Having been a pastor for over 30 years, I have had to do my fair share of confronting sinning brothers and sisters. Some confrontations have been humbly received and restorative. Others have been met with anger, defensiveness, denial, and blame-shifting. I have discovered that my role in confrontation is to “speak the truth in love.” I can’t predict how the other person will respond nor can I control their emotions. I keep in mind that this is a person for whom Christ died and shed His blood. He or she is not the enemy but is a brother or sister in Christ. Also, I’m not here to win an argument; I’m here to win back a sinner.
What’s the biblical basis for confronting sinners? Probably the most widely used passage on confrontation of a sinning brother is Matthew 18:15-17. This passage details a three-stage process consisting first of a private, personal confrontation of the one sinning. Based on the Greek word used in this passage, I’ll be referring only to sinning brothers but know that it’s equally true for sinning sisters. It’s clear from 18:15 that this is a personal sin he has committed. The Greek literally reads, “if the brother of you sins against you” thus indicating that this one has sinned against you personally. The verb used for “reprove” indicates one time action with continuing results. In other words I am to take the initiative to go to my brother privately, speak truth to him of what he did to hurt me, and wait for his response. If he responds well by repenting and asking for my forgiveness, we are reconciled and can move on. The Greek simply says, “if he will hear you.” To hear me implies humility. To hear me implies that he accepts his responsibility for the sin against me. If he does I have “gained” my brother meaning I’ve got him back. The relationship is restored. Like reprove, to gain my brother is a one-time action with ongoing results.
How will I know if my brother does not hear me? He will become defensive, angry with me, try to shift the blame for the sin to me (“it’s your fault this happened”) or someone else, “gaslight” me into thinking I’m crazy for thinking this, or rationalize why he sinned. None of these responses indicates hearing me much less humility, brokenness, and repentance.
What do you do if your brother does not hear you? You have one of three choices: 1. Do a “cut off” from your brother severing the relationship. 2. Pretend that everything is fine and live in denial knowing that the wound is not healed. 3. Call one or two others who know you both and, in their presence, do a second confrontation. This third option fulfills the biblical principle that facts are only confirmed as true if two or three witnesses agree on them. The Greek indicates that these witnesses “strengthen” your words by bringing the weight of multiple people upon the sinner causing him to come to his senses.
Again, if he listens to you and the witnesses, repents, and asks for forgiveness, he has been won but if he refuses to hear you and your witnesses, the third and final step is to bring the matter to the whole church. The goal is to both inform the church of the sin and subsequent rift between you and the offender as well as bring the church in on the offense to intervene and plead with the brother to repent. The church hears from you and the witnesses and then goes to the transgressor. How does the church go to him and plead with him? Does the church delegate that job to the elders? Do only those in the congregation who know the sinning brother go to him privately? Does the entire congregation go to him? The scripture does not give us the methodology of how this is done but most churches today delegate the confrontation to the elders who represent the church.
If the brother still refuses to hear even the pleadings of the church, the church must act and, with sorrow of heart, put the sinning brother out of their fellowship until he humbles himself and repents. The Greek says the church is to treat him as a “pagan” and “tax collector.” Tax collectors were hated because they collected taxes from their countrymen for the Roman Empire. They worked for Rome, the oppressor of God’s people. Pagans were those who were not connected to the life of God. The church, then, is to treat the offender as though he was unsaved. They don’t shun him, belittle him, or backstab him. Rather they treat him as one for whom Christ Jesus died and who needs to be saved.
Few Christians and churches practice Matthew 18:15-17. I believe it is why there is so much dysfunction within the body of Christ. Practicing Matthew 18 takes courage and is risky. The offender may never return to the congregation. He could sever the relationship with you. He could hate you! To not confront sinners, however, is much worse. The body becomes defiled by sin and others are emboldened to sin because no disciplinary action has been taken. They can get away with it. Worst of all, the holiness of God is diminished in the eyes of the lost. They rightfully say, “See, they’re no different than us.”
Fanning the flame of God’s holiness,