Matthew 18:15-17“And if your brother sins, go and reprove him in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother. But if he does not listen to you, take one or two more with you, so that by the mouth of two or three witnesses every fact may be confirmed. And 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-gatherer.”
The passage from Matthew has been used as an informal guide to Christian confrontation for a long time. It is not about man to man conversation, primarily. It is about discipline in the Church. Even so, it may serve as a useful guide when properly applied.
It does not mean that when you want to talk with someone you may stand them up against a wall, so to speak, and scold them. The “reprove him in private” (the King James Version says, “tell him his fault between thee and him alone”) is a conversation, not a lecture.
As a pastor, I have been confronted by angry parishioners using this rubric to give the pastor “what for” and unburden their souls of whatever grievance they may imagine they have. I am always happy when a parishioner comes to me with a concern and wishes to discuss it with me. More often than not, however, I am met with a lecture.
The tone of the address is hostile, possibly due to the nervousness of the speaker. I am allowed no response. I cannot explain the why and the what of the situation. I cannot apologize. I cannot address the misperceptions of the speaker, such as .”You were pointing this right at me!”, even when I had no thought of the individual when I spoke the offending words.
I am instructed to stand quietly and allow the speaker “to get this off my chest.” Every attempt to speak, explain, apologize or whatever is waved to silence with anger. When I do squeeze in a comment like, “I was not speaking about you. I was not even thinking of you when I spoke,” is met with, “I don’t believe you!”
My parishioner calls me a liar. Then any other offense in history that comes to the mind of the speaker is heaped into the shame of the wrong that I have allegedly committed. And when the speaker has vented their animus, they stalk off and refuse any conversation on the issue.
While I may make a mistake now and again, the oft-repeated sneak attack typically demonstrates several things. First, the attacker usually rejects the law. They have been made to feel guilty and they don’t like it. It does not work repentance, but an evil hostility.
Second, the attacker usually comes from a small group in the congregation which regularly fields an assault on the pastor for his lack of sensitivity and supposed disrespect for them or some other group. They hold themselves to no need for any sensitivity toward the pastor. They demonstrate either a misunderstanding of the office of the Pastor or hatred for it. Pastors are beneath contempt and consideration in their eyes.
Third, the attacker makes it clear that their judgment must be above all others. Only they can determine what must be preached, which sins need to be addressed, and when it is wrong to address any specific sin within the congregation. They presume to judge others and hold the pastor guilty of not addressing sins they see and are offended by - while totally unaware of what pastoral counsel and attention the sins they decry have actually received.
Meanwhile, the assault on the pastor is seen as “taking it directly to the pastor as is right to do, and not gossiping around the congregation.” The spirit of the conversation is wrong. The judgment of the pastor is wrong. Calling the pastor a liar when he speaks the truth, a truth one is not comfortable with, is wrong. The ambush approach and denial of the right of the pastor to speak to the assault is wrong. But the attacker has sanitized his or her conscience and cleared their mind of the issue, having “shared it” with the pastor, so even though almost nothing was right about the attack, somehow, the attacker feels that the right thing has been done, much to their satisfaction, a satisfaction evident in their demeanor as they depart the cite of the ambush.
The evangelical ambush is one of the most trying forms of unbelief common in the Christian congregation.