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Conflict Management — Part 6

Confronting The Sinner

By Bryan H. Sanders

One barrier to discipline of a church member is fear of confrontation. It is common to handle a need for discipline by a conflict management technique known as avoidance.

We live in a time when we may be subject to lawsuit for joking with someone. This happened in Washington, D.C., this year when a former cafeteria manager at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History was awarded $400,000 because his boss made age-related remarks to him.

A pastor may be sued for emotional distress because he suggests that a woman keep a child rather than have an abortion.

No wonder pastors are hesitant to practice confrontation. Church discipline is sometimes seen as a violation of individual civil rights rather than a practice of Galatians 6:1. Are we afraid to call sin “sin” any longer? Do we fall into the practice of “there, but for the grace of God, go I” and neglect the responsibility of discipleship, which is at the heart of discipline? If we do not confront sin, what is the alternative?

Paul, concerned about the church’s lack of response to sin that was obvious in the congregation, addressed this issue n 1 Corinthians 5. His response was to confront the sin. However, confronting does not necessarily mean removing from the midst, nor is it simply a legalistic application of rules and regulations. Confronting is, as has been coined by another author, “care-fronting.” If we care, we will confront.

Another reason to confront sin, however, is that the law (as do most people) abhors the unequal application of standards among people.

An example of this occurred in one of my classes recently. I issued extra credit to students who came to class on a particular day and engaged in an assignment. The purpose was to award those who attended class that day. Some who did not attend that class heard about the extra credit and asked to do the assignment 2 days later. When their requests were denied, a conflict arose based on the perception that the extra credit was a right to which they were entitled and that there was an unequal application of rights in the class. Because it was extra credit, though, the students were not unduly prejudiced and had the opportunity for future extra credit.

In church discipline, however, failure to confront each substantive offense that occurs is to provide the opportunity for a lawsuit. Such lawsuits are based on unequal application of the law when the church leadership decides to pursue discipline involving another person committing a similar offense that had been previously ignored.

The question remains then: How do we, as pastors, confront the sinner?

The first step to confrontation is to determine the need. What was the offense? Is confrontation necessary? Then establish the purpose for confronting an individual. What is expected to be accomplished? If time is taken to ask what goal will be served by confrontation, there is a stronger likelihood that the confrontation will be carried out with restraint rather than unbridled emotion. At the minimum the concern should be for the restoration and discipleship of the individual.

A critical issue to be addressed is: Who should confront the individual? Obviously it would not be a person to whom the offending party would not listen, for that would be self-defeating to the process. Scripture calls upon those who are spiritually strong to help restore the weak. It does not necessarily mean in all cases that the responsibility of confrontation should fall on the pastor’s shoulders.

In 1 Corinthians 6 Paul suggested that there should be some “wise men” in the church who could assist in a caring confrontation for the resolution of conflict. (This should also include “wise women” for confrontations in certain situations.) If the people involved in confrontation for the resolution of conflict are known for wisdom, compassion, listening, and concern for individuals, they should be accepted not as meddlers but as ones who want to help others grow in their faith.

After the decision is made to confront an individual, the approach should be one to hear the other side of the story, not to accuse and harass. Matthew 18: 15 clearly shows that a meeting in private with a desire toward winning, not alienating, the person is the goal of the process. Depending on the response of the person confronted, the options for restoration become clearer.

History shows that we, as a church, many times are quick to discipline and to remove from the midst without seeking the restoration of an individual. Articles have been written about Christians shooting their own wounded. Pastors complain about church hoppers. Leaders get burned out and drop out of the ministry because of conflicts improperly confronted.

However, one of the most terrible results of failure to confront is the church’s witness to non-Christians who observe the church condoning a sinful act. If a bill of rights were ever created for the church member, the member’s right to loving confrontation and corresponding discipline should be high on the list.

—Bryan H. Sanders, j.d., is associate professor of government and legal studies at Evangel University, Springfield, Missouri.

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