One of the Biblical terms that shapes the expression of mentoring today is ‘nouthetein’ – the verb meaning ‘instruction’ or ‘edification’. It is used by Paul through his letters to encourage believers to respond to and to exercise pastoral teaching or spiritual guidance with one another. The background of the term is important. The context of its use is in family, household or close friendship environments where there is a relationship of trust, responsibility and particularly mutuality. It has the implication of ‘honest and earnest but gentle admonition among friends’. The contextual basis for nouthetein’ is always a caring committed covenant relationship with the other.
Paul uses the term to describe a process of mutual discipleship that he sees as normal in the early Christian communities. When he concludes his letter to the Romans he mentions the goodness and knowledge that makes them ‘competent to instruct one another (allellous nouthetein)’ (Romans 15:14). Similarly in Colossians 3:16, Paul indicates that ‘God’s chosen people’ have the ability to ‘admonish one another (nouthetountes heautous ) with all wisdom’. While the one another element of this relationship is important, there is also usage which indicates gentle shaping on the less mature by the more mature.
In 1 Cor 4:14ff the familial idea of Paul as a ‘father’ comes to the fore, and ‘noutheton’ is a warning admonition. This is from someone who knows dangers to gently warn the less knowledgeable of what these are.
In Thessalonians, Paul includes in his instructions to the Christians, the need to know and respond positively to those who give admonishing spiritual care (1 Thess 5:12,14). Again this is not to be taken as a negative, but admonition is seen as moving a person forward in a positive relationship built on family or relational values.
Perhaps the most significant reference is Paul’s own self reflection in Acts 20:31 when he reflects on the time spent with the Ephesian elders. He wants them to know that ‘for three years I never stopped warning (noutheton) each of you night and day with tears.’ He goes on to indicate that this ‘noutheton’ involved, unhesitating instruction in the whole counsel of God.
Two things are important in mentoring.
- We all need this gentle combination of instruction, warning and admonition. We need to be open to this ourselves before bringing it into relationship with others. Am I in a mentoring relationship where this occurs.
- The only basis for this admonition in relation to others is a covenant agape-love relationship in which the other’s good and growth is known and acknowledged as the focus in the relationship. Is my instruction and admonition arising out of genuine care for those whom I mentor?