Thursday, September 20, 2012

Do You Suffer From Confrontation Atrophy?

Christians are bad at confrontation. It used to be a regular part of the church experience. (Read the apostles Paul, Peter, James, the whole book of Acts...these guys spent a lot of time challenging people.)

No, sermons don't count as confrontation. While they can challenge how people think, that's teaching. I'm talking about a person talking to another person, saying, "Scott, what you are doing is wrong."

Jesus taught us how to do it well in Matthew 18:15-17:

If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.

In summary:

1. Privately offer correction, if they won't listen…

2. Bring one or two others along (probably they should be mature & mutually trusted, like church elders), if they won't listen…

3. Bring it up to the church, and if they still won't listen…
Treat them like a pagan.

First, notice that this process provides for as many opportunities for you, the "corrector", to discover that you're wrong as there is for the" correctee" to listen and change.

Second, notice that you don't ask around and get the whole church in agreement before you work up the nerve to challenge. You don't call the prayer line. You don't even shop around for a lot of advice before you work up the nerve to ask.

Caveat: If you're not sure whether someone is actually in the wrong or not, then I completely support talking to an elder or counselor you trust to keep something private. That's not what I'm talking about. I'm talking about when you believe someone is in the wrong, but get a group of people supporting your position before  approaching the other person.

Third, the worst case scenario is that you treat them like pagans. Ok. How did Jesus treat pagans? What does the bible say about how should treat those outside the church? With some distance and caution, sure, but also offering them grace and the hope of redemption. In essence, if it gets that far, you change the standard you hold them to, realizing that at this point they're rejecting God's standard entirely. You don't become enemies.

In 1 Corinthians 5:6-13, Paul makes it clear that we are to hold those in the church with a high standard and be very diligent to not allow them to dilute the name of Christ. But for those outside the church--those who have not declared that they are submitting to God's standards--we are not to take the position of judge and jury (that's God's role, he says).

This process isn't that hard. It's easy to remember and is very low-drama. In fact, I'd bet that you've been taught this more than once already. I'm teaching it to my little children (who are currently ages 7, 5, 3, and 1) and they can do this process. So why don't we do this at church? Why is it that Christians seem to do the opposite of this?

My guess: We don't have real relationships in our church. And we don't see or hear of our leaders do anything other than preach to a crowd. We never practice this. There's no place built into church life to practice this. And no amount of sermons on this topic can make up for a total vacuum of practice in the context of healthy relationships.

The point of church isn't to confront. But if we are building and experiencing real relationships (which is one of the central purposes of the church), then confrontation is inevitable. In fact, it can even be one of the most fruitful and helpful aspects of healthy community. It can be one of the features that shows the difference in a community of disciples of Jesus. But that's probably not how you feel about confrontation and conflict, is it? I mean, I could be wrong. Does that describe your church experience?

What should be normal for the family of God feels strange and hard and exhausting. It's like the whole relationship muscle, including the confrontation aspect, has atrophied from centuries of neglect. The stage-dominated culture of typical churches has been like a cast put on a broken limb, keeping us safe from messy relationships. But it's also kept us from using those muscles to build healthy relationships. And when we're asked engage in conflict, even thinking about it can tire us. And if we actually have to confront that muscle complains and complains.

It's so much easier to just sit quietly and listen to songs and sermons. Relationships are hard work!


  1. You really want to take that image down (unless you have the rights to it).

    1. Good catch--didn't even think about that. New (uncopyrighted) image loaded.

  2. Totally agree with your guess. When my parents tried to do this biblical means of solving a conflict the pastor basically told them he couldn't help because he had no relationship with the third party and had no influence over them despite the third party being a member of his church.

    1. Yeah, thanks for sharing. That sounds tragic to me on two counts: 1) how limited the spiritual leadership is that includes no relationship; and 2) that the pastor wouldn't even attempt to get to know the third party or play the biblical role of mediator--he had just given up on having a relationship with them.

  3. Thanks for sharing Scott. I agree with you. I know I appreciate it when a trusted brother/sister in Christ or lifelong friend offers me correction (in love). I find it difficult to practice,though. Matthew 18:15-17 definitely separates the wheat from the chaff in family and friend relationships. Several relationships have died as a result: One was regarding adultery, another about parental neglect, and a third about a sister in the faith with a serious drinking problem that led to numerous arrests and auto accidents. The reaction is always the same: Who are you to judge? That’s between me and God! Or I didn’t know you were an authority on Christian behaviorism. I want to purchase a copy of the book.
    ><((((ยบ> Joanna VA Beach

    1. Joanna, your stories sound all too familiar. We've gotten so used to a Christian experience that is comfortable and encouraging--minus the challenging aspects--that many people find it "un-Christian" to be confronted.

      And I agree, this is very hard, even when it's done well. But it's also one of the best chances to be salt and light, displaying how being a follower of Jesus makes us fundamentally different.

      Oh, and the link to the book on Amazon (e-book and hardcopy) is:

      Or, if you want a a free PDF version, just let me know and I'll email it to you.