When I was 20 years old, I became involved in several areas of ministry at my church. My pride flourished over all the good things I was doing for the Body of Christ; yet hypocritically, I was leading a double life. On the one hand, I was serving, teaching, preaching and singing; yet on the other, I was purposefully sinning in a worldly life hidden from my family and church leaders. Eventually, my true face was revealed. I was biblically confronted by my pastor and my women’s ministry pastor, rebuked with a spiritual authority I’d never experienced before, and stripped of all my ministry titles so that I might be restored to God.
As a young woman hoping to go into ministry, I was embarrassed and seething with anger and rage. I hated my pastors for confronting me and disciplining me, as if I were their child; as if they themselves had no sin—as if they were God Himself. Who did they think they were?
The biblical reality and necessity for confrontation seems to be lost upon many Christians. Conflict on differing levels is an inevitable part of everyday life, yet the act of confrontation is one of the least talked-about practical and spiritual disciplines in the Christian community. In fact, there are
many who are reading this article who are presently in conflict with one or more people; who are actively avoiding or ignoring people they are in disagreement with; who are debating whether or not (or how) they should confront someone regarding a sinful attitude they might have, or surrounding something they said or did; or who are talking to everyone else about the problem they have with so-and-so, except so-and-so.
I definitely fit into one of these categories.
Unfortunately, the act of confrontation is misunderstood by many Christians. Because the word “confrontation” carries with it such a negative and aggressive connotation, I would like to point out what a professor jokingly mentioned to our class: “It’s not confrontation, it’s care-frontation! We need to care-front others!” Cheesy as it may sound, the act of confronting someone should not be done out of a desire to cause harm to the other person or out of sinful motives such as hatred or revenge, but out of an honest desire to restore and to reconcile a relationship—whether between each other, or between them and God. Our desire should flow out of caring for the other person so much that we desire reconciliation. Confrontation is not for the purpose of condemnation, but restoration.
I recently attended a conference session addressing the importance of biblical confrontation and conflict reconciliation in the church, and was surprised to hear a pastor push back on the notion, saying, “But doesn’t confronting people go against the charge to not be quarrelsome? Isn’t that being conflictive?”
He then quoted the verse: “Don’t have anything to do with foolish and stupid arguments, because you know they produce quarrels. And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome…” (2 Timothy 2:23-24). Many Christians share the pastor’s belief that confronting a brother or sister is the same thing as being quarrelsome. They equate the acts of: 1) confronting a brother or sister because they are sinning, and 2) confronting a brother or sister for sinning against them, with being sinfully quarrelsome or sinfully instigating conflict. As such, Christians are not only convinced that the act of confrontation is rooted in sin, but that the best way to deal with conflict and sin in the church is to simply avoid it at all costs.
This is ironic, considering that Jesus had a few words to say about confrontation, yet often we conveniently overlook them. In the Gospel of Matthew, (5:21-23 and 18:15-17) our Lord tells us that the spiritual act of confronting and reconciling with others is a more important act of worship than our physical gifts of worship to God, and that confronting sin in the life of a believer is so necessary that if confronting them one-on-one does not work, we should eventually take it to the church! We Christians read Jesus’ harsh words of rebuke toward the Pharisees and cringe a little at how straight-up and direct he is; yet out of this confrontation, we find the beautiful story of Nicodemus—the Pharisee who became a believer in Jesus the Messiah, because Jesus confronted his sin with truth.
Let us not forget the Apostle Paul, whose letters were mostly written to confront several sins and problems of the churches and regions he wrote to! One might recall that in his letter to the Galatians (2:11-21), Paul writes that he confronted Peter “to his face” in the presence of the other Jews. Again, we Christians read about Paul’s direct confrontation and cringe at the thought of having to do it ourselves. Apparently, Peter had led Barnabus and several other Jews astray in his hypocrisy of refusing to eat with the Gentiles in the presence of the visiting Judaizers, even though he had been eating with them previously. Paul’s public confrontation against Peter is beautiful and popularly quoted, but unfortunately is taken out of its context of confrontation: “For through the law I died to the law so that I might live for God. I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!” (vs. 19-21). What beautiful words of truth! Surely, Peter was embarrassed by the public confrontation, but it is no doubt that Peter and several other Jews were brought back to the reality of the Gospel of grace because of Paul’s confrontation.
I am not trying to diminish the difficulty of biblical confrontation; surely, even going to a good friend and confronting them about the way they are treating another person is difficult! Nobody likes to be told that they are doing something wrong or need to change something about themselves, whether they are a good friend or not. Neither am I denying how susceptible confrontation is to sinful motivation—it can happen in ugly ways, yet it is jarring to see how our fear of sinful confrontation has led to the absence of confrontation in the church today.
Our church culture’s logic goes like this: The Pharisees were hypocritical and judgmental. Jesus called out the Pharisees for being hypocritical and judgmental. Therefore, do not be hypocritical or judgmental. Secular society has also deemed Christians as being very hypocritical and judgmental (not without reason!). In reaction, our church culture has responded by trying to be “less hypocritical and judgmental” of others, including Christians. There are definitely good intentions behind this; yet somehow, in our quest to become more loving, we have associated the notion of confronting a brother or sister not only as being sinful, but as being hypocritical and judgmental. We have begun to believe the lie that not confronting someone is actually being loving. We have begun to embrace the idea that love is only patient, kind and keeps no record of wrongs, but have forgotten the fiery love that is as strong as death—the love that chastises and disciplines, the love that bears witness to truth! We have replaced our command to confront others with the false modesty of not wanting to appear unloving. We have created a church culture in which interpersonal conflict is often ignored and overlooked, slowly rotting into bitterness and hatred; where sin runs wild and free, playing on the guise of love and unity; where passive-aggressive behavior is expected and even preferred, because Christians don’t want anything to do with confronting people with conflict or sin—or the even harder work of resolving it. Unfortunately, this church culture mentality has also creeped into the way we present the Gospel—God is all love and no judgment; don’t talk about sin!
Why was Jesus so concerned about our ability to confront others? Why was Paul so adamant about addressing hypocrisy and confronting sin in the church? Why did my pastors confront me about my sinful behaviors and attitudes when I was younger? Because confronting others who have sinned against us or who are sinning is loving. Being confronted with one’s error, wrong doctrine, wrong teaching, sinful attitudes and behaviors is necessary for all Christians to grow in spiritual maturity and in love. We cannot grow without being challenged and corrected; it simply cannot be. The need for biblical confrontation is of absolute necessity for Christians and for the spiritual health of the church. Brothers and sisters, as current and future ministry leaders, we must learn to put aside our church-cultural obsession with not wanting to appear hypocritical and judgmental, so that we might learn to cultivate the spiritual discipline of biblical confrontation for the benefit of others. We must practice reconciling with others in real, tangible ways, instead of the false piety of, “I’ll pray for them,” muttered under our breath in order to avoid Jesus’ command to go directly to our brother or sister. We must go to our brother or sister when we are in conflict with them, or if they are acting in sin. We must exercise the love of Christ with the fiery boldness and honesty of Christ, not apart from it. There is a gravity in our responsibility to protect and to bear witness to the truth of the Gospel by directly confronting other believers. We are called to proclaim truth, to destroy the strongholds and the lies of the world through the power of the Gospel. The power of God changes hearts of stone to hearts of flesh and raises the physically and spiritually dead to life–the power of God can bring reconciliation to a relationship between us and the people we are in conflict with; change in the sinful heart of a person so that they are right with God. We cannot continue believing that confronting others does not have spiritual implications. We cannot be faithful leaders in the church if we do not understand the spiritual necessity of biblical confrontation, and we cannot understand the spiritual necessity of biblical confrontation if we do not love our brothers and sisters.
The months after the rebuke from my pastors left me at rock bottom, but it was where God became most real to me. I look back on this time with a sort of strange fondness, because in present-day church culture where confrontation and discipline is usually looked down upon, I had the beautiful experience of being able to witness how a Christian can sternly confront someone, yet gracefully bring them to a place of restoration and healing. My pastors did not leave me alone in my depression following the confrontation and discipline, but walked with me through my journey of repentance. Eventually, I was given the privilege of serving in ministry again–as one might expect, I was moved to tears. Yes, my pastors’ faithful and loving confrontation had revealed my hypocritical sin, but it pushed me toward repentance and gave me a fresh understanding of forgiveness. I didn’t realize it initially, but looking back to the past, I realize now that my pastors’ act of confrontation was not made out of a desire to see me crash and burn, but out of a desire to build me up in Christ. They weren’t trying to scar me; they were showing me my festering, stinking wounds. Their act of confrontation was really an act of love. Simply put, they loved me enough to correct me. For that, I am immensely thankful, and hope to apply a biblical understanding of confrontation to my life today and for my ministry in the future; for my own spiritual growth and for the building up of my brothers and sisters.
“Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest and repent.” –Jesus, Revelation 3:19
Here are a few baby-step questions I found helpful to ask myself as I began to take seriously the words of Jesus regarding confrontation:
⧫How do you naturally react to conflict? Are you a fight-or-flight type of person? Do you tend to attack issues head-on and very aggressively, or do you prefer to avoid conflict and walk away? Do you tend to be direct and insensitive, or passive-aggressive and secretly bitter? Do you yell? Do you cry? Do you become afraid?
⧫What triggers you to react badly? Certain actions, words, or attitudes? Rejection? Feeling stupid or insecure? Does it happen more when you talk to men or women? Those older or younger than you?
⧫What are the pros and cons of your “conflict style”? What then do you need to work on and be aware of when confronting others?
⧫Is your conflict style cultural, familial, a reaction from painful past events, a mixture of all?
⧫How do you feel about the person you are in conflict with? Hurt or hatred? Is confronting them out of a desire for reconciliation? What in your heart is preventing you from confronting them?What are some practical ways to address the issues with them? Would a mediator be a good option for heavier situations?
I hope these questions can be stepping stones to building up a healthy view of biblical confrontation, starting with the logs in our own eyes before picking out the specks in our brothers’ and sisters’ eyes. May God bless our endeavors as we practice confrontation for reconciliation, and may God convict those of us who need to be convicted!