Few people like confrontation. Most people I know avoid confrontation. Understandably, pastors are often wary of confrontation. A pastor friend shared with me a story of how confrontation ended his ministry at a church. He became aware that an active deacon was having an affair. Upon meeting with the deacons regarding the situation, they refused to support him confronting the deacon about his sin. The leadership of the church chose to placate a sinner rather than address the sin. Eventually, the pastor ended up leaving the church. While this is an extreme example, it does remind us that spiritual leaders have an important biblical responsibility—the need to sometimes confront people about their sin.
From the prophet Nathan (2 Samuel 12) to Nehemiah (Nehemiah 5) to Jesus (Matthew 18) and Paul (1 Corinthians 5) examples of confrontation permeate the Bible. The following is a checklist (drawn primarily from Nehemiah 5:1-13) that I hope will help the next time you have to confront someone living in sin.
- Be certain that confrontation is the only option. It is the Holy Spirit’s responsibility to convict sin and make us right with God. Not every sin in someone else of which we become aware is a sin that we must confront directly. Obviously an open sin of a staff member or church leader must be addressed. In situations where the person does not directly answer to you or is on the fringe at your church and you believe that you must confront a sin, pray for wisdom and an open door to confront the sin.
- Before confronting, be clear about the goal—repentance and restoration. The goal of confrontation according to Scripture is never confrontation itself. Consider not just what you will say to confront the sin, but how you plan to counsel repentance and restoration as well.
- Be conscious of the extent of the sin. John Stott observed, “It is a good general rule that secret sins should be dealt with secretly, private sins privately, and only public sins publicly.” Confrontation then should be direct and only address the wrongdoer. We should not make the sin bigger by extending the confrontation further than necessary. Obviously public sin will be painful to confront, but we must remember the goal is always repentance and restoration.
- Be biblical in the confrontation and in the solution. If we must confront and address a sin, we must follow biblical paradigms and biblical prescriptions. Connect the confrontation to Scripture and propose solutions that are biblical and redemptive. Expect repentance and offer grace.
- Be clear about potential consequences. In some cases, repentance will require a step down from a position of leadership. In other cases, interpersonal or family consequences may ensue. Anticipate the consequences during the confrontation. Warn and encourage with clarity and honesty. Little good can come from the nebulous and the vague especially when confronting a sin.
- Be wise, be patient, and look for beneficial solutions. Obviously some confrontations with church members will not concern sinful behavior. To illustrate, think of the person who wants to join your church’s praise team who does not possess the talent or ability to sing well. Confronting someone in a scenario like this should lead us to creative solutions that help individuals find places to serve that fit his or her gifts.
- Be prayerful and seek to be right. Confronting sin can be messy business, and Jesus warns that we are to address our own sins before addressing the sins of others (Matthew 7:1-5). If we are to be successful when we must confront, we should remain prayerfully humble. Arrogance, anger, ambition, or ambivalence as motivations will only make matters worse.
What other items should pastors consider before confronting others about their sin?
 John Stott, The Message of Acts (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1990), 112.