1. Fraternal correction is an act of Christian charity. To practice it marks a believer as mature. At the same time, fraternal correction is not always easy. To take another person aside with the intent of correcting their faults is not always well received. We live in a culture in which no one really likes to be told what to do. And for many people, any form of criticism is viewed as form of hatred or even violence. Yet such a view is not really mature, even if we must contend with it.
2. To correct another person, to admonish their faults may be uncomfortable for us, but scripture indicates that it is absolutely necessary. Through the prophet Ezekiel, the Lord has told us that those who know better, those who have authority also have the obligation to speak the truth and to warn those who may be set on the wrong path toward sin. Which parent here would stand by calmly and silently while their infant child stuck his or her hand in a light socket or into the fire on the stove? Who here would remain silent while their best friend accidentally drank deadly poison? Would we consider silence in these circumstances as good manners? Or would a word of warning be more proper? Yet in the moral life, there is much more at stake than electrocution or even painful death by poison. There is the risk of losing our eternal soul to the second death- the fires of hell.
3. With this in mind, our Lord has told us that we are all responsible in some part for one another. We cannot control the actions of another person, but we can offer them the help of admonishing them before it is too late. Jesus said to whom more is given, more will be expected. And as members of Christ’s Body and the adopted children of God, we cannot remain silent when our brothers and sisters are risking their souls in sin. If we do, God may hold us responsible for the sins of others. (I do not know about you, but I have enough problems of my own. I do not need to be responsible for someone else’s sins.)
4. Of course, one of the problems with correcting or admonishing another person is that to be an act of charity it must be the fruit of a loving heart. And it must be conducted in a loving manner. So Jesus tells us how we are to go about it. He says, first If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. Taking someone aside alone is essential to preserving their good name and preserve their dignity before others. To correct parents in front of their children or husbands in front of their wives or vice versa or a teacher in front of the students could really damage their relationship with others. Besides, many times a person does not even know that they have done something wrong. They may have never had that intention or even been trying to avoid the very thing which they are accused of doing. There may be an explanation or a circumstance which we do not know about. If we were to first bring it up in public, it might be an injustice.
5. A couple of years ago I read a book which intended to help people say whatever was on their minds to others, even in a crucial situation. The first tenet of the author was that you had to make it safe for the person to hear. If they felt unsafe for whatever reason, they would not hear what you had to say and you would have to back track. Fraternal correction is not a place to bring up old hurts, or a list of faults, or to condemn, belittle or destroy another person. Jesus Himself said that He did not come to condemn but to save, and He is the judge of the world. Correction is a time in which someone who cares genuinely seeks the good of another and calls them to holiness.
6. Some years ago, there was some crisis or other and a parishioner called me on the phone to discuss it for an hour. Although this person made several good points and reasonable criticisms, it felt like they yelled at me. At the end of the call, I was exhausted and very upset. Just then the doorbell rang and another parishioner wanted to talk about the same crisis. As it turned out, they gave me the exact same criticism. At the end of an hour, however, I knew that I had found a friend who would always speak the truth to me in charity. To this day, the latter is a valuable friend from whom I welcome criticism. The former is someone with whom I am polite, but with whom I avoid having an extended or serious conversation.
7. Jesus continues by saying that only after a personal encounter fails are we to bring in others. And they are to be witnesses to the problem we are trying to solve. Jesus does not say it, but these witnesses also need to have charity in their hearts. If the witnesses fail to convince someone to change, then it is time to bring the problem into the public eye through the ministry of the Church- that is, into the family of the children of God who will try to resolve it as ones who are loyal to one another. Only when a person has rejected the Body of Christ which is the Church can we ignore them.
8. Sometimes it is very difficult to follow this advice. It is so much easier to drag our problems out into the open immediately without trying to resolve them in a patient manner.
9. Even scripture acknowledges that correction will not always be accepted. Even though Jesus died for all people, there were a few who did not seem to want to hear His words, even though they meant eternal life. And so it will be the same with us. Not everyone will appreciate our desire for their good. There are even places where free speech is curtailed if it is in the least in disagreement with certain lifestyles and actions.
10. But there is one place in which we can control how fraternal correction is received. And that is within ourselves. Not only do we have the duty to correct, but we also have the duty to allow ourselves to be corrected. Sometimes we are the ones who have erred, and are in need of being “won over” by another. And that too is a characteristic of a mature Christian. Humility is part of true greatness.
11. The key to correction of others which is truly fraternal is the same key to being silent and praying for someone with all our strength. And that key is the love of Christ. Each day we need to put Jesus first. We need to desire His will above our own and make loving God the center or our lives. And if the love Christ dwells in us, then whether we speak or not, it will always be the right decision.