Resolving conflicts among Christians

We must be realistic about our expectations of life in a fallen world. While conducting our relationships with humble integrity, we must not be unrealistic about differences and difficulties that threaten peace between people — even among those who care deeply about each other. This is a truth that must be taught more clearly in the Church.

Jesus clearly anticipated fractures in Christian fellowship and taught us how to resolve them (Matthew 5:23-24;Matthew 18:15ff). We should not be surprised by them but ready to seek reconciliation.

These fractures are very different from the many minor grievances that should be immediately covered in love (I Peter 4:8) or from non-essential matters that should never be permitted to cause conflict in the Church (Romans 14:1-3). Believers must be mature on such matters.

But when sin divides Christian fellowship, a Church must understand the difference between personal forgiveness and reconciling a broken relationship. It’s possible to forgive someone without offering immediate reconciliation. It’s possible for forgiveness to occur in the context of one’s relationship with God apart from contact with an offender (Joseph being a great example). Reconciliation is about restoring broken relationships.

Forgiveness itself is not whitewashing or pretending a wrong never happened when the offense has driven a wedge between people. Forgiveness doesn’t require us to neutralize our sense of justice. The very act itself takes seriously the offense. But forgiveness does involve a surrender of desires for revenge. As such, it is an act of worship in the presence of the God who forgives our sins because it acknowledges God’s sole right to punish the offender (see: Genesis 5:15-20Romans 12:17-21). Forgiveness thus frees us from grudge-bearing vindictiveness and conversely empowers us to love our enemies as God loved us (Romans 5:8).

Priority Scripture places on pursuing peace

  • “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone” (Romans 12:18).
  • “Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace …” (Romans 14:19).
  • “Make every effort to keep the unity of the spirit through the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3).
  • “Make every effort to live in peace with all men and to be holy …” (Hebrews 12:14).

What to do when peace does not seem possible

This depends on the nature of the situation. If the person is part of a fellowship of believers, we must follow Biblical mandates for protecting the unity of believers. The steps Jesus taught begin with private confrontation (after the personal preparation of removing logs from our own eyes, Matthew 7:3-5). If private confrontation does not remove the wedge, we move to private conference involving the offender brother and two or three others (enlisting those who are spiritually prepared (Matthew 7:3-5), spiritually mature (Galatians 6:1), and entrusted with spiritual oversight (I Peter 5:1-4Acts 20:28).

This only becomes necessary, if the one confronted has as obstinate attitude (Matthew 18:16). When a sinning member of the church refuses to heed the confrontation of a fellow believer, thus refusing to be restored to proper fellowship, the circle of confrontation must broaden to include one or two others.

Those called to be part of the confrontation do not need to be eyewitnesses of the sin (If they had been, they should have gone to confront the member themselves). Ideally, it would be good to include people who are known and respected by the erring member but this is not always possible.

The one or two witnesses are involved “so that every fact may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses” (v.16). Their purpose is not to threaten or intimidate, but to help the erring brother to understand the seriousness of the matter. Their main purpose is not really to evaluate the truthfulness of the charge, but to strengthen the rebuke and the call to restoration. After private conference, if the erring member remains obstinate and unwilling to acknowledge and repent of the sin, Jesus teaches a fourth step.

Each of the four steps has as its primary aim the restoration of the brother to proper fellowship. The fourth step is public announcement (Matthew 18:17a). Jesus said, “Tell it to the church (the assembly).”

This step is a sobering reminder that sin is not merely a private and personal matter for Christians. Sin that separates and alienates believers, must be dealt with and resolved. But how do we take this step of public announcement? In our church (due to size), we’ve sometimes handled this in the adult fellowship group the member participates in. Other times, we’ve communicated to all the covenant members through a special meeting of the membership. Some churches make these announcements during communion. Others will use a letter to the membership.

All churches should clearly spell out the process in their documents and seek agreement from the membership to follow it. This step also involves the fellowship in some kind of public confrontation. In Matthew 18:17b, Jesus implies that the church (as an assembly) has made an appeal to the erring member.

When the church is informed, (which reasonably implies that the pastors will be involved) warnings should be made about the need for the whole assembly to avoid gossip, slander and a proud or critical spirit (Matthew 7:3-5Galatians 6:1). Members should not play spiritual detective or allow either a lenient or a punitive attitude. They should be encouraged to pray for repentance and restoration, and to appeal to their fellow member to submit to the leadership of the Church. In such an appeal, one might humbly say, “I don’t know all the details, nor is it my place to know them, but I do want to encourage you to make things right with the church.”

No one should give the erring member the feeling that he is in good fellowship with the Church (cf. II Thessalonians 3:12-14). Never act in cross-purpose with the church. We should not do anything that would cause disrespect for the leadership. Remember the goal: “Win your brother.” It is redemptive!

The final step Jesus taught is public exclusion: removal from membership. The primary aim of this step is to protect the purity of the assembly (see: I Corinthians 5:1-11). Failure to practice these steps invites God’s discipline on the entire assembly (see:I Corinthians 11:30-32Revelation 2:5,1620-233:3-19).”

Steve Cornell

God’s primary work on earth

When God has a job to be done, He works through people. God has chosen to work out His plan through active secondary participants. 

But what is God’s primary work on earth today? And how does He use people to accomplish it?

The answer is found in the promise of Jesus Christ – “I will build my church” (Matthew 16:18).  

When the Lord Jesus went into heaven, He sent the promised Holy Spirit and through the Spirit He united believers into a body referred to as the body of Christ (Acts 1:4-5,8; John 14:15-17; I Corinthians 12:13).

In the absence  of Jesus physical presence, this assembly of believers in Christ is the visible testimony of Jesus Christ on earth today.

Although this body incorporates every believer from the day of Pentecost to the rapture of the Church, all the instructions for body life in the New Testament are intended for each local body of believers in every age.

Remember that, “God has placed the members each one of them in the body just as He desired” (I Corinthians 12:18) and “God has composed the body that there should be no division but that the members should have the same care for one another” (I Corinthians 12:24-25). Thus the apostle Paul says to the local church in the city of Corinth, “You are Christ’s body and individually members of it” (I Corinthians 12:27).

God’s purpose on earth today is to build a visible, united body of believers called the body of Christ, or the Church. The way we align ourselves with it is on the local level. Thus it is God’s design that every follower of Jesus Christ be a functioning part of a local body of believers. This is God’s will for you if you are a believer in Christ. 

God has called each believer into fellowship with His Son (I Corinthians 1:9). This is the joy of Christian living – that we have a personal and individual relationship with Jesus Christ who was dead but is alive forevermore, seated at the right hand of the Father, ever making intercession for us according to the will of God. This is a deeply personal joy of Christianity.

But, according to God’s design, what we enjoy on the individual level must become part of the public, corporate life of the church.

“No one Christian believer can fully enjoy the benefits of the grace of God in Christ, or fully express the new activities it makes possible, in isolation.” (A.M. Stibbs. T.N.T.C., I Peter, p. 156)

One of the most important and neglected truths of Scripture is the doctrine of the local church. The late Carl F. Henry warned the 1990 convention of the National Association of Evangelicals that: “Evangelicals continue to neglect the doctrine of the church and at high cost.”

Robert Patterson wrote an excellent article about this titled “In Search of the Visible Church.” 

Patterson observed how, “…commitment to the church appears to be at an all-time low among evangelicals…growing numbers of evangelicals are unwilling to commit themselves to any particular congregation. Operating as sovereign ecclesiastical consumers, they hop from church to church looking for the best spiritual “deal” in town.” I personally believe that there exists a desperate need today for a revival in the biblical understanding of the importance of the local church.”

“If the church is a nurturing mother for the souls of believers, as John Calvin proclaimed, those disconnected from her are nothing more than spiritual orphans. They are cut off from a vital source of spiritual nourishment and growth. They may think that spiritual fitness is an individual matter, but their failure to participate in the corporate life of God’s people can only stunt the kind of growth in grace that the apostle Paul envisioned in Ephesians 4” (R. Patterson, Christianity Today, Mar.11, 1991).

We must expose the tenuous division between commitment to the Lord and commitment to a local body of believers. I do not think that the Lord makes that distinction too sharply.

I will build my Church

  1. In Matthew 16:18 Jesus said: “I will build my church”.
  2. In Luke 10:2, Jesus is called: “The Lord of the harvest who sends forth workers in His harvest.”
  3. The church is “the body of Christ.”
  4. Ephesians 5:25 says, “Christ loved the church and gave Himself up for her.”
  5. Ephesians 5:29 says, “Christ nourishes and cherishes the church.”
  6. In Acts 9:4, Saul was persecuting believers and Jesus stopped him and asked, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?”
  7. In Matthew 25 – during judgment the followers of Christ are shocked because Jesus identified a whole list of things that they did to him personally. Jesus cleared their lack of understanding by saying in verse 40, “Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.”
  8. The author of Hebrews reminds the readers that, “God is not unjust so as to forget your work and the love which you have shown toward His name, in having ministered and in still ministering to the saints” (Hebrews 6:10). You show love to His name by serving His children.
  9. In I Corinthians 3:6, the apostle refers to human activity in building local churches, “I planted, Apollos watered but God was causing the growth.”
  10. In Acts 2:47 we learn that, “The Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved.”

Ultimately anyone serving in any capacity in the church should view himself or herself as a direct servant of Jesus Christ (see: Colossians 3:23-24).

Patterson listed five action items to help the church regain this lost focus. Each of them is worthy of discussion but I’ll only give the first one:

“Evangelicals need to affirm aggressively the necessary connection between faith in Christ and commitment to his church. So-called solitary or independent Christians need to be incorporated into the life and discipline of some congregation. Those who are already church members need to remain committed to their church, taking seriously their accountability to the congregation and resisting the temptation to ‘jump ship’ when problems develop. At the same time, church leaders need to take more seriously their responsibility to discipline and nurture parishioners under their care.” (C.T. 3-11-1991, p.38)

If you want to stand in the gap in these days we live in and you want to align yourself with God’s plan, you need to be involved in a local body of believers. D.A. Carson recognized one of the reasons for a lack of emphasis being , “…a  theological suspicion that those who devote too much attention to the church are in danger of diverting attention from Christ himself” (Evangelical Affirmations).

Hopefully you understand from the above examples that the Lord Jesus does not recognize this distinction as sharply as some think. 

Robert Patterson’s concluded, “If evangelicals still value their heritage, they can lament the obscurity into which the church visible has sunk, a tragedy to which they have contributed in both word and deed. Furthermore, they can commit themselves toward a rediscovery of the church in our time, not just out of faithfulness to a tradition, but in devotion to their Lord who promised, ‘I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.’”

Steve Cornell

Fellowship and Confession

confession_and_a_transparent_life_00014575_titleonlyLook closely at God’s plan for ongoing fellowship with sinners:
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I John 1:5-10
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5. This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all.
6. If we claim to have fellowship with him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live out the truth.
7. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another (the one – God, with the other – you), and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.
8. If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.
9. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.
10. If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us (I John 1:5-9).
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Four verbs of ongoing action:
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  1. We walk – (peripatōmen)
  2. We fellowship – (koinōnian)
  3. He purifies – (katharizei)
  4. We confess – (homologōmen)
To fellowship with God is to share in common (koinōnian) His life by walking in the light (truth and righteousness). It is to see life from His perspective. It is to live, not by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord (Deuteronomy 8:3). 
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Sinning or walking in darkness (deception and unrighteousness) threatens to disrupt fellowship. But confession (homologōmen) – (speaking God’s verdict about our sin by naming it as He does) is God’s gracious provision for continued fellowship rather than broken fellowship. When we uncover our sin by confession, God covers it by purifying us (katharizei) from all unrighteousness. 
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How is this possible?
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“My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have an advocate with the Father—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins,and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world” (I John 2:1-2).
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Proverbs 28:13-14

“Whoever conceals (or covers) their sins does not prosper, but the one who confesses and renounces them finds mercy. Blessed is the one who always trembles before God, but whoever hardens their heart falls into trouble.”

Psalm 32:1-5 – Two Responses to sin

  1. Blessed is the one whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered.
  2. Blessed is the one whose sin the Lord does not count against them and in whose spirit is no deceit.
  3. When I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long.
  4. For day and night your hand was heavy on me; my strength was sapped as in the heat of summer.
  5. Then I acknowledged my sin to you and did not cover up my iniquity. I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord. And you forgave the guilt of my sin.’”

Steve Cornell

Are you discouraged by disunity?

A church leader commented that they had not had conflict in their Church for years. Another responded, “Sure. No movement; no friction.”

We don’t want our churches to be like the married couple who said that they haven’t fought for years and then admitted that they also haven’t talked to each other for years. 

While Christians are supposed to be distinguished by their love for one another (John 13:34-35), please don’t conclude that  this means they won’t have conflicts.

God’s Spirit within us longs for unity among us, but experiencing such unity will not happen without effort. This is what stands behind the call to “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3).

Some Christians become too easily discouraged by disunity because they hold unrealistic (or even utopian) notions of trouble-free fellowship among those who walk with God.

If you are praying for conflict-free fellowship, God might take you to the only place where this is possible – heaven. Conflict is unavoidable on earth, especially where sinners are joining together to advance God’s kingdom. 

There’s a reason why Jesus prayed for the unity of His disciples before leaving this world (see: John 17:20-23). Jesus placed our unity in the context of our witness to the world when He prayed, “that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (John 17:21). 

There are many threats to Christian unity but the key to unity in a Church is not the absence of conflict but a shared commitment to pursue reconciliation when conflict occurs (Matthew 5:23-24; 18:15-18).

But we also must have the maturity to understand that sometimes division is necessary. On one occasion, the Apostle Paul actually said, 

“….when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you. And I believe it in part, for there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized (I Corinthians 11:18-19).

Most Christians would be surprised to observe how much of our New Testament is written to address issues of conflict, both potential and actual. 

A close look at the early church reveals points of division common to churches throughout history:

When you combine this list with the repeated emphasis on the need to maintain unity and purity in the church (e.g. Rom. 16:17; I Cor. 1:10; 5:7-13; Eph. 4:3; Phil. 2:3-5; 3:16; I Thess. 5:14-15; II Thess. 3:11-16; Ti. 3:10-11; I Pet. 3:8), it becomes even clearer that churches should expect many threats to unity.

Let us call our churches to recommit to the priority of pursuing reconciliation when conflict occurs by following the two primary New Testament directives for resolving conflicts — Covering in love and Confronting in love  (seeTwo Principles For Resolving Conflicts)

“Love each other with genuine affection, and take delight in honoring each other” (Romans 12:10, NLT).  

Other resources for unity in the Church:

Steve Cornell

Overcome division with core values

Conflict management 101

“Virtually all theorists of conflict management agree that parties to a conflict must share larger or ultimate values in common as a basis on which to resolve their differences”  ( Hugh Halverstadt, Managing Church Conflictp. 212).

Two great examples

Two areas of difference among believers that could significantly disrupt unity are spiritual giftedness and opinions on debatable matters.

In the book of Romans, the apostle Paul addressed both of these and provided what might be understood as a “larger or ultimate value” to protect each area from becoming a source of conflict.

Each of the two guiding principles mandates a shared attitude required of all believers in all Churches at all times.

It is especially the responsibility of Church leaders (as protectors of the unity of the Church) to hold people accountable to these guiding attitudes (Acts 20:28; Ephesians 4:3; Romans 16:17-18; Jude 16). 

1. Romans 12:3 — Guiding attitude for Spiritual gifts

“Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you” (NIV).

2. Romans 14:3 — Guiding attitude for debatable matters

“Those who feel free to eat anything must not look down on those who don’t. And those who don’t eat certain foods must not condemn those who do, for God has accepted them” (NLT). 

Keep the main core value in view

Romans 15:5-7 –  join together with one voice…

“May God, who gives this patience and encouragement, help you live in complete harmony with each other, as is fitting for followers of Christ Jesus. Then all of you can join together with one voice, giving praise and glory to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, accept each other just as Christ has accepted you so that God will be given glory” (NLT).

That we may be one!

Steve Cornell

Five motivations for protecting unity

1. The teaching of Jesus

Matthew 5:23-24  “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift” (Matthew 5:23-24).  (see also: Matthew 18:15-17; Mark 11:25)

2. The prayer of Jesus

John 17:23 - Jesus prayed, “May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”

3. The passion of God

Proverbs 6:16,19 - “There are six things the Lord hates, seven that are detestable to him: …. a man who stirs up dissension among brothers.”

4. The Word for the Church

Romans 16:17-18 - “I urge you, brothers and sisters, to watch out for those who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way that are contrary to the teaching you have learned. Keep away from them. For such people are not serving our Lord Christ, but their own appetites. By smooth talk and flattery they deceive the minds of naive people.”

Jude 16-  Watch out for those who have secretly slipped in among you.  “These people are grumblers and faultfinders; they follow their own evil desires; they boast about themselves and flatter others for their own advantage.”

5. The witness of the Church

John 13:34-35 ““A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

Philippians 2:14-16a - “Do everything without complaining or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, children of God without fault in a crooked and depraved generation, in which you shine like stars in the universe as you hold out the word of life…”

Steve Cornell

See also: Two principles for resolving conflict

Conflict and Unity in the Church

The story is not a pleasant one when a Church becomes a center of conflict instead of love. Yet the story is not exceptional either as many of our letters in the New Testament reveal.

I smile when people say they wish they could just get back to the way it was in the New Testament Church. Sometimes I ask, “Which one?” 

Start with the earliest expression depicted through the letter we call “James.” What was happening that James had to write, “What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you?” (James 4:1). A survey of the book reveals less than calm circumstances in the Church.

Move forward a little to the Churches of Galatia. Imagine how bad it had become for the apostle to write, “If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other” (Galatians 5:13).  A little later he wrote, “Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other” (Galatians 5:25-26).

Why were the believers in Ephesus told to “Make every effort to keep the unity of the spirit through the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3)?  The repeated emphasis on pursuing peace reminds us that there never was a local Church where unity did not take effort. “Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace…” (Romans 14:19). “Do everything without complaining or arguing” (Philippians 2:14).

We must check the tendency to want an easy path or a quick formula. On this side of heaven, we cannot experience uninterrupted peace — especially in our relationships.

Yet our desire for the full experience of the peace we’ve found in Christ is part of the normal Christian life. We are a people who sigh with hopeful expectation for God’s final transformation. Our longing for peace is a powerful result of the ministry of the indwelling Spirit.

“we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently” (Romans 8:23-25).

Walk by the Spirit

Part of the reason we continue to struggle for unity is that the spiritual change in our salvation is not subtraction of the flesh but addition of the Spirit.

To experience true unity of Christian fellowship, we must “walk by the Spirit.” We cannot overcome the pull to “gratify the desires of the flesh” in our own strength. We are weak. We are only vessels of clay, yet God put His treasure in such vessels “to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us” (II Corinthians 4:7). We must remind ourselves often that we are weak and God is strong. “Once God has spoken; twice have I heard this: that power belongs to God” (Psalm 62:11).

The Spirit of God who lives in us (II Corinthians 1:21) is the one who enables us to break the power of canceled sin. But we must be humbly honest about the conflict. “For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other” (Galatians 5.16-17).

The apostle makes a significant connection between halting the destruction of relationships and walking by the Spirit.

“If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other. So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.”  (Galatians 5:15-16)

Here there is a direct connection between protecting relationships from destruction (bite, devour, destroy: all metaphors from the animal kingdom) and the role of the Holy Spirit. Avoiding destructive relationship happens when we (v.16) – walk by the Spirit; (v.18) – be led by the Spirit; (v.25a) – live by the Spirit; (v. 25b) – keep in step with the Spirit

Galatians 5:16 — “so I say”, (or ςέ “but I say”). The apostle is saying, “Here is the remedy for the situation described in v. 15” (Phillips). To protect Christian community (relationships) from destruction, each member must “live or walk by the Spirit.”

By acknowledging the reality of conflict in this life, I am not encouraging anyone to settle for mediocre relationships. I am more concerned about protecting believers from a dangerous kind of discontentment based on misguided expectations of utopian fellowship in this life. But settling is never an option for those who are being continuously transformed into the image of Christ (II Corinthians 3:18). 

When spiritually changed people are immersed by one Spirit into life together we should look for reconciled relationships!  Community life of this kind (in marriages, families, and local Churches) among those who are walking by the Spirit (being filled by the Spirit) will be distinguished by the fruit of the Spirit.

“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23).

Imagine any relationship where these qualities are absent. Now imagine what relationships would be like where these qualities flourish. It is worth noting that each quality in this fruit of the Spirit also appears in the NT as an action commanded of us. This reminds that we are not passive recipients of the activity of God. Unworthy recipients? Yes! But not passive recipients.

“… continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.” (Philippians 2:12-13).

Steve Cornell

See also: 

Godly sorrow vs. worldly sorrow


 

Leaders and members of a local Church must be willing to occasionally speak truth into the lives of those who don’t appear to desire it.

This is part of being a truthful body of the one who said, “I am the truth” (John 14:6). The Church is always called to “speak the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15). 

When an assembly of believers does not fellowship based in love and truth, it easily becomes a gathering based in superficiality and hypocrisy. It also ceases to be a light-bearing community for Christ. 

Sometimes truth speaking involves loving confrontation if we desire genuine rather than superficial relationships. This is the difficult side to Christian fellowship. But we only perpetuate deception if we allow people to believe we’re on good terms with them despite deep violations of authentic relationship. 

Confrontation is sometimes a matter of integrity and love and a non-negotiable step for those who care about others.

Yet confrontation is a difficult task. How many of us are willing to confront when we know that it’s needed but not welcomed? Are we willing to be instruments of godly sorrow? Do we care enough to confront?

Are you willing to tolerate a bad relationship instead of confronting others? Some people feel it’s less complicated to assume that a person in need of confrontation is not open to correction. Or, we chose to retreat behind the notion that we should simply mind our own business. But we’re misguided if we think that it’s right to accept superficial and dysfunctional relationships. This is not the loving option.

I am not suggesting that we shouldn’t be concerned about whether people are open to correction. But what should we do when we have good reasons for doubting that those in need of confrontation are open to it? It’s wise to be cautious and to balance the advice of Proverbs 26:4-6 “Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you yourself will be just like him. Answer a fool according to his folly, or he will be wise in his own eyes” (Proverbs 26:4-6)

In Matthew 7:1-6, Jesus taught the need for caution when getting involved in the lives of others. After emphasizing the priority of self-judgment before making any judgments about others, he warned against “casting pearls before swine.” In principle, this implies that there are people who are not worthy of confrontation – no doubt partly because they’re not receptive to it.

 But if those people are hurting others, we must confront them to protect others. 

Godly vs. worldly sorrow


If we choose to confront, we must be able to distinguish between godly and worldly sorrow. The biblical text that reveals this difference is II Corinthians 7:8-11. Understanding this text will help to protect us from being manipulated or deceived by those who display sorrow without true repentance. In these verses, the apostle provides a vivid description of true repentance (i.e. godly sorrow) and exposes the deception of false repentance (i.e. worldly sorrow).

“Even if I caused you sorrow by my letter, I do not regret it. Though I did regret it—I see that my letter hurt you, but only for a little while— yet now I am happy, not because you were made sorry, but because your sorrow led you to repentance. For you became sorrowful as God intended and so were not harmed in any way by us. Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death. See what this godly sorrow has produced in you: what earnestness, what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what alarm, what longing, what concern, what readiness to see justice done. At every point you have proved yourselves to be innocent in this matter” (II Cor. 7:8-11).

“The sorrow of the world, indeed is not something distinct from sin; on the contrary, it partakes of the very essence of sin. It is not sorrow because of the heinousness of sin as rebellion against God, but sorrow because of the painful and unwelcome consequences of sin. Self is its central point; and self is also the central point of sin. Thus the sorrow of the world manifests itself in self-pity rather than in contrition and turning to God for mercy” (Philip Hughes, 2 Corinthians, N.I.C.N.T., pp 272-273).

Four essential considerations

1. God’s instruments of sorrow


The apostle paints a real-to-life picture of how one ought to feel about being an instrument of godly sorrow:

“Even if I caused you sorrow by my letter, I do not regret it. Though I did regret it—I see that my letter hurt you, but only for a little while— yet now I am happy, not because you were made sorry, but because your sorrow led you to repentance. For you became sorrowful as God intended and so were not harmed in any way by us.” (II Cor. 7:8-9)


Did you notice the vacillating back and forth communicated in these verses? This is the kind of tension one feels in being an instrument of sorrow. No pleasure is taken in bringing pain into the lives of others. But sometimes love requires us to take this role. You need courage and faith to embrace a ministry of intervention and grace to accept the possibility of being misunderstood.

Confronting others about deception and sin is a risky ministry of love. We must be willing to suffer changes or even loss of relationships. Sometimes when we choose to be instruments of godly sorrow, those we confront turn on us and malign us. This is what happened to the apostle Paul in Corinth.
The apostle took the painful path of temporary misunderstanding to gain deeper and lasting relationship based in truth and love with those who responded with godly sorrow.


2. Godly sorrow comes from true believers


“Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret,” (II Cor. 7:10). This could be translated, “Godly sorrow brings repentance that points to the reality of salvation or indicates salvation.

When confronted about error, sin or false doctrine, genuine believers will ultimately come to their senses and acknowledge the truth. They might respond with resistance or anger at first. If so, those who confront must not over-react or lower themselves to the level of anger. Church leaders must view it as pastoral rather than personal. They must trust God’s Spirit to cultivate conviction. Genuinely saved people will ultimately respond to their sin with godly sorrow (cf. Matthew 5:3; Luke 18:9-14;I Peter 5:6).

3. Worldly sorrow must be detected:

“….but worldly sorrow brings death.”

Worldly sorrow is perhaps best understood when contrasted with the description ofgodly sorrow in II Corinthians 7:11. Worldly sorrow brings death because it is sinful and sin leads to death (Romans 6:23a; James 1:14-15). Worldly sorrow is self-centered and is typified in Cain’s self-pity over the consequences brought on by his sin (see: Genesis 4).

4. Godly sorrow described and detected


“See what this godly sorrow has produced in you: what earnestness, what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what alarm, what longing, what concern, what readiness to see justice done. At every point you have proved yourselves to be innocent in this matter.” (II Cor. 7:11)


Seven characteristics of godly sorrow:


After Paul had confronted the congregation about their refusal to properly deal with a sinful member, they responded with godly sorrow. Consider the elements of godly sorrow.

See what this godly sorrow has produced in you:

  1. earnestness – intense and earnest care (not a passive acquiescing). 
  2. eagerness to clear yourselves – a desire to be exonerated.
  3. indignation – probably toward themselves for allowing sin to go unchecked in their assembly ( or, toward the sinful member cf. 2:6-7).
  4. alarm/fear– toward God for their failure to respond properly to his apostle (cf. 4:21).
  5. longing – a desire to be restored to their proper place and to fellowship with Paul.
  6. concern – a burning desire to do what is right.
  7. readiness – to see justice done – (i.e. to see things corrected and made right). Because of their repentance, the apostle could say to them, “At every point you have proved yourselves to be innocent in this matter.”

Summary:


Godly sorrow involves a willingness to take seriously the offense committed. True repentance flows out of humility (Luke 18:9-17), and a readiness to accept responsibility. A visible and wholehearted change of behavior follows true repentance (godly sorrow). It produces “fruit in keeping with repentance” (Luke 3:8a). The apostle Paul said, “I preached that they should repent and turn to God and prove their repentance by their deeds” (Acts 26:20b).

When called by God to be instruments of godly sorrow prayerfully take inventory of your own heart before confronting others. Then go in a spirit required in Galatians 6:1-3

“Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently. But watch yourselves, or you also may be tempted. Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. If anyone thinks they are something when they are not, they deceive themselves.”

Steve Cornell 

See: Seven Signs of True Repentance

Preparing my heart for good fellowship

 

I am looking forward to participating in the Gospel Coalition National Conference tomorrow. 

Whenever a group of leaders get together in this way, it seems wise to prepare our souls by attacking an ugly obstacle to deep and rich fellowship in our Savior — ego-driven pride.  

I pray that the attitude of David will fill my soul — our souls — as we worship and fellowship together:

  • “Then King David went in and sat before the Lord, and he said: ‘Who am I, Sovereign Lord, and what is my family, that you have brought me this far?’” (II Samuel 7:18).
  • “Yours, Lord, is the greatness and the power and the glory and the majesty and the splendor, for everything in heaven and earth is yours. Yours, Lord, is the kingdom; you are exalted as head over all” (I Chronicles 29:11).

The conference is based in the Gospel of Luke. A verse from Luke that we visit often as a Church family is a good reminder for pre-conference reflection:

  • “So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty’” (Luke 17:10

More words for preparing my heart

  • “Not to us, Lord, not to us but to your name be the glory, because of your love and faithfulness” (Psalm 115:1).
  • “My heart is not proud, Lord, my eyes are not haughty; I do not concern myself with great matters or things too wonderful for me. But I have calmed and quieted myself” (Psalm 131:1-2).
  • If anyone thinks they are something when they are not, they deceive themselves” (Galatians 6:3).
  • “Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you” (Romans 12:3).

Humbled by God’s sovereign grace,

Steve Cornell

   

The Amish view of community and salvation

What can we learn from them? 

According to the Amish an individual must not make final claims about his standing with God for to do so is to foreclose on assessment and accountability from the community.

One who claims personal certainty of his standing with God is removing himself from answering to the community — particularly to the authority of the elders. This is viewed among the Amish as a prideful betrayal of the kind of humility fitting to mankind. It could also result in excommunication. 

A seminary professor who has studied Amish beliefs and practices responded to my column about the Amish view of salvation with the following concerns:

“I realize that in an age of individualism, and an evangelicalism that stresses a private experience of salvation, Amish faith of communal solidarity in discipleship makes no sense, and the judgments you make about “works salvation” seem totally right to you.” The professor encouraged me to take “time to understand how an Anabaptist theology such as the Amish profess expresses a radically different way of claiming the grace of God as a community of the Spirit.”

“One of the virtues Amish prize,” the professor wrote, “is humility–humility as a practice not as a nice attitude–and one aspect of that humility is to make no arrogant claims about their confidence of special status with God. An Amish bishop was visited by a new minister in the neighborhood who was quite fundamental and inquired repeatedly whether the bishop was saved. Finally he asked, ‘Are you truly born again? Do you know for certain that you are saved?’ The bishop answered, ‘You are asking the wrong person. I will give you the names of people who know me well, of persons with whom I have differed, of my sharpest critics and you can go ask them whether I am saved.’ That is Amish humility.”

What do we say about these concerns?

There should be little doubt that we live in an age of individualism and that evangelicalism is well known for emphasizing a personal experience of salvation. I also recognize that the evangelical Church is far too weak when it comes to the New Testament vision of a “faith of communal solidarity in discipleship” and “claiming the grace of God as a community of the Spirit.” On these matters, many professing Christians have drifted from the Biblical vision for the common life of the redeemed.

Consider a few examples

Philippians 1:6 is a verse often used to claim assurance of eternal salvation.  The apostle wrote: “being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you (plural) will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” This verse is about what God had done and would continue to do in and through the community of believers in Philippi. The “good work” refers to their “partnership in the gospel from the first day until now” with the apostle Paul (1:5). The pronouns are plural referring to a community experience. 

Philippians 2:12-13 offers another example. Here is a call to the Church to “continue to work out your (plural) salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you (plural) to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.” 

Certainly this is a call to cultivate stronger discipleship to Jesus. But it is not likely that the original recipients heard this with the ears of Western individualism. They would have heard it as a work that happens in the context of community. This doesn’t foreclose on personal applications, but it does encourage us to see the New Testament emphasis on community experience as a shared life. 

This emphasis can be found in many places. One thinks of the body life imagery.

“… in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.”(Romans 12:5) “The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body. So it is with Christ…. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it. Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.” (1 Corinthians 12:12, 26-27)

Another very strong focus on community is found in the writings of the apostle John. He taught that there are serious implications about true discipleship if one continues in fellowship with the community of believers or rejects the fellowship.

“They went out from us, but they did not really belong to us. For if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us; but their going showed that none of them belonged to us” (I John 2:19).

Community life for believers was also meant to involve mutual accountability, encouragement and leadership.

“See to it, brothers and sisters, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called “Today,” so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness. We have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original conviction firmly to the very end.” “Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account. Do this so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no benefit to you” (Hebrews 3:12-14; 13:17).

Closing thoughts:

While community emphasis is badly needed in evangelicalism (particularly in the West), we cannot entrust to a human community a final verdict about individual salvation. This is not to say that the community must never make judgments about the spiritual conditions of others. The command “Do not be yoked together with unbelievers” (II Corinthians 6:14) and the contrasts that follow, imply a need to make these kinds of judgments. When warning about false prophets, Jesus said, “by their fruit you will recognize them” (Matthew 7:20).

Sometimes we must be “fruit inspectors.” We find many evidences of genuine salvation as well as indicators of non-kingdom lifestyles provided in Scripture (e.g. Galatians 5:19-22; I Corinthians 6:9-11; Ephesians 5:3-8; I John). We sometimes feel the need to echo the apostle Paul in saying, “Examine yourselves to see if your faith is genuine. Test yourselves. Surely you know that Jesus Christ is among you; if not, you have failed the test of genuine faith.” (II Corinthians 13:5).

There clearly is not enough emphasis on this in the evangelical Church! But ultimately we must confess that, “The Lord knows those who are his,” and, “Everyone who confesses the name of the Lord must turn away from wickedness” (II Timothy 2:19). Further, “If we are faithless, He remains faithful, for He cannot deny Himself” (II Timothy 2:13). 

According to Scripture, the human will is bound to sin. Our condition is so bad that, “… every inclination of the human heart is evil from childhood” (Genesis 8:21). “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure” (Jeremiah 17:9; cf. Romans 3:10-23). The human will is so corrupt that we need the Holy Spirit to remove our blindness to see what Christ has done for us and to believe in Him (see: II Corinthians 4:3-6). Jesus said, “no one can come to me unless the Father has enabled them” (John 6:65). We are enabled by the Holy Spirit to see our need for Christ (II Corinthians 1:21-22; 3:14-18).

“For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe in him, but also to suffer for him” (Philippians 1:29). “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9).

Steve Cornell

see also: