Confrontation in church life

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The other day, I wrote about the risks of getting a response to trouble and confrontation wrong. I wrote specifically about the challenges facing the West in responding to Vladimir Putin. However, most of us are not involved in major geo-political issues and hold little power over politicians or big business so on one level, the discussion is moot. However, sadly we do have to face confrontation in our own families, communities and churches.  So I’d like to use the analogy to get us thinking further about how we handle things within the church.

As a footnote to that article, I asked these questions:

  1. Is there an example of someone who is causing problems or in sin within our church family? Is there a need to confront them? 
  2. What holds me back from confrontation? 
  3. What is the wisest way/place/time of confronting them?
  4. Who else is affected by the situation? How do we best protect them?

I would encourage you to stop and reflect on them again.  How do we respond?  Well first of all, here are some general Biblical principles

  1. Our motivation/desire is to see the person safe and secure in Christ. They are not the enemy. We don’t wrestle with flesh and blood but with powers and principalities.
  2. That work is ultimately the work of the Holy Spirit.  We cannot change someone’s heart. 
  3. Confrontation is unavoidable, even though we find it hard. However, we are seeking confrontation not with our hurt feelings or our opinions but with the Gospel and timing, place and approach are crucial to that.
  4. We also need to be thinking about how this person’s behaviours and actions are affecting others. How do we best protect them.

There are a couple of Bible passages that are helpful to our thinking here.  1 Corinthians 5 shows us that where there is serious, unrepentant sin then the church has to confront it both to see the individual restored and to protect the wider church from being drawn into and contaminated by sin. 

In Matthew 13:24-20, Jesus tells a parable about a man who plants good seed in his field but an enemy comes and plants weeds in amongst the grain.  The man’s servants want to go and root out the weeds but the master forbids them. He tells them that this will lead to the good crop being uprooted and damaged too.  So, he says that they must harvest weeds and crop together at the end, then separate them out.

Now, note that the point of this parable is to do with the end time harvest, that Christians and non-Christians will live together in the world. God holds off judgement day for the wicked to protect his people. This means the parable isn’t primarily about how we distinguish believers from unbelievers in the church or a practical guide to church discipline. It’s certainly not an argument against church discipline.

However, there may be some helpful and analogous wisdom here. When someone starts to cause problems in your church by sinful behaviour, by stirring up unrest and division or even by beginning to teach error, then sometimes we can be in a rush to step in and confront/challenge them.  The problem is that we miss out on how interconnected they are with other people.  Roots are tangled up.  They have built up a support base of people who have listened to their grumbling and believed it or appeared to have given tacit approval of sin (often out of a sense of compassion and humility). 

You cannot go in to confront the situation without paying attention to those around  the person and the impact on them. This doesn’t mean that you don’t confront but it does mean that you pay attention to how and when.

So a couple of things to consider

  1. Are you able to give time through public teaching to show that particular behaviours and words are wrong and go against God’s Word and the Gospel?
  2. Are you able to show what positive, loving, gospel living looks like both by teaching and example so that people can see the contrast and also can see that your own motives are loving?
  3. Are you able to draw out the person so that their true agenda can be seen for all?  Ideally you want those around them to be able to see and work things out for themselves. Indeed in an ideal but rare situation you would love for the person themselves to see it.

Remember that our aim is not that we should confront the person so that there is disagreement between them and us. Rather our desire is for them to be confronted with the Gospel again, so that it is God who lovingly challenges and corrects them.

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