Treating Fellow Christians Like Enemies

Over the years, I’ve noticed one curious and nearly universal characteristic of movie villains: they have no qualms about turning on each other. Whenever it’s convenient or expedient, bad guys will treat their own friends like enemies. From Captain Barbossa to the Joker, they seem to have unswerving loyalty only to themselves. Villains don’t mind leaving a pile of dead bodies in their wake as long as they get what they want.

Sadly, when it comes to the topic of confronting sin in the lives of others, we in the church can be nearly as hurtful. I’m painfully aware of the temptation to turn correction into an exercise in harsh, prideful berating—i.e., “do you see how bad/stupid/idiotic you are being?”

When I see someone else sinning in a way I don’t (or sinning similarly but in a “worse” way than me), I often imagine a vast chasm between the two of us, as if I were somehow superior. My goal in pointing out the sins and weaknesses of others can easily be to prove someone wrong, or to prove myself right—or both. In these cases, self-exaltation is the name of the game.

If the apostle Paul ever had reason to exalt himself while correcting others, that reason would be spelled “Corinth.” Of all his spiritual children, the Corinthians seemed especially immature, worldly, and arrogant. But in reading his first letter to them, we see that his goal in writing is “to admonish [them] as [his] beloved children” (1 Cor. 4:14, ESV). In spite of their abundant abuse of doctrine and practice, Paul does not treat them impersonally or distastefully, but as cherished family members.

When he warns them about the seriousness of their idolatry, he once again refers to them as “my beloved” (10:14). In a letter that is largely corrective, and just after a section with some vivid warnings, Paul doesn’t become heated and agitated for the purpose of communicating displeasure or haughtiness. Rather, he still refers to the Corinthians with tender words. Even in correcting serious sin, he never seeks to tear others down. Instead, his desire is to build up—to exhort his brothers and sisters in Christ to flee from their sins.

It seems to be a habit with Paul: correcting others with sincere love and compassion. “Therefore watch, and remember that for three years I did not cease to warn everyone night and day with tears” (Acts 20:31). He responds to others’ sin, not with fits of rage, but with tears of sadness.

Christian brothers and sisters are not inferiors to be scoffed at, but fellow heirs to be loved and cherished. Christ purchased them with His blood; why should I define them for what they are apart from Him? Is that how I want others to treat me? Is that how God Himself—my superior in every conceivable way—treats me?

I don’t want to keep being like the villains I see in the movies. I don’t want to treat friends and family as enemies when they mess up. As Paul says in 2 Thessalonians 3:14-15, “And if anyone does not obey our word in this epistle, note that person and do not keep company with him, that he may be ashamed. Yet do not count him as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother.” Warnings, and sometimes even severe corrections, may be in order, but I’m never supposed to dispatch others with unfriendly fire.

Paul’s example gives me hope. He once despised the church of Christ. In fact, he persecuted believers out of abundant hatred. He approved of Stephen’s stoning and he dragged families apart in an attempt to rid the world of the Christian “perversion” of the Jewish religion. And yet he became one of the early church’s founding fathers. If there is hope for him to change from deep and abiding hatred to deep and abiding love, there is hope that God can and will bring the same change in my heart—and in yours as well.