From Genesis to Revelation, God expects His people to confront one another. It is one of the key ways God sanctifies us as we live in a fallen world as we rub shoulders with fellow sinners. Before highlighting God’s mandate to confront as found in the Bible, it is first necessary to establish a biblical definition of the word “confrontation.”
What is “confrontation”? That sounds like a scary word. To some it sounds mean. From a biblical perspective, it is actually a good thing…and a necessary thing. One popular English dictionary gives two basic definitions for “confront”:
- meet (someone) face to face with hostile or argumentative intent;
- compel (someone) to face or consider something, especially by way of accusation
The second definition is the one we will be addressing in this article and is consistent with Scriptures’ portrait of confrontation. Biblical confrontation is talking to a fellow believer and compelling them to consider something so they can directly address a problem at hand, with the goal of seeking a God-honoring solution.
In your English Bible, the word “confront” does not occur much, but there are numerous synonyms for the word all over the Bible. These many words carry various nuances that inform the biblical definition of “confront” and provide for a rich, variegated, deep, wide-ranging meaning for this all-important word. Let’s look at some of the most important ones.
The first word that defines biblical confrontation is “speak.” God told His people, Israel, to “speak the truth to one another; judge with truth and judgment for peace in your gates” (Zech 8:16). The word “speak” here is real simple. It is a neutral word. It is not inherently negative, antagonistic, or adversarial. It means “speak up, open your mouth; communicate; spit it out; open up; say something; deal with it; talk about it; verbalize it.” Two ideas here are key to this word. First of all, it is used as a command given by God. Speaking up with each other is not an option but an obligation. Clamming up when you are mad or in a huff or seeking to retaliate against a fellow believer through the silent treatment is not an option but a sin. God’s people need to talk to each other…especially when there is a problem.
The second nuance of this word is that it refers to verbal speech, or the spoken word. The implication is that it is to be face-to-face. That’s how God wanted the believers in the days of Zechariah around 500 BC to communicate with each other—personally, hashing it out through face-to-face conversation. Many times, that is the most difficult way to communicate, but usually the most effective. There was no computer screen to hide behind, or lap-top, email, Twitter or other impersonal means of escaping from honest, face-to-face talking in Zechariah’s day—no room for nasty anonymous letters of retaliation. Get some courage and talk it out.
Five hundred and fifty years after Zechariah wrote that command for believers to speak up to one another, the Apostle Paul wrote the same thing in Ephesians to Christians. He even quoted Zechariah when he gave the similar command. Paul commanded believers to lay “aside falsehood, ‘speak truth, each one’ of you, ‘with his neighbor,’ for we are members of one another” (Eph 4:25). Paul’s word for “speak” hear is laleo, from which we get “la la,” the most basic universal noise we make with our tongue. It means “to move the tongue and make some noise,” or, “speak up!” Talk to each other. And what do we speak? Paul says, “the truth.” That is often hard to do, but we need to confront one another with reality, and this comes through verbal engagement about the truth. And why should we speak to each other? Paul says because we are spiritual family members, connected to each other, part of the same body. The way we treat another believer affects all of us.
Ten verses earlier Paul said Christians need to be regularly “speaking the truth in love” (4:15). This is similar to Proverbs, which says, “Better is open rebuke than love that is concealed” (27:5). A basic Christian virtue is simply the willingness to talk, and to talk honestly. Clamming up, ignoring or dismissing problems, avoiding deep conversation and withholding information are all detrimental strategies of self-defense and sometimes even acts of deliberate retaliation…of the passive-aggressive type. The cold-shoulder has been around for millennia. That strategy is not Christian, but carnal. But it is an all-too-common practice in the Church and among Christians, and especially in marriages and family life. Refraining from conversation—being unwilling to “speak”—becomes fertile soil for the seeds of bitterness, grudges, unforgiveness, gossip and all manner of evil. Jesus knew this. That’s why He commanded believers to “go” talk to any other fellow believer any time you think there might be a problem…and to do it “quickly” (Matt 5:24-25). So speak up! Go talk to that person!
Biblical confrontation begins with a simple willingness to speak to each other. The next important word is “admonish.” In Romans 15:14 the Apostle Paul commands Christians to “admonish one another.” There are over thirty “one another” commands given to believers in the New Testament. God gave the Church the “one anothers” as a gift to help us manage our interpersonal relationships in a Christ-like way. There are many “one anothers” to be aware of because life is complex and so are people. We are not one-dimensional beings. One command is not sufficient. Yes, we are commanded to “love one another” (John 13:34), but we have to do all the other “one anothers” as well to strike the balance and to promote health in the Body of Christ. And “admonish one another” is one of those many salient commands to heed.
In English, “admonish” seems to have a negative stigma to it, but in the Bible it is not always negative. The Greek word is noutheteo, which is two words joined together: nous (mind) + theteo (to place; put into). So “admonish” literally means “to place into the mind.” And what are we placing into someone’s mind? The words we speak. We are placing truth into their minds by imparting verbal speech for them to listen to, take in, think through and meditate upon.
In other words, we need to speak up and “give them something to think about”—and we do that by speaking truth to them in love. This word noutheteo can be translated at times as “instruct.” The emphasis in all of its translations is on deliberate speech directed toward another person to affect their thinking, which in turn will affect their attitudes, beliefs and behavior. The goal of admonishing is to bring about a positive change through purposeful speech. The content of the speech in an act of admonishing can vary greatly. It can be positive or negative; instructional or exhorting; encouraging or corrective. The emphasis in the word “admonish” is on initiating proactive, deliberate verbal speech. Looking at several examples of how Paul used the word “admonish” in his epistles is instructive and highlights the word’s versatility:
Evangelistic/instructional positive uses
“Therefore be on the alert, remembering that night and day for a period of three years I did not cease to admonish (noutheton) each one with tears” (Acts 20:31).
“Now may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you will abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. And concerning you, my brethren, I myself also am convinced that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge and able also to admonish (nouthetein) one another” (Rom 15:13-14).
“We proclaim Him, admonishing (nouthetountes) every man and teaching every man with all wisdom, so that we may present every man complete in Christ” (Col 1:28).
“Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing (nouthetountes) one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God” (Col 3:16).
“But we request of you, brethren, that you appreciate those who diligently labor among you, and have charge over you in the Lord and give you instruction (nouthetountas), and that you esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Live in peace with one another” (1 Thess 5:12-13).
Corrective/rebuke negative uses
“I do not write these things to shame you, but to admonish (noutheton) you as my beloved children” (1 Cor 4:14).
“We urge you, brethren, admonish (noutheteite) the unruly, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with everyone” (1 Thess 5:14).
“If anyone does not obey our instruction in this letter, take special note of that person and do not associate with him, so that he will be put to shame. Yet do not regard him as an enemy, but admonish (noutheteite) him as a brother” (2 Thess 3:14-15).
We need to add “admonish” to our arsenal in the ministry of confrontation along with the command to “speak.”
A third biblical word informing the concept of confrontation is “rebuke.” Jesus said, “Be on your guard! If your brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him” (Luke 17:3; cf. Matt 18:15). The word Jesus uses here for “rebuke” is emphatic. This is a strong verbal rebuke or reprimand. It is synonymous with “reprove, censure” and even “punish.” In the context of Luke 17, Jesus is commanding His disciples to go privately, face-to-face and verbally confront a fellow believer when a sin issue arises. This forces the issue to the surface, brings conviction to the wrongdoer, and allows them to own up to what they did wrong so they can repent of it and be forgiven. Neglecting this ministry of verbal confrontation directly undermines Jesus’ stated process of how to manage sin among believers.
Just like Jesus, Paul commanded believers to “rebuke” one another. He said about wayward elders, “Those who continue in sin, rebuke in the presence of all, so that the rest also will be fearful of sinning” (1 Tim 5:20). Again, to rebuke someone is to verbally confront them in a personal encounter—speak up, talk about the problem, let the other person know what’s bothering you…even if it’s an elder or pastor!
In addition to “speak,” “admonish” and “rebuke,” another common word that is a part of the DNA in biblical confrontation is “exhort.” Paul commands Christians in Romans 12 to “exhort” one another. The Greek word for “exhort” is somewhat well known by Bible students because of its etymology, its frequent occurrences, multiplied nuances and its picturesque description. It is a compound word, para (alongside of) + kaleo (to call). It is a word picture meant to portray one person coming alongside another person, with their arm around the shoulder while speaking into the other person’s ear. Like a head coach coming alongside the quarterback, or the team captain of the soccer squad coming alongside the rookie to speak a word of wisdom into his teammate’s ear—a timely word, needed in the moment, for that very occasion.
In the Gospel of John, Jesus calls the coming Holy Spirit “the Paraklete” (John 14:16), the noun form of our verb here, parakaleo. Jesus was promising that the Holy Spirit would “come alongside” believers and speak to them through God’s Word, encouraging them with exactly what they needed to hear in any given moment.
Paul uses a form of the verb parakaleo in three distinct ways, depending on the context of what needed to be said. It could mean “exhort,” “encourage,” or “comfort.” Again, the emphasis of the word is on the picture it illustrates—coming alongside someone personally and speaking into their ear. The content of what you tell them can be different depending upon the situation—it can be a word of exhortation, encouragement or comfort. Consider three different New Testament uses:
- Parakaleo used as an exhortation, or a call to repent: “Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were entreating (parakalountos) through us; we beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God” (2 Cor 5:2).
- Parakaleo used positively to encourage and build up: “For I have sent him [Tychicus] to you for this very purpose, that you may know about our circumstances and that he may encourage (parakalesei) your hearts” (Col 4:8).
- Parakaleo used to comfort someone who is hurting: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ…who comforts (parakalon) us in all our affliction…” (2 Cor 1:3-4).
The head coach might go up to the quarterback, put his arm around him and whisper three different things through the hole in his helmet, depending upon the team leader’s performance in the big game. The coach might say, “If you throw one more interception then you are benched!” That’s an exhortation. Or he might say, “That unpredictable cadence you are using is keeping the defense off kilter—keep it up!” That’s encouragement. And finally, the coach could say, “I know you brought us down the field twice and your running backs fumbled—don’t get down; that’s not your fault. Hang in there!” That’s comfort. Exhort, encourage, comfort—that is parakaleo. And parakaleo is an important aspect of biblical confrontation.
It’s clear from the above that the Bible commands Christians to speak, admonish, rebuke and exhort one another. But that is no guarantee that we will do it. The spirit can be willing, but our flesh is weak (Matt 26:41; cf. Rom 7:15). As a pastor and counselor for decades now, I hear excuses all the time from believers as to why they are not talking with their fellow believers when a problem arises. Here are five of the most common sinful excuses:
- “They don’t deserve it!” This one is brutally honest in its bitter and insipid tone, but people actually say this. A common example of this would be when one spouse is angry at the other spouse who is nursing a grudge and the angry spouse knows if they confront their partner they might actually repent and be forgiven…and they don’t want their lousy spouse to be forgiven because “they don’t deserve it!” Pretty vicious.
- “It won’t do any good.” Christians say this when they think God’s process outlined in the Bible won’t work. They also think some people—including fellow Christians—can’t change or won’t change. They have predetermined that the perpetrator’s sin is worse than any sin they have ever committed and the hardness of their nemesis’ heart is stronger than God’s convicting Spirit, His dynamic living Word, and His supernatural power of grace in Christ’s blood. In this case I tell the doubting Thomas, “You’re not in control of whether or not they respond. Your only job is to do the right thing, which is why Jesus commanded us to confront our brother. Leave the results to Him. Trust God’s process…go talk to your brother!”
- “I don’t want to judge them, I just want to love them!” This sounds pious, but it’s actually pathetic. Contrary to what many think, confronting a brother or sister in Christ in a biblical manner is sometimes the most loving thing you can do, if it is warranted. To neglect it is quite unloving.
- “I don’t like confrontation!” This sounds honorable and self-deprecating, but it’s just camouflaged pride. It’s also a result of the fear of man and a lack of courage to do the right thing. It’s an illegitimate excuse. Instead of this, we need to fear God and do what He commanded. Confront when it is appropriate to do so.
- “It’s not my place to judge!” This one is used frequently as people misquote Jesus when He said, “Do not judge so that you will not be judged” (Matt 7:1). But they are taking Jesus’ words out of context. Jesus did not say, “Never judge.” He was warning His disciples to not judge motives; He allows for judging fruit, actions and words (Matt 7:16). Jesus said in John 7:24, “Do not judge according to appearance, but judge with righteous judgment.” Imagine that! Jesus said we should judge.
From the preceding it is clear that God calls His people to manage conflict through biblical confrontation. This entails speaking, admonishing, rebuking and exhorting. It also requires us to muster up some courage and not hide behind convenient self-serving excuses.
You can read more on this topic in Cliff’s book, What the Bible Says About Confrontation.