Lessons in Christian Community

Christian Community (Part 4) - Admonish One Another

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This is the fourth week of our miniseries on Christian community. We are exploring what the New Testament has to say about why it is important and what it looks like. We are using Jn. 13:34 as our base text (read). Jesus says the most compelling evidence that he is the Truth is not a slick marketing strategy or even persuasive apologetics; it is a community of people who know how to succeed in love relationships.

As we have seen, the apostles took this to heart. That's why in their letters they unpacked what it means to "love one another as I have loved you" through a number of more specific "one another" imperatives. This week, we will explore "admonish one another."

What is admonition?

The Greek word for "admonish" is noutheteo, which means literally "to place on one's mind." It is also translated "counsel," "warn," and "instruct." It is part of a group of words (see 2 Tim. 4:2b) that range from correcting the ignorant to rebuking the obstinate. It addresses actions and attitudes and even beliefs.

Like encouragement, it seeks to express God's love by communicating his truth to meet an important need. But unlike encouragement, which seeks to strengthen those under pressure through no fault of their own, admonition seeks to correct those who are damaging themselves and others by their wrong moral choices. Biblical admonition is moral correction through verbal confrontation motivated by genuine love. There are a whole spectrum of ways one might admonish, ranging from a gently raised question to a very forceful rebuke like the one Nathan delivered to David. Later, we will consider some of the variables that go into how to deliver an admonition, but first let's consider another question . . . 

Why is admonition so unpopular in our culture?

Unlike encouragement, admonition is unpopular in our culture. Why is this? Partly because many dysfunctional families and religious groups have abused it. But all cultures have always had these things--yet they aren't as antagonistic toward admonition as our culture is. This is because our culture is both radically individualistic and morally relativistic. Since we prize individual rights over responsibilities, and since we reject universal, absolute moral standards, there simply is no basis for moral correction. But this freedom comes with a high price-tag. There is a close connection between this individualism and relativism and the failure of close relationships in our culture. You simply can't have closeness without trust, and trust is rooted in knowing that we are both under a higher moral standard to which we both willingly submit.

This is precisely why Christians have a basis for real community and successful close relationships. We stand under God's moral law rather than being a law unto ourselves. And we know that his moral law is an expression of his goodness, so we can call each other to account out of loving concern.

This is precisely what Paul envisions in Col. 3:16 (read)--which was written to a whole group of Christians whom Paul had never visited! If we have God's Word to inform us and God's love to motivate us, we have the resources to effectively admonish one another.

And so here is an excellent index of your involvement with other Christians:

Many marriages are up on blocks because of this. This is especially important in marriage, which is why a key index for couples considering marriage is this: Are you both able to give and receive admonition to and from each other?

Are you involved enough with some Christian friends that they have admonished you over the past several months? Are you involved enough with them that you have admonished them over the past several months? I don’t want to imply that this should characterize the tone of your relationships. There should usually be lots more encouragement than admonition. But in healthy Christian community, there is admonition as needed. Do you have this in your relationships with other Christians? If not, you are missing a crucial component for your own spiritual development, and you are betraying your friends.

Getting the most out of admonition

For the rest of our time this morning, I want to provide some principles for applying this "one another" imperative. Let's start with how to get the most out of admonition . . . 

Consciously filter admonition through God's grace rather than interpreting it as personal rejection. None of us really enjoys being corrected. Even in the best scenario, it is a little embarrassing and painful. But for some of us more than others, it feels like personal rejection that threatens our very identity. This happens if we are unable to distinguish between our behavior and who we are as persons. Those who have had abusive authority figures have special difficulty making this distinction. Such people hear correction through this grid and feel they have to reject it in order to survive. This is unfortunate, since they will only experience more pain by rejecting valid reproof.

Here is where the person who lives under God's grace has a real advantage. If I know the most important Person will never reject me, I can receive correction without being devastated. If I know that God's discipline is an expression of his love (Heb. 12:5,6,10), I need not fear it and I can profit from it.

Have you received God's grace by receiving Christ? . . . 

On this basis, we need to look for the truth in the admonition rather than looking for excuses to reject it. This, of course, runs directly counter to our natural reaction. Instantly and creatively, I create all kinds of reasons to discredit and reject rebuke: "How dare he say that to me when he has all kinds of sins!" "I can't believe how insensitively she said that!" "It's not really my fault--I had to act that way because of how I was treated!" Mature Christians still have these reactions, but they have learned to mistrust them and not act on them. Instead, they go to God and prayerfully, humbly consider the validity of the admonition--because they want to mature more than they want to preserve their own egos.

If you insist on receiving admonition only directly from God, or only from perfect people, you will remain a fool for the rest of your life (read Prov. 12:1; 15:32; 17:10)! We have to get to the point where we can profit from correction from imperfect people, and where we value such correction as the sacrifice of love that it is.

And this is why we need to thank friends who love you enough to admonish you rather than making them pay. I'm not talking about thanking people for abusing you. I'm talking about friends who love you enough to tell you the truth even when it is painful to hear. Solomon says that wise people realize how valuable this resource is (read Prov. 9:8; 27:5,6).

You can teach people not to do this because they will have to pay too great of a price. But the one who really loses is you as you distance yourself from God's help and healthy closeness with people who really care.

Principles of effective admonition

Admonishing others is sacrificial love, because it costs you emotional energy and because (especially today) you are often risking your relationship with the other person in order to help him. You do it because you are committed to the other person's welfare more than you are to their treatment of you. There is no formula for effective admonition because it involves persons and has so many variables: the seriousness of the issue, the history of your relationship, their level of spiritual maturity, the history of your discussion about this issue, etc. But there are biblical principles that will help us to be increasingly effective in this area. Here are a few of the most important principles.

Prayerfully prepare beforehand instead of reacting impulsively. Spontaneous admonition is rarely effective because we are usually reacting in anger. James warns us that "the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God" (Jas. 1:20). Correcting in unrighteous anger forfeits moral authority and calls for an apology. Take the time to pray for the right attitude, perspective and wisdom, God's empowering and conviction, etc.

Admonition is usually most effective in private and face-to-face. Jesus says, "If your brother sins, reprove him in private (Matt. 18:15). Privacy is important because it makes it easier for the other person to not react defensively than if you correct in front of other people. Face-to-face is important because you can read and ensure accurate communication. For this reason, email is usually a poor medium for admonition. It makes it easier for you to be harsh (because you don’t have to face the person), and it makes it more difficult to ensure accurate communication (because it can't include non-verbals and you have to wait for a reply).

Be direct and specific rather than vague, sarcastic, judging motives, etc. Don't say, "I want to talk to you about something serious next week." If I say to my wife, "Boy, you've sure been compassionate lately!" I'm not off to a good start. My content was vague and my tone was cutting and sarcastic. At best, she will not know what I'm getting at. At worst, she will react defensively in the same way. But if she says to me, "I'd like to talk to you about your harshness with the kids lately," the conversation is focused and we can probably get somewhere. If I say, "I know you said that to hurt Bill," I have arrogantly judged her motives and needlessly aggravated the situation. If instead I say, "Could we talk about what you said to Bill?" I'll probably get a lot farther.

Ground your correction in God's Word. Paul says "All scripture is inspired by God, and profitable for . . . reproof, for correction . . . Reprove, rebuke, exhort with great patience and instruction" (2 Tim. 3:16). This is important for several reasons. The goal is not simply to terminate poor behavior, but to help the person form proper convictions before God--and this requires understanding his Word. Also, God's Word has power to penetrate and convict that our personality and intelligence will never have. Finally, when we appeal to scripture, we are making it clear that we are not arrogating a position of superiority because we also are under God's authority.

Be as strong as necessary--but also be empathetic and constructive. Depending on many factors (the seriousness of the issue; how many times you have talked about it; etc.), you may need to express yourself with enough emotional volume to make your point. But if you do this, find a way to express empathy so you can't be easily dismissed as self-righteous. And whenever possible, be ready with some practical suggestions for help as soon as the other person expresses a willingness to change. This is what Paul emphasizes in Gal. 6:1 (read).

Except for very severe situations, don't insist on immediate compliance--give time for reflection, God's conviction, etc. Sometimes, because I have screwed up the courage to correct someone, I want to "go for the pin" in that conversation so I can be done with the situation. When this is the case, I am focused on my own relief rather than on doing what it takes to help the other person to grow. This is why Paul reminds us to exercise patience when we admonish (2 Tim. 4:2). It usually takes us some time to get past the initial bristling of our egos to hear God's voice. In most cases, if we're getting a lot of resistance and argument, it's better to say something like "Why don't you take some time to think and pray about this--and we then we can finish our conversation?"

Is it worth it?

Is it worth it to receive admonition with humility--even when everything within you cries to reject it? Is it worth it to admonish others as much prayer and wisdom and patience effectively as possible--even when everything within you would rather write them off or make them pay? It depends on what you value most. If your highest priority is your own comfort, it is definitely not worth it. But if you value spiritual integrity before God and genuinely healthy relationships with others, it's worth every sacrifice you make.