Discipline: the Misconstrued Grace

It was John Knox, the Scottish Reformer, who added discipline to the word and sacraments as the third mark of a faithful church. Perhaps it was because the Celts are an unruly lot by nature and he felt the latter two needed the firmer hand of the former to bring the Scottish churches into line! Nevertheless, he rightly highlighted the need for this third element of church life for the church to be what it ought to be under Christ, its sole King and Head.

Sadly, however, discipline has too often been misperceived as some kind of blunt instrument only to be used as a measure of last resort when things go wrong in the church. Although it clearly does have this function, it would be utterly wrong to see it only in these terms. John Knox certainly did not see it narrowly in that way and neither do the Scriptures.

Knox’s Book[s] of Discipline were drawn up as books of church order. They were intended to be the practical outworking of the doctrine summarised in the Scots Confession. Since doctrine is always intended to shape life, so the Reformer wisely saw fit to spell this out under specific headings as it related to the life and worship of the church. The Westminster Divines did something very similar over 80 years later when they drew up the Directory for Public Worship and the Form of Church Government. Both these documents put practical flesh on the doctrinal bones of what the church was taught to confess.

These aspects of ‘discipline’ are a healthy counterbalance to the narrow view of its only having to be invoked to deal with those who refuse to respond to gentler means to encourage godliness. They remind us that, just as with our natural human families, the church needs to be a well-ordered community as the family of God. And the order to which it conforms must be that of God himself in his triune wisdom and glory.

Scripture provides a further insight into what discipline entails and how God uses it for the good of his children. We see this towards the end of Hebrews where the writer is speaking of the means God uses to enable his people to go the distance in the life of faith: persevering to the very end.

Immediately after his exhortation to run with perseverance the race that is set before us with our eyes firmly fixed on Jesus (He 12.1-2), he goes on to say,

‘My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines those he loves and he punishes those he accepts as a son’ (He 12.5-6)

In the context of the letter the writer clearly had something in view that was more than just the church being ordered under God by its leaders, or their having to exercise formal ‘church discipline’ in face of the threatened apostasy by some of its members. He speaks explicitly of ‘hardship’ as ‘discipline’ (12.7) – almost certainly a reference to the harsh providences these believers had recently experienced. It seems likely that these Hebrew believers belonged to the church in Rome and had suffered significantly under persecution – right down to numbers of them being martyred for the faith. Hence the writer’s words were designed to help them see God’s hand at work even in such painful experiences.

This tallies with what the Scriptures say elsewhere about how God uses suffering to strengthen character, burn off the spiritual dross in our lives and teach us perseverance in the faith. In that sense, as Peter tells his readers, we should not be surprised by it, or regard it as ‘something strange’ (1Pe 4.12).

There is, however, something very distinctive about the Hebrews statement on discipline. It places it firmly in the context of God’s dealing with his people as ‘sons’ (an expression that includes women as well as men to signify that both share the same status and privilege in God’s family) and proof that they are not in fact ‘illegitimate children’. Despite its potentially negative feel, it is intended to have a manifestly positive function. Rather than wearing us down in the faith, it is intended to build us up.

This actually makes perfect sense in the competitive world we live in. Whether it be in the realm of sport with its personal trainers and rigorous fitness regimes, or that of academia or commerce where people routinely push themselves to be the best they can be, why should we be surprised at the thought of God’s pushing us beyond our slothful limits to build us up? If people in the world around us accept hardship as a means of improving fitness, character, personal well-being and effectiveness; how much more this should be true for Christians as they accept the disciplines of God’s family in all their many forms.

In this sense, ‘discipline’ should be a most glorious component of church life and very much part of the experience of every Christian. It should not be seen as a ‘stick in the cupboard’ for the erring few; but another aspect of the grace of God designed to make us more like Christ.

Mark Johnston