Brad Hambrick is a pastoral counselor in Raleigh, NC. We asked him to respond to a question that pastors inevitably face: “If someone you counsel in your church refuses or ignores your counsel, how should that be handled?” Here are his thoughts.
This is one of the things that can be difficult when we are counseling others. How much is somebody obligated to follow the counsel of others in the church to preserve the fellowship and the unity of the body of Christ? I think if we’re going to answer that question, we have to deconstruct it a little bit. We have to look at its pieces and then come back and ask some further clarifying questions.
First consideration: Who’s involved in the conversation?
So we start with the question, Who are you? What is your role? Are you the pastor? Are you a deacon? Are you a small-group leader? Are you leading in a particular ministry area, like a recovery group? Are you a peer?
And then we ask, Who is the other person? Is the person somebody held to a higher standard like a pastor, a deacon, or an elder? Is the person a peer? Does the person look up to you in a position of authority, like a teacher? Different roles carry different standards that come with them. Thus, pastors and elders are to be above reproach, and in these cases you might come to the other person with an issue that compromises the person’s reputation in the community.
Second consideration: What type of advice was given?
Next we ask, What is the advice that you gave? Is it moral instruction? Is it significant, logistical instruction, or is it more casual advice?
Scripture, when it calls you to counsel and care for others, is not calling you to be a social engineer in their lives, arranging their lives in whatever way that you see best. It’s calling you to be responsible for those moral areas in which hearts tend to be bent and broken. We all need people who see our lives more clearly than we do. We all need caring people who can say, “I really feel like you’re falling into error.” If it’s a moral instruction, then you might come along with somebody else, like it says in Matthew 18, to tell the person that you’re really concerned about this area of his or her life.1 If it’s not an area of moral weight, then you probably don’t do that.
If, however, it is not a matter of moral weight, you might look at the friend and say, “Because of the issue we’ve been talking about, you’re on the brink of burnout.” Or, “I can’t necessarily say that what you’re doing is sinful, but it’s foolish enough to be dangerous.”
Third consideration: What type of resistance is it?
And then we ask the question, What is the nature of the resistance? Was the person flippant? Defiant? Forgetful? You can use this set of questions to decide how you should respond if the counsel you offer is rejected.
This is where a passage like 1 Thessalonians 5:14 is very instructive, because it gives people different attitudes that they might have toward behavior that needs to change. This verse says if people are unruly—if they’re committed to their sin—then you should admonish them. Give a strong word of correction that you speak with a heartfelt urgency, because this issue really needs to change.
First Thessalonians 5:14 also says that some people are disheartened. They’re overwhelmed, and what they need is to be encouraged. You would say, “We’re here for you. You’re not having to do this alone. We see these fruits of grace in your life, and so we know that God is with you.”
And then the passage says if somebody is weak, that is, the person lacks the ability or the skill set needed in a situation, then you don’t offer words; you offer assistance. You “help the weak.”
At the end of the passage it says, “Be patient with them all.” Now if you are resisted, the last thing that you might want to be is patient. And Scripture recognizes that side of our hearts. But when you’re in the helping role, there is a higher calling of patience that’s upon you. When you are in a helping relationship, you are representing Christ’s agenda, and you shouldn’t be a distraction from what Christ wants to do in this person’s life.
- In Matthew 18:16, Jesus is quoted: “But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’”