The occasional, often ill-considered thoughts of a Roman Catholic permanent deacon who is ever grateful to God for his existence. Despite the strangeness we encounter in this life, all the suffering we witness and endure, being is good, so good I am sometimes unable to contain my joy. Deo gratias!

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Fraternal Correction

The Samaritan woman
The other day I was asked by a parishioner if it were okay for a Christian to correct another Christian who had fallen into sinful habits that were leading him astray spiritually. My short answer was, "Yes...just be careful." She then asked for a scriptural reference on the subject. I suggested she turn to Matthew 18 (see below) where Jesus provides a three-step approach to fraternal correction.

Later, as I thought about the times I hadn't handled this necessary but challenging task of correction very well myself, I decided it might be a worthy topic to explore here on the blog.

First of all, fraternal correction is required of us and is actually listed among the Spiritual Works of Mercy. Too often the world (Satan) convinces us to avoid this essential work of the Christian. We are accused of “judging” whenever we call attention to another's sin: “Who made you my judge?" We must realize, however, that correction is by no means the same as judgment.

Certainly we should avoid certain judgments. We can never condemn another because God alone is judge regarding our salvation. Neither can we see into another person's heart as God can; therefore, in humility we can never consider ourselves as better (or worse) than someone else in God's eyes. As scripture tells us: "But the LORD said to Samuel: Do not judge from his appearance or from his lofty stature, because I have rejected him. God does not see as a mortal, who sees the appearance. The LORD looks into the heart" [1 Samuel 16:7].  And we should never be overly harsh in our correction. As Christ instructed us: "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. Give and gifts will be given to you; a good measure, packed together, shaken down, and overflowing, will be poured into your lap. For the measure with which you measure will in return be measured out to you" [Luke 6:36-38].

It's important, however, to realize that by telling us not to judge, Jesus doesn't mean we shouldn't exercise fraternal correction. Jesus is telling us not to condemn others. He's telling us to be merciful. And He's telling us that we should approach correction with patience and love.
Jesus and the adulteress

Jesus also tells us:  "Stop judging, that you may not be judged. For as you judge, so will you be judged, and the measure with which you measure will be measured out to you. Why do you notice the splinter in your brother’s eye, but do not perceive the wooden beam in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me remove that splinter from your eye,’  while the wooden beam is in your eye? You hypocrite, remove the wooden beam from your eye first; then you will see clearly to remove the splinter from your brother’s eye" [Matthew 7:1-5].

We must pay careful attention to what Jesus says here. Again, He is not telling us to avoid correcting sinners, but rather to get right with God first. Have we repented of and confessed our own sins? Do our own lives reflect our love for God and neighbor, our obedience to His commandments? Then we will be given the grace to see clearly how God wants us to correct our brother or sister, to "remove the splinter" from his eye.

In truth, Scripture tells us time and again to correct the sinner. Here are just a few of the passages in which we are told to correct our brothers and sisters in Christ.

In the New Testament
"If your brother sins [against you], go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have won over your brother. If he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, so that ‘every fact may be established on the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If he refuses to listen to them, tell the church. If he refuses to listen even to the church, then treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector. Amen, 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. Again, [amen,] I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything for which they are to pray, it shall be granted to them by my heavenly Father. For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them[Matthew 18:15-20].
"Be on your guard! If your brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him. And if he wrongs you seven times in one day and returns to you seven times saying, ‘I am sorry,’ you should forgive him" [Luke 17:3-4].
"Brothers, even if a person is caught in some transgression, you who are spiritual should correct that one in a gentle spirit, looking to yourself, so that you also may not be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so you will fulfill the law of Christ" [Galatians 6:1-2].
"Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, as in all wisdom you teach and admonish one another, singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God" [Colossians 3:16].
"Reprimand publicly those who do sin, so that the rest also will be afraid." [1 Timothy 5:20].
"All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for refutation, for correction, and for training in righteousness..." [2 Timothy 3:16]."I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingly power: proclaim the word; be persistent whether it is convenient or inconvenient; convince, reprimand, encourage through all patience and teaching. For the time will come when people will not tolerate sound doctrine but, following their own desires and insatiable curiosity, will accumulate teachers and will stop listening to the truth and will be diverted to myths" [2 Timothy 4:1-2].
Do you love me, Peter?
We ask you, brothers, to respect those who are laboring among you and who are over you in the Lord and who admonish you, and to show esteem for them with special love on account of their work. Be at peace among yourselves. We urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, cheer the fainthearted, support the weak, be patient with all. See that no one returns evil for evil; rather, always seek what is good [both] for each other and for all. Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing. In all circumstances give thanks, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus. Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise prophetic utterances. Test everything; retain what is good. Refrain from every kind of evil" [1 Thessalonians 5:12-22].
"If anyone does not obey our word as expressed in this letter, take note of this person not to associate with him, that he may be put to shame. Do not regard him as an enemy but admonish him as a brother. [2 Thessalonians 3:14-15].
The rich young man -- Jesus looked on him with love
"For there are, indeed, many who are disobedient, who speak empty words, and who deceive, especially those who are of the circumcision. These must be reproved, for they subvert entire houses, teaching things which should not be taught, for the favor of shameful gain. A certain one of these, a prophet of their own kind, said: 'The Cretans are ever liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons.' This testimony is true. Because of this, rebuke them sharply, so that they may be sound in the faith, not paying attention to Jewish fables, nor to the rules of men who have turned themselves away from the truth" [Titus 1:10-14].
"Say these things. Exhort and correct with all authority. Let no one look down on you" [Titus 2:15].
"After a first and second warning, break off contact with a heretic..." [Titus 3:10]
"My brothers, if anyone among you should stray from the truth and someone bring him back, he should 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 5:19-20].
"Since you have purified yourselves by obedience to the truth for sincere mutual love, love one another intensely from a [pure] heart" [1 Peter 1:22].
"Now who is going to harm you if you are enthusiastic for what is good? But even if you should suffer because of righteousness, blessed are you. Do not be afraid or terrified with fear of them, but sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts. Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope, but do it with gentleness and reverence, keeping your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who defame your good conduct in Christ may themselves be put to shame" [1 Peter 3:13-16].
 In the Old Testament
"You shall not hate any of your kindred in your heart. Reprove your neighbor openly so that you do not incur sin because of that person" [Leviticus 19:17].
"Discipline seems bad to those going astray; one who hates reproof will die" [Proverbs 15:10].
"You, son of man—I have appointed you as a sentinel for the house of Israel; when you hear a word from my mouth, you must warn them for me.When I say to the wicked, 'You wicked, you must die,' and you do not speak up to warn the wicked about their ways, they shall die in their sins, but I will hold you responsible for their blood. If, however, you warn the wicked to turn from their ways, but they do not, then they shall die in their sins, but you shall save your life [Ezekiel 33:7-9].

Open and public sinfulness by another Christian certainly merits correction, just as ignorance on important matters of faith and morals merits instruction. But we must be careful about correcting others on things that really merit no correction at all. I have heard people complaining about and attempting to correct others because of disagreements on certain spiritual matters. Spiritually, the Catholic Church is a mansion with many rooms, each with its own approach to prayer and spirituality. For example, Ignatian, Franciscan and Dominican approaches to spirituality are very different, and each can aid the believer on his journey to salvation, but none is necessary. Let's save our correction for that which is truly essential: repentance for and forgiveness of ones sins; the grace of the sacraments, especially baptism, reconciliation and the Eucharist; and a life in the fulfillment of God's command to love Him and our neighbor. These alone keep me busy just correcting myself.

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