Should Adults Correct Adults?

22 Sep

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.


Posted by on September 22, 2011 in Life Lessons


5 responses to “Should Adults Correct Adults?

  1. Ava Pennington

    September 22, 2011 at 8:41 pm

    Wow, lots to ponder.

    I agree with much of what you said. Still, when we speak of humans correcting others, it’s possible to take too narrow a position based on the English translations of the corresponding Greek words. The difference may come as a result of the use of the specific word, “correct.” Synonyms are often used in our English translations.

    For example, in I Timothy 1:20, different versions translate “learn not,” or “taught” or “disciplined,” from the Greek “paideuo” which can mean educate, correct, or chastise.

    In Titus 1:9, Paul uses the word “elegcho,” which is translated convict, refute, or rebuke (depending on the English version you’re using). The definition is “convince of error…to reprove by chastisement, correct, chastise in a moral sense, train.”

    Another word often used in Scripture is “noutheteo,” which means to “warn, admonish, exhort.” Paul uses this word in Colossians 3:16 as a description of what we should all be doing within the body of Christ. It would seem that correction is strongly related to this word as well.

    I do agree that correction is not to be taken lightly. Too often, preferences and opinions are disguised as Biblical correction, leading to divisions and strife.

    As I said at the beginning of my comments, lots to ponder!

  2. Rebecca LuElla Miller

    September 22, 2011 at 11:34 pm

    Rebeca, I think your ideas about God correcting us and not fellow Christians are interesting, but it seems to me there are two more things to consider. One is when there is a chain of command in place — when one adult is in authority over another. My principal, for example, had every right, even an obligation, I believe, to correct me as a teacher on his staff. That would be so even if he weren’t a Christian. It’s the nature of authority, I think, that the person in the higher position should correct the one working for him.

    The other thing is specifically regarding Christians. James said in chapter five, “My brethren, if any among you strays from the truth and one turns him back, let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.” This “turning him back” would seem to involve more than simply telling him he sinned against me, don’t you think?

    Paul is a good example of this when he wrote to the Corinthian church and corrected them for tolerating the man living in sin. Of the man himself, he said “For I, on my part, though absent in body but present in spirit, have already judged him who has so committed this, as though I were present. In the name of our Lord Jesus, when you are assembled, and I with you in spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus, I have decided to deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of his flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.” [Emphasis mine]

    I’m not sure that falls under the word “correct,” but I think it works as an example of turning one from his sin. It seems to be an even stronger action to take.

    It seems to me that any action taken — confronting someone about a fault, correcting them, turning them from sin — needs to be motivated by the desire to bring repentance and reconciliation. Otherwise, it seems what James says earlier would be operative: “Do not complain, brethren, against one another, so that you yourselves may not be judged.”

    Not an easy matter, this relational stuff, that’s for certain.


  3. Rebecca LuElla Miller

    September 23, 2011 at 12:15 am

    The more I thought about this, I realized I’d written on this subject — a year and a half ago. In that post I mentioned another example of a Christian correcting a Christian. Paul told Peter he was sinning by his hypocritical treatment of the Gentile Christians once the Jewish Christians showed up.

    Paul corrected others in his letters, too. In Philippians, for example, he urged the two quarreling ladies to live in harmony with one another.

    Anyway, it’s an important and interesting subject. Thanks for such a thoughtful post, Rebeca.


  4. Sally Apokedak

    September 23, 2011 at 5:12 pm

    I don’t think you’re nuts, but I think your position on this issue is not entirely correct.

    Here’s why:

    Colossians 3:16 says: Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.

    Teaching and admonishing are both corrective.

    As we let the word of Christ dwell in us richly as we teach and admonish one another, it is clear that the word is the corrective agent. So your point about God correcting you is a good one. He corrects you by his word.

    This fits with 2 Timothy 3:16 & 17 which says: All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work. (I take that to mean all scripture, even the scripture that God wrote through tired apostles.) 😉

    If we are not elder/under-shepherds, we don’t have a special calling to exercise authority over other sheep, but we are all commanded to submit to one another (Ephesians 5:21), which means, at the least, that we are to yield to the authority of scripture, when our brother presents it to us.

    This is why brothers are so important. One time I’m weak and blind to my sin and I need someone to love me enough to show me from scripture that I’m sinning. The next week I am strong and my brother is weak. We are all sinners and we all have blind spots that we need others to point out.

    To effectively bring someone to repentance, I think I must say more than, “I think you were wrong when you lashed out at me in anger. It hurt.” It doesn’t matter what I think. I must show a person from scripture his sin if I want him to change for the right reasons. If he changes just to stop my hurt feelings, the change won’t last. He needs his heart changed as he hears from God’s word.

    So we should first search our own hearts, and ask God to expose in us any sin on our part, and then we should go to our brother and ask him to forgive us if we have sinned. After that, if we still need to correct a sinning brother, we need to use the word of God and say something like, “You sinned when you lashed out at me in anger, because God says in the book of James that we are to be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry. I love you, and I forgive you for hurting me, and I’m not telling you this because I’m injured, but because I want you to be happy and healthy and in obedient communion with God.”

    That doesn’t put the one who is doing the correcting in an authoritative position. It puts the Bible in the authoritative position and it puts the one delivering the message in the position of servant.

    Most people don’t correct us this way, and we most often don’t correct others this way, but it is what we shoot for. Because in the end, Cain was wrong: We are all our brothers’ keepers. It’s how God set up the church.

  5. Rebeca Seitz

    March 20, 2012 at 2:38 am

    Hey, ladies! Thanks very much for your fantastic, thoughtful replies to this post. I read them when they came in, made a mental note to reflect and respond and, well, we see how effective my mental notes are!

    You each gave me a lot more to think through. I totally agree that all scripture is God-breathed and useful for teaching, correction, etc. Emphasis on scripture, though. Is it necessary for us to point it out to each other? Is it more effective to let scripture speak for itself? Maybe that answer relies, in part, on the personality and relationship at hand.

    Maybe the Colossians reference requires us to admonish and teach each other…which effectively requires us to receive teaching and correction from each other. (I tend to think we could spend a lifetime just trying to live out the first 15 verses of that chapter.) A different translation, though, says, “Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts.”

    So teaching and admonishing should be done through song? Now THAT would be tough to take offense at, wouldn’t it?! Just imagine. Henceforth, I would like to require ALL my earthly correction be delivered in four-part harmony. Ha!

    Rebecca – I’m also in complete agreement with those in authority having the responsibility to correct. This post was more about how we, as “peers” of each other, handle it when a wrong is done by a fellow believer and it affects us personally. I’m still noodling over the Paul reference to handing someone over to Satan for the destruction of his flesh so that his spirit is saved. You’ve got me runnin’ to my reference books and chattin’ with God – both fantastic things to have motivated, so thanks!!


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