Fall 1990

Reformed Quarterly Volume 9, Issue 3

Dr. Richard Watson is vice-president for Academic Affairs and an associate professor of Educational Ministries at RTS.  He is also the author of God Made Me Laugh.

On a warm night in June after Joe Louis knocked out Max Schmeling in the first round, the children on our block met outside to discuss the fight. Though we had only heard the radio broadcast, I had a clear mental picture of the knock-out punch and wanted to show my friend Jake exactly how it had been. Jake thought I was going to demonstrate the punch in slow motion, and I thought Jake was going to duck. The result was that Jake joined Schmeling that night in taking an incredibly hard right to the jaw. He didn’t go down or out, but he did run into the house crying for his mother.

His mother evaluated the damage done by the blow and proceeded to convince her son that all he needed was a second round to get even. So Jake came out ready to fight. As sorry as I was for the mistake that started the whole ruckus, at this point I felt compelled to defend myself. It only took about two left jabs and a right to send Jake into the house crying again.

His manager/mother was furious at that point and standing on the porch with Jake holding onto her skirt she shouted at the top of her voice, “One of these days Jake is going to fly right into you!” Jack, an older boy who had watched the whole thing, said matter-of-factly, “Yes, and he’ll probably fly right back out.”

Living on a city block with a good number of young children, I learned at an early age that a little fellow can beat a big fellow if the big fellow is afraid, and the little fellow knows it. Jake was much larger than I, but I could always beat him because he was afraid to fight, and I knew it.

Some people seem to live all their lives without realizing how much fear affects the outcome of most conflicts. Even more than fear itself allowing others to know that you are afraid invites opposition and makes defeat almost certain.

Jesus has been described as gentle, meek and mild, and He was certainly all of that. No one ever thought, however, that Jesus was afraid. When He stood before Pilate to be judged, there was clear indication that Pilate was afraid, but no fear was reflected by Christ.

Any fear of the cross that Jesus may have felt was taken before the Father in prayer. As He went into Gethsemane with His disciples, Matthew says that Jesus was sorrowful and troubled. When He came out of the garden, however, no more trouble was written on His face or reflected through what He said and did.

On one occasion, after Jesus had denounced the practices of the Pharisees and called them hypocrites, the disciples said to him, “Do you know that the Pharisees were offended…?” (Matthew 15:12) That’s like asking a bullfighter in the arena, “Do you know that the bull is getting angry?” Of course, Jesus knew that the Pharisees were offended. The problem was that the disciples were scared, and their question betrayed their fear.

Many times Jesus encouraged His disciples not to fear, and eventually they did become men who could be described as fearless. They were not totally without fear, of course, but they became people who were not easily threatened and were bold in doing the Lord’s work in the face of opposition.

Overcoming fear in the face of opposition should be a goal for every Christian, especially for those who want to be leaders within the church. Conflicts have been arising in churches with increasing frequency, and some of the greatest damage has been done when pastors and other leaders, because of fear, have failed to manage the conflicts. Many situations in which pastors have lost their pulpits or congregations have been divided could have been avoided if someone had had the courage and the wisdom to address the issues that needed to be addressed and to confront the people who needed to be confronted.


Confrontation at the right time, in the right way, and on the right issues is the key to dealing with difficult people and managing many con. In just about every church, a few members have the potential to become difficult people. Some of these are complainers who thrive on contention and spend much of their time and energy trying to create it. A new pastor usually enjoys a honeymoon period during which these potentially troublesome people show kindness to him and his family. They are often some of the first people to entertain him, and, in doing so, they appear quite angelic. Actually, they are sizing up the newcomer, trying to figure out how tough or how easily frightened he maybe.

Difficult people usually begin slowly with a new target person such as a pastor. At first they do little irritating things or make slightly disrespectful remarks. They are trying to test the man’s irritation threshold and see how much they can get by with without opposition. Early success and a taste of easy victory turn difficult people into monsters who cannot be tamed.

People like this need to be confronted early. The confrontation can be friendly kind, and gentle, but it must be firm. When addressed firmly and appropriately, many potentially difficult people become supporters rather than opponents. The meaner ones, realizing early failure with their new target person, often have their enthusiasm squelched and slink away looking for easier prey.

But the thought of confrontation is frightening to most peace-loving people. They prefer to avoid conflict, take it on the chin, and hope that a show of humility will somehow cause the trouble to go away. Sometimes that works. Avoidance is certainly an excellent response for some situations. Jesus used it when He left Nazareth where He was shown no honor (Luke 4:16-30), and when He left the country of the Gadarenes upon their request. (Mark 5:17) He recommended avoidance when He told his disciples to shake the dust from their feet at homes where they were rejected. (Matthew 10:14) Withdrawal or avoidance is sometimes the best response, but as a regular, set response to conflict it will not work. When it becomes your style, people will assume, probably correctly that you are afraid to face opposition.

No sensible person, especially a Christian, would recommend that we fight every possible battle. That would be sheer foolishness. There is a time to avoid confrontation and a time to wait patiently. But leaders who never defend themselves or their people are shirking basic responsibilities of leadership and are unworthy of their positions.

Some are timid regarding confrontation because they equate it with a declaration of war That is, of course, a wrong view. Often confrontation is not even self-defense but a means of self-correction when we discover that we have made false assumptions.


Confrontation literally means “to front with.” It suggests clear, open, and honest communication with another person, and that should not be terribly difficult. Confrontation is a biblical method of dealing with conflict as recommended in the frequently quoted but seldom practiced verse, Matthew 18:15. This verse teaches that if your brother sins against you, you should go to him. Most people read this and agree to follow it without the foggiest notion of what would constitute a sin against them.

The word translated “sin” means “to be in error” or “to miss a mark.” It suggests “being guilty of wrong.” When it is translated “sin,” we usually think of something big and terribly offensive. The verse should be received, however, as addressing small as well as great issues. Instead of thinking about being sinned against as something that will never happen to us or perhaps as a once-in-a-lifetime experience, we should see this as the kind of thing that happens often.

Issues which fall under the admonition given in Matthew 18:15 do not have to be problems with the potential for a third party negotiator, as recommended in verse 16, or for possible excommunication, as mentioned in verse 17. The more drastic measures in verses 16 and 17 are required only in rare, severe cases.

When it says in verse 15, “go and tell him,” this does not mean that in every case you will be going somewhere to meet another party. You can tell a person on the spot, as soon as a seeming problem arises. Immediate confrontation is more effective than a delayed response, and dealing with many small issues is better than waiting for them to become one big conflict.

The passage in Matthew is not telling us how to blast other people nor giving an excuse to criticize them. Our approach should be gentle and in accord with Proverbs 15:1, which recommends a soft answer rather than grievous words. Love should always be our motivation. One of your greatest expressions of love may be when you “front with” a brother in this way. You can do it as a Christian because you love him and want to establish a closer, more lasting relationship.

When you go to another person to talk about a problem, the first step is to state the positive intent of your visit. A sample statement is: “I have come to talk to you today because of the interest both of us have in seeing continuing progress in our youth program.”

Your second statement should provide a soft landing for the other person. It should be designed so that the person can escape rather easily simply by agreeing with you. You may say, “I certainly do not believe that you would say or do anything intentionally to harm or hinder this program.”

The next step is to state your problem clearly, concisely, and frankly. This will be the most difficult and most confrontational part, but it is essential. Your third statement may be, “When you make critical remarks about the youth program to your Sunday school class, it causes some parents to lose confidence in the work that we are trying to do for their children.”

After that, make a request. “I want to ask you to bring the concerns which you have directly to me, to one of the pastors, or to the chairman of the Education Committee so they can be dealt with in a way that will be pleasing to you and others who have personal interest in this work. Will you do that?”

Finally, wait for an answer. Don’t allow much conversation off the subject, but seek an answer to your question. He may want you to state specific criticisms to which you are referring, and you can tell him. Then return to your request.

Tone of voice is important. Gestures and facial expressions are even more important. Try to be friendly and encouraging.

If he agrees to your request you have made progress which may lead to significantly better relationships. If he simply says, “No,” you may try to negotiate. If he becomes hostile, you at least know where you stand and may need to take alternate steps.

Those who have been avoiding confrontation probably have a backlog of several people they should see. Don’t begin with your toughest client; go first to the more friendly types. To your surprise you will discover that many will be happy that you are giving them the opportunity to discuss problems with you.

There are some dragons out there, but fortunately most people are not dragons. Pray that you will not have to tangle with one of those fire-breathing kind early on. Also pray that the Lord will give you the right words, a steady hand and voice, and a calm heart and mind. The Lord often does that, and He hides our fear. It is alright to be afraid. Just about everybody is, but the best players are able to keep it hidden.

It seems to be at least somewhat true in conflict, conflict management, and other places where we are tested, that “we have nothing to fear but fear itself.” It is fitting, therefore, for us to pray with the psalmist, “Preserve my life from fear of the enemy.” (Psalm 64:1)