Admonish the Sinner – A Reflection on the First Spiritual Work of Mercy

From the Diocese of Washington

I wrote last week asking, Whatever happened to the spiritual works of mercy? I also indicated an intent to write on each of them. Here is the first installment: Admonishing the Sinner.

The word “admonish” comes from the Latin verb monere meaning to warn, advise, or alert someone to a threat or danger. As such, its purpose is the good of another; it is an act of love and concern. To admonish the sinner is not to belittle or humiliate him, but rather to alert him to the danger of a sinful course of action. It is rooted in love, not pride. And thus St. Thomas enumerates fraternal correction among the acts of charity.

In our culture, sadly, admonishing the sinner has fallen out of favor for numerous reasons. Philosophically and sociologically, many have relegated much of morality to the realm of private opinion. Admonishing is seen by many as an attempt by the admonisher to impose his or her values on others, or as some sort of unfair or arbitrary judgment.

From a psychological standpoint, we live in times of heightened sensitivity, times in which many take critiques of their behavior very personally and have difficulty distinguishing between concerns for behavior and disrespect for the person. The emergence of identity politics has done a lot to further this blurring of distinctions.

  1. If one voices concerns about single motherhood, it is often declared that this is giving personal offense to the poor, minority groups, women, etc. Never mind that many grave social ills come from children not living in a home with both their father and mother. Today, any critique of this obviously problematic behavior is taken very personally by many.
  2. The same is largely true with abortion. Those who warn against it are often said to offend women.
  3. And we need hardly describe the anger and outrage generated when one admonishes against homosexual behavior. So deep is identity politics with this behavior that in some countries it is illegal to speak of homosexual acts as sinful let alone admonish those who engage in or approve of them.

These are only the more obvious examples of a problem that has become deeply rooted in our culture. People do not like being corrected (and probably never have), but today they often take correction very, very personally. Over at The Divine Mercy site Dr. Robert Stackpole observes: The problem is that we live in a society dominated by people who have not made any real psychological or moral progress since they reached adolescence. Thus, they stumble through life with an adolescent understanding of love. To be “loved,” to them, means to be affirmed in everything they want to do…

Still, the obligation remains for us believers both to admonish sinners and to accept admonishment ourselves. We must remember that the goal is not to tell others how terrible they are; this is, after all, a work of mercy. Neither is the goal to win an argument or to feel superior. Rather, the goal is to win the sinner back from a destructive path, to announce the forgiveness of sins available to all who repent. The goal is salvation. As such, to admonish sinners is to call lovingly to those in danger and draw them back from the edge of the abyss.

Admonishing the sinner is not simply a nice thing to get around to if we have time. It is an essential work of grace and love, and it is commanded of us. Here are some relevant passages from Scripture:

  1. Jesus said, “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matt 18:15-18). Jesus instructs us to speak to a sinning brother or sister and summon him or her to repentance. If private rebuke does not work, others who are trustworthy should be summoned to the task (assuming the matter is serious). Finally, the Church should be informed. If the person will not listen even to the Church, then he or she should be excommunicated (treated as a tax collector or Gentile). Hence in serious matters, excommunication should be considered as a kind of “medicine” that will inform the sinner of the gravity of the situation. Sadly, this medicine is seldom used today even though Jesus clearly prescribes it (at least in serious matters).
  2. Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any sin, you who are spiritual should recall him in a spirit of gentleness. Look to yourself, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ (Gal 6:1-2). Notice that we are called to recognize when a person has been overtaken by sin and to correct him. Note, too, that the text cautions us to do so in a spirit of gentleness; otherwise we may sin in the very process of correcting the sinner. Perhaps we are prideful or unnecessarily harsh in our words of correction; this is no way to correct; gentle and humble, but clear, seems to be the instruction here. It also seems that patience is called for, since we must bear the burdens of one another’s sin. We bear this burden in two ways. First, we accept the fact that others have imperfections and faults that trouble us. Second, we bear the obligation of helping others to know their sin and to repent.
  3. My brethren, if any one among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins (James 5:19). The text is ambiguous as to whose soul is actually saved, but that is good, since it seems that both the corrected and the corrector are beneficiaries of well-executed fraternal correction.
  4. You shall not hate your brother in your heart: you shall in any case rebuke your neighbor, and not suffer sin upon him (Lev 19:17). The text instructs us that to refuse to correct a sinning neighbor is a form of hatred. Instead, we are instructed to love our neighbors by not wanting sin to overtake them.
  5. If any one refuses to obey what we say in this letter, note that man, and have nothing to do with him, that he may be ashamed. Do not look on him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother (2 Thess 3:14).  Notice again that the medicine of rebuke, even to the point of refusing fellowship, is commanded (in serious matters). But note, too, that even a sinner does not lose his dignity; he is still to be regarded as a brother, not an enemy.
  6. A similar text (2 Thess 3:6) says,  We instruct you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to shun any brother who walks in a disorderly way and not according to the tradition they received from us.
  7.  Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teach and admonish one another in all wisdom (Col 3:16). Again, to admonish means to warn. Hence, if the word of Christ is rich within us, we will warn when that becomes necessary.
  8. A similar text (2 Tim 3:16) says, All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. Reproof and correction is thus part of what is necessary to equip us for every good work.
  9. And we exhort you, brethren, admonish the unruly, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all (1 Thess 5:14). Here, fraternal correction is described as admonishing, encouraging, and helpful. We are also exhorted to patience in these works.
  10. It is actually reported that there is immorality among you, and of a kind that is not found even among pagans; for a man is living with his father’s wife. And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you. For though absent in body I am present in spirit, and as if present, I have already pronounced judgment in the name of the Lord Jesus on the man who has done such a thing. When you are assembled, and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus. Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. … I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with immoral men; not at all meaning the immoral of this world, or the greedy and robbers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. But rather I wrote to you not to associate with any one who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or robber not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. Drive out the wicked person from among you. So the Holy Spirit, speaking through Paul, commands that we “judge”  the evildoer. In this case the matter is very serious (incest). Notice that the text says he should be excommunicated (handed over to Satan). Here, too, the purpose is medicinal. It is hoped that Satan will “beat him up” enough that he will come to his senses and repent before the day of judgment. It is also medicinal in the sense that the community is protected from bad example, scandal, and the presence of evil. The text also requires us to be able to size people up. Thereare immoral and unrepentant people with whom it is harmful for us to associate. We are instructed to discern this and not keep friendly company with people who can mislead us or tempt us to sin. This requires a judgment on our part. Some judgments are required of us.

With all this in mind, how can we say we love others if we see them running toward the edge of a moral and eschatological cliff and fail to cry out in warning? And why do we fail to cry out? Usually because we want our own lives to be more pleasant; we cannot bear the backlash that sometimes comes when we warn people who do not want to be warned. But if we yield to this fear, we are showing that we love ourselves too much and do not love God and others enough. I want to take this opportunity to say how grateful I am to my parents and others who endured my backtalk, admonishing me anyway.

Lord, give me the courage and humility to admonish sinners and the grace to do it in love. As well, help me to have the courage and humility to accept correction myself, and grant me the grace to see it as an act of love, even if it is not always artfully done.