 7:3). Like the passenger on the airline told to put his oxygen bag on first, we should do business with our own sin before charging our Christian friend.
3. Is your motive the humiliation of your brother or sister? Or, put another way, “Are you correcting out of pride?” If so, it’s probably a good time to be quiet. Paul is a wonderful example. He said very hard things to the Corinthians, but he did so from a heart genuinely concerned for their well-being, not his glory. “I do not write these things to make you ashamed, but to admonish you as my beloved children” (1 Cor 4:14).
4. Could your silence speak louder than a word of correction?There are times in my marriage when my wife had every right to correct me. She witnessed patterns in my life that were unbecoming of a Christian and a pastor. Instead of confronting me she prayed and modeled godliness for me. Her kind spirit reminded me of how Paul taught the church in Rome that “God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance” (Rom 2:4). She decided to heed Peter’s counsel and to allow her love to cover a multitude of my sins. She waited for the Holy Spirit to convict me. He did. Her silence spoke volumes.
“Sweet words,” wrote the seventeenth-century poet, Anne Bradstreet, “are like honey, a little may refresh, but too much gluts the stomach.”
Christians know this. Our words of correction can be very sweet—the very thing God uses to renew the faith of weary saints. But our words can be unhelpful and hurtful, too. We need wisdom to know when to correct and when to overlook.
Aaron Menikoff (PhD, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is Senior Pastor of Mt. Vernon Baptist Church in Atlanta, GA. He blogs at "Free to Serve" and is the author of Politics and Piety (Pickwick).