Sometimes we feel an urgent need to tell people what they did wrong. Sometimes we shy away from sharing helpful correction. What should a Christian do?
“Stop being a knucklehead!”
“How could you be so stupid?”
Or on a social media status: “In case anyone was wondering, if you borrow something and return it broken, you really should own up to it.”
Such flawed attempts to correct another’s behavior, mistake or offense often generate more strife and conflict.
Christians and correction
This “Christianity in Progress” column focuses on applying Christian principles to real living. As such, we touch on the realities of living in a broken world and interacting with other flawed individuals.
Christians—like the entire human family—deal with mistakes, offenses and numerous blunders that crop up in relationships and everyday life.
- A coworker loses control and curses at a colleague.
- An acquaintance slanders you on social media.
- A schoolmate bullies your child.
- Your spouse fails to keep a commitment.
- A friend borrows a tool and returns it broken.
And that’s just on Monday.
Some situations inflame emotions and, without careful handling, can have lasting consequences. These moments sometimes require correction.
Correction isn’t always bad
Correction isn’t always a bad thing. Correction often helps us learn or improve skills, language, hobbies and techniques.
And we’re reminded that God inspired the Bible for us, in part, “for reproof, for correction, [and] for instruction in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16).
Accepting correction and taking responsibility for one’s mistakes, offenses and sins is a necessary part of a Christian’s walk. See “How to Confess Your Sins to One Another” for an insightful review.
But what about correcting others? Are Christians free to lash out when harmed or on the receiving end of an offense?
Jesus did not shy away from giving correction. He offered direct, loving correction throughout His ministry. Jesus lived the moral standards preserved in Scripture. When observing others operating outside that moral standard, Jesus sometimes provided correction.
Jesus’ approach varied depending on the situation and the person involved.
When Peter resisted Jesus’ mission—even going so far as to rebuke his Master—Jesus offered stern correction: “Get behind Me, Satan! You are an offense to Me, for you are not mindful of the things of God, but the things of men” (Matthew 16:23).
Although Peter spoke out of love and concern for Jesus, he didn’t understand the need for His suffering and death. So Jesus responded with a direct, assertive correction. (And, of course, it is not a style that mere humans should attempt to copy exactly.)
However, when Martha asked Jesus to order her sister Mary to help serve, Jesus’ correction was tender: “Martha, Martha, you are worried and troubled about many things” (Luke 10:41). In correcting Martha, Jesus demonstrated sincere, compelling gentleness.
In addition to His example, Jesus also gave instructions about our approach to judging and correcting others. (Learn more in our online resources “What Did Jesus Mean by ‘Judge Not’?” “Can You See Your Spiritual Blind Spots?” and “Conflict Resolution: Should I Say Something?”)
As followers of Jesus, how can we correct others without burning our bridges? While one article cannot cover every factor, here are four important considerations.
1. Clarify your attitude (be motivated by love)
The overriding principle governing Christian behavior toward others is to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31). Often referred to as the Golden Rule, this ethic is valuable and unchanging. Paul emphasized, “Let all that you do be done with love” (1 Corinthians 16:14, emphasis added throughout).
This principle applies to giving correction. When God corrects, He roots it in love (Hebrews 12:6). Likewise, love must be at the center of any correction we offer.
Ask questions. And then patiently and actively listen. We must be willing to wisely and humbly accept when we’ve made a misjudgment.Correcting others can be emotionally charged—making room for pride, vanity, self-promotion, bitterness and anger to overwhelm good intentions—so we should approach correction carefully. Social media affords freedom to correct at a perceived distance, which often amplifies the worst attitudes.
When considering the need to correct someone, we should begin by clarifying our own attitude. We should take a moment—or even several days if possible—to prayerfully ascertain our motives. We need to be alert to any hint of vengeance or pride. Evaluating our own motivations or biases can help us avoid missteps. In some cases, we may need to fast and seek wise counsel to ensure we approach correction lovingly.
Paul instructed Timothy about the ministerial role: “A servant of the Lord must not quarrel but be gentle to all, able to teach, patient, in humility correcting those who are in opposition” (2 Timothy 2:24-25).
In this case, Paul was referring to correcting someone who had strayed from the faith. However, the cautionary advice to be gentle, patient and humble applies anytime correction is involved.
2. Practice discernment
Not every observed wrong or ill requires our correction. Christians should “seek peace and pursue it” (Psalm 34:14). We can choose to overlook many mistakes, blunders and offenses. Unnecessarily inserting ourselves into another’s quarrel is “like one who takes a dog by the ears” (Proverbs 26:17). Discerning when to correct and when to step aside is important.
Likewise, not every person is open to correction. Proverbs advises: “Don’t bother correcting mockers; they will only hate you. But correct the wise, and they will love you” (Proverbs 9:8, New Living Translation).
Christians must use wisdom to discern whom to approach. We don’t have to correct every social media user.
We should evaluate whether we have authority to correct. While Jesus had broad authority, we will witness wrongs that are outside our authority as Christians. Not even Jesus Himself corrected everything He witnessed.
Many ills—widespread corruption, crime, injustice, etc.—are outside our authority to correct. We must discern when we don’t have the authority to intervene and must focus on praying for the Kingdom of God to come.
Jesus’ discernment enabled Him to tailor correction individually. His sternness with Peter was what Peter needed. Similarly, His approach toward Martha was what she needed. Emulate this tailored approach. Paul coached Timothy to approach individuals thoughtfully and respectfully, tailoring correction to preserve their dignity whenever possible (1 Timothy 5:1-2).
It is important to note that it may not be appropriate or safe to address some situations directly or personally. Legal issues involving cases of abuse, neglect, trauma or violence may necessitate avoiding a direct confrontation. Law enforcement and professional counseling may be the appropriate remedy.
3. Check the facts—again!
Jesus had the ability to accurately and completely discern situations and the hearts of others. His correction was perfect. While that is a goal for Christians, we don’t have perfect discernment and insight into the hearts of others. We are limited in our ability to accurately perceive every situation. This is especially true in the foggy world of social media.
When approaching someone to offer correction, be willing to gain clarity on facts. Ask questions. And then patiently and actively listen. We must be willing to wisely and humbly accept when we’ve made a misjudgment.
Proverbs 18:17 cautions, “The one who first states a case seems right, until the other comes and cross-examines” (New Revised Standard Version). This is true even in the case of our own judgment. The story we tell ourselves—based on our own interpretation of events—may well seem right yet be proven wrong. Humility and patience will help us be better situated to receive feedback and adjust where necessary.
4. Begin with the end in mind
The last consideration regarding correction is to keep the end goal in mind. The intent of correction should not be to humiliate or embarrass. Instead, the primary goal is to facilitate change, forgiveness and, as much as possible, reconciliation.
Jesus obviously forgave Peter. After all, He later tasked Peter with feeding and caring for members of His Church (John 21:15-18). Jesus corrected Peter to bring him into harmony with God’s will.
When offering correction, keep this broad goal in mind. Christians should strive “to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3). This takes substantial effort when addressing contention or offenses.
Before correcting someone, prepare yourself to forgive and offer reconciliation.
The parable of the prodigal son effectively illustrates this (Luke 15:11-32). After the prodigal son reconciled with the father, the older son held on to pride, grief and anger. An unwillingness to forgive can lead to bitterness and a host of negative consequences. Be prepared to forgive and reconcile.
For especially tense or sensitive matters, several resources are available. Books such as Boundaries and Crucial Confrontations offer strategies for organizing our thoughts and emotions effectively.
Correction is generally done privately—out of love—not for spectacle. Jesus instructs, “Moreover if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone” (Matthew 18:15). The rest of that verse reinforces the principles of gentleness, patience and humility: “If he hears you, you have gained your brother.”
The desired intent is reconciliation.
Don’t burn your bridges
Correcting others is a delicate yet important part of a Christian life.
In some situations, even if we are gentle, patient and humble, the other party may not respond well. The other person may storm off, overreact or even pause the relationship. This can be emotionally draining. Continue to pray for wisdom and discernment on how best to proceed.
As Christians in progress, consider these four points when correcting others. You might just gain a brother instead of burning a bridge.