Admonish One Another
I want to begin today by telling you about a guy named Pachomius. Obviously, with a name like that, he lived a long time ago. Pachomius was an Egyptian soldier won to Christ by the kindness of Christians in Thebes. After his release from the military around A.D. 315, he was baptized. Serious about his new faith and determined to grow, he became a disciple of a guy named Palamon, an ascetic who taught him the self-denial and solitary life of a religious hermit. You see, in early Christianity, the picture everyone had of real devotion to Christ was the recluse dedicated to resisting the corruption of society. These hermits wandered the desert alone – fasting, praying, and having visions. Many went to extremes: eating nothing but grass, living in trees, or refusing to wash.
This was Pachomius’s early spiritual training. But he began to question the methods and lifestyle of his mentors. How can you learn to love if no one else is around? How can you learn humility living alone? How can you learn kindness or gentleness or goodness in isolation? How can you learn patience unless someone puts yours to the test? In short, he concluded, developing spiritual fruit requires being around people—ordinary, ornery people. “To save souls,” he said, “you must bring them together.”
You know, spiritual muscle doesn’t develop among friends we have chosen. God’s kind of love is best learned where we can’t be selective about our associates. Maybe this is why the two institutions established by God – the family and the church – aren’t joined by invitation only. We don’t have any choice about who our parents or brothers or sisters are, but we are expected to love them. And we can’t choose who will or will not be in the family of God either; all who confess Jesus as Lord are welcomed. We grow in our ability to love the way God loves when we’re with people we wouldn’t voluntarily associate with. When we can’t choose to only be around and love the attractive.
So Pachomius realized that growth in faith, growth in Christ happens best in community. So he began what he called an ascetic koinonia (koinonia is a Greek word for “fellowship”), where holiness was developed not in isolation but in community. Instead of each person seeking God in his own way, with the dangers of idleness and eccentricity, Pachomius established a common life based on worship, work, and discipline. And in community with flawed, demanding, sometimes disagreeable people, followers of Pachomius learned to take hurt rather than give it. They discovered that disagreements and opposition provide the opportunity to redeem life situations and experience God’s grace.[i] Discipleship, spiritual growth, happens in community.
These days, with the internet and podcasts and on-line sermons and worship services, it’s easy for people to go on-line and watch a worship service and listen to a sermon without ever leaving their home and meeting another person. Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m all for reaching out and getting the message of God’s love in Christ out there in as many ways as we can, and that includes posting messages on-line. And yes, you can get access to some great teachers and preachers on-line. But remember, Paul compares the church to a body, and he calls it the body of Christ. When followers of Christ, who are supposed to be a part of the body of Christ, replace actual participation in worship and study and service with an on-line worship service, they rob themselves of the opportunity for real spiritual growth, and they rob others of the same opportunity. When we skip from place to place, from church to church, we rob ourselves and others of deeper relationships that are fertile soil for spiritual growth. When we place our faith in Christ and declare him Lord of our lives, we become a part of the body of Christ, and as members of the body of Christ, we belong to one another (Rom. 12:5). That means we actually need one another to be all that we can be, individually and together as the body of Christ.
Today, as we continue our fall series on the “One Another” passages of the New Testament, we’re looking at what it means to admonish one another. Paul said to “teach and admonish one another in all wisdom.” What does that even mean? What does it mean to admonish someone?
In the Bible, the word translated “admonish” is the Greek word “nouthesia,” and it can have three possible meanings. It can mean to instruct, as in teaching someone something, not so much academically, but more like a parent instructing a child in how to act, how to live. It can also mean to warn. And it can mean to correct. The word “admonish” has those three layers of meaning: to instruct, to warn, and to correct. And it is used all three ways in Scripture. In Ephesians 6:4, Paul says “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.” The word translated “instruct” there is nouthesia. It can mean to instruct. It can also mean “correct.” In 1 Thessalonians 5:14, Paul says, “And we urge you … admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted …” The context there points to gently correcting or warning those who have gone astray.
Instruct, warn, and correct. They kind of build on one another. Aubrey is 16, the age at which kids in America learn to drive. And she’s an excellent driver. Way better than I was at her age. Some would say better than I am now. But think about what we’ve had to do as parents of a teenager learning to drive. It started with instruction, right? First with her driving instructor and then with us. She’d be behind the wheel, and we’d be actively instructing her all the time. And she picked it up really well. But there would certainly be times when she would make a mistake, right? And then we’d, hopefully gently, correct. “No, don’t do that, do this instead.” But what if she refused to heed our correction and kept doing something wrong? Now, she hasn’t. She’s an excellent driver. But let’s imagine that she just refused to listen to our correction and kept doing something wrong. We’d have to go from correction to warning, right? “If you keep doing this, you’re going to cause an accident.” “If you don’t stop, you’re going to get hurt.” Right?
Churches that really do the “one another” life together well, who take the “one another” passages to heart and excel at praying for one another and encouraging one another and forgiving one another and serving one another also have to be good at admonishing one another, speaking the truth to one another. Some churches aren’t very good at this. We’re afraid of offending someone. But sometimes we need to hear the truth and hear it plainly. Imagine picking your car up from the shop after a routine tune-up, and the technician says, “This car is in great shape. Clearly you have an automotive genius to take great care of your car.” Later that day, your brakes don’t work. You find out you were out of brake fluid. You could have died.
You go back to the shop, and you say, “Why didn’t you tell me?” The technician replies, “Well, I didn’t want you to feel bad. Plus, to be honest, I was afraid you might get upset with me. I want this to be a safe place where you feel loved and accepted.” You’d be furious! You’d say, “I didn’t come here for a little fantasy-based ego boost! When it comes to my car, I want the truth.”
Or imagine going to the doctor’s office for a check-up. The doctor says to you, “You are a magnificent physical specimen. You have the body of an Olympian. You are to be congratulated.” Later that day while climbing the stairs, your heart gives out. You find out later your arteries were so clogged that you were, like, one jelly doughnut away from the grim reaper. You go back to the doctor and say, “Why didn’t you tell me?” The doctor says, “Well, I knew your body is in worse shape than the Pillsbury doughboy, but if I tell people stuff like that, they get offended. It’s bad for business. They don’t come back. I want this to be a safe place where you feel loved and accepted.” You’d be furious! You’d say to the doctor, “When it comes to my body, I want the truth!” Obviously, when something matters to us, we do not want illusory comfort based on pain avoidance. We want truth.[ii] And as hard as it is to receive sometimes, we need truth.
But we have to be careful that we don’t go to the other extreme either, and I think a lot of more conservative churches tend more this way. I mean, it makes me really nervous to preach this text. Because in my experience, when we talk about admonishing, instructing, warning, and correcting one another and all of a sudden people are tearing into each other, ripping each other apart, freely sharing everything we don’t like about one another, or the pastor winds up with 15 appointments on his calendar full of people who want to drop by and admonish him, telling him everything they don’t like about him and the church. And that isn’t what we’re talking about here. It’s easy to fool ourselves into thinking that we are sharing truth, when all we are doing is trying to push our personal preferences, our likes and dislikes, on everyone else. And we all know someone like that in the church. Someone who has strong opinions about everything, every area of life, and wants everyone else to live like they do in every area of life. And we aren’t talking about personal likes and dislikes at all. It isn’t about being right. Look at the beginning of V. 16. Paul lays the foundation for effective admonishing. “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly.”
The word of Christ is the word of God, the truth of Scripture, but its more than that. The “word of Christ” is actually a synonym for Christ’s living presence within us.[iii] It is the Word of God alive in us, influencing the way we live, the way we speak, the way we relate to one another. In John 15, Jesus uses powerful imagery to describe what happens when we place our faith and trust in him. He says “I am the vine, you are the branches” (Jn 15:5). The main vine is the source of life for the branches. It’s sap runs through the branches, but they remain alive only because they are connected to the main vine. He goes on to say “If you abide in me, AND MY WORDS ABIDE IN YOU, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you” (Jn. 15:7). In other words, your lives will bear godly fruit. He isn’t saying he’s a genie in a bottle waiting to fulfill your every wish. He’s talking about what happens when the truth of his life and teaching, his word, dwells within us. Paul says “Let the word of Christ, the life and teaching of Christ, dwell in you richly.” We are to be people of the word of God. Now, what does it mean to allow the word of God to dwell RICHLY in and among us? It means there is no limit on the word of God. No place in your life or in our life together that the word of God does not have access to. No hidden closets. No ways of being or relating to one another that are not influenced by the Word of God alive in and among us.
And it is only then, when the word of Christ dwells richly in us, that we are able to effectively admonish one another. It only happens in light of the truth of the Word of God. We aren’t talking about someone forcing their personal preference on everyone else or having a need to always be right. In fact, the word for admonish, remember, it’s “nouthesia,” appears ten times in the New Testament. In nine of the ten occurrences, the context is the unity of the body of Christ. Someone or a group of someone’s is being divisive, and needs to be admonished – instructed, corrected, and warned to no longer continue in that path, to no longer be divisive or disruptive to the life of the body. “Teaching and admonishing one another” has absolutely nothing to do with helping, or making, others to see things our way, to prove that we are right. It isn’t about getting everyone else to live by the same list of rules that we live by. In fact, it tends to happen in the context of a divisive person or group. And we’ve all seen it. Those times when a person or group in the church begins to be divisive or disruptive. If the authority isn’t there to admonish them, to instruct, correct, and warn them, what happens? They wind up dividing the body.
There are times when the truth must be spoken firmly and directly to a person or a group. In Ephesians 4, Paul tells us to “speak the truth in love” (4:15). But we have to be careful. It’s so easy to convince ourselves that we are motivated by love, when really we simply have a need to be right, to have others see or do things our way. That’s why I think there are some healthy principles for learning to admonish well. First, as with all of the other “one anothers,” it must be done in community. Check in with the leadership to make sure that your concern is founded. Don’t go out on your own and do this without getting the wisdom of others, preferably those who have been walking with Christ as long or longer than you have. Check yourself. See if you can find someone who sees the issue differently. Second, if you kind of relish conflict, like to argue, maybe view admonition as your special gift – if you really like doing this, you probably shouldn’t be the one doing it. And third, it must be done in conjunction with the other one anothers: forgiving one another, especially for the daily slights and grievances that come up. Unforgiveness should never motivate you to admonish someone. And serving and encouraging and praying for one another. And before speaking, we must ask ourselves the questions Socrates encouraged his students to ask: 1. Is it true? 2. Is it kind? And 3. Is it necessary? Does it improve upon silence?
Toward the end of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, there’s a scene where Harry, Ron, and Hermione are about to break the rules and leave their dormitory after-hours to stop the bad guy from stealing something. But as they’re leaving, they run into Neville Longbottom, a bumbling, geeky student in their class. “You’re sneaking out again, aren’t you?” Neville asks. “I won’t let you. You’ll get [our classmates] into trouble again.” He fails to stop them, and Harry and his friends manage to stop the villain. But at the end of the year banquet, the school’s headmaster Dumbledore gives the greatest honor to Neville. “It takes a great deal of bravery to stand up to our enemies,” he explains, “but a great deal more to stand up to our friends.”
For us to fully function as the body of Christ, we have to be willing and able to be honest with one another. Proverbs 27:17 says “Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another.” Growth in Christ happens in community. Churches that create an environment in which people grow in Christ are churches that have learned how to admonish well. Not poorly and aggressively, but well. Sometimes we have to say hard things. Who in your life has earned the right to say something hard to you? Is it no one? If so, you’re in a dangerous place indeed. We need to learn to say hard things well. We need to learn to humbly receive hard words well. In community. Not alone. No vigilantes. No lone rangers. But together. In community.
[i] Marshall Shelley, “Developing spiritual fruit requires being around people – ordinary, ornery people,” Leadership journal (Spring 1993)
[ii] John Ortberg, “Loving Enough to Speak the Truth,”
[iii]Maxie Dunnam, Galations, “Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, Philemon”