Scripture encourages us to overlook petty offenses and to forgive our brothers and sisters in love. Sometimes we may even forgive a large personal offense, as Joseph did when he forgave his brothers for selling him as a slave. After years of captivity, Joseph was able to see how God used the situation to save not only himself, but his family and the nation of Israel.
But Scripture also teaches that there are times when we should not ignore an offense. “Dear brothers and sisters, if another believer is overcome by some sin, you who are godly should gently and humbly help that person back onto the right path. And be careful not to fall into the same temptation yourself” (Galatians 6:1).
As John MacArthur says:
These generally involve more serious sins—not petty or picayune complaints, but soul-threatening sins or transgressions that endanger the fellowship of saints. In such situations Luke 17:3 applies: “If your brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him.” In such cases, if a brother or sister in Christ refuses to repent, the discipline process outlined in Matthew 18 applies.
Here are some guidelines for determining when such confrontation is necessary:
If you observe a serious offense that is a sin against someone other than you, confront the offender. Justice does not permit a Christian to cover a sin against someone else. I can unilaterally and unconditionally forgive a personal offense when I am the victim, because it is I who then bears the wrong. But when I see that someone else has been sinned against, it is my duty to seek justice. (The only exception to this would be when the offended person himself chooses to ignore a personal slight or insult. This was the case when David forbade Abishai to wreak vengeance against Shimei.)
While we are entitled, and even encouraged, to overlook wrongs committed against us, Scripture everywhere forbids us to overlook wrongs committed against another.
• Exodus 23:6: “You shall not pervert the justice due to your needy brother in his dispute.”
• Deuteronomy 16:20: “Justice, and only justice, you shall pursue.”
• Isaiah 1:17: “Learn to do good; seek justice, reprove the ruthless, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.”
• Isaiah 59:15–16: “Yes, truth is lacking; and he who turns aside from evil makes himself a prey. Now the Lord saw, and it was displeasing in His sight that there was no justice. And He saw that there was no man, and was astonished that there was no one to intercede.”
• Jeremiah 22:3: “Thus says the Lord, ‘Do justice and righteousness, and deliver the one who has been robbed from the power of his oppressor. Also do not mistreat or do violence to the stranger, the orphan, or the widow; and do not shed innocent blood in this place.’ ”
• Lamentations 3:35–36: “To deprive a man of justice in the presence of the Most High, to defraud a man in his lawsuit—of these things the Lord does not approve.”
It is not our prerogative to “forgive” someone for an offense against another. Therefore, those who witness such an offense have a duty to confront the offender with his or her transgression.
When ignoring an offense might hurt the offender, confrontation is required. Sometimes choosing to overlook an offense might actually injure the offender. In such cases it is our duty to confront in love.
No less an authority than Jesus himself taught us that there are times when we need to directly confront a fellow believer who has sinned against us. “If another believer* sins against you,* go privately and point out the offense. If the other person listens and confesses it, you have won that person back. But if you are unsuccessful, take one or two others with you and go back again, so that everything you say may be confirmed by two or three witnesses. If the person still refuses to listen, take your case to the church. Then if he or she won’t accept the church’s decision, treat that person as a pagan or a corrupt tax collector. (Matthew 18:15-17).
Biblical confrontation is not about hauling your brother before a tribunal—it’s about going to him privately and explaining the problem. Perhaps you know the problem well because you’ve battled that particular sin in your own life. We do tend to notice flaws in others when we’re familiar with those same flaws within our own lives.
In his book Getting Along With Each Other, Richard Strauss says, “You should approach them ‘looking to yourselves, lest you too be tempted’ (Galatians 6:1). There is no way we can properly confront others with an air of superiority. Biblical confrontation is just one sinner sharing with another something that might make them both better people and make their relationship with each other stronger and more satisfying. Suggestions are easier to take from someone who lets you know he has the same weaknesses you have.”
Jesus put it this way: “If another believer* sins [against you], rebuke that person; then if there is repentance, forgive. Even if that person wrongs you seven times a day and each time turns again and asks forgiveness, you must forgive” (Luke 17:3-4).
On the other hand, if you are the offender, you have to examine your conscience as soon as you feel that nudge of the Holy Spirit: “So if you are presenting a sacrifice* at the altar in the Temple and you suddenly remember that someone has something against you, leave your sacrifice there at the altar. Go and be reconciled to that person. Then come and offer your sacrifice to God” (Matthew 5:23-24).
I will never forget my personal experience with those verses—and how they can sting. On a rainy Sunday morning while I was in college, I was supposed to sing in the high school department, and I had to go to church early for a sound check/rehearsal. I’d spent more than the usual amount of time on my hair, and because it was pouring rain and I arrived early, I pulled into the parking lot and aimed for a parking spot near the building.
A well-intentioned young man in a fluorescent vest stopped me by waving his arms like a madman. I thought about ignoring him, but just couldn’t pull it off, not with all that gesticulating.
I rolled down my window and heard him say that students—which I was—weren’t allowed to park in the lot near the building. Students had to park in the “lower” lot, which was a half mile away and at a much lower elevation. Which meant I’d be walking a long way in the rain. In heels. Uphill.
I have to confess that I wasn’t exactly nice to that young man. I think I rolled my eyes and groaned and made a horrible face, then I unhappily did a U-turn and grumbled all the way down to the lower lot . . . and as I walked back up the hill.
In the gymnasium where high school met, I ran through my song . . . and then I thought about those verses in Matthew 5. How could I stand on that platform and offer my song as a sacrifice of praise when I’d been rude to the poor guy in the parking lot? The longer I stood there, thinking about rain and my drooping hair, the more convicted I became.
So I ran out into the rain again. I found that poor guy, gave him my confession and apology, then hurried back into the building. I don’t remember what his reaction was (it was a long time ago!), but my conscience was clean and I could sing . . . even though my hair was straggly by that point. I don’t think the Lord minded.
Confession, repentance, and forgiveness—you will pay a price for all three. If you are the one confessing and repenting, you will have to stop doing whatever you did wrong. If you are the one who forgives, you are surrendering your right to be angry . . . and hurt. You cannot continue to wallow in self-pity or burn with righteous indignation. If something is forgiven, we cannot bring it up again. We need to forgive as God forgives us.
If we are walking with and listening to the Spirit, our spirits will be sensitive to His voice. We will know what to say when we are approaching someone else, and we will know how to respond when someone approaches us.
If going to someone privately does not elicit a confession and correction, then return with one or two other reasonable, spiritual people whose job is to sit quietly and listen and pray. If that visit doesn’t elicit a confession and correction, then you should take the matter before the church. If this final step doesn’t elicit confession and correction, then the offender should be put out of the fellowship.
Personally, I have to wonder how any Spirit-filled Christian could sit through three confrontation sessions and not be convicted of sin. If they are confronted with the knowledge that they hurt someone, even unintentionally, how could they not apologize for causing that hurt?
I remember when a woman came up to me and said that I’d hurt her feelings years before when I did a critique of her manuscript. She said I had written “this is stupid” in the margin of her story, and she’d been terribly wounded by what I wrote.
I was horrified—at what I’d done, and at how I’d hurt her. I apologized at once, and explained that I probably didn’t mean her story was stupid, but that something a character had said or done seemed stupid in context. But no matter what I’d been thinking, I was wrong to be so careless in my choice of words, and I was wrong to hurt her. I apologized, she forgave me, and I’ve never written “stupid” on a manuscript since (except maybe on one of mine).
The principle of biblical communication should also play out among the church elders and staff. When people get upset with the nursery workers or the youth pastor, they tend to fire off letters or emails to the church pastor—wrong! First of all, he is one of many elders at the church, and as we’ve seen, they all have equal callings and authority (or should). These folks should be writing to the pastor or staff member with whom they have a problem. And second, when a pastor gets a letter complaining about another staff member, he should hand that letter over to the person involved in the situation. My husband, a youth pastor, was once called on the carpet for irritating a parent. “Who’s the parent?” he asked his “supervisor.” He was ready and willing to talk to the offended parent, but the pastor over him refused to give the parent’s name.
How is biblical communication supposed to take place if people won’t be honest enough to identify those who are upset? This is not only unbiblical and poor leadership, but it hampers those who are in ministry. Furthermore, it does nothing to solve the parents’ problem.
Incidentally, I hope no one reading this would ever consider sending an anonymous note. My husband and I went through a season where we received anonymous letters about every six months from someone at the church. The first, addressed to me, accused my husband of having computer sex and I laughed because he doesn’t even know how to turn the computer on. Another letter, addressed to my husband and left in a church office letter box, accused me of having an affair—as if I had time. After a while we stopped caring what those evil letters said because by that time we were tired of wondering who could possibly be so cowardly and hate us so much. But Jesus himself warned that the evil one would sow tares amongst the wheat in the church, so not everyone is a true believer . . .
Know this: saints and snakes live side by side in the church. Not everyone who wears a smiling face is a Christian. A pastor friend of mine often points out that even Jesus had a one-out-of-twelve ratio of believers to unbelievers.
“Beware of false prophets who come disguised as harmless sheep but are really vicious wolves.You can identify them by their fruit, that is, by the way they act. Can you pick grapes from thorn bushes, or figs from thistles? A good tree produces good fruit, and a bad tree produces bad fruit. A good tree can’t produce bad fruit, and a bad tree can’t produce good fruit. So every tree that does not produce good fruit is chopped down and thrown into the fire. Yes, just as you can identify a tree by its fruit, so you can identify people by their actions. Not everyone who calls out to me, ‘Lord! Lord!’ will enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Only those who actually do the will of my Father in heaven will enter. 22 On judgment day many will say to me, ‘Lord! Lord! We prophesied in your name and cast out demons in your name and performed many miracles in your name.’ But I will reply, ‘I never knew you. Get away from me, you who break God’s laws.’ (Matthew 7:15-23).
Remember the parable of the soils in which Jesus said:
“Listen! A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants, so that they did not bear grain. Still other seed fell on good soil. It came up, grew and produced a crop, multiplying thirty, sixty, or even a hundred times.” Then Jesus said, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear” (Mark 4:1-9).
Pay special attention to that third soil—those people hear the gospel, they claim to believe in Christ, they go to church, and one day when other cares and desires overpower their lives, they fall away. Some folks believe those in the “third seed group” lose their salvation. I am convinced they never had it, for how can someone be made a new creature and filled with the Spirit of God and then walk away? (Romans 8:30, John 10:38).
If someone in the church does not exhibit fruit–love, joy, peace, goodness, gentleness, and self-control; if they harden their hearts and refuse to listen when others gently confront them in a biblical manner, then it is possible that this is a person who walks the walk and talks the talk but has never experienced true repentance and salvation. We are not saved because we joined a church or were baptized or because we recited a certain prayer. We are saved because the Spirit of God calls us and we surrender to Him.
For God knew his people in advance, and he chose them to become like his Son, so that his Son would be the firstborn* among many brothers and sisters. And having chosen them, he called them to come to him. And having called them, he gave them right standing with himself. And having given them right standing, he gave them his glory. (Romans 8:29-30).
Please understand: I am not trying to encourage anyone to judge fellow worshippers—quite the contrary. We should not going around looking for the faults and failings of others because you’re sure to find them. We all fail. Moses failed, David failed, Peter failed—we humans are made of fallible material. What I am saying that if you properly practice biblical confrontation and the person fails to confess or repent after three scriptural confrontations, perhaps they’re not responding to the Spirit because they are not part of the body of Christ. We cannot know for certain, for only God knows the condition of a man’s heart, but it’s a possibility.
Another reason we should confront sin biblically is to protect the offender. Just as our mothers told us to brush our teeth to spare us the pain of tooth decay, sometimes we must confront a brother or sister because they are caught in a problem that may hurt them. A man caught in the trap of pornography is risking his marriage and his family. A woman caught in the grip of a drug addiction is risking her marriage, her children, and her life. In such cases, those in the body of Christ who recognize the problem and know the risks can go to that person, confront him or her with the reality of how sin destroys, and urge them to confess and repent.
Sin destroys. It destroys families, people, churches, and nations. And if you go to confront someone about a sin that could destroy them, you could/should be doing it out of loving concern.
“Ironically,” writes John MacArthur, these are the circumstances in which confrontation is the hardest. We are easily tempted to confront the sins we should overlook and to overlook the ones we should confront. But whether the situation calls for forbearance or confrontation, the primary motivation should always be love for the offender (as well as for the offended).
“An appalling number of churches,” continues MacArthur, “refuse to obey the biblical instructions to discipline sinning members. What should someone do who has exhausted every avenue of appeal in the church and still feels an injustice has been done? In such cases, 1 Corinthians 6:7 applies: suffer the wrong for the sake of Christ. If the church you attend is wantonly disobeying Christ’s clear instructions about how to deal with sin within the fellowship, you may need to seek a church where Scripture is more faithfully obeyed.
“But some injustices will never be made right this side of eternity. It is clear that the Christian’s duty in such cases is to suffer the wrong gracefully, magnanimously, and willingly for the sake of Christ. God Himself will ultimately right all such wrongs. Meanwhile, we must refuse to harbor a grudge. We must never allow a spirit of resentment to stain our character. We must seek to be like Joseph, willing to see the hand of God working good, even in the most unjust circumstances.”
Because the church has often been accused of “shooting its wounded,” we must always remember that the end result of confrontation is reconciliation.
Whether or not biblical confrontation occurs, sin hurts people. When it does, we can’t forget to encourage and support those who have been wounded in its wake—the wife whose husband has left because he had an affair. Or the husband whose wife leaves because she wants a different life. We must not criticize the unavoidable situation, but we must extend help where it is needed.
I believe the Christian life is God’s boot camp—his way of toughening us up and making us spiritually mature before we graduate to heaven. My theory may not apply in every life, but it does explain why God allows us to go through trials, be wounded, fail, and inflict wounds on each other. In each situation we learn and we grow. We mature from naive “grunts” to mature saints.
To be continued . . .
 John F. MacArthur, The Freedom and Power of Forgiveness, electronic ed., 128-29 (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1998).
 * 18:15a Greek If your brother.
 * 18:15b Some manuscripts do not include against you.
 Tyndale House Publishers, Holy Bible: New Living Translation, 3rd ed., Mt 18:15–17 (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2007).
 Richard L. Strauss, Getting Along With Each Other: Communication, Relationships (San Bernardino, CA: Here’s Life Publishers, 1985).
 * 17:3 Greek If your brother.
 Tyndale House Publishers, Holy Bible: New Living Translation, 3rd ed., Lk 17:3–4 (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2007).
 * 5:23 Greek gift; also in 5:24.
 Tyndale House Publishers, Holy Bible: New Living Translation, 3rd ed., Mt 5:23–24 (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2007).
 Allen Black, Mark, The College Press NIV Commentary, Mk 4:1–9 (Joplin, MO: College Press, 1995).
 John F. MacArthur, The Freedom and Power of Forgiveness, electronic ed., 130-31 (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1998).
 John F. MacArthur, The Freedom and Power of Forgiveness, electronic ed., 135 (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1998).