Correction. The word breeds conflict and discontent. Visions of iron bars. Shackles. Life sentences. Judgment. Yet, if you’re going to do anything in life like, oh, step outside your bedroom, you’ll eventually encounter an individual who clearly needs correction. (That encounter comes more quickly if you check the mirror before heading out.)
Managing conflict wisely is a hard-won skill acquired through painful trial and error – a/k/a choking on a lot of crow, washing it down with a shot of regret. We all walk around with so much hurt, need, desire, confusion, anger, and disappointment that the actions we take to cause conflict are often inexplicable to the ones we hurt.
It’s testament to my mother’s consistency that I can recite for you nearly every instance in the Bible where parents are given authority over their children, where they are instructed to train a child, to teach a child, to correct a child. What I don’t see in the scriptures are verses giving me authority as an adult to correct other adults.
Now before you go all Matthew 18 on me…well, okay, let’s go there. Matthew 18 says if a brother or sister sins against you…that Greek word for brother or sister is adelphos and refers to a fellow disciple. It’s the same word used in the same chapter – twice! – when we’re told to forgive our adelphos seventy-seven times, and to forgive from the heart. I’ve always thought this verse to reference Christians with whom I am in real relationship. For instance, if my girlfriend Denise at church with whom I text daily, suddenly sins against me, Matthew 18 instructs me to “go and tell her her fault, between her and me alone.” And steps are given if she doesn’t listen.
On the other hand, I don’t take Matthew 18 to instruct me to “go and tell” a fault to every Christian in my church, despite that fact that those Christians are brothers and sisters in the faith. Can you imagine the back and forth bickering that would ensue? “Sally Sue, your hemline was so short you should be ashamed. Christian ladies cover their legs at least to the knee.” “Well, Rebeca of Storybook Farm, Christian mothers stay home and raise their children. They do not have callings to fulfill outside the home in a job.” Oh my, I can just picture purses flying and high heels coming off while a weary pastor looks on.
No, Matthew 18 exists to protect and develop relationship with each other. If Denise commits a fault against me, it hurts. There is a break in our bond. Breaks have to be acknowledged or they fester into full-blown feuds. So, I’m instructed to go to Denise and make her aware of the fault she committed against me. (Love ya, Denise. Sorry you’re my guinea pig here.) If our friendship is truly based in love, it will pain Denise that she hurt me (intended or otherwise) and we’ll talk it through so that forgiveness is requested, given, and received. The relationship—like a broken bone now healed—is stronger for weathering the conflict.
It’s also important to see that Matthew 18 says to point out the fault (even KJV uses that word). Why is fault important enough to risk conflict among each other by pointing out? I think there’s a clue in Jude 1:24, “To him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy…” Being faultless is something Christ alone makes us. Learning to recognize fault in ourselves and eradicate it, then, makes our minds more like His. There is no greater goal than to be more like Him.
Pointing out fault, though, is not the same as correction. I see a big difference between, “Hey, I think it was wrong when you lashed out at me in anger. It hurt,” and “Hey, I think it was wrong when you lashed out at me in anger. You should have responded with kindness instead, remembering to love me even when speaking truth.” The latter involves correction. (Not to mention spines stiffening and hackles rising.)
When the Bible uses the word correction, it gives authority for such to God. Solomon talks repeatedly in Proverbs about the foolishness of not accepting correction. He never, though, ascribes the source of that correction to a human being. In fact, for humans with a desire to correct, Solomon says, “Whoever corrects a mocker invites insults; whoever rebukes the wicked incurs abuse.” (Prov 9:7) In Jeremiah, God is speaking to His people Israel and says, “In vain I punished your people; they did not respond to correction.” Later, Jeremiah says, “Lord, do not your eyes look for truth? You struck them, but they felt no pain; you crushed them, but they refused correction.” Accepting God’s correction is an action taken by those who love and respect the Lord. He’s clear about that all over the Bible. Check out Zephaniah 3:7, “Of Jerusalem I thought, Surely you will respect me and accept correction!”
The only Biblical instance I’ve ever found of adults being told to correct (reprove) adults comes from Paul’s first letter to Timothy—and even then it’s a reference to correcting an elder after three people have brought the same charge against him. I think sometimes Paul was just too tired to be writing in portions of this letter. I mean, he contradicts himself regarding widows (I Tim 5:11-12—young widows who marry are breaking their first pledge, then check out verse 15 where he tells young widows to marry. Notice I’m holding my tongue on the statements in between.). He tells us women to not wear gold or pearls, so there goes my wedding ring. There’s more, but I digress. The point here is that the one instance of an adult being instructed to correct (reprove) another adult is here…and it’s an instruction for when to publicly bring fault against an elder in the church.
“Semantics, Rebeca. What’s the point of all this?”
To me, whether we desire to point out fault to a fellow believer with whom we have relationship OR correct a fellow believer is an outward manifestation of an inward motivation. Pointing out fault requires vulnerability – admitting to someone that they have power to hurt you, or that their actions in your regard matter to you, have an effect on you. Pointing out that someone sinned against you opens you up for rejection. You wouldn’t take the risk if you didn’t love the person and value the relationship.
Correcting puts you in a position of authority. You can hide your hurt or embarrassment or pain within the cloak of “teacher” whose self-worth and identity are impervious to the fault-doer.
But only God stands alone from humans in identity. He made us dependent upon each other for relationship. He made us dependent upon relationship with Him. He is not dependent upon relationship with us. He allows us to exist in relationship with Him, but He doesn’t cease to be all He is without that relationship. We, however, do cease to exist as full creations when we are not in relationship with each other and Him.
And that very lack of dependence on us is what suits only Him for correction. (Incidentally, it’s also why parents are given authority to correct their children. A child’s actions toward a parent’s correction shouldn’t affect the parent’s self worth or identity.) God brings our faults against Him to our attention. He did so over and over in Scripture. He does so today—we put the term “conscience” on it most times. He gives us that opportunity to reject Him. Too often, we do. So, he knows that hurt of rejection to a degree far more than we ever will individually because He’s experienced it since the first human opened eyes and gazed upon planet Earth.
But His being doesn’t alter when He is rejected the way ours does. He is not vulnerable in that way; we are. Rejection does not change His motivations; it changes ours.
This is why Scripture shows a God who corrects. It requires complete removal of self-interest and pure, loving desire for the one at fault to be whole, even if that wholeness requires His pain. Humans do not eradicate self-interest when they are wronged. We do the opposite; we exalt self-interest and demand vengeance. We lose care for the one who wronged us. Our motivation for action shifts to self. God’s motivation remains what it has always been: loving us into the wholeness He alone provides.
Given the fiery discussion I recently had on this topic with a colleague, it’s probably a good guess that some out there think my position is nuts. Maybe I’m totally off base. Maybe I’m showing my immaturity as a believer (27 years is a long time to be a Christian, but a blink compared to others’ journeys.) or ignorance of Scriptures (I haven’t completely finished my re-read of the Bible yet this year!) or obsession with word choices (wordsmiths unite!). Here’s your chance to point out my fault.