Today, when things are arguably as bad or worse than in the first century, St. Paul’s anger might will flair at the silence of the Church—the clergy and the laity—in the face of public sin and error.
Indeed, one of the most forgotten virtues and obligations we have is the duty to correct the sinner; it is one of the Spiritual Works of Mercy. In his Summa Theologica, St. Thomas Aquinas describes it as an act of charity
[F]raternal correction properly so called, is directed to the amendment of the sinner. Now to do away with anyone’s evil is the same as to procure his good: and to procure a person’s good is an act of charity, whereby we wish and do our friend well (Summa Theologica II, IIae, 33.1).The world and the Devil have largely succeeded in shaming Christians from doing this essential work. When we call attention to someone’s sin or wrongdoing, we are said to be “judging” him or her. In a culture in which “tolerance” is one of the only virtues left, to “judge” is to commit a capital offense. “How dare you do such a thing?” the world protests. “Who are you to judge others?”
To be clear, there are some judgments that are forbidden us. For example, we cannot assess that we are better or worse than someone else before God. Neither can we always understand the ultimate culpability or inner intentions of another person as though we were God. Scripture says regarding judgments such as these: Not as man sees does God see, because man sees the appearance but the LORD looks into the heart (1 Sam 16:7). Further, we are instructed that we cannot make the judgment of condemnation. That is to say, we do not have the power or knowledge to condemn someone to Hell. God alone is judge in this sense. The same Scriptures also caution us against being unnecessarily harsh or punitive: Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. Stop judging and you will not be judged. Stop condemning and you will not be condemned. Forgive and you will be forgiven. … For the measure with which you measure will in return be measured out to you (Luke 6:36-38). So in this text from Luke’s Gospel, “to judge” means to condemn or be unmerciful, to be unreasonably harsh.
Another text that is often used by the world to forbid making “judgments” is from the Gospel of Matthew:
Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, “Let me take the speck out of your eye,” when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye (Matt 7:1-5).But pay careful attention to what this text is actually saying. First, as we have already seen the Luke’s Gospel, the word “judge” here is understood to mean to be unnecessarily harsh and punitive or condemning; the second verse makes this clear. To paraphrase verse two colloquially, “If you lower the boom on others, you will have the boom lowered on you. If you throw the book at others, it will be thrown at you.” Further, the parable that follows does not say that you shouldn’t correct sinners; it says that you should get right with God yourself and then you will see clearly enough to properly correct your brother.
Over and over again, Scripture tells us to correct the sinner. Far from forbidding fraternal correction, the Scriptures command and commend it. Here are some of those texts, along with a little of my own commentary in red:
- Jesus said, “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matt 18:15-18). Jesus instructs us to speak to a sinning brother and summon him to repentance. If the matter is serious, and private rebuke does not work, others who are trustworthy should be summoned to the task. Finally, the Church should be informed. If he will not listen even to the Church, then he should be excommunicated (treated as a tax collector or Gentile). Hence in serious matters, excommunication should be considered as a kind of medicine that will inform the sinner of the gravity of the matter. Sadly, this “medicine” is seldom used today, even though Jesus clearly prescribes it (at least in serious matters).
- It is actually reported that there is immorality among you, and of a kind that is not found even among pagans; for a man is living with his father’s wife. And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you. For though absent in body I am present in spirit, and as if present, I have already pronounced judgment in the name of the Lord Jesus on the man who has done such a thing. When you are assembled, and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus. Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. … I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with immoral men; not at all meaning the immoral of this world, or the greedy and robbers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. But rather I wrote to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or robber not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. “Drive out the wicked person from among you” (1 Cor 5). The Holy Spirit, speaking through Paul, commands that we “judge” the evildoer. In this case the matter is clearly serious (incest). Notice how the text says that the man should be excommunicated (handed over to Satan). Here, too, the purpose is medicinal. It is hoped that Satan will beat him up enough that he will come to his senses and repent before the day of judgment. It is also medicinal in the sense that the community is protected from bad example, scandal, and the presence of evil. The text also requires us to be able to size people up. There are immoral and unrepentant people with whom it is harmful for us to associate. We are instructed to discern this and not to keep friendly company with people who can mislead us or tempt us to sin. This requires a judgment on our part. Yes, some judgements are required of us.
- Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any sin, you who are spiritual should recall him in a spirit of gentleness. Look to yourself, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ (Gal 6:1-2). We are called to note when a person has been overtaken in sin and to correct him, but to do so in a spirit of gentleness. Otherwise, we may sin in the very process of correcting the sinner! Being prideful or unnecessarily harsh in our words is not the way to correct. The instruction is to be humble and gentle, but clear. It also seems that patience is called for, because we must bear the burdens of one another’s sin. We do this in two ways: First, we accept the fact that others have imperfections and faults that trouble us; and second, we bear the obligation to help others know their sin and of repent of it.
- My brethren, if any one among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins (James 5:19). The text is ambiguous as to whose soul is actually saved, but it seems that both the corrected and the corrector are beneficiaries of well-executed fraternal correction.
- You shall not hate your brother in your heart: You shall in any case rebuke your neighbor, and not suffer sin upon him (Lev 19:17). This text tells us that refusing to correct a sinning neighbor is actually a form of hatred. Instead, we are instructed to love our neighbors by not wanting sin to overtake them.
- If anyone refuses to obey what we say in this letter, note that man, and have nothing to do with him, that he may be ashamed. Do not look on him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother (2 Thess 3:14). Notice again that the medicine of rebuke—even to the point of refusing fellowship (in more serious matters)—is commanded. But note, too, that even a sinner does not lose his dignity; he is still to be regarded as a brother, not an enemy. A similar text says, We instruct you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to shun any brother who walks in a disorderly way and not according to the tradition they received from us (2 Thess 3:6).
- Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teach and admonish one another in all wisdom (Col 3:16). To admonish means to warn. If the Word of Christ is rich within us, we will warn when that becomes necessary. A similar text says, All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work (2 Tim 3:16). Reproof and correction are thus part of what is necessary to equip us for every good work.
- And we exhort you, brethren, admonish the unruly, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all (1 Thess 5:14). Fraternal correction is described here as admonishing, encouraging, and helping. We are also exhorted to patience in these works.
It is possible to correct a sinner poorly or even sinfully, but if we are to have any shame at all about proper fraternal correction, it should be that we have so severely failed in our duty to correct. Because of our failure in this regard, the world is much more sinful, coarse, and undisciplined. Too many people today are out-of-control, undisciplined, and even incorrigible. Too many are locked in sin and have never been properly corrected. The world is less pleasant, charitable, and teachable because of this; it is also more sinful and in greater bondage. To fail to correct is to fail in charity and mercy; it is to fail to be virtuous and to fail in calling others to virtue. We are all impoverished by our failure to correct the sinner.
He who winks at a fault causes trouble; but he who frankly reproves promotes peace (Proverbs 10:10).
A path to life is his who heeds admonition; but he who disregards reproof goes go astray (Proverbs 10:17).
- Msgr. Charles Pope