We are often told not to correct our neighbor’s sins. After all, doesn’t the Bible say, “Judge not, that ye be not judged?”
Yet according to Scripture—and according to St. John Chrysostom—silence is not always a Christian approach. We have a duty to reprove our neighbors for their sins, and to bring their works of darkness into the light, so that they might repent. This is an act of love; an act of salvation.
In his 18th homily on Ephesians, Chrysostom observes something important about the passage that reads, “Judge not, that ye be not judged.” St. John says these words are only in reference to very small errors. In other words, “Judge not” means don’t nitpick.
But when our Christian neighbors are engaged in open rebellion against God, sinning in grievous ways, we have a Christian duty to reprove, and to call our neighbors to repentance. Confronting sin is not only permitted for us, but also required:
And have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather even reprove them. For the things which are done by them in secret it is a shame even to speak of. But all things when they are reproved, are made manifest by the light. —Ephesians 5:11–13
Consider the following from Chrysostom’s homily on Ephesians:
He had said, “you are light.” Now the light reproves by exposing the things which take place in the darkness. So that if you, says he, are virtuous, and conspicuous, the wicked will be unable to lie hidden. For just as when a candle is set, all are brought to light, and the thief cannot enter; so if your light shine, the wicked being discovered shall be caught. So then it is our duty to expose them.
How then does our Lord say, “Judge not, that you be not judged” (Matthew 7:1-3)? Paul did not say “judge,” he said “reprove,” that is, “correct.” And the words, “Judge not, that you be not judged,” He spoke with reference to very small errors. Indeed, He added, “Why do you behold the mote that is in your brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in your own eye?”
But what Paul is saying is of this sort. As a wound, so long as it is imbedded and concealed outwardly, and runs beneath the surface, receives no attention, so also sin, as long as it is concealed, being as it were in darkness, is daringly committed in full security; but as soon as it is made manifest, becomes light; not indeed the sin itself, (for how could that be?) but the sinner. For when he has been brought out to light, when he has been admonished, when he has repented, when he has obtained pardon, have you not cleared away all his darkness? Have you not then healed his wound? Have you not called his unfruitfulness into fruit? Either this is his meaning, or else what I said above, that your life being manifest, is light. For no one hides an irreproachable life; whereas things which are hidden, are hidden by darkness covering them. . . .
“And have no fellowship,” he adds, “with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather even reprove them; for the things which are done by them in secret, it is a shame even to speak of; but all things when they are reproved are made manifest by the light.”
. . . Convict your brother, incur enmity for the love’s sake which you owe to Christ, for the love’s sake which you owe to your brother. Arrest him as he is on his road to the pit of destruction. For to admit him to our table, to treat him with civil speeches, with salutations, and with entertainments, these are no signal proofs of friendship. No, those I have mentioned are the boons which we must bestow upon our friends, that we may rescue their souls from the wrath of God. When we see them lying prostrate in the furnace of wickedness, let us raise them up.
. . . However, do thou your duty . . . Hide not your talent. It is for this that you have speech, it is for this you have a mouth and a tongue, that you may correct your neighbor. It is dumb and reasonless creatures only that have no care for their neighbor, and take no account of others. But do you while calling God, Father, and your neighbor, brother, when you see him committing unnumbered wickednesses, do you prefer his good-will to his welfare? No, do not so, I entreat you. There is no evidence of friendship so true as never to overlook the sins of our brethren. Did you see them at enmity? Reconcile them. Did you see them guilty of covetousness? Check them. Did you see them wronged? Stand up in their defense. It is not on them, it is on yourself you are conferring the chief benefit. It is for this we are friends, that we may be of use one to another. A man will listen in a different spirit to a friend, and to any other chance person. A chance person he will regard perhaps with suspicion, and so in like manner will he a teacher, but not so a friend.
. . . Wherefore, I entreat you, be ye never backward to reprove, nor displeased at being reproved. For as long indeed as anything is carried on in the dark, it is carried on with greater security; but when it has many to witness what is done, it is brought to light. By all means then let us do all we can to chase away the deadness which is in our brethren, to scatter the darkness, and to attract to us the Sun of righteousness. For if there be many shining lights, the path of virtue will be easy to themselves, and they which are in darkness will be more easily detected, while the light is held forth and puts the darkness to flight. Whereas if it be the reverse, there is fear lest as the thick mist of darkness and of sin overpowers the light, and dispels its transparency, those shining lights themselves should be extinguished. Let us be then disposed to benefit one another, that one and all, we may offer up praise and glory to the God of lovingkindness, by the grace and lovingkindness of the only begotten Son with whom to the Father, together with the Holy Ghost, be glory, strength, honor now and forever and forever. Amen.
—St. John Chrysostom, Homily 18
It is an act of Christian love to reprove our neighbors when they stray into serious error, as if rescuing someone from a burning building (Jude 1:22–23). There are of course different ways of doing this—and the same approach won’t necessarily work for everyone—but it is a holy and righteous calling all the same (cf. James 5:19–20).
May we all be mindful of one other, looking out for our brothers and sisters in faith.