My brothers and sisters, I myself am convinced about you that you also are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge, and able to instruct one another (Rom 15:14).
Who is responsible for teaching the Christian community?
Paul’s letter to the Romans could have been interpreted as implying they were ignorant of something as basic as the gospel (cf. Rom 1:16-17). Is that what Paul assumed?
Not at all.
On the contrary, Paul began his letter by saying the Romans’ faith was being proclaimed worldwide (Rom 1:8). So why go over the gospel with them? It was probably because Paul planned to go to Spain, which would take him through Rome. He hoped they would support his mission (cf. Rom 15:24). “Paul, in other words, did not need to write to them because they were in bad shape, but because his apostolic vocation demanded that for his new phase of work they should be brought in as partners, and hence needed to understand where he was coming from” (Wright, “Romans,” p. 753).
Thus, as Paul came to the end of his letter, he offered a diplomatic apology and assured them he was already convinced they were well-informed and could “instruct” one another. And that brings us to another one of the New Testament’s 58 or so one another commands.
The word translated instruct is noutheteō, which can mean to admonish, warn, or exhort (or, more neutrally, instruct). Paul uses the word in 1 Cor 4:14; Col 1:28; 3:16; 1 Thess 5:12, 14; 2 Thess 3:15, often in a cautionary way. For example, Paul told the Colossians that the goal of such instruction was “so that we may present everyone mature in Christ” (Col 1:28). Instruction is for greater maturity, which means there’s always a need for it. Paul could review the saving message, especially the role of the law in the Christian life, with a community that already understood it because we all need to be evangelized. The world is constantly preaching a different message, so we all need to be reminded of those fundamental truths, especially how they work themselves out in all areas of life.
In context, Paul was probably thinking of “weaker” brethren who still struggled with the importance of keeping Jewish food laws and holy days (Rom 14:1-6). And no wonder! Jewish people had been commanded to follow those laws for centuries and were punished by God for disobeying. It took a while to believe that Messiah’s coming had changed everything and for the truth of salvation by faith apart from works of the law—either for justification or sanctification—to sink in. Believers were free, but Paul urged both groups to refrain from judging each other over those matters (Rom 14:10-13). Instead of condemning each other, he wanted them to keep honoring and serving God as best they knew, pursue peace, follow their convictions, and always act from faith.
Meanwhile, the strong, those rooted in the truths of grace, should seek to build them up instead of condemning them. That’s where the instruction comes in, and that’s why being full of goodness and knowledge was so important—so that the mutual teaching would be edifying rather than divisive (cf. Rom 16:17-18).
While some individuals have a special gift of teaching, learning is a communal activity—a function of the whole body.
Older readers may remember when kids could be expected to be disciplined by almost any adult in a neighborhood. At the very least, if you were acting up, your parents would hear about it from the old lady across the street. There was a sense of everyone being responsible. That’s mostly been lost in our culture, including in the churches. The current mood is of being afraid to offer any correction for fear of being seen as judgmental, Pharisaical, unkind, or losing donor money as people leave for a more permissive church. And with that failure to instruct, is it any wonder that people have failed to grow?
That’s not to say that everyone is qualified to give instructions. Paul says the Romans could instruct one another because they were “full of goodness” and “filled with all knowledge.” Dunn notes, “It was clearly important for Paul that his congregation should be mature enough to exercise this crucial ministry among themselves” (Dunn, Romans 9-16, p. 858). As a community, they had the right Christian qualities and convictions to admonish each other well.
A healthy church life will always depend upon that kind mutual edification. As Anders Nygren said, “As long as the church lives in this world it cannot dispense with mutual admonitions and reminders” (Nygren, Romans, p. 453).
What does this mean for your faith community? Here are four applications.
First, you should humbly recognize that everyone has areas where they need instruction (including you!), so be prepared to listen.
Second, in a healthy church body, instruction will not be restricted to a single leader.
Third, instead of trying to figure out every issue on your own, you have permission to seek the counsel of Christians you know to be full of goodness and knowledge.
Fourth, you’re responsible to become qualified to give instructions by living a godly life and becoming informed about the truths of the gospel.
Consider this your admonition!
Send your questions or comments to Shawn.