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A Timely Topic That Addresses a Church in Need of Correction,
Yet Having the Responsibility to Correct

The Service of Correction as found in Scripture

by Raymond Brown


If, prima facie, service does not suggest prayer and suffering [See Brown on prayer and suffering on our web site] the correction of others is even less likely to be included when one opts for a life of service. This is singularly true in an age where correction is thought of as unchristian, despite its presence in both Jesus's and Paul's preaching. Some of Paul's harshness stems from his own fiery character and is not of the essence of apostolic correction. He is scarcely offering us a model of interpersonal relationship when he addresses the Galatians as fools (Gal 3:1) although one may wonder would he have been as effective if he were more diplomatic. Yet, leaving aside the outbursts of ire, one must still conclude from the Pauline letters that a good bit of his pastoral care consists in correcting abuses among Christians: abuses on a personal level (quarreling, uncharitableness, immorality); abuses on an ecclesiastical or communal level (divisions, lack of respect for the Eucharist); and abuses on a doctrinal level (inadequate appreciation of faith, inadequate Christ ology).

From the anguish that Paul expresses in Gal 4:20 and II Cor 12:20 we know that correction and the inevitable resentment that it produces was not easy for him. But his constant appeal to his apostolate in his letters of correction shows that for him it is a matter of apostolic duty and part of his service to Jesus Christ.

"My children," he writes to the Galatians whom he has just called fools, "I am in travail with you again until Christ be formed in you" (Gal 4:19)

We all find distasteful the picture of the priest whose sermons consist largely of scoldings and "don'ts" he soon makes a travesty of the mercy of Christ. But there is just as much a travesty in the priest who does not confront his people and challenge their standards because he is unwilling to pay the price of losing his popularity. Today many priests are willing to confront their people on the level of social and political evils (a confrontation long overdue), but there is less and less confrontation on matters of doctrine and personal morality. If and when it comes to the stage that priests hesitate to preach that private moral offenses (such as impurity) are sinful or that some novel ideas are doctrinally dangerous, then we shall have shifted radically from the Pauline idea of the service that an apostle must render to those for whom he is responsible. (Need I remark that in the past we have often been too free in labeling actions as sinful and in damning legitimate theological differences, but here I am talking about the principle of correction and confrontation) Paul himself wrestled with the objection that in such correction we may lose the love of those corrected, but at least from his own side he saw the correction itself as an act of love ("If I love you the more, am I to be loved the less?" II Cor 12:15).

Often for a priest a particularly anguishing moment in this problem of correction comes in turning away someone from the sacraments or "from the Church," generally in loyalty to the demands of canon law. This action is quite foreign to the modern understanding of care for others. Once again we all recognize that the resort to excommunication has been too frequent in the past and that any community preoccupied with excluding people is more a sect than a church. But granted the danger of abuse, we cannot escape the basic point at issue: Is the Christian message a two-edged sword that at times divides and turns away? If one voices the objection that exclusion belongs to God alone, he must face the fact that from its earliest days and with the approval of its most notable spokesmen the Church has exercised the power of exclusion, especially in doctrinal and moral matters. And so a protest against all excommunication is not simply a protest against canon law but against the preachers of the Gospel. No matter what shade of interpretation one gives to Matt 18:15-18, the passage is clear evidence of the antiquity of ecclesiastical procedure for a type of authoritative action against members of the community. Paul, the champion of Christian freedom, is extremely authoritarian when it comes to this matter: "If anyone refuses to obey what we say in this letter, not that man and have nothing to do with him, that he may be ashamed" (II Thess 3:14; see also I Cor 5:1-5). If this is not the side of Paul's character that we spontaneously remember, it is because he knew how to temper severity with love and that is not the least part of this lesson about correction that he teaches us (II Cor 2:7).