The Purpose of Confrontation

by Cliff McManis

Asking the Right Question
“What is the goal of confrontation from a biblical point of view?” is a question I once asked my elders at the beginning of an elders’ meeting. I asked them to not say their answer out loud but to write it down and share it during a time afterwards. I had my own answer in mind. There were five of us, and we all went around the table and shared. Not one of us gave the same answer, but they were all legitimate…and biblical. I was impressed, and I learned a few things from the exercise. I was reminded that there is more than one correct answer for the above question, “What is the goal of confrontation?”

If you were a Pharisee in Jesus’ day your answer might be, “The goal of confrontation is to embarrass and humiliate those you don’t like or those who threaten you.” Sadly, there are people in the church today just like that. Some might think the goal is to make an example of others by making them look compromised. And plenty of people actually enjoy confronting others because it elevates their status of self-righteousness at the same time. From one degree to another, we are all prone to these subtle and sinister ulterior motives when it comes to confronting others. Jesus knew that. That’s why He cautioned believers, “Do not judge lest you be judged” (Matt 7:1). At the same time, Jesus commanded believers to be discerning and to make judgments based on proper standards (Matt 7:16). So, there is a delicate balance when it comes to confronting others—there is a right way to confront and a wrong way to confront. There is a right time to confront and a wrong time to confront. How do we strike that balance? That is a huge challenge.

God’s Glory
One way to help navigate that balance is to maintain the proper plumb-line by always keeping the biblical goal of confrontation in the forefront of our thinking. According to the Bible, the goal of confrontation is multi-faceted. All the goals can fall under two main categories: (1) seeking God’s glory and (2) seeking resolution. The first main category is theo-centric and big picture. The second main category is practically-oriented and specific. And when the second one is done properly it fulfills the first—it brings glory to God.

First, let’s look at a few thoughts on glorifying God in the confrontation process. Three issues stand out: being obedient, honoring the process and maintaining the right attitude. It all starts with being obedient. God calls His people to a ministry and spiritual discipline of “confrontation.” Many saints are alarmed by this notion. Others are intimidated by the prospect. But it’s true nonetheless. The Scriptures are replete with commands for believers to confront other believers, to hold each other accountable, to keep straying sheep in the fold, to chase after deserters, to recover those missing in action, to reign in the unwieldy, to silence the scoffers, to motivate the sluggards, to call out the immoral and to challenge the factious.

God said in Ecclesiastes, “there is a time to throw stones…and a time to speak” (3:5, 7). Proverbs says, “Better is open rebuke than love that is concealed” (27:5). Paul commands Christians to “admonish one another” (Rom 15:14; cf. Col 3:16; 1 Thess 5:14; 2 Thess 3:15). God is committed to holding His people accountable, and the main way He does that is through the ministry of personal confrontation. To neglect needed confrontation is to reject God’s command, commit the sin of omission, and rob God of His deserved glory.    

God is committed to holding His people accountable, and the main way He does that is through the ministry of personal confrontation.

The second way we glorify God in confrontation is by honoring the process. God has delineated a very specific process in the Bible of how to confront others. Jesus expects His church to implement and honor this process (Matt 18:15-20; cf. 5:21-26; Lk 17:1-4; 1 Tim 5:19-22). We do not have the liberty to ignore, invent or short-circuit the process. Sadly, this occurs all the time when churches and church leaders—sometimes in ignorance and sometimes wittingly—act out of fear and many times out of pragmatism. I have seen first-hand God’s process set aside from a sheer lack of faith—those involved simply failed to believe in the effectiveness of God’s process (Rom 14:23b). To compromise God’s given formal process as dictated in Scripture is to withhold God’s due glory.

The third consideration in giving God glory is maintaining the right attitude. This is difficult to do in the confrontation process because emotions are involved. When there has been a personal offense it is a challenge to stay objective. At times when we finally have the guts to confront someone, it may be that we don’t want them to repent or we really don’t want to eventually be restored with them—we want to hold on to our bitter grudge. The human heart is a deceptively wicked and twisted thing at times (Jer 17:9). This being true, God reminds us in His Word that we need to stay prayerful, humble, circumspect, sober-minded, and Spirit-filled in the process of confrontation (Gal 5:16-6:4). This is all about maintaining the right attitude. To do so gives God the glory.

In addition to giving God glory as an over-arching goal of confrontation is the second big category: seeking resolution. Confrontation is required when there is a problem. If there is a problem, then there is something off-kilter. If there is something off-kilter, then it requires resolution. The resolution required to solve a problem can be very different depending on the situation. This is especially true in interpersonal relationships, as human dynamics are complicated and diverse. Some of the most common goals of confrontation under the “resolution” umbrella include clarity, protection, repentance and forgiveness, reconciliation, restoration and separation. We will briefly look at each one.

Jesus said in Matthew 5, “make friends quickly” with a fellow brother if you know he “has something against you” (vv. 23, 25). In this instance He does not say go to your brother if he “sinned” against you, or you “sinned” against him. But rather, simply go to him if he has “something” against you. The Greek word here for “something” is ti, a little, generic, undefined indefinite pronoun. Jesus knew that people can hold grudges against others for non-sin issues! People make wrong conclusions all the time about others, assuming the worst, not giving the benefit of the doubt, connecting the wrong dots, and as a result being angry at a fellow believer for “something” other than a legitimate reason. It happens all the time. Maybe they got that “something” from wrong information that came in the form of a juicy piece of gossip at the last church social…or even a prayer meeting!

How many times has one spouse said to their partner after enduring hours of silence and the cold shoulder, “Is there ‘something’ wrong?” opening up a discussion to ultimately find out that there was no sin issue causing the problem, but rather a simple misunderstanding resulting from poor communication or a lack of communication. Poor communication is not a sin. “Something” was impeding the relationship, but it was not premeditated evil or deliberate malice. Proactive confrontation done in the right manner can uncover countless roadblocks to communication that are disguised as trespasses. Get clarity on a matter before pounding the gavel with a guilty verdict. Many times, just clearing the air can bring resolution.

In addition to bringing clarity, biblical confrontation can help provide protection. One of the main responsibilities of a pastor is to protect the sheep. The Apostle Paul charged the elders in Ephesus to “Be on guard…for all the flock” (Acts 20:28). He commanded the church leaders to protect the church people. He went on to say that the people need to be protected from “savage wolves” (v. 29) who would infiltrate the local church, masquerading as spiritual leaders and teachers. The main way pastors need to deal with false teachers in the church, as well as divisive and immoral religious leaders, is with strong, open, public confrontation. This open confrontation provides protection for the true believers in the church.

The four-fold church discipline process that Jesus outlined in Matthew 18 is a confrontational process that also provides protection for the saints of a local church. It quarantines and isolates the sin or the sinner until a resolution is reached, while keeping the sin and its effects from spreading like cancer among the body of the church. To shy away from biblical confrontation when it is required is to withhold needed protection among the innocent in the Body of Christ.

Repentance and Forgiveness
Another key goal of biblical confrontation is to bring about repentance. Repentance is to turn from sin and turn to God for forgiveness (Acts 3:19). Jesus said, “If your brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him” (Luke 17:3). The word for “rebuke” Jesus used here is epitimao, an emphatic word for a verbal censure or warning. That’s what confrontation means. Jesus makes it clear that the goal of confrontation is repentance—we should want the sinner or offender to change and turn from their error and turn back to God.

Jesus told three parables in Luke 15 illustrating that God in heaven rejoices when sinners repent and turn to God (vv. 7, 10). Jesus also makes it clear that when there is repentance then full forgiveness needs to be granted immediately. That is how God responds to true repentance and so must we. There is no place to withhold forgiveness among Christians when forgiveness is warranted. When a sinner repents upon being confronted, then true biblical resolution has been realized and God is glorified. It is important to note that repentance is a gift from God, a supernatural work on a person’s heart (Rom 2:4; 2 Tim 2:25). So, as we go about the ministry of confrontation, prayer is essential as we ask God to be softening hearts of all parties involved with His Spirit and His truth.

Another goal of confrontation is reconciliation. Reconciliation is what happens when two former enemies make peace with each other. To be reconciled is to become friends. When sin occurs between two people there is a breech in their relationship. If that happens between two Christians, God commands them to be reconciled with each other (Matt 5:24). The sin barrier needs to be dealt with head-on. That is the purpose of biblical confrontation. Too often, people don’t confront the problem head-on and they let it fester with time. That is dangerous. That makes the heart hard and causes bitterness to grow deep in the soul. Bitterness is cancer of the soul (Eph 4:31; Heb 12:15).

We need to be proactive and deliberate in the maintenance of our personal relationships, keeping short accounts, forgiving one another, not letting the sun go down on our anger, and, when necessary, confronting the sin that separates us from other believers. We need to be vigilant peace-makers with a sense of urgency at securing resolution with others. For Jesus said, when your relationship is broken with a fellow believer we need to “make friends quickly” (Matt 5:25).

We need to be vigilant peace-makers with a sense of urgency at securing resolution with others.

Oftentimes we need help from others to hold us accountable to be reconciled with another believer. The Apostle Paul knew this first hand. He had two Christian women who faithfully helped him in ministry as he served in Philippi named Euodia and Syntyche. At some point, these two Christian ladies clashed, head-butting themselves into an ugly full-blown conflict. Paul eventually called on the whole church of Philippi to help them reconcile: “I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to live in harmony in the Lord…I ask you also to help these women who have shared my struggle in the cause of the gospel” (Phil 4:2-3).   

It needs to be noted that reconciliation usually can’t happen until there has been true confrontation and repentance. If a sin issue was the impediment in the relationship between two believers, then there can’t be reconciliation until all guilty parties repent, owning up to their error while seeking God’s forgiveness. Another way to say it is, there can’t be reconciliation until the guilty party fesses up. Reconciliation is conditional. Reconciliation between God and the sinner is conditional—it’s conditioned upon the sinner repenting and believing the gospel (Mark 1:15).

In addition, true reconciliation is not always guaranteed when there is repentance. Often people will acknowledge their sin upon confrontation and repent, but they will be hesitant to reconcile with the brother they had a fall-out with. This manifests itself through avoidance, being standoffish or being down right cold. God’s ideal is that there would be true reconciliation to whatever degree possible (Rom 12:18).

Another key goal of confrontation is restoration. Restoration refers to the process of getting the sinner back into a healthy and productive place in the body of Christ. Sin severs relationships, so even if there is confrontation, repentance and reconciliation, there also needs to be restoration. People, and relationships, need to heal and get built back up. Trust needs to be recovered and restored. In Galatians 6:1 Paul speaks to this issue. He says, “Brethren, even if a man is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual, restore such a one.” The word “restore” (kartizo) that Paul uses here is the same word used to describe John and James “mending” their fishing nets when Jesus called them (Matt 4:21).

To “restore” something is to mend or heal that which was broken to the point of usefulness or functionality. This is the beauty and uniqueness of having true forgiveness through the work of Jesus Christ. His supernatural atoning work can restore any true repentant sinner to a place of complete wholeness, restoration and usefulness—sometimes to a place of greater strength than was known before.

The Apostle Paul modeled restoration, as well as all the other previously listed goals of confrontation, beautifully in the church at Corinth. An individual in that congregation sinned against Paul in such a public and scandalous manner that it warranted church discipline at the highest level. This man’s sin affected the whole church (2 Cor 2:5). It was public knowledge. The Corinthian congregation confronted the sinner and disciplined him (v. 6). Paul got word that the sinner eventually repented. As a result, Paul exhorted the whole church to “forgive” him and “comfort him” (v. 7). The word “forgive” implies the goal of “repentance” had been achieved. Paul’s command to “comfort him” speaks of “reconciliation.” But the recovery of the sinner did not stop there. Paul goes on to ensure that “restoration” would take place—he wanted this repentant brother to be fully received, healed and assimilated back into the Body of Christ. To that end, Paul went on to tell the Corinthians to “reaffirm your love for him” (v. 8). The call to “reaffirm” the sinner was Paul’s way of saying that full restoration needed to happen with this contrite brother.    

It is a surprise to some, but separation is also a goal of confrontation. Separation is a complement to “protection,” one of the goals discussed earlier. It is interesting to observe that in Jesus’ four-fold confrontational discipline process outlined in Matthew 18:15-17, the last step ends on a negative note, not a positive one. Step four in church discipline amounts to kicking the unrepentant sinner out of the church and then treating him like “a Gentile and a tax-gatherer” (v. 17). This is separation. This pruning protects what remains and does not allow what is dangerous and unhealthy to continue to grow.

God wants His church to be holy. Sometimes, this requires the removal of the unrepentant – those who are immoral and unholy. Those people need to be isolated from the rest of the body and “separated.” Paul told the Corinthians that the immoral brother in their congregation “should be removed from your midst” (1 Cor 5:2). He goes on to admonish them: “Clean out the old leaven”! (v. 6). And later in the epistle he exhorts: “Do not be deceived: ‘Bad company corrupts good morals’” (15:33). Biblical confrontation may at times end with holy separation. Satan will always be planting his seeds and weeds—false believers—among God’s wheat (Matt 13:39). Faithful church leaders need to always be diligently modeling and employing the church discipline process to keep the church pure. There are times when we need to welcome “blessed subtraction.”

The Apostle John spoke of the need for confrontational separation in the local church when he spoke of certain people who were removed from the church who once looked, and sounded and smelled like real sheep but weren’t: “They went out from us, but they were not really of us; for if they had been of us, they would have remained with us; but they went out, in order that it might be shown that they are not of us” (1 John 2:19).

Closely related to the purpose of separation is exposure. Jesus made it clear that there will always be people in the church who are not regenerate or born again, even though they may say they are born again. These false believers come in all varieties. They might be self-conscious and self-aware liars. They may be infiltrating the church to purposely prey on vulnerable people, to advance their agenda or to earn a buck or a hand out, masquerading as true believers. Or they may genuinely think they are saved but are self-deceived. This last category of pseudo Christians are the most difficult to deal with because they look so much like the genuine article. This type of person typically can articulate the gospel, speak the lingo of Christianity, find their way around the Bible and they spend a lot of time around church, spiritual activities and fellow believers. And most of the time other real believers around them never suspect that such a person is not truly born again.

This is possible because as finite humans we don’t know people’s hearts. Only God does. We look on the outward appearance, but God looks at the heart (1 Sam 16:7). And these pseudo Christians can actually function in the church undetected for years. Jesus told His disciples, “the poor you will always have with you” (John 12:8) and in similar fashion He warned that false believers who are difficult to identify you will always have with you as well (Matt 13:30). Jesus had one such self-deceived pseudo-believer in His inner circle for three years—Judas! Jesus finally exposed Judas the last week of His life (John 13). But that was only after Judas walked and talked and lived with Jesus and the other eleven disciples in close proximity for years. And the whole time Judas professed to be a follower of Jesus, a worshipper of YHWH, a practicing Old Testament Jew, a preacher and evangelist, and the trusted treasurer of their apostolic group (John 12:6).

The startling thing was that the whole time Judas was following Jesus around and claiming to be one of His disciples he was actually pilfering money from the apostles (John 12:6) and living a lie, being an offspring of Satan himself (John 6:70; 13:2, 21). And the other apostles never caught on or suspected that Judas was not a true believer. They never knew until Jesus finally exposed him for who he truly was through confrontation at the Last Supper. 

In light of the above it is evident that confrontation can help expose false believers in the church. A special note needs to be made here as a complement. There are times when professing believers in the church expose themselves without the need of confrontation or the church discipline process. These folks many times have grown up in the church, knew the content of the gospel like the back of their hand but never knew Christ personally. And then they get to a point in their life when they realize they love the world and sin more than they love God and holiness and just walk away from the faith and church. Sometimes out of the blue when no one expected it.

I have had church members come to me in private over the years on rare occasions and confess to me that upon deep reflection they have decided that they are not really born again and so they are leaving the church. At times I had to agree with them in light of the details they revealed. I plead with those kind of people, asking them to reconsider and repent. If they don’t repent, but remain resolute, then I let them go. I don’t need to take them through the church discipline process to see if they are not saved. They have already exposed themselves, denied the faith and declared, “I am not a Christian.”

Summing it Up 
What is the goal of confrontation? The goal is multi-faceted. The goal is God’s glory and resolution among His people. God is glorified when His people have the courage to face sin head-on and obey His many imperatives to confront it. God is also glorified when believers use God’s process of confrontation laid out in Scripture and not their own. And believers also need to maintain a godly, humble and dependent attitude, being led by the Spirit during the process of confrontation. That glorifies God as well. Resolution is achieved when believers keep all the practical goals of confrontation in the forefront of their minds: clarity, protection, repentance and forgiveness, reconciliation, restoration, separation, and exposure.

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