Recently, during a discussion about church leadership, a young brother made the following statement: “It seems to me that if a man cannot confront, he cannot be an elder.” I have been thinking about what he said. It interests me because we often see problems in churches that seem to drag on unresolved for long periods of time. As the end of the age approaches, Christians must be diligent to “keep short accounts” with the Lord and with our fellow believers. For one thing, the Lord is coming back; for another, blessing is linked with unity in Scripture.
The dictionary defines the term confront this way: “to stand face to face with.” The idea is to clear the air by directly facing a person or situation. Clearly, this is both a skill and a virtue in which elders must excel.
A willingness to confront difficulties
Looking into the Scriptures, it is not an overstatement to say that one prominent mark of godly leaders in the Bible was the willingness to confront difficult people and situations, and to get problems resolved. A shining example from the Old Testament was God’s servant Moses. Leading over a million people through the wilderness, Moses at times found the burden of the people overwhelming and cried out to the Lord. The Lord gave this instruction: “Gather unto me seventy men of the elders of Israel, whom thou knowest to be the elders of the people. . . . and I will take of the Spirit which is upon thee, and will put it upon them, and they shall bear the burden of the people with thee…” (Numbers 11:16,17 KJV). In doing this, the Lord reaffirmed not only sound leadership principles of plurality and maturity, but also upheld Moses’ priority of facing and dealing with real life needs and problems as they arose. The books of Exodus and Numbers provide many examples of how this was done, and the resulting blessings.
A willingness to confront people
Turning to the New Testament, we note how often the Lord Jesus confronted people. From the cleansing of the temple at the beginning of His ministry (John 2), to his courageous words before Pilate (John 19), Jesus faced error with truth. In Matthew 18, He laid out the simple steps by which His followers should resolve wrongs done to them. After His resurrection, He would follow this pattern in restoring a disciple who had denied Him (Luke 24:34; John 20:15-17). Incidentally, this account of Peter’s denial and subsequent restoration is touching in its gentleness but forthrightness, and ought to be pondered by every elder.
With the coming of the Holy Spirit and commencement of the church, we can trace the boldness of Spirit-filled leaders on every page. We see Peter confronting Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5), Stephen facing his accusers (Acts 7), and Paul dealing directly with religious opposers throughout his travels (Acts 13-28). Scripture faithfully records them all, including Paul’s face to face rebuke of Peter regarding inconsistencies in his words and actions (Galatians 2:11-14). Considering these records, we can only imagine the harm and damage that would have come to the church had these difficulties not been addressed and cleared up quickly. No wonder the first book of church history, the book of Acts, presents a picture of blessing and expansion of the work!
In the epistles, we find rich teaching for growing believers on this subject, since the apostles left written instructions about the principles by which they worked. In the world, we must “have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather reprove them” (Ephesians 5:11). In the church, elders must be appointed to preserve order. Among other qualities, they must be men who by sound doctrine could “exhort and refute the opposers,” men who would stand courageously against the false teachers “whose mouths must be stopped” (Titus 1:9-11).
Confronting in the right spirit
Now all of this must be carried out in the right spirit. Shepherd hearts are saddened by sin, but protective of the flock. They know that “the servant of the Lord must not strive [argue, fight], but be gentle unto all men, apt to teach, patient, in meekness instructing those that oppose him, if God per-haps will give them repentance to the acknowledging of the truth…..” (II Tim. 2:24-26).
Confronting must not be delayed
Admittedly, this is not easy work. Most people dislike confrontation and resist being confronted. Nevertheless, we must under-stand that delay in admitting and dealing with problems only makes facing them more difficult. Small sparks can become great fires with the passing of time. Memories of the facts fade over time and we may actually cross a line when restoration is no longer possible. No wonder the Scriptures warn that leaven (a picture of evil) will spread, whether dealing with moral issues (I Corinthians 5:6) or facing doctrinal error (Galatians 5:9). Yes, the longer we wait the harder it becomes to confront. In the interim there can be stress and the work may suffer through lack of unity. King David may have appeared content before Nathan confronted him, but in Psalm 32:4 he confessed, “day and night thy hand was heavy upon me.”
The assembly is a family, a place where God’s grace shines. Wise elders will use wisdom in distinguishing between the normal evidences of immaturity, and dangers to the work through willful sin or error. Vigilance will discern danger signs (sometimes subtle) such as issues which keep getting “tabled” in leadership meetings, or lack of unity among elders on basic points of doctrine or practice. The old saying “We’ll agree to disagree” might be tolerated in matters of personal preference, but in matters of doctrine or the direction of the assembly, it is not acceptable. One especially difficult area is in facing problems “too close for comfort,” for example issues that involve relatives, or wealthy and influential people in the church.
Pray for boldness
Do we tremble at the thought of confronting people and problems? Let us remember that the apostles both prayed for boldness (Acts 4:29, 31) and requested prayer for boldness (Ephesians 6:19; Philippians 1:19,20). What can motivate us to action when needed? The Lord said, “I am…the truth …” (John 14:6). Loving Christ means loving the truth, not only its theory, but its life application. Elders must be more interested in justice and truth than in personal comfort and popularity.