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Whose Responsibility Is It to Admonish the Unruly?

 David Alan Black 

If there is one thing the New Testament clearly teaches, it is that brotherhood supersedes hierarchy (see Matthew 23). And it is in direct harmony with this teaching of Jesus that Paul commands the “brothers” in Thessalonica – not the church leaders – to carry out pastoral functions:

And we exhort you, brothers: admonish the unruly, comfort the discouraged, uphold the weak, be patient with all men (1 Thess. 5:14; my translation).

I well recall how shocked I was when I first realized that Paul was exhorting, not the leaders, but the brothers to “admonish the unruly.” Yet the New Testament consistently downplays the role of elders in matters of church discipline. Every time Paul wrote to a church in order to deal with its problems, he never appealed to the leaders. Instead, his constant request was for the whole church to deal with its own troubles. 1 Corinthians is a good example of this. Here was perhaps the most troubled church in the entire New Testament, and yet Paul appealed to the entire assembly to handle its own problems. Thus he exhorts the whole church to discipline a disobedient member by handing him over to Satan (1 Cor. 5).

This is not to say that church leaders did not exist in Corinth, or in Thessalonica for that matter. In 1 Thess. 5:12-13 Paul calls upon the believers to duly recognize and esteem the leadership of others. He emphasizes that the leaders’ authority was from the Lord, and he admonishes the Thessalonian Christians to appreciate them because of the importance of the work they were doing. But Paul does not tell the leaders to do all the admonishing! This is entirely consistent with Paul’s teaching that every member of the Body of Christ is gifted, has ministry, and is responsible for pastoral care (Rom. 12:6; 1 Cor. 12:1ff.; Eph. 4:7).

As a result, the idea that only the elders may direct the affairs of a church or handle its problems is alien to Paul’s thought. By contrast, he calls on the whole church (the “brothers and sisters”) to:

  • edify one another (Rom. 14:19; cf. 1 Thess. 5:11b)

  • love one another (Rom. 13:8; cf. 1 Thess. 4:9)

  • be devoted to one another (Rom. 12:10)

  • admonish one another (Rom. 15:14)

  • discipline fallen members (1 Cor. 5:3-5; 6:1-6)

  • organize their own affairs (1 Cor. 11:33-34; 14:39-40; 16:2-3)

  • abound in care for one another (1 Cor. 12:25)

  • do the work of the Lord (1 Cor. 15:58)

  • serve one another (Gal. 5:13)

  • bear one another’s burdens (Gal. 6:2)

  • put up with one another (Eph. 4:2; Col. 3:13)

  • show kindness and compassion to one another (Eph. 4:32)

  • teach one another (Col. 3:16)

  • encourage one another (1 Thess. 5:11a)

  • admonish the unruly (1 Thess. 5:14)

  • comfort the discouraged (1 Thess. 5:14)

  • uphold the weak (1 Thess. 5:14)

  • exhort one another (Heb. 3:13; 10:25)

  • stir up one another to love and good works (Heb. 10:24)

Oftentimes believers who go to church regularly and profess to read their Bibles seem completely ignorant of their responsibilities. They say, “That’s the preacher’s job,” failing to realizing that the apostle Paul would have vehemently disagreed with them. It is your responsibility to “admonish the unruly,” he says. Paul is literally referring to “those who are disorderly,” that is, those who are out of step with the Word of God. In Thessalonica, it meant those people who had quit working because they expected the Lord to come at any moment. These believers were mooching off the gifts of others and were unwilling to support themselves. “Admonish them,” says the apostle. Don’t let them continue in their sin. Tell them to mend their ways. Don’t do this in a mean-spirited way (Gal. 6:1), but point out to them that their behavior is unacceptable.

I hope, dear friends, it will never get to be your notion that only a certain class of believers can be admonishers in the Body of Christ. Every Christian should labor to be a means of correction and reproof. Yes, it is an unpleasant duty. But what honor can the Lord receive from useless ministers?

So to answer our question: Whose responsibility is it to admonish the unruly? Brethren, it is ours!

February 13, 2005

David Alan Black is the editor of If you would like to know more about becoming a follower of King Jesus, please feel free to write Dave.

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