Church Discipline: What is Admonition?
The right preaching of the Gospel, the right administration of the sacraments and church discipline have together been held, among Protestants, as the key marks of any true church. And though the third mark, church discipline, has sadly been neglected in modern evangelicalism (greatly damaging the witness of the church), it was in earlier days so essential and so pivotal that historians credit the practice as a key component in the rise of representative democracy in our modern era. Conversely, many have shown how a decline in church discipline has mirrored a decline in the wider culture’s virtue and vitality. It could indeed be posited that as goes the practice of local church discipline, so goes the culture.
The practice of church discipline is of course instituted by our Lord himself in Matthew 16:18-19, more fully in Matthew 18:15-20, and then seen in practice or commanded to be carried out in many New Testament passages, perhaps most notably in 1 Corinthians 5:1-13 (cf. 2 Corinthians 2:5-11). Indeed, so essential is church discipline within the life of a local church that Jesus himself declared from heaven that if sin is left unchecked from within a church than Jesus himself will remove the entire church (Revelation 2:5)! As the American Baptist John Leadley Dagg (1794-1894) stated the matter: “When discipline leaves a church, Christ goes with it.”
We ought to remember that this is entirely a practice of love. Indeed, Jesus himself tells us, He disciplines whom he loves (Rev 3:19) and when we, as his followers, are to carry out discipline it is to be done because we love the sinner. “When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus 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, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord” (1 Corinthians 5:4-5). How much do you have to hate someone to allow them to continue in a sin which will lead them to hell? Love compels us to confront; love compels us to admonish.
And that really is the first step in Jesus’ directive on church discipline: to admonish. In Matthew 18 verse 15 he tells us, “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.” Ever before a church gets to the practice of excommunication (the last step in Matthew 18:15-20), you have private admonition. “Between you and him alone” you’re to go and tell a brother his fault. This is admonition.
Consider: One Christian must first go to another Christian who has sinned. Love doesn’t hide the sin or ignore the sin or downplay the sin; love compels a Christian to go. And secondly, he tells him his fault. To be sure this step is the hardest of all – it’s uncomfortable, awkward, and has the possibility of going badly (the brother in sin may in fact react harshly). And yet, love compels the Christian to do hard things. Loving others demands we confront and admonish even if it all ends up going poorly.
The eminent English Baptist theologian and pastor Benjamin Keach (1640-1704) defined admonition this way: “It is a faithful endeavor to convict a person of a fault both as to matter of fact, and his duty thereupon, charging it on his conscience in the name of the Lord Jesus with all wisdom and authority.” It’s a good definition. Admonishing a fellow church member is faithful. It’s faithful to Christ and what he called us to and it’s faithful to the brother in sin, doing what needs to be done to bring him back to repentance and his own faithfulness in following after the Lord. Admonition aims to bring conviction – that is, it doesn’t soft-peddle or beat around the bush (see Titus 1:13). Admonition takes seriously the sinfulness of sin and aims at a sinner’s conscience before his conscience becomes seared. And admonition makes use of all wisdom and authority – we seek the best words, the best timing, and the best approach, all under the authority of Jesus and his word. If we can’t show that what a brother has done is sin from the authority of God’s word, no matter how annoyed we are at his actions, then we show charity and patience. We cannot rebuke what the Lord has not authoritatively deemed sinful.
Admonition is something that ought to be a regular part of every Christians life. It’s the first step in Jesus’ instructions on church discipline because it’s so basic to our lives together as Christians! As sinners “we all stumble in many ways” (James 3:2). Which means, we all need admonishing at many times. There’s not a week that goes by where I’m not thankful for the faithful rebukes of friends (Proverbs 27:5-6). Indeed, I know they truly love me because they confront and admonish me. “Whoever rebukes a man will afterward find more favor than he who flatters with his tongue” (Proverbs 28:23).
Admonition is that special means of grace through which the Lord daily keeps his sheep from wandering and falling away. “Let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries” (Hebrews 10:24-27).
Because we love Jesus and his Gospel we also love our brothers and sisters, and our entire aim in loving them is to help them love more and more our common Savior. Love compels us to tenderly but firmly confront our fellow Christian brothers and sisters when we see them loving any particular sin over and above Jesus. Admonition is how we do that.
Stephen Unthank (MDiv, Capital Bible Seminary) serves at Greenbelt Baptist Church in Greenbelt, MD, just outside of Washington, DC. He lives in Maryland with his wife, Maricel and their two children, Ambrose and Lilou.
 See John Macleod, Scottish Theology in Relation to Church History (Banner of Truth, 2015), pp. 11-13, “The church was not afraid to apply its discipline to men in the highest ranks. There was a noble manliness in its administration. And though in the earlier days of the Reformed church its exercise might seem at times to trench on the realm of the civil magistrate, yet in the absence of diligence on his part, the discipline of the Kirk was one of the most potent instruments for bringing a hitherto turbulent and untamed community into some shape of order, decency and civilization…The fight that the church put up for its rights in this connection made it ultimately the tribune of the people and the instrument for breaking the tyranny of the feudal order.”; See also J.K. Hewison, The Covenanters, volume 1 (Banner of Truth, 2019), pp. 34-42 on the relationship between Sola Scriptura and church discipline; “This privilege itself contributed to the advancement of a benighted population. It at least assumed their possession of intelligence; it augured the growth of liberty of thought; it broke the keys of Rome”, p. 36.
 See Mark Dever “The Noble Task” in Polity: A Collection of Historic Baptist Documents, edited by Mark E. Dever (Nine Marks Ministries, 2001), p. 14-18
 John Dagg, A Treatise of Church Order (Charleston: Southern Baptist Publication Society, 1858), p. 274, found in Polity: A Collection of Historic Baptist Documents, edited by Mark E. Dever (Nine Marks Ministries, 2001), p. 15
 Benjamin Keach, The Glory of a True Church, And Its Discipline Display’d (London, 1697), found in Polity: A Collection of Historic Baptist Documents, edited by Mark E. Dever (Nine Marks Ministries, 2001), p. 76. Welsh-American Baptist pastor Benjamin Griffith (1688-1768) has a similarly excellent definition, seemingly based upon Benjamin Keach’s earlier definition: “Admonition is a holy, tender, and wise endeavor, to convince a brother, that hath offended in matter of fact, or else is fallen into a way, wherein to continue is like to be prejudicial to the party himself, or some others; where the matter, whatever it be, and the sinfulness thereof, with the aggravating circumstances attending it, is to be charged on his conscience, in the sight of God, with due application of the word of God, which concerns his condition.” Polity, p 105.
 Jonathan Leeman, The Church and the Surprising Offense of God’s Love: Reintroducing the Doctrines of Church Membership and Discipline (Crossway, 2010), p. 221.