I once heard Sam Crabtree, who wrote one of my favorite books “Practicing Affirmation”, say that he had thought of writing a follow-up volume about “Practicing Correction”. But he said that if he did so, it would need to be a much longer book. This is because Sam realizes that correcting people can be complicated. Jesus likens correcting people to taking a splinter or a speck out of someone’s eye – a delicate procedure to say the least (Matt. 7:5). Giving and receiving correction is always a sensitive subject. None of us enjoys having someone poke around in our eye. When the Apostle Paul tells us about our duty to restore one another he also emphasizes the importance of how we go about correcting one another. “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted” (Gal. 6:1). Paul reminds us that the purpose of correction is restoration, or repair, of a brother or sister. We come, not to vent, but to help as we bear our brother’s burdens (Gal. 6:2). Paul reminds us that those who correct must be “spiritual” – that is they should be walking in the Spirit (Gal. 5:16ff). Most correction takes place in a fleshly hurtful way because many people avoid confrontation until they are so angry that they blow up with an “outburst of anger” (Gal. 5:20). This often leads to a defensive response or even a counter-attack from the person being admonished. To confront spiritually means that we are characterized by love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Gal. 5:22-23).
I believe that the best way to gently and lovingly offer correction is to do it as personally as possible – ideally face-to-face, or at least in a context in which immediate two-way communication is possible — such as a phone conversation or video conferencing (Facetime, Skype, Zoom, etc.). Jesus taught that if your brother sins against you that you should “go” and tell him his fault (Matt. 18:15). I have seen much harm take place when impersonal correction has taken place (i.e., texts and emails).
Some of us prefer to write to the person who needs correction because it seems easier. We may not be confident in our ability to think on our feet in a conversation. Writing down our thoughts may help us to clearly express our concerns. Because conflict is hard it may seem safer to send an email or a letter as opposed to having to confront a brother or sister directly.
I am still convinced, however, that there are significant disadvantages to admonishing people in writing and there are huge advantages to personal confrontation (as hard as that may seem).
- We might say harsh careless things in writing (especially if we are worked up/angry) that we would not say to a person’s face.
- Meeting personally enables a greater depth of communication. Love, concern, and warmth can be expressed through tone of voice and facial expressions. The one who is offering correction can see how their words are impacting their brother or sister and can respond compassionately.
- Meeting personally gives opportunity for immediate clarification of possible misunderstandings. Written words can easily be misinterpreted.
- You can’t tell tone of voice in a text or email. Someone might be trying to add a touch of humor in a serious text, but if it’s read in the wrong tone of voice, it can have the opposite of the intended effect. Someone might be writing to you with what is in their head a very calm tone of voice, but if you’re already a bit defensive, you can read it hearing their angry voice in your head and take it the wrong way. Tone of voice can make all the difference; it’s best to hear their actual voice.
- If you believe that it is necessary to put your thoughts in writing, then present what you have written at the same time that you speak about your concerns. Or you could use what you have written down as notes when you are talking to your brother or sister. You may find, however, that you will soften what you have written when you are actually facing your brother or sister.
- If you are going to perform eye surgery (correction), do it correctly. Some may object that it is often inconvenient to arrange a personal meeting. My answer would be that if there is an issue which is important enough to correct, then it is important enough to do it the best possible way – lovingly and face-to-face. Instead of thinking about what is easier for you, think of what would be the kindest and gentlest way to approach and restore your brother or sister.
Many years ago I heard about a group of elders who made an agreement that if any of them had a significant concern or correction of another that it would never be done in an email or a text, but that it would always take place in person. I think that this is a wise approach not only for church leaders, but also for families and friends.
I became aware of a situation in which two Christian friends were conducting a disagreement through an email exchange. The emails typically consisted of a defense of one’s own position and a challenge (or attack) of the views of the other. With each iteration relationships were deteriorating. Finally, a personal meeting was arranged. In an hour, as they met face-to-face they were able to reaffirm and restore their friendship. They also were able to engage in a profitable dialog in which they were able to better understand, respect, and appreciate each other’s positions.I was convinced that they achieved more in this hour than could have been achieved in dozens of emails.
Finally, I want to address how we should respond when others correct us. When someone is coming to correct me, I recite Proverbs 9:8 to myself. “Do not reprove a scoffer, or he will hate you, reprove a wise man, and he will love you.” When we are being corrected we will often be tempted to defend ourselves and to counter-attack the person who is rebuking us. It is easy to focus upon how they don’t measure up to the standard they are setting for us, or how their manner of confronting us falls short of the biblical standard. Instead we should listen for what God may be telling us through this person.
So, if you think someone needs correction, consider talking to them personally rather than writing. On the other hand, I pray that God will help those of us being corrected to respond humbly (regardless of the approach), appreciating that it must be hard for a person to approach us with correction. Each of us is a sinner who needs correction. We should be thankful to have friends that love us enough to help. “Faithful are the wounds of a friend” (Prov. 27:6).
 This blog addresses conflicts which are of a private nature. There are situations in which someone has acted or written publicly to which a written and/or public response may be appropriate. Even then, I believe that it is wise to consider first going to the person privately to offer correction and to seek clarification before going public. Then, when you do respond to do so in a way which charitably seeks to assume the best, for “love hopes all things” (1 Co. 13:7).