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In the context of church life, this term is used to describe the practical methods and rules by which Christ, through the influence of the whole community, seeks to help each member to be healthy in his own Christian growth and discipleship, and to make his best contribution to the life and witness of the whole body. From the beginning some form of discipline was accepted as an aspect of the Gospel. Christ was regarded as the Master whose teaching and example contained patterns for such discipline (cf. Matt. 11:29; 28:19).

The most acute problem relating to discipline was ensuring that members whose conduct brought offense to the community were challenged about their behavior and convicted so that they could be restored. Repentance had to be ensured. This problem takes up some space in the New Testament because the church felt it had definite guidance from Jesus on the matter. The offending person was to be approached privately, and only if he refused to respond was the matter to be brought before the church. If they then remained impenitent, they were to be excluded from the fellowship in the hope of their ultimate return and repentance (Matt. 18:15-17). The church claimed that Christ had given it the power to exercise such “binding and loosing” of sin in his name (Matt. 18:18-20; John 20:23).

We have some indication in the New Testament of how moral advice was given and discipline was effected, in early church life. The case of Ananias and Sapphira was exceptional (Acts 5:1-11). Paul gives various instructions (e.g., 1 Cor. 4:21; 5:1-12; 2 Cor. 2:1-11; Titus 3:10ff., etc.). Von Campenhausen points out that discipline in the first and second centuries seems to have had the forgiveness and winning back of the erring, rather than their punishment, as its aim. It was directed toward the individual. It was not regarded as annulling baptism, and was exercised only with purely spiritual authority.

From the fourth century, discipline began to show undesirable features. More concern came to be shown for the sanctity of the congregation as a whole than for the expelled individual. The authority to exercise discipline was taken from the congregation and was regarded as residing in the clergy, and often the monarchical bishop alone. The system of penitence began to be concerned too much with trivial offenses. There was partiality in its exercise. Private confession was made compulsory for all. The church began to enforce its discipline by use of civil power.

The Reformation saw sincere attempts by Luther to deliver men from priestly ecclesiastical tyranny in discipline, and by Calvin to restore in its integrity the discipline of the New Testament church. Unhappily, in the seventeenth century the pursuit of discipline became in some quarters more important than the pastoral care of the individual. Severity in certain areas of life was exercised at the expense of slackness in other areas. Discipline tended to stifle growth. Today, in reaction, it is asserted that it is impossible and undesirable within pluralistic society to set standards to which church members should conform. Our attitude to such an assertion will be determined by our understanding of the Gospel. Christ, in fulfilling the New Covenant on our behalf, presented to God a definite pattern of response into which He seeks to conform up by the Spirit. The church cannot decide to ignore this pattern. Moreover, while repentance is not a prior condition of forgiveness, it is inseparable from forgiveness, and it produces signs and fruits that man must look for and encourage.

Additional Material

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

Source 2

DISCIPLINE dis’ ə plin (מוּסָר, H4592; παιδεία, G4082). The word discipline is Old Eng. from Lat. disciplina, “instruction,” “training,” “discipline,” from discipulus, “a learner,” from discere, “to learn.” The Heb. musar is tr. “correction” or “chastisement,” while a kindred word moser means “bands” or “bonds.” Greek paideia includes both the negative and positive meanings listed above. Paul counsels: “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Eph 6:4). He states that the commendable conduct of “the Lord’s servant...[is] correcting his opponents with gentleness” (2 Tim 2:24f.). In his climactic admonition to Timothy, he wrote, “All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training [discipline] in righteousness” (2 Tim 3:16).

The New Testament discipline is primarily of a positive nature, and is associated with love rather than law. Jesus’ life and teachings, and that of His dedicated followers elevated discipline to an essential and desirable means of achieving the highest goals. Jesus’ willingly self-imposed deprivations and sacrifices constitute the noblest forms of discipline (Luke 9:58; Phil 2:1-8). The same spirit is manifest in His teachings concerning self-denial and bearing crosses (Matt 10:37f.; Luke 14:25-33).

Significantly and appropriately Jesus’ specially selected twelve men were called “disciples.” They were learners under the great Teacher, having accepted His invitation to “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me” (Matt 11:29). They had matriculated in His school and committed themselves to His discipline, the education required for their high calling. Following this precedent self-discipline became a chief characteristic of dedicated Christian workers. After the resurrection, and the new power given on Pentecost, Christ’s followers committed themselves to learning the sacred writings and to teaching others. Paul admonished Timothy to “Train yourself in godliness” (1 Tim 4:7b); and “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Tim 2:15); and “Take heed to yourself and to your teaching” (1 Tim 4:16). The writer of Hebrews mentions discipline six times, all in one ch., in the punitive manner of its Old Testament use. He begins with the exhortation, “Do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord” (12:5), and concludes, “For the moment all discipline seems painful” (12:11).

Ultimately discipline is in the hands of God, though it is delegated in part to institutions: government, school, church, and home. And everyone is disciplined, either by self, or society or God.

See also

  • Chastisement
  • Bibliography

  • R. de Vaux, Ancient Israel (1962), 147-150;

  • E. W. K. Mould, Bible History (1966), 552, 581-584, 682.