By Lauren Maggs.
Discipline gets bad press in our culture. If you say the word “discipline” people hear “corporal punishment”. They think of what used to happen before 1994 if you didn’t do your maths homework. In this day and age, being pro-discipline is almost like being pro-tyranny. The concept of “church discipline” is especially confusing. The church is supposed to be about love and love is about affirmation and freedom, so “church discipline” is an oxymoron. Discipline’s offence to the culture actually runs deeper than we might think. But, as it turns out, the problem is not with discipline, it’s with the culture.
1. Discipline is the core business of the church
Jesus said, “Go and make disciples”. It’s no accident that the English word “disciple” shares a root with the word “discipline”. Both orbit around the concepts of learning, training and growing. A disciple is the agent and discipline is the process. It follows that Calvin would view discipline as one of three marks of an authentic church (along with word and sacrament!). Discipline is not just right at the heart of what the church does, it’s right at the heart of what the church is. If that’s the case, it shouldn’t surprise us the Bible is all about discipline.
2. The Bible is all about discipline
“All Scripture is God-breathed and useful for…” what? Discipline! “Teaching”, “reproof”, “correction”, “training” (2 Tim 3.16) – these are discipline words and ideas. All of the Bible is useful for… discipline. It’s not just Matt 18, it’s “All Scripture…” Whenever the word is proclaimed in the power of the Spirit, God’s people are being disciplined, and disciples are being formed. That has to broaden and enrich our view of what discipline is. Discipline has got to be about more than punishing those who step out of line. It is. But why?
3. God is a disciplinarian
“NO!!! Don’t say that! People will run a mile!” Your problem isn’t with me, it’s with the Bible: “The Lord disciplines the one he loves” (Prov 3.12; Heb 12.6). God is a disciplinarian. But that shouldn’t just change our view of God. It should change our view of discipline. We can be sure that discipline is good and right and profitable because the Lord himself does it. His motives are always pure, and His ends are always perfect.
4. Discipline is love
“The Lord disciplines the one he loves…God is treating you as sons” (Heb 12.6-7). Fatherly love is the motive of God’s discipline (Deut 8.5). Brotherly love should be the motive of ours (Gal 6.1-2). The idea that discipline and love exclude each other is a cultural fiction. God is love, He defines love and He disciplines those He loves. There is no true love without discipline. There is no true discipline without love.
5. Discipline is the way to the good life
The Father’s discipline is motivated by love and so it has our ultimate good as its end. The goal is to know Him (Jer 24.7) and enter into the fullness of his blessed presence forever (Deut 8.1-10). There is no price too high to pay for such a blessing. As GK Chesterton said, “all noble things have to be paid for.” Should we expect the most noble of things, the Christian character, to be exempt? No. The route to the glory of eternity runs through the light and momentary afflictions of this life (2 Cor 4.17). The name of that road is discipline. Christ has walked it before us, so that we are free to follow after.
6. Discipline is both hard and soft
If the Father’s discipline has our ultimate good in mind, ours should be no different. Church discipline, even in its most severe forms (1 Cor 5.5a), always pursues the ultimate goal of restoration (1 Cor 5.5b). And so church discipline can be both hard and soft, at the same time. It is hard in that it can end in casting someone out of the community, but it is soft in that it always begins with a private word, is tempered by a spirit of gentleness and humility throughout, and operates, from start to finish, in the hope of repentance and reconciliation (Gal 6.1-6).
7. Discipline is act of grace
Instead of pretending human nature is essentially good and endlessly affirming each other in our sin, biblical love offers discipline. Discipline faces up to the human condition and loves its neighbor enough to speak the truth. Discipline is the relentless offer of Christ in the face of sin, and so discipline is an act of grace. It’s God’s gift to sinners. We don’t deserve it. It is too good for us. It is too kind to us. We should be left to ourselves: ignored, abandoned, forsaken. But God in his mercy disciplines us. Discipline is God’s gift to us. Exercised in full dependence on God and in full solidarity with fellow sinners, it can, and should, be our gift to one another.
Oh that we would be true churches – churches known for their discipline!