What is the mode of confrontation? In other words, how does one actually go about confronting another Christian? What is the correct process? This is a more difficult question, because it is actually case-by-case. Every situation and scenario that requires confrontation is not the same. Sometimes a sin is a personal and private matter, and sometimes a sin can be committed publicly against a group of people. The two scenarios demand two different responses and two different procedures. Actually, there are at least five different scenarios when an “offence” occurs between believers that the Bible addresses. Let’s look at each of them.
Option 1: Just Forgive!
The Bible teaches that not every sin between believers needs to be confronted in a head-on confrontation or verbal clash. Thankfully, some sins or offenses can just be forgiven and not addressed! Proverbs 10:12 says, “love covers all transgressions.” Peter says the same thing in the New Testament: “Above all, keep fervent in your love for one another, because love covers a multitude of sins” (1 Per 4:8). Paul speaks similarly as he reminds Christians that “love is patient” (1 Cor 13:4). Paul also says that biblical love “covers all things” (v. 7). The word “covers” here is the Greek word stego which means “to protect; to keep secret or hidden.” You don’t need to jump on people for every small infraction they might make or questionable breath they take. Don’t be petty; be forgiving. Let it go! Christians should be in the habit of throwing blankets of forgiving love over the ongoing petty oddities, foibles and idiosyncrasies of other believers that tend to irritate. We all have them.
If this is true, then when should we confront sin and not just put a blanket of forgiving love over it? This is a challenging balancing act. Three suggestions might help. The first is that offenses that can be forgiven without confrontation, or that can be “winked” at, should be sins committed against you personally and you decide in grace to forgive the other person. You have jurisdiction over that sin issue. But sins or offenses that you don’t have jurisdiction over, you don’t have the prerogative to just ignore them.
For example, if you are a parent and you hear that your teenager stole something from Safeway, you don’t just ignore it and forgive it. The sin of stealing was not committed against you; as a responsible parent you need to confront your teenager and make them fess up and pay restitution. Second, offenses that can go unchecked tend to be smaller offenses, routine irritants that are just a normal part of daily life. Third, if you try to forgive an offense or a sin against you but you remain troubled by it, or even embittered by it as time goes on, then you need to bring it up to the perpetrator and talk about it. Confront it! Get it out, before it turns into a root of bitterness.
So, covering sin is the ability to forgive insults, rudeness, unkindness, or spontaneous inconsiderate words or acts without confrontation. In marriage this could apply to frequent acts and words of omission—things one’s spouse doesn’t do or forgets to do that probably would have been a good idea to do. The Song of Solomon calls these frequent, ongoing offenses and hiccups in the marriage relationship “little foxes” (2:18). These kinds of shortcomings occur so frequently for us as sinners that, if we confronted every one of them, we would spend all of our time in conflict—being petty and nit-picky, which is the opposite of being merciful peacemakers and the higher road to which Jesus calls His disciples (Matt 5:7, 9).
Option 2: The Church Discipline Process
The church discipline process is a four-fold process Jesus gave in Matthew 18:15-17 to manage sin in the church. This process is meant for sins that cannot go unconfronted. The process is always to be initiated by the one sinned against. The church will always have sinners, so every church will always have the need to practice church discipline. Church discipline is a formal way of providing accountability for sinners, a forum for the offended to confront perpetrators, and a means to restore wayward sheep, bringing them back into the fold. Church discipline is also a means of protecting the local church from wolves in sheep’s clothing, false teachers and unrepentant, factious trouble-makers.
In the Gospels, Jesus made only two explicit references to the Church. One is in Matthew 16 when He promised to build the Church. The other is in Matthew 18 where He outlined the steps for the church discipline process. The Church needs to carefully heed Jesus’ specific, delineated plan for resolving conflict and dealing with sin and restoration in the Church. It is His Church and He knows best how to protect it and manage problems. He said church discipline serves that purpose.
The key passage on church discipline is in Matthew and reads as follows:
And if your brother sins, go and reprove him in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother. But if he does not listen to you, take one or two more with you, so that “by the mouth of two or three witnesses every fact may be confirmed.” And if he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax-gatherer.18:15-17
Jesus said these words to His disciples just prior to His departure. He was deliberately laying the foundation for the beginning of the church, and church discipline was central to fulfilling that goal. In His instructions, Jesus based church discipline on some Old Testament principles, one of those being that justice, or truth, was to be established before man on the basis of the testimony of a minimum of two to three witnesses (Deut 19:15). This was a safeguard against frivolous, unjustified accusations being brought against people without accountability. Jesus knew that humans were self-oriented and liars at heart if left to themselves (John 2:25). A classic example of someone bringing a false accusation against an innocent party was when Potiphar’s wife accused Joseph of rape (Gen 39:14). Joseph didn’t rape her or even touch her, but she made up a lie out of retaliation and a personal vendetta. There were no witnesses of the so-called rape (39:11). It was just Joseph’s word against a lying woman’s word. Joseph was thrown into prison based on a false witness (Gen 39:20; cf. Exod 20:16). Having one or two witnesses could have ensured justice. Hence the importance of abiding by Jesus’ standard in this passage. In just three verses Jesus has outlined an amazingly simple and effective four-step plan here for dealing with personal conflict and sin in the body of Christ.
It also needs to be kept in mind that the church discipline process is an economy of restoration intended for believers—it is assumed from the beginning that those involved are believers. It is not until the process has been thoroughly exhausted that one of the parties might be considered to be an unbeliever (as a “tax gatherer”)—until that point, no such judgment is to be rendered. Rushing to judgment with an assessment saying, “They did this horrible sin—they must not be saved!” before going through the proper steps of church discipline is to undermine the heavenly judicious procedure that Jesus bequeathed to the church. And a rush to judgment about someone’s spiritual status before God is dangerous. Real Christians are capable of some horrible sins.
The first step of confrontation in the church discipline process is at the individual level and is to be carried out in a strictly private manner. The idea is to confront the problem on the personal level in the smallest circle of influence, thus safeguarding the reputation of all parties involved. This involves only the parties that have grievances against one another—usually a one-on-one confrontation between believers.
Private, prayerful, personal, verbal, honest confrontation needs to happen first. If this step is neglected, and a grievance is shared with an outside party, then that is gossip. That is sin and it dishonors God, and as a result the grievance will compound and spread like gangrene. Also, Satan will capitalize on that breech and seek to create havoc and division in the Body. God’s desire is that believers speak openly to one another first about their conflicts, with the goal of seeking confession, forgiveness and restoration. If that is achieved, then the matter is to be forgiven and forgotten. The offending brother has been won over. There is complete resolution to the glory of God.
If step one does not resolve the conflict, then the process escalates to step two. The second step seeks a mediator or two, for a maximum total of three people confronting the offender. Step two is to be initiated only if step one failed to bring repentance, restoration and complete resolution. Each step is to be escalated if the response from the offender is that “he does not listen.” So, if the offender refused to acknowledge the offense in the one-on-one confrontation of step one, then proceed to step two. In that case the one offended brings one or two other believers to observe the offended brother as they confront the offender, and thereby they become “witnesses” in the process. The circle of knowledge is still small, which prevents gossip and also gives the sinning brother an opportunity to repent in dignity. If the offender owns up to the sin upon being confronted by the two or three, then total forgiveness is to be granted, and the case is closed, never to be brought up again (see 1 Cor 13:5b). If the offender rejects the admonition of the mediation team, then step three comes into play.
The third step is to bring the unresolved conflict to the church. Now the offense becomes a corporate issue and the accountability factor becomes weightier by virtue of becoming public knowledge. The first question to answer is, “Who is the church?” Some say it begins with all the elders or church leadership. Others say it includes the leadership and all the members. Other churches believe it includes the leadership of the local church plus anyone in attendance on any given Sunday, which may include visitors and unbelieving spectators. Still others would include other local churches and the denomination members as well. Despite the differences of opinion, the common denominator is that the sin becomes public with corporate accountability from a minimum of the leaders and its members in the local church.
At this stage the sin is to be publicly proclaimed and the members are encouraged to pray for the unrepentant sinner and call that person to repent as they have opportunity. For the process to work as Jesus intended, everyone has to be on the same page and operate with a united front toward the sinner. One illegitimate sympathizer who bucks the process can undermine the whole heavenly work. But when the whole church is speaking in unison, this may help bring conviction and repentance. If the offender repents after being confronted by the church, then total forgiveness is to be granted, and the sinner is to be restored (Luke 17:3). If the offender rejects the admonition of the church, then step four is to be implemented.
Before going on to step four, some comments are in order about steps one through three. Regarding step one, all Christians should be regularly involved at this level, for this is simply confronting and resolving conflict in personal relationships at the one-on-one level. We all live day-to-day in this realm. This step helps us keep short accounts with others; it helps to keep the sun from going down on our anger with others (Eph 4:26). It helps clear the air in marriage and prevents the “little foxes” from intruding into family life (SOS 2:18). Doing step one faithfully smothers gossip and stifles Satan’s tactics of discord among believers. If you can’t remember the last time you implemented step one, then there is a good chance there is unresolved conflict in your life.
Step two will be a way less frequent occurrence for most people. Mainly because step one works. Jesus knew what He was talking about. He knows people and it’s His Church. True believers often respond positively to step one when it is implemented properly. And if they know step three might be coming soon that is a healthy fear that can bring conviction that leads to resolution. Step three should be a rare occurrence. Most Christians fear public accountability. That is a good thing. Usually it is calloused, hardened sinners that don’t repent during steps two and three, and so they don’t care if they are subjected to step four. With each step, their true character and spiritual heart condition is revealed more and more.
If the sinner refuses to repent after being confronted by the whole church, then the matter is escalated to step four. Step four is when the church considers the offender as a “gentile and a tax-gatherer,” or as an unbeliever. The person is to be put out of the fellowship, which entails removing him from membership and forbidding him the ordinances and church fellowship (1 Cor 5:13). It is not uncommon for a person in step three or step four to remain a professing Christian. That’s why step four is so important. A true Christian would not persist in defying the church by clinging to sin in the face of repeated and escalated formal confrontation. As such Jesus gives the Church the authority to declare the unrepentant sinner a “tax-gatherer” at step four despite their self-profession as a Christian. If they continue to identify themselves as a believer, it is evidence that they are self-deceived—they are more likely weeds than wheat. And since such a person is to be considered as an unbeliever, the church should evangelize him/her with the gospel and call that person to repentance, but at the same time Christians should remain aloof from them on a personal level considering them spiritually dangerous (1 Cor 5:11).
If you have been subjected to step four in the church discipline process then you are “put out” of the church. Sometimes this is referred to as being “excommunicated,” although that is not a biblical word and it carries a lot of negative baggage historically. It is possible for such a person to repent, or come to their senses, and be forgiven and restored to fellowship. There was a man in the Corinthian church who was “put out” of the fellowship but then repented and was received back into fellowship (2 Cor 2:5-8). This illustrates perfectly the amazing grace of God and the reality that where sin abounds, the grace of God in Christ abounds even more (Rom 5:20).
To summarize, the four-fold church discipline process of Matthew can be outlined as follows:
Step 1 – “And if your brother sins, go and reprove him in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother” (18:15).
Step 2 – “But if he does not listen to you, take one or two more with you, so that ‘by the mouth of two or three witnesses every fact may be confirmed’” (18:16).
Step 3 – “And if he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church” (18:17a).
Step 4 – “and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax-gatherer” (18:17b).
Option 3: Reject the Factious
In addition to the four-fold process given by Jesus, the New Testament spells out three other scenarios that are special cases of confrontation or discipline. One of these pertains to dealing with “factious” people in the church. In Titus 3:10-11 Paul says to, “Reject a factious man after a first and second warning, knowing that such a man is perverted and is sinning.” This special case of discipline is a little different than the one taught by Jesus in Matthew 18. This situation has only three steps; Jesus gave four steps in Matthew 18. The sin is more specific in Titus for it refers to one guilty of “factious” behavior. The Greek word here for “factious” is “heresy” where we get the English words “factions” and “false teaching.” The offense in Matthew 18:15 is more generic and is called “sin,” which comes from the Greek verb hamartano, “to miss the mark.” This is a very broad term for sin and encompasses all manner of moral error.
Another difference is that this factious behavior in Titus 3 is associated with public spoken behavior that is divisive, like false or scandalous teaching or false notions being propagated throughout the church. That kind of behavior needs to be put to a stop immediately. Hence the circumvented process given to shut it down. Here Paul says that some steps in the church discipline process need to be by-passed to protect the church and keep division and heresy from spreading quickly like a wild fire or fast spreading cancer. In other words, steps one and two are skipped and something similar to step three is immediately in effect. The normal process of church discipline is circumvented based on the nature of the sin, which in this case is “factious” behavior. Such sin needs to be smothered and cut out immediately. Drastic times call for drastic measures.
Option 4: Confronting an Elder
Another special case of church discipline a little different than Matthew 18 is when an elder or pastor in the church needs to be exposed for sin that compromises his ministry and brings reproach on the church. Paul gives the following command in 1 Timothy 5:19-20:
Do not receive an accusation against an elder except on the basis of two or three witnesses. Those who continue in sin, rebuke in the presence of all, so that the rest also will be fearful of sinning.
This command serves as a guideline of how to confront an elder in the church. An elder is the same thing as a pastor, overseer, bishop, presbyter or leader in the church. The terms are used interchangeably in the New Testament (Acts 20:17, 28; Heb 13:17). In this command God provides protection for elders/pastors while at the same time holds them to a higher standard. They are protected in that no one person can bring a formal charge or grievance against the pastor to shame with vindictive intent. Serious accusations against a pastor must be validated by at least two witnesses. This prevents the pastor from being undermined or attacked by nefarious individuals who simply want to retaliate against the pastor or sabotage his ministry for illegitimate personal reasons. Personal vendettas against elders are to be rejected out of hand.
The first command given in 5:19 is a negative one: “Do not receive an accusation…”. The word “receive” means “consider” or “entertain.” Unsubstantiated allegations (rogue accusations made by one person with no witnesses) are not even to be investigated. “Do not receive” them! Expose them and condemn them instead. Fellow elders need to be the first in line here to protect the pastor or other elders from being falsely accused via petty accusations leaking from a sole malcontent. This is especially true if the back-handed leak is coming from another elder or church leader. How many churches have been damaged by a coup spearheaded by a fellow, power-hungry, elder or influential power-broker in the church? Don’t give the poisonous gas of sinister gossip against a pastor a match to light the flame. Snuff it out on the spot! Stand up for your elders. Protect your pastors! Satan is working overtime to destroy pastors; we don’t need to support the work of conniving church-goers with the same intent.
At the same time, God scrutinizes Pastors at a higher level of expectation. James 3:1 warns, “Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, knowing that as such we will incur a stricter judgment.” Pastors hold delegated spiritual authority in trust from God. But pastors are sinners too and at times can misuse that authority. Church leaders are not immune to scrutiny or consequences. As such, they need accountability. Sometimes there are men serving in the office of elder who do not belong there. There are times when a pastor or elder needs to be confronted of sin. Some sins elders commit are disqualifying sins with respect to ongoing formal ministry (1 Cor 9:27). If an elder commits a disqualifying sin, then he needs to be exposed. The process to do this is a two-step procedure. Disqualifying sins, at a minimum, are a betrayal of the elder qualifications Paul listed in 1 Timothy 3.
If a pastor is guilty of a disqualifying sin, then step one is to be invoked: two or more witnesses bring legitimate, validated charges of a sin against the elder as a warning. Step two is invoked if the elder does not repent, whereupon he is to be rebuked or exposed publicly. The word “rebuke” used by Paul here means “confront, expose, convict, reprove.” It is to be a public censure. The public rebuke serves as a warning to the whole congregation that God hates sin and takes it seriously. So, the rebuke amounts to a clarion call to holiness in the church. Because the pastor did not repent with the first warning he has violated the qualifications for being an elder as delineated in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 and therefore needs to step down from his role as elder/pastor.
A critical question here is, “What sins are considered disqualifying sins for a pastor or elder?” There is much debate about the answer. At a minimum the answer is that if the elder or pastor clearly violates the qualifications that got him qualified, then he becomes disqualified. Those qualifications are specifically listed in 1 Timothy 3:1-7, Titus 1:5-9 and 1 Peter 5:1-3.
After twenty-plus years in ministry, having served in many churches, on many leadership boards in churches and Christian schools, the qualification that I have seen violated most among spiritual leaders, by far…hands down…is men who become or act “self-willed.” That is a qualification listed in Titus 1:7. If you are self-willed then you have no business being in church ministry. God wants shepherds serving God, Christ, the Church and the sheep…not themselves. Being self-willed is similar to Peter’s warning to elders in 1 Peter 5 when he exhorts them not to “lord it over” the people. Lording it over the sheep is when a church leader abuses his delegated authority he has by virtue of the position. Lording it over is a uniquely dangerous sin because pastors and elders can use their authority to build a fire-wall of protection against any accountability, as they hide behind their title and mis-use Bible verses like, “Touch not mine anointed” (1 Chron 16:22 KJV), in effect telling the people that the pastor is beyond confronting. And too many church leaders through the years have abused their authority by acting like little dictators, wielding a heavy-hand, acting like drill-sergeants instead of like lowly foot-washers that Jesus called pastors to be (John 13).
There is no place for pastors to be micro-managing people lives, controlling their behavior through fear, threats, legalism or coercion. The people are God’s sheep, not our sheep. The saints are God’s children, not the pastor’s children. Jesus is the only legitimate Senior Pastor in the church (1 Pet 5). Elders are mere under-shepherds, servants, galley-slaves and stewards. Pastors are supposed to love the people, serve the people, feed and protect the people. Elders are called to be gentle and compassionate with God’s people as Jesus was. As a Shepherd, Jesus fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah and became the ideal model of what a pastor was to be: “a battered reed He will not break off, and a smoldering wick He will not put out” (Matt 12:20; cf. Isa 42:3).
A note of clarification is needed to complement what Paul lays out in 1 Timothy 5:19-20. In addition to the formal rebuke of pastors mentioned above, as individuals, pastors are sinners like all other Christians. Not every sin a pastor or elder commits is a ministry-disqualifying sin. Therefore, there will be times when an individual may have to talk to a pastor individually, privately, about a personal grievance. Show the pastor, a fellow brother in Christ, his fault; if he repents, he is to be forgiven (Luke 17:3). Case closed. This might be the pastor’s wife, or child, or a fellow elder. We all need to do ongoing maintenance in our relationships to safeguard against the “little foxes” that creep in day to day.
Option 5: “Fire!”
The last unique case of confrontation is the one-step approach of church discipline. This is the rare occasion of exposing a public church scandal by confronting the intolerable sin while at the same time issuing an expulsion from the church in the same step. This is like yelling, “Fire!” and then taking immediate action to save lives while removing the imminent threat at the same time. The context for imposing this one-step approach is almost always dealing with a public sin that threatens the whole church. In these special instances, public sin warrants public rebuke.
There are a couple of examples in the Book of Acts that illustrate it in action. In Acts 5 Peter confronts two church members, Ananias and Saphira, a married couple, at a public church meeting for their sin of lying to the Holy Spirit. Both of them dropped dead on the spot upon Peter’s public rebuke. They were then summarily dragged out of the church. There was no four-fold church discipline process imposed on them allowing them time to reconsider their ways so they might reform, be rehabilitated and assimilated back into the community. They were not allowed two verbal warnings to get it together like the factious man in Titus 3. They were not even given two steps to make it right like the sinning elder in 1 Timothy 5. It was one strike and you are out!
This was also the case with Simon the sorcerer of Samaria in Acts chapter 8. Simon was a practitioner of the occult by way of profession. But on one occasion he heard Philip preach the gospel and Simon believed and was baptized (8:13). And he even began to follow Philip as a disciple. But it turns out that Simon’s faith was shallow and polluted, for he really loved money more than he loved God. As a professing Christian he tried to buy the apostolic power of the Holy Spirit with filthy lucre. Peter rebuked him to his face saying, “May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain the gift of God with money” (8:20). Simon’s sin was a public act, so he got an immediate public rebuke.
Paul also used the one-step approach of confronting Christians who were in sin. The Corinthian church had a public scandal with one of their members committing incest with his mother-in-law (1 Cor 5:1). The ghastly deed was public knowledge in the church. Paul commanded the church to immediately purge the man from their church and to deliver him over to Satan (vv. 5-7). There was no time for a two-step, three-step, or four step-process. The damage had been done. One step and he was out. Paul also used the one-step approach of confrontation against the Apostle Peter in the scenario already highlighted in chapter one. In Galatians 2 Paul recounts how Peter was being a public hypocrite, giving favoritism to the Judaizers over the Gentile Christians. The credibility of the gospel was at stake so Paul said he “opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned…in the presence of all” (2:11, 14). Fortunately, Peter responded to the rebuke, repented, got back on track and remained a faithful apostle of the church until his death.
This idea of an urgent one-step approach of public confrontation was not invented in the New Testament, nor was it wielded for the first time by Peter and Paul. Its practice and necessity goes all the way back to the Old Testament prophets, who routinely confronted professing saints among the Israelite community calling them to account. One of the most memorable examples is when Nehemiah, governor of Jerusalem, rebuked several Jewish leaders for their compromised ways—they were marrying unbelievers and defiling the sacrificial system God laid down. When Nehemiah found out about it he went ballistic with an inimitable holy rage. In his own words he explains what he did:
In those days I also saw that the Jews had married women from Ashdod, Ammon and Moab. As for their children, half spoke in the language of Ashdod, and none of them was able to speak the language of Judah, but the language of his own people. So I contended with them and cursed them and struck some of them and pulled out their hair, and made them swear by God, “You shall not give your daughters to their sons, nor take of their daughters for your sons or for yourselves. Did not Solomon king of Israel sin regarding these things? Yet among the many nations there was no king like him, and he was loved by his God, and God made him king over all Israel; nevertheless the foreign women caused even him to sin. Do we then hear about you that you have committed all this great evil by acting unfaithfully against our God by marrying foreign women?”Neh 13:23-27
Nehemiah, the man of God, rebuked them publicly, cursed them (possibly by rehearsing the curses in Deuteronomy 28), struck them and pulled out their hair! Ouch. And then reminded them of what Scripture said on the matter. That is courageous confrontation.
To sum up, the Bible describes five options for dealing with an offence among believers. The first was to cover the offence with love taking no action. Second was following the four-fold church discipline process laid out by Jesus in Matthew 18:15-17. Then we looked at three unique examples: confronting the factious man in three steps; confronting a sinning elder in two steps; and dealing with a public scandal in one step.