I once had an unexpected, startling confrontation with another Christian. I was a speaker at a conference and walking from one event to another when an individual came charging up to me. He got right up in my face, like a batter arguing strikes with an umpire, and began to tell how I had offended him. I quickly learned I had done something he found irritating and he wanted me to know all about it.
I listened to him for a while and then asked permission to ask him a question. It was a simple one: “Have I sinned against you?” I explained my rationale. “If I have sinned against you, please tell me how because I want to apologize for that and to seek your forgiveness.” His response was, “No, you haven’t sinned against me.” Then he jumped right back into his tirade and talked on until a friend stepped between us, explaining that I had another event to get to.
On the one hand I found this startling. It isn’t often that people confront me in that manner and with that kind of aggression. On the other hand, it didn’t surprise me that he was confronting me without identifying any clear way in which I had actually sinned against him. I quickly saw that he was not carrying out biblical conflict resolution but rather blowing off some steam. (If you’re wondering, I had done a presentation a few minutes earlier and had read scripture passages from my notes instead of directly from the Bible. This is what had so offended him.)
As a leader within a local church I’ve had many opportunities to guide people as they grapple with confrontation and I have observed that a lot of what we want to confront in other people is not sin but annoyance. Often our purpose in confronting people is not to deal with fallout from sin, but to air grievances. We want to give vent to our annoyances and then just walk away. Yet the Bible doesn’t give us permission to confront people unless we can identify the ways in which they have actually sinned against us.
Confrontation is good and necessary where there has been sinful offense. God tells us to confront sin because offense causes alienation, it causes relationships to grow distant or even be severed. Satan loves to use this lack of unity to undermine God’s work. Disunity is dangerous. The purpose of biblical confrontation is to bring about reconciliation, to bring peace between two parties. The reason I asked this gentleman whether or not I had sinned against him was to identify whether the onus lay on me to pursue reconciliation. Romans 12:18 says, “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all” and I want to obey that mandate. It was clarifying to hear him say that I had not sinned against him. It proved that he was not confronting sin in a biblical way and not pursuing reconciliation. He was just blowing off steam.
When people in my church ask whether or how they should confront sin, the very first question I always ask is this: “What biblical language can you use to describe that sin?” I want them to ensure they have actually been sinned against and have not merely become aggravated or irritated by another person’s behavior. Not surprisingly, we quickly learn that many people are not interested in biblically confronting sin but in venting annoyance. We’re a grumpy bunch! If and when they can describe the offense in biblical language, the second question is, “Can you overlook this in love?” Unless that sin is going to cause a permanent rift in a relationship or unless it is likely to repeat and harm others, it may be a sin that can be overlooked. Then, and only then, do we begin to speak about confronting the person in the way Jesus lays out in Matthew 18.
And to those who have been confronted, I offer this counsel: “Always be willing and eager to offer an apology, to repent of offensive behavior. But, as far as possible, know what it is you are apologizing for.” A vague apology for a vague offense is really no apology at all. It stands little chance of bringing reconciliation. Yet, that said, sometimes an apology, even in vague circumstances, is a way to love others, to model humility, and to preserve peace. Humility always rules.
God is good to instruct us in conflict resolution. We need the instruction and the church needs the peace it brings. But unless an offense can be described in biblical terminology, it is probably not a sin at all. As much as possible, know your Bible so that over time you will begin to speak in the language of the Bible and with the voice of the God of the Bible. This will preserve your relationships, this will protect God’s church.