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Lesson 18: The Ministry We Avoid (1 Thessalonians 5:14)

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November 27, 2016

Our text urges us to engage in something that we all tend to avoid: the ministry of admonishing a disobedient brother or sister in Christ. Most of us don’t like doing this. I don’t like doing it! In fact, if you like admonishing a person who is in sin, you probably shouldn’t do it! But it is a vital ministry in the body of Christ which we all need to understand and practice, in spite of our natural inclination to avoid it. Without this ministry of godly correction, many in the church will succumb to the temptations that constantly bombard us from the world, the flesh, and the devil.

Perhaps you’re thinking, “That’s the job of the pastor and elders, isn’t it? They know how to admonish better than I, so I’ll just let them do it.” Yes, admonition is especially the job of the church leaders, as we saw in verse 12 (NASB, “instruction” is “admonition”). But “brethren” in verse 12 addresses the entire church and so it is likely that “brethren” in verse 14 speaks to the same group. Not only the leaders, but also the entire church, must patiently “admonish the unruly, encourage the fainthearted, [and] help the weak” (1 Thess. 5:14).

Other texts repeat this command. In 2 Thessalonians 3:15, with regard to anyone who does not obey Paul’s instruction in that letter, he tells the church, “Yet do not regard him as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother.” In Romans 15:14, Paul states, “And concerning you, my brethren, I myself also am convinced that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge and able also to admonish one another.” In 1970, Jay Adams launched the biblical counseling movement with his book, Competent to Counsel [Baker], based on that verse. He called it “nouthetic” counseling, based on the Greek word for “admonish.”

Since admonishing one another is a ministry which the entire body is to engage in and since it is a vital ministry for the health of the church, my aim in this message is to help equip you regarding what this ministry is and how we should carry it out.

All believers are responsible to admonish those who are leading an undisciplined, disorderly life.

1. To admonish others, we need to overcome some common excuses.

*“I’m afraid to do that sort of thing!” Husbands and wives are often afraid to exercise this ministry toward one another. Husbands will say, “If I confronted her sin, she would give me the silent treatment for a week! She’d never let me forget it!” Wives will say, “If I confronted him with his sin, he’d explode! Besides, the Bible commands me to be submissive to him!” (Normally, wives tend to ignore that command, but they’ll use it if it gets them out of confronting their husband’s sin!)

Many pastors are afraid to confront sinning church members, especially those who wield influence in the church. I heard of a pastor who wouldn’t confront an elder who was committing adultery because he threatened to sue the church or to get the pastor fired. Another pastor refused to confront a woman who sang solos in the church, even though she was divorcing her husband for unbiblical reasons. He said that he didn’t want to touch that one for fear of stirring up a hornet’s nest! You may shrink from confronting a sinning friend for fear that he will become angry with you.

*“I don’t want to be judgmental.” “Do not judge so that you will not be judged” (Matt. 7:1), is one of the most misapplied verses in the Bible! Jesus was not forbidding making judgments about another person’s spiritual condition. If you keep reading, in verse 6 Jesus tells us not to give what is holy to dogs and not to cast our pearls before swine. You can’t obey that verse unless you judge that the other person is a dog or a swine! Rather, in the context He meant, “Don’t judge others for minor sins in their lives while you ignore major sins in your life. First, take the log out of your eye and then you can help your brother with the speck in his eye.”

But that leads to another reason why we shy away from admonishing others:

*“Who am I to correct someone else when I’ve got my own issues?” We’re afraid that if we try to talk to a brother or sister about his or her sins, they will point their finger back at us, and we know that we’re guilty as charged. So we avoid bringing up the other person’s sins in hopes that he will not bring up our sins! But that approach just allows us all to perpetuate ongoing sins! Scripture commands us to confess and forsake all known sin so that we are cleansed vessels, fit for the Master’s use (2 Tim. 2:21). We don’t have to be perfect to admonish the unruly (or it would never get done), but we do need to judge our own sins first.

*“We need to be tolerant and loving.” The secular philosopher, Allan Bloom, pointed out thirty years ago (The Closing of the American Mind [Simon & Schuster]) that tolerance has become the chief “virtue” in Western civilization. If you call anyone’s behavior, no matter how outrageous, “evil” or “wrong,” you’re viewed as arrogant and intolerant, which is the only sin. He wrote (p. 27), “There is no enemy other than the man who is not open to everything.” But it is not loving to be tolerant of someone’s sin. Sin always damages the sinner and those who are sinned against. Sin destroys Christian families. Worse, when those who profess to be Christians continue in sin, it tarnishes God’s glory before the world. If we truly love others and seek God’s glory, we will be intolerant of their sin!

*“Maybe the problem will go away on its own.” Yes, sometimes the Holy Spirit convicts the sinning person without anyone’s intervention, leading to repentance. God is patient and gracious with us in our imperfection. And, there is wisdom in praying for the person to repent and waiting for the right time to admonish him about his sin. But usually God uses the ministry of a faithful believer to bring the sinning person to repentance.

*“Maybe the elders or someone else should do it. I’m just not good at this sort of thing!” Sometimes the elders should be the ones to admonish the unruly. But the general principle is that if you know the person, you will be more effective helping him turn from his sin than an elder who doesn’t know him as well as you do. If you need coaching, an elder can provide that and help you grow in the process. But it is not loving to distance ourselves from a fellow believer and passively watch him continue in sin. So we need to overcome these excuses and lovingly admonish the unruly.

2. To admonish correctly, we need to discern the other person’s spiritual condition and understand what admonition is.

A. To admonish correctly, we need to discern the other person’s spiritual condition.

1 Thess. 5:14; “We urge you, brethren, admonish the unruly, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with everyone.” One approach doesn’t fit all! You should not encourage the unruly nor admonish the fainthearted or weak. “Unruly,” was often used in military contexts to mean, “to be out of step, out of order, undisciplined, unbridled, or to act irresponsibly” (Gerhard Delling, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament [Eerdmans], ed. by Gerhard Kittel, 8:47). When I was in the Coast Guard boot camp, sometimes a wise guy in our unit would deliberately march out of step or turn left when we were commanded to turn right. At times, this was funny, but if we were carrying rifles over our shoulders, it could be dangerous if you caught someone’s rifle in your face.

Here, Paul may be referring to those who had quit their jobs in anticipation of the Lord’s near coming and were sponging off the rest of the church. He alludes to this in 1 Thessalonians 4:11-12, and directly addresses it at length in 2 Thessalonians 3:6-12. He describes these brothers as “leading an unruly life and not according to the tradition which you received from us” (2 Thess. 3:6). He states further (2 Thess. 3:11) that they were “leading an undisciplined life, doing no work at all, but acting like busybodies.” They may have been teaching falsely that the day of the Lord had already come (2 Thess. 2:1-2). So their disobedience probably went beyond not working. They were generally out of line in their Christian lives.

So to admonish correctly, we first need to determine where the other person is at spiritually. If he is fainthearted or weak, he doesn’t need admonishing, but encouragement or help. If he’s spiritually immature, he needs gentle instruction in how to grow up in the Lord. When my kids were little, I tried to discern whether they were acting immaturely or being defiant. If a three-year-old is acting like a three-year-old, you try to help him behave in a better way. If a ten-year-old is acting like a three-year-old, he needs stronger correction. But if any child is defying your authority as a parent, you need to make it very clear that they can’t do that, even if they are tired or hungry. So before you admonish another person, try to gauge his spirit. Ask some questions to discern his spiritual condition.

B. To admonish correctly, understand what admonition is.

To admonish means to strongly encourage, correct, or warn someone to change from behavior that is wrong or potentially wrong according to Scripture. It is related to the word for “mind,” so it involves imparting knowledge, understanding, or instruction with a view toward correction. But it is also an appeal to the will and feelings, not just to the intellect (F. Selter, The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology [Zondervan], ed. by Colin Brown, 1:568). The intensity of our appeal to the person needs to be in proportion to the level of danger that he is in, so that he feels our genuine concern or even alarm. If someone is cruising toward a deadly waterfall, you’ve got to use some emotion to warn him!

It’s crucial that you use the Bible and not your own opinion when you admonish someone. If you say, “In my opinion, looking at pornography is spiritually dangerous,” the other person may reply, “Thanks, but in my opinion, everyone does it and it’s really harmless as long as you aren’t addicted to it.” But if you take the person to Matthew 5:27-30, where Jesus says that the person who doesn’t take radical measures to rid his life of lust is headed for hell, it has a lot more clout than your opinion does!

When you admonish someone who is unruly, you should expect resistance. Often the person who is straying from the Lord will be defensive, because he doesn’t want to face his sin. Or, he will blame others or blame his circumstances, because he doesn’t want to admit that he is responsible for it. Sometimes he will try to divert your admonition by bringing up some fault or shortcoming he sees in your life. Be prepared so that you don’t respond in anger or allow the conversation to shift to you. One way to diffuse tension is to ask pointed questions: “Are you telling me before God that you’re not looking at pornography? Do you think that He approves of your behavior?”

But no matter how gently you confront the sinning person, it’s easy to come across as harsh or judgmental. So how can we admonish the unruly without condemning him?

3. To admonish others, we need to be prayerful, humble, Christlike, and knowledgeable of God’s word.

A. To admonish others, be prayerful.

Talk to God much about the person before you try to talk to the person about God. If you’re eager to admonish, you should probably wait and spend more time in prayer. When you finally do meet with the person, you can begin by saying, “I’ve been praying a lot for you lately, because I’m really concerned about where I sense that you’re at spiritually.”

B. To admonish others, be humble.

Don’t come down on the other person as if you live a sinless life and you can’t understand why he is sinning! You’re just as prone to temptation and sin as he is. The next time, he may be admonishing you. Paul instructs (Gal. 6:1), “Brethren, even if anyone is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual, restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness; each one looking to yourself, so that you too will not be tempted.” None of us are above temptation!

C. To admonish others, be Christlike.

“You who are spiritual” means, “You who walk in the Spirit and display the fruit of the Spirit,” which Paul has just described in the preceding context (Gal. 5:22-23): “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.” Admonition normally should be bathed in patience, kindness, and gentleness.

Granted, sometimes Jesus confronted His disciples bluntly and forcefully (Matt. 16:23): “Get behind Me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to Me; for you are not setting your mind on God’s interests, but man’s.” The apostle Paul, filled with the Spirit, said to Elymas the magician, who was trying to turn the proconsul in Cyprus away from the faith (Acts 13:10-11): “You who are full of all deceit and fraud, you son of the devil, you enemy of all righteousness, will you not cease to make crooked the straight ways of the Lord? Now, behold, the hand of the Lord is upon you, and you will be blind and not see the sun for a time.” So there is a place for strong, direct confrontation. But it’s easy to operate in the flesh and not in the Spirit, so my counsel is to default toward patience, kindness, and gentleness.

D. To admonish others, know God’s word, especially as it relates to the problem at hand.

You want to appeal to God’s authority, not to your opinion. To do that, you’ve got to know what God’s word commands and where you can find that command in Scripture. You want to offer not only rebuke and correction, but also training in righteousness (2 Tim. 3:16). So you need to offer practical biblical help for how the person can gain victory over his sin. Your aim is never to prove that the sinning person is wrong and leave him feeling guilty, but rather to help him turn from his sin and be restored to the Lord.

So, to admonish others biblically, we need to overcome our excuses. We need to discern the other person’s spiritual condition and understand what biblical admonition is. We need to be prayerful, humble, Christlike, and knowledgeable of God’s word. Finally:

4. To admonish others, we must be passionate, personal, persistent, purposeful, and preventative.

A. To admonish others be passionate.

As Paul told the Ephesian elders (Acts 20:31), “Therefore be on the alert, remembering that night and day for a period of three years I did not cease to admonish each one with tears.” His tears showed them how much he cared for them. Paul admonished his converts as a loving father would warn his children (1 Cor. 4:14): “I do not write these things to shame you, but to admonish you as my beloved children.” You want the other person to feel your concern for him. If you know about a brother who is in sin and you shrug your shoulders and say, “Whatever! It’s his life!” you aren’t loving your brother.

B. To admonish others be personal.

Paul says that he admonished each one. In Colossians 1:28, he sums up his approach to ministry: “We proclaim Him, admonishing every man and teaching every man with all wisdom, so that we may present every man complete in Christ.” Certainly there is a place for admonishing a group through preaching (2 Tim. 4:2), but sometimes the sermon goes right by a person who is in sin. He won’t get it until you sit down with him personally and help him apply God’s word to his specific problem.

C. To admonish others be persistent.

Paul admonished the Ephesian elders night and day for three years. This means that he did it over and over as needed. Don’t give up if the person doesn’t respond immediately. This doesn’t mean that you should nag or hound him, but rather that you don’t give up after the first try and say, “I tried, but he wouldn’t listen!” Where would you be right now if the Lord had given up on you after the first try?

D. To admonish others be purposeful.

Your goal is not to embarrass the other person or to put him down, but to help him be “complete in Christ” (Col. 1:28). Your aim is for his life to glorify God.

E. To admonish others be preventative.

This is implied in Colossians 3:16: “Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” It should also happen through biblical preaching, which includes reproving, rebuking, and exhorting with great patience and instruction (2 Tim. 4:2). In the home, fathers should be doing preventative admonition (Eph. 6:4): “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.” “Instruction” is the Greek word for admonition or correction. Fathers should take the lead in training their children in the Lord, but this does not exclude mothers. When I was a young father, an older godly man whose father wrote the chorus, “Spirit of the living God, fall fresh on me,” exhorted me, “Read the Bible and pray with your family often.” It was wise counsel and I pass it on to every father here.

Conclusion

But maybe you’re still hesitant to admonish another believer because of verses like Proverbs 10:12, which states, “Hatred stirs up strife, but love covers all transgressions.” Peter alludes to that verse (1 Pet. 4:8), “Above all, keep fervent in your love for one another, because love covers a multitude of sins.” And, Proverbs 19:11 states, “A man’s discretion makes him slow to anger, and it is his glory to overlook a transgression.” Don’t these verses mean that we should overlook others’ sins rather than correcting them?

First, as I said earlier, we need to distinguish between spiritual immaturity and deliberate disobedience of God’s clear commands. If a person needs to grow up, gently come alongside and help him see where and how he can grow. Or if a person has inadvertently offended you, you may need to absorb it unless it’s a repeated pattern. But if he’s violating God’s word, he needs to be admonished, so that he doesn’t reap the consequences of sin.

Also (here I’m indebted to Stuart Scott, The Exemplary Husband [Focus Publishing], pp. 361-363; see, also his helpful chapter 15, “A Husband’s Resolve: Helping His Wife Deal with Her Sin”), the commands to cover others’ sins are not in contradiction of the Scriptures that exhort us to go to the person who sins in an effort to restore him (Matt. 18:15; Gal. 6:1; 2 Tim. 2:24-26). Stuart Scott explains (ibid. p. 363, italics his), “‘Love covers (or conceals) a multitude of sins’ means, love does not take into consideration, bring up, or share sins that have already been dealt with.” He adds, “We cannot gather from any of these verses that God wants us to do nothing about sin. Instead, He wants us to react in a godly way, deal with sin His way and then truly forgive by covering it.”

Paul sums up this ministry of admonition or correction in one sentence (2 Tim. 2:24-26): “The Lord’s bond-servant must not be quarrelsome, but be kind to all, able to teach, patient when wronged, with gentleness correcting those who are in opposition, if perhaps God may grant them repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, having been held captive by him to do his will.” Don’t be quarrelsome. Be kind. Teach God’s word. Be patient and gentle. Pray for God to grant repentance. But, do it! It’s a ministry we all want to avoid, but it’s a vital ministry for the spiritual health of God’s people. So, do it!

Application Questions

  1. Which aspect of giving biblical admonition is the most difficult for you? Why? How can you overcome it?
  2. How can you know when to correct someone and when to let his or her faults go? What biblical guidelines apply?
  3. Does a wife’s submission to her husband mean that she should not admonish him regarding his sins? Why/why not?
  4. We are to admonish with kindness and gentleness, but both Jesus and Paul gave some sharp rebukes (Matt. 16:23; 17:17; 23:1-36; Acts 13:9-11). How can we know how strongly to admonish those in sin?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2016, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Christian Life, Church Discipline, Discipline, Fellowship, Hamartiology (Sin), Relationships, Sanctification