By John G. Stackhouse Jr.
Hello there, reader. I’d like to admonish you.
“Certainly not!” you might retort.
But then you might continue, “Uh, what does ‘admonish’ actually mean? And why do you want to do that to me?”
As most Canadian churches continue to struggle in the light of the steady de-Christianization of Canada (the last census says we’re down to just 67 per cent of the population identifying as “Christian” from 83 per cent 20 years ago), we worry about the state of our religion.
Regular church attendance, tithing, Bible reading – these practices, pollsters suggest, mark a small minority of the North American population, as low as one in five.
All of this is familiar enough to Faith Today readers. From Paul’s oldest letter in the New Testament, however, comes a practice that might seem esoteric even to most serious, church-going, tithe-bringing, Bible-reading Christians today: admonition.
Put “admonition” alongside its companions “exhortation” and “reproof,” and the puzzlement only deepens. But these and similar words show up throughout Paul’s letters.
It is hard though to imagine a set of activities less congenial to Canadian Christianity today.
Pastor Jones greets Churchmember X after the morning service. Churchmember X replies with a friendly greeting of his own and begins to move away.
But Pastor Jones doesn’t release him from the handshake. “I’d like to talk with you this week. Can we get together for coffee?”
“Well, sure,” Churchmember X mumbles, and a place and time is set.
In the restaurant after pleasantries, Pastor Jones says, “You know, Churchmember X, you’re lazy.”
Churchmember X now begins to cast about for more napkins, having spewed his coffee all over the table. Pastor Jones is unruffled and helps with the cleanup.
Then he continues. “You’ve attended our church for two years now and contributed nothing to its life and work. And, since I have visited with you in your home and gotten to know you better in a couple of other coffee times, I’m pretty sure you don’t do much to advance the gospel anywhere else either. So let’s talk about how you’re going to shape up and pull your weight for the Kingdom.”
Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians tells the church to “respect those who labour among you, and have charge of you in the Lord and admonish you; esteem them very highly in love because of their work” (1 Thessalonians 5:12-13, NRSV). Why would Paul feel he had to command us to respect and esteem very highly in love those who have charge over us? Because most of us aren’t naturally crazy about having someone in charge over us, and we especially don’t want someone to admonish us.
Admonish, exhort, reprove, rebuke, correct, discipline. We can hardly imagine a schoolteacher doing much of this anymore, and certainly few enough parents seem to have the first clue about it nowadays. But to have a pastor interfere with my life and presume to judge me? Who does he think he is? What does he think he’s doing?
(Answer: He’s a pastor doing his job.)
However, it’s worse than that. Paul goes on immediately to say that everyone, not just leaders, is to admonish – and particularly “to admonish the idlers” (1 Thessalonians 5:14, NRSV).
Sure. That’ll boost attendance. Church Growth Tip #4: Call People Out on Laziness.
Paul, however, like his Master, isn’t tremendously concerned with pleasing everyone. He is tremendously concerned, by contrast, with sanctifying everyone – helping everyone set aside evil and put on good, helping everyone grow out of infancy and up into maturity, helping everyone escape death and embrace salvation.
And admonition is part of how we help each other do that.
We Canadians actually do expect admonition – from our coaches. We also expect it from our bosses. But we’re serious about our sport and about our work, so we put up with the humiliation and irritation of being corrected by good coaches and competent bosses because we know it is in our best interests to be corrected.
Paul tells us it is in our immediate and eternal interests to admonish and be admonished in turn.
With patience, yes. With gentleness, yes. In love, yes. But steadily guided toward the goal of shalom without apology and without respite.
Can you imagine Canadian churches growing if we all began to admonish each other?
Can you imagine us growing if we don’t?
John Stackhouse is a Faith Today columnist who teaches at Regent College, Vancouver. It was recently announced he will move to Crandall University in Moncton. This article first appeared in Faith Today. Read more of this columns here. Subscribe to Faith Today for the best price ever until the end of February, and never miss another Stackhouse column!