When I was asked to write about when and how Christians should call out sin in others, my initial reaction was, “Hard pass.” I have heard from many people that they walked away from church—even faith altogether—because of how judgmental Christians can be, with reformed Christianity (the tradition that trained and ordained me) having earned the reputation of being more judgmental than most. Did I—one who is acutely aware of this judgmental reputation—want to write about what the Bible has to say about calling out sin in the lives of others? Not especially.
Yet, my initial visceral reaction against writing on this topic was the reason I ultimately ended up agreeing to do so. If the issue was that alive in me, I needed to dive in rather than avoid it. So, here we are.
Before I go any further, I want to add this caveat: sexual abuse, domestic violence, and unsafe behavior are not the kinds of sin I am addressing in this article. All abuse must be reported to the appropriate authorities, immediately. Protecting vulnerable people must be a top priority. Behavior that harms others cannot be tolerated.
For the rest of this article, I will be addressing sin within interpersonal relationships and how a Christian might go about calling out that behavior within the context of those relationships.
Should Christians call out sin in the lives of others?
This question can’t be tackled in a single article, and the answer is different if we are addressing sin within the context of a relationship or sin that is systemic or institutional in nature. Relationship matters, context matters, and power differentials matter. But, for the purpose of this piece, I’m going to explore interpersonal relationships and how sin ought to be addressed within them.
One of the best known verses from Scripture on this topic comes from Matthew 7: “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged.” Out of context, this verse makes it sound as though we should never call out sin. If we continue reading, however, we see that it is more complicated than that. Beginning with verse 3, Jesus says, “Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.”
The way we judge others is how we also will be judged. But beyond that, we cannot trust what we see in others if we have not first examined ourselves. Before we call out sin in others, we must first look within ourselves. Jesus taught this in John 8 in his encounter with those who wanted to condemn the woman caught in adultery. He said to them, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” As the people took the time to reflect on the sin in their own lives, they were no longer so eager to sit in judgment over her.
If we believe someone has sinned against us, the first thing we need to do is examine our own lives. We can’t see clearly until we’ve dealt with our own stuff.
Psychologists have noted the importance of self-examination and self-knowledge as well. The truth is, we tend to hate most the things about other people that we hate most about ourselves. Jeff Schimel (professor of psychology at the University of Alberta) conducted a study in which participants were told they possessed a negative trait. When they were told they had this negative trait, they were more likely to notice that trait in other people. And, the more they noticed it in other people, the less they thought it true of themselves.1
Galatians 6:3-5 gets at this concept: “For if those who are nothing think they are something, they deceive themselves. All must test their own work; then that work, rather than their neighbor’s work, will become a cause for pride. For all must carry their own loads.” In other words, when we focus on what others are doing, we begin to think better of what we’re doing than we ought. Instead, we are urged to look at our own lives and make amends where necessary.
If, after examining our own lives, it still seems necessary to call out sin in someone else’s life, we need to back up and examine our relationship with that person. Do we have a close relationship built on trust? Did the person sin against us or against someone else? Is the behavior we are wanting to address something that is against Scripture, or something that isn’t our preference?
Additionally, if it is against Scripture, is the person a Christian?
If we are wanting to call out behavior that is against Scripture, we can only do so if the person is a Christian (1 Corinthians 5:13). We cannot hold people accountable to a standard they haven’t agreed to live by. If the person is a Christian, but isn’t in relationship with us, we have not earned the right to speak into their lives. That point gets a bit tricky in the age of social media. Our constant interaction with distant acquaintances—or even strangers—can make us feel as though we are in a close relationship with almost everyone. But, before we can even consider calling out someone’s sin, we have to make sure we’ve earned the right to speak into their lives in that way.
Finally, we have to examine our desired outcome. Is our goal to see someone we care about brought back to spiritual health and wholeness? Is our motivation restoration? In Matthew 18, Jesus says that if the person listens to you, “You have regained that one.” The goal should always be restoration, not alienation.
Should Christians call out sin? Firstly, we have to be very careful before we do. We need to make sure we’ve checked in with ourselves, our own sin, our motivation, and our desired outcome. We have to make sure what we’re addressing is scriptural, and not just based on our own preferences or biases. And ultimately, we need to have a relationship with the person built around trust. In the absence of these things, the answer is almost always no.