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How to Tell Someone They’re Wrong

Four qualities set the tone for confronting others.

“Go and tell him his fault” (Matt. 18:15) 

Let me begin by saying I know I’m wrong. The title should be “How to Tell Someone He or She is Wrong.” Being the stickler for grammar I am, I cringe to write something improper. The pronoun should agree in number with its antecedent. However, in writing nowadays being agreeable is more important than syntactical agreement. Not to mention, we have far more serious issues related to pronouns in our day. 

Back to the matter at hand, how to go about telling someone they are wrong. 

Now I know when it comes to pointing out the fault of another we are first to look in the mirror, take the log out of our own eye, and apply the stethoscope of Scripture to our own hearts to check against the arrhythmia of improper motive. But when we do get to the point of telling someone he is wrong or she is at fault, how do we go about it? 

Things get even more complicated when we recognize that fault is not always cleanly discerned. Like a ball of Christmas lights in the hands of Chevy Chase, unmitigated blame can be hard or even impossible to untangle. But when we are able to identify a clear wrong, how do we point it out in order to begin to unravel what can be a complicated process? 

The scenarios are manifold. Yet across them all, how do we point out someone’s wrong? The answer, of course, is with love. But what does love look like in practice? Four qualities set the tone. Two are mentioned by Paul and two by Peter. I’ve highlighted them in bold. 

“Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction” (2 Timothy 4:2, NASB95). 

“Sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence” (1 Peter 3:15, NASB95). 

How are we to understand these qualities? Patience reminds us that conviction does not operate by an on-off switch. We need to allow room for the Holy Spirit. He is the one who convicts as to sin and righteousness. If our goal is to gain more that acknowledgement or mere acquiescence, then we must not try to twist arms. Instead, we must look to Him who illuminates the mind, examines the heart, and pricks the conscience. Being patient suggests a calm pursuit that keeps in step with the Spirit. Patience is the opposite of pushy. Patience also allows us to listen to gain a sure understanding (Prov. 18:13, 15).

Coupled with patience is instruction. We speak the truth in love, looking not only to call attention to the wrong but also to highlight what God desires. Paul brings these qualities of patience and instruction to bear in the context of the sufficiency of Scripture (2 Tim. 3:16-17). The reproving, rebuking, and exhorting of 2 Timothy 4:2 are in respect to God’s revealed Word. In other words, our fault-finding and instruction are not in regard to what we think but what God has written, truth that applies equally to us.

A third quality for confronting others in their error is gentleness, a close cousin of patience. Gentleness and patience are both fueled by humility that knows we too are sinners and in desperate need of the grace of God. Pride is brash. Humility is gentle. We can’t point out another’s wrong from a position of moral superiority but from a posture of those who have been shown mercy. The tact we take is not to excoriate but to exhort in the way of truth. 

The fourth quality from our passages above is reverence. The word Peter uses is “fear,” not in the sense of being afraid of but having respect for. We are not to talk at people or talk down to them. We are to treat them with love and respect. They too are image-bearers of God. As the Lord our God reasons with us in His Word, laying before us His truth and showing us the path of life and warning us against folly (Psalm 1), so we appeal to those at fault, respecting them rather than reviling them. 

Telling someone "they" are wrong may be grammatically incorrect but it does remind us there is a plurality in view. It's not ever just about them. It's about us.

"Merciful Father, help me to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which I have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with others in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace."

Stan Gale

Stanley D. Gale (MDiv Westminster, DMin Covenant) has pastored churches in Maryland and Pennsylvania for over 30 years. He is the author of several books, including A Vine-Ripened Life: Spiritual Fruitfulness through Abiding in Christ and The Christian’s Creed: Embracing the Apostolic Faith. He has been married to his wife, Linda, since 1975. They have four children and nine grandchildren. He lives in West Chester, Pa.
Books by Stan Gale

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