And we urge you, brothers and sisters, warn those who are idle and disruptive, encourage the disheartened, help the weak, be patient with everyone...
-1 Thessalonians 5:14 (NIV)
On a family vacation this past week, we got the chance to swim with some dolphins. Lots of fun, of course. When we were done, though, Laura asked me to look at her back. She thought maybe she had gotten sunburned, but the welts she had looked nothing like sunburn. I noticed a few similar welts on my arm; they itched and burned considerably. Then Josh mentioned that his back was burning a little too; sure enough, the red, angry-looking welts were raising up from his shoulders to the middle of his back. We were pretty puzzled, at first. Had the dolphins passed on some rare cross-species skin disease? Was the Caribbean sun particularly dangerous to pasty-skinned people from the Midwest?
We started asking a few questions, and the guys who worked at the dolphin place came back with a quick answer: “Fire coral. We put vinegar on it.” So Laura and Josh spent the rest of the day smelling like salad dressing. (Laura also bought some hydrocortisone cream, which probably worked better than the vinegar.) They recovered quickly. Vacation crisis averted.
As near as we can guess, the fire coral was growing on the dock we were holding onto while waiting our turn to play with the dolphins. After we had been there for a while, the trainer did mention we shouldn’t brush up against the side of the dock, but by then the damage was probably done. A late warning is really no warning at all. Would have been nice if, while he was telling us exhaustively what the dolphins did and did not like, the trainer had mentioned that there were little sea creatures growing on the dock that hated us and would take advantage of any opportunity to make us miserable. Guess that didn’t cross his mind. I suppose it isn’t very Christian of me to wish for fire coral to grow in his underwear drawer.
We recognize from time to time that warnings are necessary. We even understand that it can be irresponsible to fail to warn someone. Ever seen a child doing something dangerous right under her parents’ noses? Ever noticed a person about to brush up against wet paint? If you’ve stopped someone from straying into traffic, called a friend to tell her about traffic on her route to work, or pointed out to your neighbor a house repair that needed to be done, then you know what I mean. Sometimes a warning is exactly what’s needed.
So why, I wonder, do we not consider warnings to be necessary to our walk with Jesus?
The Bible says we should warn each other. The text above mentions warning those who are “idle and disruptive,” but there are actually quite a few places in Scripture where warnings are encouraged, for all sorts of things. According to the Bible, folks need to be warned about the likely future consequences of their actions. Warnings are needed against sin as a general category, along with specific sins. The expectation for God’s people is that we won’t be afraid to warn each other when we aren’t living in a way that’s worthy of the label.
Expectation is the right word, actually. The Old Testament book of Ezekiel says explicitly that we’re responsible for warning “a wicked person.” He probably has in mind especially people who claim to worship God, but whose behavior belies that claim. If we don’t issue a warning, he says, we’re “held accountable” for what happens to them. The human heart can be deceptive, and sin can do such damage that it’s irresponsible of God’s people not to warn one another away from ways of life that can hurt others and undermine our own spiritual lives.
Maybe this is the problem for us: we don’t feel adequately responsible for one another. “That’s between him and God,” we sometimes say, as though that absolves us from responsibility to say something if we see something (to borrow an idea from the TSA). Of course a person’s behavior is between him and God. But how do we know that ours isn’t the voice God would use to warn someone and get him or her back on the right track? How do we know that warning that we decided not to give wouldn’t be the very thing that might bring someone to his senses?
Our world has created a disconnect between private faith and public life that didn’t really exist in the early church, and probably was never supposed to exist. Simply put, “my” faith is a community matter, and the community has the responsibility to help each other in our walks with the Lord. A community in which no warning against sin is forthcoming when necessary is not really a community at all.
Look, don’t get me wrong here: this isn’t an excuse for gossip, judgment, and self-righteousness. I’m not judging you if I warn you that a bus is coming and you should get out of the street. I have no right to take pleasure in your predicament, or point out to others how much better a person I am than you because I didn’t walk out in front of a bus. The holier-than-thou, the self-righteous, the judgmental snobs who look down their noses at everyone else’s sins need to be warned as well. Their attitudes jeopardize the community too. But that possibility is no excuse for winking and laughing at the most obvious, blatant sin in the lives of our brothers and sisters in Christ.
Maybe it’s our own sins that discourage us from warning each other. Most of us probably don’t feel very qualified to warn anyone about anything, knowing that if someone were to look hard enough at our own lives — or maybe not very hard at all — they’d find plenty to warn us about. That’s a fair concern, but really it’s exactly that attitude that makes a warning go down a little more easily. Warning a sister or brother is not about having any power over them, or pretending to be better than them. Often, a warning is most credible when it comes from someone who’s upfront about their own failings, and maybe has even been burned by the very thing he or she is warning against. No one person in a community should be doing all of the warning while holding him or herself above receiving a warning, either; that’s a disaster waiting to happen.
The kind of warning I’m talking about comes out of a sense of love, not judgment, anger, control, or disdain. It should be expressed in loving words and tones. It should invite repentance, not demand reparation. It should make the person being warned feel valued, not diminished. It should honor their agency and freedom to make their own decisions. It should always be offered in a way that emphasizes God’s grace, compassion, and forgiveness. It should always offer a way forward. It should be accompanied by reassurances of the person’s place in the family of God and the family’s commitment to their support, encouragement, and well-being.
Maybe we should look again at what Paul says: “warn…encourage…help…be patient.” Warning should be part of our life together in the community of faith. Love demands it. But encouragement, help, and patience will ensure that those warnings are delivered in the proper context and with the right spirit, and that they accomplish what they’re supposed to accomplish.
Trust me: sometimes the most loving thing you can say to someone is “Stay away from that!”
And a warning not given may be something you end up regretting.