A “Nouthetic” Ministry

Part Two in a series

On January 15, 1968, a 38 year old seminary professor took his turn addressing the students in the chapel service at Westminster Theological Seminary. While he was primarily a homiletics professor, he had been researching what the Scriptures taught about the pastoral ministry of counseling. He was especially interested in a word the Apostle Paul used to describe his ministry, and this cold winter morning in Philadelphia presented him with his first opportunity to present what he had been learning.

The people Paul ministered to, like the people to whom these students would minister, struggled with problems and sinful lifestyles. Paul used this word, “noutheteo,” to describe the kind of ministry he had to help them with these problems. It was not a common New Testament word, and only Paul used it. While it is often translated “admonish” or “warn,” neither of these English words adequately communicated Paul’s idea.

Jay Adams unpacked the word for the students that day and concluded by urging students to emulate Paul by having a “nouthetic” ministry in the churches they would be leading. Adams coined the word “nouthetic” that day, and in the years to come referred to the counseling system he was building by his new term.

Biblical counselors need to understand this word, stand ready to explain what it means, and combat the misinformation, straw men, and scurrilous canards that critics have invented. First, however, it is necessary to separate the Greek word Paul used (noutheteo) from the English word (nouthetic) coined by Adams.

The Greek word “noutheteo” is a compound word built by bringing together the Greek words “nous” (mind) and “tithime” (put, place, lay). It is at this point many interpreters take a wrong turn. Compound words are not always the sum of their parts, in Greek or in English. Paul does not use the term to mean “to place or lay upon the mind” as well-meaning counselors sometimes teach. A “butterfly” is not a fly that landed in the butter dish. A “turnkey” operation is not a description of how a lock works. It is usage that determines meaning, both in English and in Greek. To understand the Greek word “noutheteo” it is necessary to examine how Paul uses the word, not simply do a word study.

Paul uses the verb form eight times in the New Testament. From these uses, we can identify three primary components to the word as Paul used it. First, there is the element of confrontation, verbal confrontation. Does that trouble you? Perhaps our word “confrontation” hits your ear as something harsh or unpleasant. It shouldn’t. Paul saw it as a necessary function of the pastor. He did it with Peter (Galatians 2), Nathan did it with David, Jesus did it with Nicodemus. Paul saw it as a helpful thing, a necessary part his ministry. Our English word “appeal” may say it better if “confrontation” is off putting to you, but the word “appeal” implies an option. Paul’s word was directive. He did not use it when forwarding his opinions or preferences. He counseled people to obey God.

The second element is concern. He did not confront his people in order to lord it over them. His heart yearned over them and his desire was for their good. In Acts 20 it was something he did “with tears.” In 2 Thessalonians it was to be done “as a brother.” In 1 Corinthians Paul had to write pointedly and frankly about some difficult issues, issues in which the Corinthian believers were sinning or not resolving. But he assured them in 4:14 that his goal was not “to shame you, but to counsel (noutheteo) you as my dear children.”

Third, there is the goal of bringing about change in those to whom Paul ministered. In Galatians 1:28 it was what Paul did to “present every man complete in Christ.” In Ephesians 6:4 it is what fathers do with their children to bring them to maturity.

As Adams concluded his remarks in 1968, he urged his listeners to do good for their people. That means they must emulate the kind of “noutheteo” that characterized Paul’s ministry. Or as Paul said in Romans 15:14, they should desire God’s best for their people (be “filled with all goodness”), study diligently in Seminary (be “filled with all knowledge”), so they will be “competent to counsel.” God called on them to prepare to have a “nouthetic” ministry.

4 thoughts on “A “Nouthetic” Ministry

  1. How would you say the term parakaleo complements, expands, or parallels the term noutheteo? They seem to have similarities and nuances, and it seems a robust definition of counseling would need the elements of both. Not every Counseling situation and need seems to be captured or addressed by the meaning of one or the other term. Thoughts?

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