How (Not) to Correct Another Christian

When I was a young Christian in my late teens, I was “rebuke-happy.” I had no problem confronting and correcting the faults of others. The people I looked up to modeled this to me, and I benightedly followed their example.

I knew the Scriptures well; so I was cocked and loaded for bear with my Bible verses in hand. Some of my favorite texts at the time were those in Proverbs that say wise people love reproof and fools hate it (Proverbs 9:8; 12:1; 13:1, etc.)

As I grew in the Lord, I came to some painful discoveries. One of them was that I had no idea how to correct another believer in the spirit of Jesus Christ. And I did more damage than good with my “corrections.”

Another was that God didn’t want me correcting everyone else, even when I spotted faults and flaws in others (which, by the way, is no great gift or something to boast about).

Adjusting the behavior of my brothers and sisters in Christ wasn’t my job or duty. And I needed to pay more attention to my own spiritual walk than that of others (James 4:11).

(In my early years as a believer, I was part of a Christian tradition that was trigger-happy to straighten everyone else out. It was bad teaching that bred legalism and self-righteousness. And I was guilty of embracing it.)

Still another lesson I learned was that in those times when the Lord actually wanted me to correct another person, if I didn’t deliver that correction in Christ, I would end up losing a friend.

An offended friend is harder to win back than a fortified city. Arguments separate friends like a gate locked with bars (Proverbs 18:19).

I wish back then that someone taught me what correction looks like when done in Christ.

Hence this post.

While this article is by no means an exhaustive treatment of the subject (it’s a blog post, not a book), here are 14 things that I learned about correcting another child of God.

Note that I’m not talking about reviewing someone’s writings or analyzing their teaching. Though this too should always been done in a spirit of grace and first offered to the authors in question directly and privately before publishing a critique publicly. Intellectual integrity demands this to ensure that misrepresentations aren’t published and spread.

In this post, I’m rather focusing my attention narrowly on correcting a person’s flaws or actions. Here are 14 things to consider before you correct another Christian:

1. Never base your correction on second hand information. That is, what a personallegedly said or did. Always go to the person you are concerned about directly. Hearing one side of a story is a horrible basis upon which to correct someone. I’ve been guilty of this in the past.

2. Just because you see someone else’s faults doesn’t give you the right to point them out and correct them. The ability to spot the flaws of others is no gift. If you begin riding that horse hard, your card will eventually be pulled. Fault-finding is something that Scripture condemns (Jude 1:16).

3. There have been many Christians damaged because someone corrected them in a way that was contrary to Jesus Christ.

4. If you correct someone outside of grace, you will surely lose their friendship (Proverbs 18:19).

5. Your spiritual instincts will lead you on how to deal with an offense. One way is to bear the cross, be wronged, and forebear (Colossians 3:13; Ephesians 4:2; 1 Corinthians 6:7; Matthew 5:39). Another is to talk to the person privately and correct them in a spirit of meekness (Galatians 6:1; Matthew 18:16). Still another is to find a mediator to help you resolve the conflict (1 Corinthians 6:1-6)

6. Sometimes Christians correct others when they shouldn’t; other times they let serious problems go unchecked without bringing needed correction. Both mistakes can end up destroying others (1 Corinthians 5:1ff). For instance, if someone is hurting, oppressing, harassing, or misrepresenting another person(s), ignoring it is virtually always wrong.

7. If your brother or sister is doing something that just makes you feel uncomfortable (instead of actually hurting you or someone else), then you should think thrice about correcting them.

8. When correcting someone, go to them privately as Jesus taught us to do . . . “between you and him/her alone” (Matthew 18:15). This fulfills what Jesus taught us in Matthew 7:12. “Treat others the same way you want to be treated if you were standing in their shoes.” Going to others (beyond the person you are correcting) about the problem is only warranted if the person has rejected the correction and keeps on sinning (Matthew 18:16ff.) Or if they are sinning against others in public way. For instance, if someone is misrepresenting another person in a public forum, then the person who is spreading the misinformation should be corrected in that public forum.

9. Ask yourself these questions before you correct another believer:

Is it my place to correct this person? Do I have a personal relationship with them? Or am I being a busybody in another person’s affairs? (1 Peter 4:15; 1 Timothy 5:13).

Have I forborne this problem for a long time? Has longsuffering and patience run its course?

Am I reacting out of pride, anger, or some other dark motive?

Have I agonized before the Lord, asking Him to remove the dark parts out of me before I talk to my sister or brother?

Has the spirit of self-righteousness and cruelty been extracted from my heart?

Have I prayed for this person, asking God to correct them Himself?

Have I gone to the cross before I pulled the trigger of correction?

And perhaps the most important of all: How would I want to be corrected if it were me who needed the correction?

If you cannot answer these questions with a “yes,” then you’re not yet qualified to correct your brother or sister.

10. Be keenly aware that you are just as fallen and deserving of judgment as the person you are correcting. The sin of self-righteousness is the result of regarding some sins (that of others) as being more serious than other sins (those of our own). Jesus equated anger with murder and lust with adultery (Matthew 5:21-22, 27-28), and James said that if you break one point of the Law you’re guilty of breaking every Law (James 2:10). That puts all of us on the same needy level. Be careful not to fall into what Philip Yancey painfully observed: “Christians get very angry toward other Christians who sin differently than they do.”

11. If you aren’t broken by the cross of Jesus Christ, the Bible can be an instrument of death in your hands. “The letter kills, but the Spirit gives life,” said Paul. Wielding the Bible with unbroken flesh is a dangerous thing.

12. If your correction of your brother or sister hurts them more than it hurts you, you probably haven’t corrected in Christ.

13. If you do not correct someone in gentleness and utter humility, there’s an excellent chance that you will fall into the same temptation or worse. Many years ago, I remember reading a book by Watchman Nee where he said that in his experience, anytime a believer corrected another believer with a judgmental self-righteous attitude, that same believer who did the correcting later fell into something equally serious or worse. Paul said so much (1 Corinthians 10:12; Galatians 6:1), and I’ve watched it myself over the years.

14. In everything, be swift to hear the whole matter, slow to speak, slow to draw a conclusion, and slow to anger (James 1:19; Proverbs 18:13).

Again, an entire book can be written on this subject. These are just some lessons I’ve learned over the years. And I hope they encourage you.

May we as God’s people take higher ground when it comes to correcting the faults of our brothers and sisters in Christ.

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  • Sonny Owens

    Agree with you, “It was bad teaching that bred legalism and self-righteousness.” Also bad teaching breeds liberalism and self-righteousness. The two: legalism & liberalism produce……each other. We have allowed one to cause the other.

  • Frank Viola

    Yep. That’s the whole point of the piece. Treating others the same way we want to be treated is how Jesus defined love. Thx. for the agreeing comment.

  • Alex

    what happened to “do it in love?”
    Never rebuke if you are not willing to take the time out of your busy life to teach, to walk with the person and never do any of this. If you are not doing it in LOVE!

  • Jose

    And Thank-you, you’re a gentleman!
    I have always been blessed (much more than I deserve).

  • Frank Viola

    Depends on the situation. The rule of thumb is to treat the person the same way you want to be treated if it were you. Example: when I first started using Twitter, I didn’t know what I was doing and made mistakes. It was “public error.” But a brother in the Lord who was very gracious wrote me privately to spare me embarrassment and corrected me in private. I was grateful for that.

    So it really depends on the situation. Sometimes public error should be corrected publicly, other times it’s to be done in private. Sometimes “public correction” is really misrepresentation of someone’s thoughts or views or words. Consequently, in such cases, the person who is concerned should go to the person individually and privately to make sure they are understanding them correctly before they go public. The same with hearsay or second-hand accounts of a public event.

    Jesus rebuked the religious leaders of His day in the context where they were reproving Him first. And He fired back. That’s the bigger picture.

    The Spirit will always lead and He will lead in the way of love — which is to treat that person exactly the way you would want if it were you. Thx. for the kind words about the post. God bless.

  • Jose

    Great Article, great teaching.
    I recently fell foul of this (as the initiator), but I always thought that the private rebuke applied to private error. If I “lead” people into error publicly I should expect public rebuke for the sakes of those I lead.
    After all Jesus did not privately (at least not only) rebuke the Pharisees and Saduccees.

    BTW I’m breathing fine ;-)

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  • ToronadoBlue

    This is a “home run” article!!!

  • rvs

    #12–wise. The gleeful corrector is always worrisome. Schadenfreude. Schadenfreude. –Lots of it in Christianity.

  • Grayson Pope

    Great thoughts, Frank. I especially love number 8. We often act as if 2 things are true: 1.) We are the final arbiters of truth and righteousness, and 2.) The Bible isn’t clear on handling disagreements or correction.

    Of course, neither is true. This post is a great reminder of that reality.

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