110. The Delicate Work of Spiritual Guidance (nouthetein 1 Thessalonians 5:12-15)

Scattered throughout Paul’s correspondence1 (and in one of his speeches in Acts 20:31) we find the verb nouthetein and its cognate noun nouthesia. The pattern of usage chronologically spans the entire written ministry of Paul (from his initial letters to the Thessalonian church through to the Pastoral Epistles (Titus)). However, he is selective in his use, generally reserving it for contexts in which he is sharing pastoral teaching or urging believers to respond positively to the spiritual guidance of local elders. The term became somewhat popular in conservative Christian circles through the use of it by Jay Adams to describe a mode of Christian counseling as “nouthetic counseling.”2 However is has a broader application than just counseling as it is used in the context of the New Testament.

These terms have significant usage in Hellenistic literature and society in relation to the teaching of students, the training of young men and women in the household, and the permission that friends should give to one another to share frank advice. Within Plato’s writings and the philosophical system of Epicurus this terminology is especially significant. According to Clarence Glad, Paul’s methods used to provide spiritual direction to believers show substantial alignment with the way leaders in Epicurean communities engaged “in the nurture of its members.”3 The “social practice of mutual edification and exhortation as well as that of mutual correction is found among the Epicureans…and the proto-Christian communities….”4 The “manner of leading the soul through words” is defined as psychagogy.5 Within the larger context of friendship or as in the early church “brotherhood,” the freedom or opportunity to offer “frank criticism” (parrēsia 2 Corinthians 7:4; Philippians 1:20; Philemon 8 ) arises precisely because of this significant friendship. One of the aspects of “frank speech” was nouthesia, the mildest form of admonition or blame, designed to nurture the weak and correct the strong, with some sense of educational benefit and/or earnest warning.

In the Greek Old Testament we find the terms particularly in the Wisdom literature section. Job, for example, is reminded by Eliphaz that he had “instructed (enouthetēsas) many and encouraged (parekalesas) the hands of the weak one” (4:3). But then it is now his turn to “stand still, be warned (nouthetou) of the Lord’s power” (37:14); “again, have you been advised of (nenouthetēsai) the breadth of what is under heaven?” (38:18); “but lest he [the Almighty] rebuke (nouthetēi ) you, hear these things, give ear to the sound of my words” (34:16); in the case of the impious, God does not deliver them because “when they were being admonished (nouthetoumenoi), they were unreceptive” (36:12). 6 The basic principle is stated in 5:17: “happy is the one whom the Lord reproved and do not reject the admonition (nouthetēma) of the Almighty.”When Yahweh warns young Samuel about the judgment coming upon Eli’s family, the reason He provides is that Eli’s sons “were reviling God, and even so he [Eli] would not admonish (enouthetei) them” (1 Samuel 3:13), i.e. he did not carry out the normal duties of a pious father.

Other examples of the use of this term in Jewish religious literature occur in the apocryphal Wisdom of Solomon, composed about 150 years before Paul wrote his letters. The author seeks to show how divine wisdom tutored Israel. Yahweh put Israel to the test “like a father giving a warning (nouthetōn)” and this is contrasted with the stern warning of a king (11:10). He reminded Israel of their sin and thus sought to warn them (noutheteis) (12:2). Sinful people will not heed the “playful rebuke (nouthetēthentes)” and so “experience the deserved divine judgment” (12:26). These examples from Wisdom illustrate how Jewish theologians understood Yahweh’s intent to guide humans through his wise nouthesia. The goal of such beneficial warning and advice is wisdom and blessing. Perhaps a half century earlier the author of the Letter of Aristeas to Philocrates responds to a question from the Egyptian king Ptolemy, “what is the teaching of wisdom?” The wise Jewish teacher says, among other things, “you should admonish (nouthetois ) good men and true very gently, for God deals with all men with gentleness” (207). The Psalms of Solomon (c. 50 BC), written by an Essene or a Pharisee most probably, acknowledges that “God will correct (nouthetēsei) the just as a beloved son and his discipline (paideia) is like that of an eldest son” (13:9). He goes on to warn that the Lord does not spare the pious.

Other Hellenistic Jewish writers, particularly Philo and Josephus employed these terms frequently in their writings. In the case of Philo we note sometimes a harsher tone in this term. For example, in reference to Deuteronomy 8:5 (“like a man, God will discipline his son by correction”) Philo says that “thus it is for training and admonition (paideias heneka kai nouthesias), not because God’s is such, that these words are used.”7 God used his laws “admonishing (nouthetei) and calling them to wisdom with holy laws which the good obey voluntarily and the bad unwillingly.”8 Every person has a “monitor” which acts “as judge, he instructs, admonishes (nouthetei), and exhorts it to change its ways.”9 Within the writings of Josephus we can discern a similar sense and usage. Felix, the procurator of Judea during the time of Paul, “bore a grudge against Jonathan the high priest because of his frequent admonition (noutheteisthai) to improve the administration of the affairs of Judaea….for incessant rebukes (nouthetoun) are annoying to those who choose to do wrong.”10 The power factors in this relationship presumably tempered the nature of Jonathan’s “admonitions.” Josephus paraphrases Deuteronomy 21:18 in these terms:

With regard to those youths who scorn their parents and pay them not the honour that is due, but whether by reason of disgrace or through witlessness break out insolently against them, first of all let the parents orally admonish (logois…noutheteitōsan) them, for they have the authority of judges over the sons.11

He then gives a sample of the kind of parental admonition. In his retelling of the story of the spies (Numbers 14) and Israel’s condemnation to spend forty years in the wilderness, Moses reports to the people that “God, moved by their insolence, would exact retribution, not indeed proportionate to their errors, but such as fathers inflict upon their children for their admonition (epi nouthesiai).”12 The parental context for this term indicates that admonition may have a warning sense, but always with a view to the improvement of the person(s) being addressed. The relationship defines the nature of the admonition in most cases.

So when Paul employs this terminology in his epistles, it is with a consciousness of its more extended usage in Greco-Roman society, as well as in Jewish circles. From the Jewish perspective God himself sets the model for earnest admonition among close friends, only in this case the relationship is covenantal. So this terminology was familiar to people in the early church whether their background was Jewish or non-Jewish. It was easily adapted to the Christian setting.

Paul applies it in particular to the process of mutual discipling that he expects to be occurring normally and regularly within the context of the faith community. When he concludes his letter to the Roman Christians he recognizes their goodness and knowledge that makes them “competent to instruct one another (allēllous nouthetein)” (15:14). The NIV puts the emphasis in the translation on instruction, but as the survey of usage indicates, the focus probably is more upon mutual admonition, with encouragement and warning being the primary content and the desired outcome was advancement in godliness. Similarly in Colossians 3:16 “God’s chosen people” have the capacity to “admonish one another (nouthetountes heautous ) with all wisdom.” While some in the assembly may have greater giftedness in this activity, Paul presumes that all believers in the body have the potential capacity and responsibility to engaged in this friendly, frank criticism.

Most frequently Paul sees this gentle criticism being shared from those more mature with those who are either “weak” or “strong”. The parent-child relationship forms one context where admonition becomes a normal expression. In Ephesians 6:4 fathers especially are urged to raise their children “in the training and instruction (nouthesiai) of the Lord.” Paul reflects here standard Jewish understanding of parental responsibility as indicated in Deuteronomy 21. However the value set that frames such encouragement is the person and words of the Lord himself. Within the church context it is the family nature of relationships that enable such admonition to be shared. For example, in 1 Corinthians Paul says that he writes not to shame “but to warn (nouthetōn) you, as my dear children (tekna moy agapēta)” (4:14). He goes to say that he has become “your father through the gospel” (4:15). This relationship provides the mandate for the tone and content of his message. He used the Old Testament revelation as material and says “these things… were written down as warnings (nouthesian) for us on whom the fulfillment of the ages has come” (10:11).

Finally, we come to Paul’s use in the letters to the Thessalonian churches. First Paul urges the believers to “know,” i.e. respectfully recognize, those who provide spiritual care in their house church (1 Thessalonians 5:12). Part of their spiritual care-giving includes admonishing (nouthetountas). In particular they are to “warn those who are idle (noutheite tous ataktous)” (5:14; cf. 2 Thessalonians 3:6,11 ataktōs). The word translated “idle” means “without constraint, disorderly.” In some sense a few believers were rejecting the social order and abandoning their economic and perhaps civic responsibilities. The people in that house church and especially the spiritual care-givers are urged by Paul to admonish with a view to correction believers who adopted such a dis-ordered manner of living. The relational nature of this admonitory work is expressed in 2 Thessalonians 3:15 where Paul says “yet do not regard him as an enemy, but warn (noutheteite) him as a brother.” Those who hold to divisive viewpoints should be repudiated after two warnings (nouthesia) (Titus 3:10). Paul does not explain the process to be followed in offering such “warnings,” but the context indicates that the disputes are “about the law” and are “unprofitable and useless” (Titus 3:9). The kind of helpful admonition that Paul provides as apostle to leaders and others in the churches is to be offered within each house church by the local ministry leadership, although 1 Thessalonians 5: 14 indicates that this is a spiritual ministry of discipleship for all the brothers to embrace. Undergirding it all is the existence of mutual friendship that deserves and embraces such admonition, if it is genuine.13 Permission to offer admonition is the product of demonstrated love and concern for others.

In Acts 20:31 where Paul gives his farewell speech to the Ephesian elders, he reviews the kind of ministry he had among them. He wanted them to remember that “for three years I never stopped warning (nouthetōn) each of you night and day with tears.” This assertion summarizes his claim that he is “innocent of the blood of all men,” that he has “not hesitated to proclaim…the whole counsel of God,” and that these leaders are to “keep watch over themselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers” (20:25-28). From Paul’s perspective then the work of admonition is the work of discipleship, “admonishing (vouthetountes) and teaching everyone with all wisdom so that we may present everyone perfect in Christ” (Colossians 1:28).

Two things to note in conclusion. First, this discipling work of admonition belongs to everyone in the body as believers care for and spiritually encourage one another to follow Jesus. It is not something that is the exclusive preserve of spiritual leaders. This implies that spiritual leaders also need to heed admonitions from others in the church. Second, such admonition is privileged because of the commitment to love one another within the body. Without the active expression of love, people will not be willing to accept nouthesia.


  1. Are you willing to hear the encouraging and nurturing guidance and advice that other believers would offer you? Or do you think that you have all the answers and need no counsel? If you are a spiritual ‘leader’ in a church, are you willing to hear and heed the spiritual counsel of others, or do you think that others in the church have no right to admonish you?
  2. Paul is careful to undergird a ministry of admonition with a serious, demonstrated commitment to act for the good of others no matter what the cost, an agapē–based relationship. Admonition only works when this is known, acknowledged and appreciated.
  3. Discipleship involves admonition – both receiving it and offering it.
  • 1Nouthetein: Romans 15:14; 1 Corinthians 4:14; Colossians 1:28; 3:16; 1 Thessalonians 5:12,14; 2 Thessalonians 3:15; nouthesia: 1 Corinthians 10:11; Ephesians 6:4; Titus 3:10.
  • 2Jay E. Adams, Competent to Counsel (Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1976). See particularly chapter IV, “What is Nouthetic Counselling?”
  • 3Clarence Glad, Paul and Philodemus Adaptability in Epicurean and Early Christian Psychagogy. Supplements to Novum Testamentum LXXXI (Leiden: E.J.Brill, 1995), 5. Philodemus came from Gadara in Syria (he lived from 110 BC to 40/35 BC). Glad indicate that he was “a probable founder of the Epicurean school at Herculaneum, near Pompei.” His writings were preserved in the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 AD. His patron was Calpurnius Piso, father-in-law of Julius Caesar.
  • 4Ibid., 12.
  • 5Ibid., 17. People at that time were seeking “mature guides.” Such people would provide “solicitous admonition” (kēdemonikē nouthetēsis) which should be “cheerful admonishing” (vouthetein hilarōs) in contrast to “inconsiderate admonishing” (vouthetein agnōstōs), terminology used by Philodemus.
  • 6Translations are from A New English Translation of the Septuagint.
  • 7Philo, Quod Deus Immutabilis 54.
  • 8Philo, De Virtutibus 94.
  • 9Philo, De Decalogo, 87.
  • 10Josephus, Antiquities, 20.162.
  • 11Josephus, Antiquities, 4.260.
  • 12Josephus, Antiquities, 3.311
  • 13Clarence Glad, Paul and Philodemus, 188-189.

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