Public Disagreement, Debate, and Correction are Biblical!

When Christians avoid principled conflict on things that matter because of fear of disunity and division, they cripple the church in three ways. First, Scripture commands that we guard the truth within our ranks; where arguments are few, error abounds. Second, believers are denied the opportunity to learn how to argue among themselves in a fair, reasonable, and gracious way. Third, the outcome for fight-phobic churches is not genuine oneness, but a contrived unanimity, a shallow and artificial peace.
– Greg Koukl

In some Christian circles, public disagreement, debate, and correction are seen as anathema. These Christians believe that we introduce division by allowing disagreements and public correction, and that we weaken our testimony to non-Christians. Others believe that public correction or dispute is unbiblical. Why?

I don’t claim to know every possible reason someone might oppose public disagreements, debate, and correction. However, a succinct summation of one line of reasoning to that effect can be found in a message a pastor sent to me. (To give some context to the following discussion, I want to clarify that the “protesting publicly” to which the pastor refers was a conversation under someone’s Facebook post in which I attempted to explain that certain elements of the method of evangelism she was promoting were unbiblical, and that the attitudes undergirding those methods were also unbiblical. I was not attempting to rebuke sin, and I did attempt to clarify several times that I was not attacking either the woman or her ministry.)

The pastor wrote:

Either way, protesting publicly on [his parishioner’s] posts can’t be justified biblically. Paul’s public rebuke of Peter doesn’t justify it. Paul doesn’t even [I believe he meant “ever” here] suggest that we emulate his actions and was given to making relational mistakes because of his zeal. He did so concerning John Mark and scriptural evidence proves so. A more biblical approach is demonstrated by Priscilla and Aquila, who brought Apollos into their home (privately) for correction.

My Response:

Before I start in on the relevant scriptures, let’s look at the overall flow of reasoning here. The proper standpoint is not that something is prohibited unless explicitly permitted by scripture, but rather the other way around; Christians have liberty save where it is restricted by scripture. Restriction of a Christian’s liberties by scripture may be either explicit or implicit and, of course, the explicit restrictions tend to be viewed as more firm and well-defined than the implicit ones, though of course all are important.

Because of that order of reasoning, the default position is not that I should not correct publicly, but that I may do so unless scripture explicitly or implicitly restricts me from doing so. It is consequently necessary for you to show that such restriction exists, if you wish to claim that my actions are unbiblical. Of course, you believe you have done so but, as we will see by going through the scriptures, you have not. Since failing to show a scriptural restriction on my actions will default to Christian liberty, I would not need any further argument to defend myself. However, I believe I can strengthen the case that scripture actually shows that my actions are appropriate, which should put the matter to rest fairly straightforwardly.

All of that being said, let’s turn to the scriptures. The only positive example you used to support the case that private correction is “ more biblical” is that of Priscilla and Aquila. Now saying that Priscilla and Aquila demonstrate the “more biblical” approach is somewhat question-begging, since the issue at hand is whether such a biblical model exists and, if so, what that model is. In other words, to say that an approach to a particular topic is “more biblical” is only meaningful if one already has at least some idea (with scriptural evidence) what the “biblical method” is. So the example with Apollos is already off to a rocky start.

The problems continue, however, when we start using your own criteria to evaluate the Apollos example. You point out that Paul never admonishes us to emulate him, and yet that point could be made even more strongly in regard to the situation with Apollos. Paul, at least, is writing to the Galatians specifically to give instruction when he tells us in Galatians 2 of his dispute with Peter. But Luke is simply writing narrative, which is sometimes descriptive of behaviors not meant to be emulated at all. If you would use the fact that Paul does not instruct us to emulate him in Galatians 2 as a point against using his conflict with Peter as justification for public correction, then you will have to grant that your point applies even more to the Apollos example. In that case, Priscilla and Aquila could not be used to establish a mandate *against* public correction.

But we’re not done yet, because we haven’t looked at any of the specifics of the Apollos example. Acts 18:26 does not indicate that they took him aside privately, but rather that they took him to themselves. The particular verb, G4355 “proslambano” can be translated as “to take as one’s companion,” “to take by the hand in order to lead aside,” “to receive into one’s home” as with kindness, “to take into friendship,” etc, depending on the translation. While some of these have connotations of privacy, others do not. Even if we were to insist that it means that they took him aside privately, there are multiple possible motivations and reasonable explanations for Priscilla and Aquila’s actions. They may have simply judged that there were enough voices in the synagogue at the moment. It may be, as some have taken it, that Priscilla was the one that did the instruction, which would not have been permitted in the synagogue because she was a woman. It may have been that they heard Apollos debating with heckling Jews and waited until they had a chance for his full attention or time for a longer explanation. What we clearly *don’t have* is a simple statement saying that they took him aside privately because that is the way such correction is supposed to take place. That conclusion is something you projected into the text. Another final feature to note about this verse is that it doesn’t say that they even corrected him, but rather that they explained the gospel more fully (perfectly or completely)– the implication from the text being that they did this by giving him the rest of the story of Jesus (his death and resurrection). This explanation may well have take more time than they would have had if they had merely attempted to shout the rest of the story of Jesus to him when he was already in another discussion.

This implication that they didn’t actually correct him is more evident when we look outside the verse itself to its immediate context, where we find that Apollos was speaking and teaching *accurately* about Jesus in verse 25. Of course, the added information from Priscilla and Aquila helped, and the chapter closes out with Apollos powerfully refuting the Jews publicly. So it was apparently fine for Apollos to be powerfully refuting – not just correcting – the Jews *in public*. You may then try to say that Apollos was not correcting fellow believers there, but the point remains that, at least when interacting with non-Christians, publicly refuting them seems to have been fine. The text does not hint that this public refutation of non-believers was condemned, but rather “he greatly helped those who had believed through grace” (v. 27) by his actions. This also obviously plays into the discussion regarding your parishioner’s methodology as well.

So much for the positive example of Priscilla and Aquila. Now let’s turn to the supposedly negative example of Paul. Unfortunately, this example doesn’t fair any better in showing that we ought not correct believers in public. You specifically say that Paul was prone to making relational mistakes because of his zeal. Contrary to your claim, this is not at all demonstrated by the scriptures. Consider the example of John Mark you mentioned. What we know from Luke in Acts 15:27-39 is simply that there was a sharp enough disagreement that they parted ways, and that this was because Barnabas wanted to take John Mark along while Paul thought that wouldn’t be good. The text does not lay blame at Paul’s feet, and it is clear that Barnabas was just as firm in his insistence that they take John Mark, since otherwise Paul would simply have had his way. The text also does not indicate that it was wrong that they decided to go separate ways. So saying that “scriptural evidence proves so” is overreaching the text significantly. We simply can’t glean that from the text; it may very well be that Barnabas was incorrect and Paul correct in seeking to leave John Mark behind.

You could attempt to make a case that Paul later regretted his decision, but that is also pure speculation with no evidence to support it. We know that in a few other places Paul does reference John Mark in his letters, but he does not indicate that he was wrong to have decided not to take him, and the mere fact that John Mark did, eventually, grow to be someone that Paul could rely on as a co-laborer does not imply that Paul made a relational mistake. We may as well, based on the text, claim that it was Barnabas who made the relational mistake – but there isn’t actually an implication that *either* of them made a relational mistake.

Without an example of Paul being rash and making a relational mistake with John Mark and Barnabas, the claim that Paul was “prone” to relational mistakes evaporates. You can now only try to claim that Paul made a relational mistake in correcting Peter. Interestingly, when we examine the interaction as Paul describes it in Galatians 2, we see a hint that perhaps it was actually Barnabas who was led astray by his relationships, since “even Barnabas was led astray” by the hypocrisy of the Judaizers. This would tend to argue for the conclusion that Paul respected Barnabas even after their split, but that Barnabas did have some capacity for being led astray by others. The respect is evidenced by the fact that Paul says, “even Barnabas” and the capacity for being led astray is obvious.

When we look at how Paul describes his interaction with Peter in Galatians 2:11-14, there is not the slightest hint that Paul thought his actions were wrong. In fact, in the context of the larger message of Galatians he is using this story to build his case that 1) his message was the same gospel preached by the big three (Peter, James and John), and that 2) his defense of the gospel of grace before Peter and the Judaizers was the same explanation of the gospel of Grace he had previously expounded and was now again defending to the Galatians. Far from reflecting on his actions towards Peter with shame or regret, we see that he is actually describing a situation where he believes he did the right thing. If this is the case, then we needn’t look for a suggestion by Paul that we emulate his actions. It is enough that Paul, in describing his own actions, approves of them directly in scripture.

Speaking of approving in scripture, Peter seems not to have been the worse for wear after being publicly corrected in front of everyone, since Peter later refers to people who distorted Paul’s writings, “as they do the rest of the scriptures.” Thus, Peter refers to Paul’s writings as scriptures, and to Paul as “our dear brother” who wrote “with the wisdom God gave him.” This is, of course, after the public correction of Peter that Paul describes.

There are other examples of public correction that were scripturally approved. Jesus publicly corrected Peter in Matthew 16:23 saying, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me!”

But you might object saying, “Jesus was correcting someone under his authority.” Well, that is at least still a public correction. And it can be tempting to forget that, as a Jewish man, Jesus was under the authority of the Jewish religious leaders of his day, and yet he offered stern and scathing criticism, much more than mere public correction, to them. You might be inclined to object that, as God, Jesus was entitled to correct the religious authorities. By that same argument, however, Jesus was entitled to kill them. He did not do that, however, so that when he was judged as a man he would be without sin. In other words, he did nothing that would have been sinful had he been merely a man, with one exception, and that is to claim to be God.

You could have also brought up Jesus’s teaching in Matthew 18. I don’t think this is good evidence that all correcting must be done in private, but rather correcting for sin in the context of church discipline, not of factually correcting another believer. Factual correction is not the same as public shaming or exposing sin, after all. You would not, I hope, take Matthew 18 to mean that, if a believer mistakenly says, “As Peter says in Ephesians…” we must necessarily wait until we are in private to point out that it was Paul who wrote Ephesians. It may simply be that the person meant Paul but misspoke, and didn’t realize it. Nor do I think it means that if a person says, “the Bible teaches that Jesus suffered spiritual death and went to hell” we could not correct them if others may be in earshot.

In fact, in matters of teaching, it may be very worthwhile to make the correction in public, so as to ensure that people are not confused and misled by teaching that either accidentally or deliberately misleads. In the case of teaching that can cause widespread misunderstanding, a public correction can serve to prevent the person doing the misleading from misleading more people, and can serve to create a platform where, rather than error being propounded, truth is propounded instead. One could say, then, that the form of the correction should fit with the error. A private error may be corrected privately, but a public error publicly. To use a colorful example from my childhood, we used to have a rule that anyone who burped loudly say “excuse me” just as loudly. The people who heard the burp should also hear the apology! I use the same principle when correcting others – if a person posts something mistaken or wrongheaded on Facebook, it is permissible to correct it on Facebook… even this blog post, if you think it is mistaken!

To sum up, we have no explicit restriction on factually correcting either believers or non-believers publicly, and we have a few examples of a Christian publicly correcting another Christian on a point of doctrine, where the action is cited approvingly, not disapprovingly. It is difficult to see how this idea that we ought not publicly correct others came to be.

There is one more component to this question that interacts specifically with the methodology of those I am correcting. How is it possible to insist that public correction of a Christian brother or sister is a bridge to far, and yet to publicly shout at people that they are liars, idolators, adulterers, blasphemers, etc, as the person your parishioner follows does? I find it baffling that you would condemn a modest and polite correction of a Christian in public, but find no problem with someone consistently ignoring the intellectual objections of the people he witnesses to, while condemning them and trying to find everything wrong with them he can. Why should this be the case? Are Christians so much more fragile than non-Christians, or so much easier to offend? Why are we to judge the concept of public correction by the fruit or effectiveness of it, but ignore the same problems that would reasonably seem to impact such public evangelism attempts to a greater extent? Is it worse to offend a Christian brother or sister by stepping on his or her toes, or to push someone further away from the gospel by ignoring their intellectual questions or giving trite and thoughtless responses to them while focusing on attacking their character? It would seem that almost any argument you might care to name against factually correcting someone in public would apply all the more to calling out a person’s sin in public while ignoring other possible avenues to reach them for Christ.

What matters when we correct others is the attitude from which we speak and the end to which we speak (1 Thessalonians 5:11) – not the venue. Speaking with an attitude that is gracious can bring someone to repentance or greater understanding (2 Tim. 2:24-26). The truth is to be spoken in love, not pride. But we ought not confuse publicly correcting someone with having a prideful attitude toward them. Sometimes the correction comes from love; love of the truth, which can’t bear lies and errors, and love of the person being corrected, so they are not led astray.

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