Fraternal correction is the counselling of one’s neighbour by a private individual with the purpose of reforming him or, if possible, preventing his sinful indulgence. Do we still practice fraternal correction today? Won’t we be accused of judging others when we point out their sins or wrongdoings? Shouldn’t we take the log out of our eye before trying to remove the speck from our brother’s eye? (Cf. Matt 7:1-5) Who are we to judge others? Shouldn’t we be more tolerant of the faults of others?
It is a challenge to practice fraternal correction in a culture where tolerance is given a higher priority than upholding of Gospel values. Moreover, a new wave of teaching known as hyper-grace has rendered fraternal correction unfashionable and redundant. Hyper-grace teachers “pervert the grace of our God into a license for immorality” (Jude 1:4) and flirt with antinomianism.
Antinomianism is the heretical doctrine that Christians are exempt from the obligations of moral law. The fifteenth chapter of the decree on Justification published by the sixth session of the Council of Trent in 1547 condemns antinomianism. In spite of that, antinomianism is still being advocated by some mega-churches today under the cover of hyper-grace. Hyper-grace teachers maintain that all sin, past, present, and future, has already been forgiven, so there is no need for a believer to ever confess it. Hyper-grace teaching says that, when God looks at us, He sees only a holy and righteous people. The conclusion of hyper-grace teaching is that we are not bound by Jesus’ teaching, even as we are not under the Law; that believers are not responsible for their sin; and that anyone who disagrees is a pharisaical legalist.
Let us take a closer look at what scripture and the Church fathers have to say before we choose to agree or disagree with the antinomians. In Matthew 18:5, Jesus says: “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.” Jesus also corrects his disciples on several occasions, as the Gospels show us: He reproves them when they are jealous of someone else casting out demons in His name (Cf. Mark 9:38-40); He rebukes Peter firmly because his way of thinking is not God’s but men’s (Cf. Matthew 16:23); He redirects James and John’s misguided ambition, affectionately correcting their mistaken understanding of the kingdom he announces, while acknowledging their courageous readiness to “drink of his cup”. (Cf. Matthew 20:20-23)
Starting from Jesus’ teaching and example, fraternal correction has become a sort of Christian family tradition that has been practiced in the Church from the earliest times. It is a duty not only of justice but of love. Among the recommendations given by St. Paul to the Christians at Corinth is to “exhort one another” (Cf. 2 Corinthians 13:11). Many passages in the New Testament witness to the watchfulness of the shepherds of the Church to correct the abuses that were working their way into some of the first Christian communities. (Cf. Romans 6:1-2; James 2; 2 Peter 2) St. Ambrose testified to the practice of fraternal correction when he wrote, in the fourth century, “If you discover some defect in a friend, correct him privately (…) For corrections do more good and are more profitable than friendship that keeps silent. If the friend is offended, correct him just the same, firmly and without fear, even though the correction tastes bitter to him. It is written in the Book of Proverbs that wounds from a true friend are preferable to kisses from flatterers (Proverbs 27:6).” (St. Ambrose, De officiis ministrorum III, 125-135) And St. Augustine also warns against the grave fault entailed in omitting to offer this help to one’s neighbour: “You do worse by keeping silent than he does by sinning.” (Cf. St. Augustine, Sermon 82, 7)
The natural basis for fraternal correction is the need for others to help us attain our goal, because we can’t see ourselves objectively, nor is it easy to recognize our faults. Christians need their brothers and sisters in the faith to do them the favour of fraternal correction. Together with other essential helps – prayer, mortification, good example – the practice of fraternal correction is a fundamental means for reaching holiness, and contributes to the spreading of the Kingdom of God in the world. “He who heeds instruction is on the path to life, but he who rejects reproof goes astray.” (Proverbs 10:17)
Fraternal correction is not the outcome of irritation at another’s faults, or of offended pride or wounded vanity. Love is the only possible motive for fraternally correcting our neighbour. As St. Augustine teaches, “we must correct out of love, not out of a desire to hurt, but with the loving intention of helping the person’s amendment. If we act like that, we will be fulfilling the commandment very well – “if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone.” Why do you correct him? Because you are upset that he has offended you? God forbid. If you do it out of self-love, your action is worthless. If it is love that moves you, you are acting excellently.” (St. Augustine, Sermon 82, 4)
Christians have the duty to correct their neighbour fraternally as a grave requirement of the virtue of charity. (Cf. CCC, no. 1829) In the Old Testament we find examples where the Lord God reminds the prophets of this duty, as in the case of Ezekiel. “So you, son of man, I have made a watchman for the house of Israel; whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you shall give them warning from me. If I say to the wicked, ‘O wicked man, you shall surely die,’ and you do not speak to warn the wicked to turn from his way, that wicked man shall die in his iniquity, but his blood I will require at your hand. But if you warn the wicked to turn from his way, and he does not turn from his way, he shall die in his iniquity, but you will have saved your life.” (Ezekiel 33:7-9)
The same idea appears in the New Testament. The Apostle James says, “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 5:19-20) And St. Paul considers fraternal correction as the best way to bring back someone who has strayed from the path: “If anyone refuses to obey what we say in this letter (…) do not look on him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother.” (2 Thessalonians 3:14-15; Cf. Galatians 6:1) We cannot be passive or indifferent towards our neighbour’s faults. Still less can we indulge in complaining or angry accusation. “Friendly correction is more beneficial than violent accusation. The first inspires compunction, but the second only arouses indignation.” (St. Ambrose, quoted in Catena Aurea, vol. VI)
I have watched the musical Les Misérables many times, and the conversion scene involving Bishop Myriel and Jean Valjean never failed to touch me. I think it is the best example of fraternal correction ever portrayed in novel, stage musical, and film.
Here is a video clip of the scene where the gendarmes bring Jean Valjean to the Bishop, accusing him of robbery. The Bishop shocks everyone, Valjean most of all, by talking as if he had given the silver to Valjean, including the Bishop’s beloved silver candlesticks. He then gave Valjean the best fraternal correction ever, not condemning him, but advising him to use the precious silver to become an honest man. Grace and truth always work together. True grace affirms the importance of the moral law. This scene reminds me of the Gospel story of Jesus and the woman caught in adultery (Cf. John 8:3-11). Jesus did not condemn the woman but told her to “go, and from now on sin no more” (v 11).
Even a hardened convict like Jean Valjean could not resist the grace and mercy of God and exclaimed: “And why did I allow this man to touch my soul and teach me love”. His heart-wrenching conversion experience is portrayed in the following video clip.
This story is not all about grace and more grace. It is about grace and truth. Yes, the Bishop spared Valjean another jail term but the grace and mercy he showed did not nullify the truth that Valjean’s theft was a sin. He was breaking the moral law and for his own good needed to stop. Bishop Myriel knew if Valjean continued in that sort of behaviour the moral law would prevent him from having what he really wanted: a clear conscience and a new lease of life. This story clearly demonstrates that grace does not excuse sin; grace is God giving us another chance to obey the law. Because until we do so, sin will continue to break us, and our society will fall apart.
Grace needs law and law needs grace. Jesus, who is full of grace and truth (John 1:14), did not ask us to choose between them. He wants us to appreciate both law and grace, for it is in that balance a consistent God-glorifying life in Christ is lived out. May we make the right choice in rejecting the doctrine of hyper-grace or antinomianism.