As a pastor, I love one of David Powlison’s definitions of biblical counseling:
Counseling is one part of the overall ministry of Christ that meets us publicly, privately, and interpersonally…biblical counseling is part of the interpersonal ministry of the Word. God means for us to bear each other’s burdens. It’s a good goal to become more competent at self-counsel, the private ministry, but we always need other people. We need their prayers, encouragement, and insight. There may be something you have said to yourself a hundred times, but then you hear it from the lips of someone else, and the Holy Spirit chooses to work. Hearing it from another person’s voice makes it come to life. Wise counseling brings that personalized relevance of interpersonal ministry of the eternal Word of Truth that turns our lives upside down and inside out.[i]
In this definition I see biblical counseling primarily as a private (or personal) ministry of the Church. It is a means by which the Body of Christ cares for the members of the Body. And we see this pattern in Scripture. For instance, Paul exhorts the Galatians to shoulder one another’s burdens (Galatians 6:2). We see Paul tell the Roman church that they are competent to instruct one another (Romans 15:14). And implicit in the epistles is this idea of interpersonal ministry that reinforces the public ministry of the Word (1st Peter 5; 2nd Timothy 4:2; Titus 2:15).
Elders and equipped ministry leaders should be committed to a public and private administration of God’s Word that can correct, rebuke, and encourage; and we see this type of ministry modeled in the New Testament. Once clear picture of this type of ministry commitment is given by Jesus in Matthew 18:10-20:
“See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that in heaven their angels always see the face of my Father who is in heaven. What do you think? If a man has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? And if he finds it, truly, I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. So it is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish. “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” [ii]
This passage is commonly known in conservative churches as the “church discipline” passage. However, I’ve often found that descriptor too truncated given verses 10-14 (which are verses often isolated from the instructions of Christ in verses 15-20). In context, we see Jesus committed to a seeking and saving ministry (which He demonstrates plainly in His encounter with Zacchaeus in Luke’s gospel). Jesus modeled a ministry of searching after lost sheep.
God the Father, through the person and work of Jesus, by the power of the Holy Spirit, seeks and reconciles to Himself every single one of His children. Think for a moment about this picture Jesus gives us of sheep. None of them perish, not a single one. And there is a particular type of means by which God ensures that His sheep persevere. That is what the Lord is teaching us through this passage.
Now, I haven’t experienced raising sheep, but from what I know about sheep, they eat—a lot. Their time and their minds are consumed with eating all day long, every day. And they are so obsessed with this that they aren’t aware of anything else around them, including other sheep (or even predators).
So, often the sheep get separated from the rest of the flock because they never look up or bother themselves with being aware of their surroundings. In addition to that, they typically eat so much that they need to lie down (recall Psalm 23) in order to digest it all. But the problem is they often need the shepherd to help them lie down in a position that will allow for ease of digestion, while also maintaining the ability to properly breathe. Sheep can get turned on their backs and this can be dangerous because without a certain amount of gravitational force they will be unable to survive the result. When they are on their backs all of their blood leaves their feet, the stomach can’t digest food, and their breathing becomes blocked. And if the shepherd isn’t quick to turn them back over, a sheep on its back can die.
Add to this the fact that they are helpless against predators and prone to walking off of cliffs and you begin to see very clearly that sheep are absolutely dependent on attentive shepherds to survive. Sheep need the constant attention and care of their shepherd. And they need a patient shepherd. Jesus is this Shepherd, sent by God the Father to give care and attention to every single sheep. Again, not one of God’s sheep will be lost. If you are a believer, you are one of those sheep. And the Lord has been, and continues to be, so patient and caring for you.
Now this is what Christ has done for us. He sought us and saved us and continues to seek and save other sheep, according to Luke 19:10. Jesus gives us this visual in His parable of the importance of every individual sheep. Now, He moves seamlessly from what He has done, and does, for His sheep, and moves to instruction about how He expects this work to continue under the administration of the local church. In other words, this “seeking out” ministry is to be carried on by God’s Church.
This means that counseling, and what is commonly called “church discipline”, are to go hand in hand. The members of our churches should know they have shepherds who are attentive and on the lookout for their souls, because that is what God has tasked them to do. We should pursue those members in our local church who claim the name of Jesus and live in rebellion to that profession, because of our love for Christ and our love for them, and Jesus’ command to emulate His shepherding matters.
This means that our counseling of members and our disciplining them is for their good. Attentive elders and ministry leaders are concerned about straying members being restored to God and to their local church, and they are to walk with struggling members in a particular way, according to Matthew 18 and the testimony of other New Testament passages. For the rest of this article I want to give some concrete handles on approaching church discipline with the goal of restoring a lost brother or sister in Christ.
If the goal of confrontation is restoration it should be done in a biblical manner. And what I want to do first is pull some implications from the text before I actually get to the roadmap that Jesus lays out in Matthew 18. We need to get the spirit in which we are to confront before we get to the practice of discipline through private instruction.
First, we are to do this prayerfully (dependent posture). We shouldn’t do anything apart from being in a prayerfully submissive posture before the Lord. Prayer is an admission that we are completely dependent on the Lord, as a fellow sheep, and that we are presently trusting the Lord. Prayer is this confession for God’s will to be accomplished.
1st John 5:14 reminds us, “And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us.” And we know that it is God’s will for us to commitment to the private ministry of the Word, which sometimes requires us to confront brothers and sisters who are being deceived by sin. So, lift up your God-centered confrontations to the Lord, knowing that He hears you and He will accomplish His plan and purpose through you, as you confront for His glory and their good.
Secondly, be humble and as gentle as possible. This is where the log/speck discourse is quite relevant for us. Matthew 7:3 exhorts, “Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.”
My wife and I read a devotional years ago (by Edward Welch, I think) and one evening the devotional spent time on this particular passage. It said that before we confront anyone, we should be sure that we have applied our judgement to ourselves. We should be sure that we aren’t being deceived by sin’s deceitfulness. We should see ourselves as the ‘chief of sinners’. That is the significance of Jesus saying that we have “logs” in our eyes. It is healthy for us to see our sin as bigger, and worse, than the sin of our brothers and sisters. This fosters humility in our own hearts.
When we see the sin of our brothers or sisters as “specks”, we can help to delicately remove it. Think of that image. What happens when your husband, wife, friend, roommate, child, etc. has something in their eye? You gently blow on it, you delicately remove it; otherwise you could make matters much worse.
Third, we should be truthful. Being gentle and humble doesn’t mean that we are unclear or beat around the bush. Being unclear or beating around the bush is unloving. It is rooted in our fear of how the person is going to respond, instead of our fear of God. We must be truthful and clear. Certainly, Nathan is an example of this when he confronts King David after David commits adultery with Bathsheba and murders Uriah. He says in 2nd Samuel 12:1-7a:
“And the LORD sent Nathan to David. He came to him and said to him, “There were two men in a certain city, the one rich and the other poor. The rich man had very many flocks and herds, but the poor man had nothing but one little ewe lamb, which he had bought. And he brought it up, and it grew up with him and with his children. It used to eat of his morsel and drink from his cup and lie in his arms, and it was like a daughter to him. Now there came a traveler to the rich man, and he was unwilling to take one of his own flock or herd to prepare for the guest who had come to him, but he took the poor man’s lamb and prepared it for the man who had come to him.” Then David’s anger was greatly kindled against the man, and he said to Nathan, “As the LORD lives, the man who has done this deserves to die, and he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity. Nathan said to David, “You are the man…””
And we know that David is broken by God through Nathan’s words, confesses his sin, and is restored to God.
Finally, we are to confront in an urgent manner. Proverbs 28:13 says, “Whoever conceals his transgressions will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy.” Revelation 3:19 explains further, “Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent.”
Confronting in an urgent manner communicates the seriousness of sin. We shouldn’t call for believers to repent of sin tomorrow, we should call for them to repent of sin and rest in Jesus today. Don’t delay God-centered confrontation and don’t allow them to delay obedience. You are a steward of today, not tomorrow. Be obedient today and call straying believers to obedience today. That is the manner or spirit in which confrontation should be done; now what do the action steps look like according to Jesus in Matthew 18?
The spiritually mature believer goes to the stumbling professing believer who has sinned against him/her. Now, if you’re an elder, you may be confronting sin that is not against you personally. This passage still applies in that scenario. Jesus says that we should first tell him/her the fault privately. To include others at this level is gossip. Matthew 18:15 states, “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.”
Most confrontations will begin and end at this level. But our issue in the local church is that often we talk to everyone else, except for the actual brother or sister, regarding their straying. If we love others as Jesus loves the Church and laid His life down for her, we will go quickly to those who are trapped in sin and work (and notice I wrote the word “work”, because it is laborious and tedious) through the issue together.
As a side note, this can be more than one confrontational conversation…and the conversations may be long. Just because everything doesn’t get worked out after an initial conversation doesn’t mean that you need to move to the next step or give up. Exhibit some patience. Be willing to have several sit-downs with someone. Be mindful of your non-verbal cues, be disarming and kind, and confront in a private place. Also, be prepared that this person may lash out at you. Although they may attack you, remember that their sin is deceiving them.
This person you are confronting isn’t your enemy or opponent (Ephesians 6:12). They are a sheep that has strayed, and the Lord has called you to persevere with this person, as you seek to remind them of who they are in Christ Jesus. Now, if sin persists, include one to two other spiritually mature Christians and establish evidence. Matthew 18:16 says, “But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses.” This is where you begin to bring in other folks in the local church that are connected to the individual you are confronting (or the elder team) to plead with them, yet again, to repent of their sin and look to Jesus.
When I have confronted at this level, there are a few practical things I have done that I want to give you. First, meet with spiritually mature Christians to come up with a plan and pray. You need to be on the same page with those that you are bringing with you, and you need to do this so that you aren’t the ones that provoke the stumbling believer to anger.
Next, write a clear document to utilize in the confrontation. I have actually written a document with the sin (or sins) that are persistent in a fellow believer’s life, and I researched and wrote out what the Scriptures say about the particular sin(s) in general. And I always include 1st John 1:6-10, which states:
“If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.”
The person you are confronting needs to see the blasphemous nature of their sin. For a believer to deny sin, according to 1st John, is to call God a liar. This is serious, and the brother or sister needs to feel the weight of their unrepentance.
After you’ve worked those details out, you need to give clear, tangible steps for repentance. This can include weekly meetings with you as a biblical counselor, or with spiritually mature folks connected to the individual you are confronting. It can include clear tangible breakaway steps to mortify their sin. It can include Bible studies, faithful corporate worship, small group ministry, God-centered books to read. Be sure to always give clear steps.
Your work is only beginning when you initially confront. You aren’t confronting from a godly place if you don’t offer to walk with the individual you are confronting as they repent. Assure them that you love them and are committed to getting them the help they need as they daily repent and trust in Jesus.
The final thing to do consistently and forever as God’s Church is direct them toward Jesus. You aren’t their savior. And to establish this co-dependent relationship with someone is to lead them into idolatry. Their sin is idolatry. Be careful you don’t substitute their sin with the idol of co-dependency on you instead of Jesus. Jesus is their only Savior. Faithfully point them to Jesus alone. He is the one who saves, He is the one who preserves them, and He is the one who is using you and your church to redirect the believer’s attention to Him. We need to be a gospel-centric people. It is the gospel that drives the repentance and obedience of the rebellious sheep, and God has entrusted this ministry to His local Church.
[i] Robert Kellemen, 5 Definitions of Biblical Counseling. https://rpmministries.org/2013/03/5-definitions-of-biblical-counseling/ (accessed September 9th)
Joey Tomlinson (DMin, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is a husband, father, and pastor at a local church in Newport News, Virginia. He blogs regularly on broadoakpiety.org and hosts a weekly podcast called The Broad Oak Piety Podcast with another local pastor in the community.