Church Discipline as a Public Good
Church Discipline as a Public Good

Church Discipline as a Public Good

What ancient Pharisees and modern Jezebels get right and wrong about discipline.

March 3 rd 2016
Appears in Spring 2016

There's a temptation in Christianity that goes something like this: if we can just get our doctrine right, our propositions concerning God and Jesus Christ correct, our theology in proper order, then the rest will take care of itself. This Christian idealism focuses on doctrinal precision, sometimes even to the exclusion of moral or practical conduct. Right belief is all that is necessary in the Christian life, and everything else will either follow necessarily from such belief or it isn't worth accounting for anyway. There's also a version of this temptation that replaces doctrinal rigor and propositional accuracy with emotionalism and identity: it isn't important how you behave or what you believe so long as you feel close to God or simply self-identify as a follower of Christ.

Although these views evince a kind of legalism, to call such modern views "Pharisaical" would do great injustice to the ancient Pharisees. After all, while the Pharisees most certainly were concerned about proper belief, they were equally rigourous about conduct. The same group that faulted Jesus for his bad doctrine—"Who can forgive sins but God alone?" (Luke 5:21)—was also worried about his questionable behavior—"Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?" (Matt. 9:11). Jesus himself attested to the moral exactitude of the Pharisees: "Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven" (Matt. 5:20).

The basic problem of the Pharisees wasn't that they were concerned with right doctrine to the exclusion of right practice; it was instead that their improper evaluation of what constituted right practice, their lack of love, led them into hypocrisy and error. Jesus says to them, "You tithe mint and rue and every herb, and neglect justice and the love of God. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others" (Luke 11:42). Getting discipline right has important implications not only for individual believers and the church itself but for society as well.

Holiness And Discipleship

One of the dominant concerns of the Pharisees, flowing out of their devotion to the Torah, had to do with ceremonial purity. Their criticism of Jesus and his disciples not only involved their choice of venue for meals but also related to their lack of concern for ritual cleanliness. Much of the Torah deals with these matters, and the book of Leviticus provides great evidence for God's level of concern about even the most seemingly mundane matters.

Chuck Primus, a teacher of Judaica at Notre Dame, once opined that "any religion that doesn't tell you what to do with your pots and pans and genitals can't be interesting." By this standard, the Torah must be judged to be greatly interesting! These claims are developed in the New Testament, which makes more explicit the cosmic scope of God's designs. From the beginning to the end of the Bible, God's claims are universal and comprehensive. When God was present among the Israelites in the times of the tabernacle and then the temple, it was necessary to establish specific and exact guidelines for holiness. Because God is perfect and death, decay, and corruption are alien to him, those who came in proximity to him had to be purified. In the midst of regulations about clean and unclean animals, for example, God provides the basis for such detailed instructions: "For I am the Lord who brought you up out of the land of Egypt to be your God. You shall therefore be holy, for I am holy" (Lev. 11:45). God's chosen people needed to be like him: holy.

The Pharisees were continuing a tradition of understanding of what such holiness entailed. These regulations were given to Moses, and the Pharisees accounted themselves faithful to this tradition. "We are disciples of Moses!" they confessed (John 9:28). The apostle Paul likewise attests to the Pharisees' devotion to the law given to Moses, describing himself as "a Pharisee" in relation to the law and "as to righteousness based on the law, faultless" (Phil. 3:5—6).

The shift in the New Testament has not so much to do with a change in concern for the people's holiness but rather a clarification of the standard by which such holiness is judged and made effective. When the Pharisees appeal to their Mosaic tradition, they do so in explicit contrast to those who follow Jesus. In Jesus's response, the authority for defining the shape and significance for holiness is changed from Moses to Jesus, from the guardian of the estate to the heir himself (Gal. 4:1—2). But the call to holiness, properly understood, remains binding. As Peter writes, "Just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do" (1 Pet. 1:15).

For the Pharisees, being disciples of Moses meant following the instructions he had passed on, being faithful to the way of life he had communicated to Israel. For Christians, being disciples of Jesus likewise means following his instructions, and being devoted to him as the ultimate authority for true belief and appropriate behavior. Discipleship thus requires discipline, both in terms of objective standards and guidelines provided by the leader and in terms of subjective conformity and obedience provided by the followers.

Perhaps the biggest difference in the discipline and discipleship of the Pharisees from Jesus had to do with the relationship between love and holiness. As Jesus put it, "You have heard that it was said, "Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven" (Matt. 5:43—44). The ancient Pharisees did discipline without love. Many today want love without discipline. Christ, however, commands both.

Discipline And The Early Church

This dynamic between discipline, discipleship, and love can be traced throughout the later history of the church. The Didache, one of the earliest documents from the patristic period, outlines the essential characteristics of two paths that can be followed, "two ways, one of life and one of death." The way of life means "First, you shall love God who made you; second, love your neighbor as yourself, and do not do to another what you would not want done to you." The teaching goes on to outline more specific activities demanded by love, both ones that must be avoided (e.g., murder, adultery, pederasty, fornication, theft) and others that must be done. In this latter category there are two things that are particularly significant for the later development of Christian tradition.

First, loving God and loving one's neighbour demand submission and obedience to legitimate authority, outside the church as well as within. With Jesus's resurrection and ascension, the leadership of the institutional church is continued through offices of teaching, preaching, and service. Thus the Didache instructs its audience to appoint "bishops and deacons worthy of the Lord, men meek, and not lovers of money, and truthful and proved; for they also render to you the service of prophets and teachers." Paul similarly instructed Timothy, "Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction" (2 Tim. 4:2). These office-bearers exercise a derived and delegated authority within the church, and thus they ought to be respected and honored.

Second, as the Didache continues, Christians must "reprove one another, not in anger, but in peace." Not only are Christians to submit to legitimate authority and be obedient, but they are also to hold one another accountable and responsible for proper conduct. Jesus himself provided the guidance for such mutual accountability and its grounding in the church community in Matthew 18:15—17: "If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. 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.' If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector."

Even in apostolic times the authority of the earthly delegate sometimes threatened to surpass the identity of the heavenly Lord. Thus Paul observes that among the Corinthian church, "There are quarrels among you." Paul goes on to elaborate: "One of you says, "I follow Paul'; another, "I follow Apollos'; another, "I follow Cephas'; still another, "I follow Christ'" (1 Cor. 1:11—12). Perhaps there was basic agreement on the substance of the gospel taught by Paul, Apollos, and Cephas. Yet there still must have been some characteristics that led their followers to identify as their disciples. The Corinthian church experienced great strife as partisans of different groups vied for control. The Corinthian partisans can be seen as continuing the spirit of the Pharisees, as each group claimed fidelity to its authoritative leader, whether Paul, Apollos, Cephas, or Moses.

This trouble that the Corinthian church faced is illustrative of a basic dynamic related to discipline and discipleship. Standards, guidelines, and instructions both serve to unite as well as to divide. Discipline unites those who come together to follow a particular path or leader, distinguishing those followers from the followers of other ways. If there is some greater good or common cause that unites different groups, then an element of diversity can be said to cohere within that larger unity. But such diversity can also lead to the breakdown of commonality, leading to division and disunity.

Medieval Orders And Reformation Churches

The historical path from the early church through the medieval period to the time of the Protestant Reformation illustrates this dynamic. The transition from the ancient era to the medieval period is marked by, among other things, the growth and development of religious orders and scholastic traditions. From the Rule of St. Benedict to the Pastoral Rule of Gregory the Great, varied approaches to Christian identity and social responsibility arose in the Middle Ages. Great figures of the scholastic intellectual traditions would later become the basis for wrangling and disputation. Franciscans and Dominicans would become two of the more dominant traditions, but other groups, from Augustinians, to Benedictines, to Carthusians (ABC's of religious orders), each worked out their own institutional and cultural paradigms for following Christ. In the best circumstances these various approaches complemented one another and formed a kind of institutional pluralism. But in other cases they jockeyed for intellectual prestige and ecclesiastical influence. Paul's warnings to the church in Corinth had not rooted out the human tendency to align with particular interests and partisan identities.

The breakup of the religious and institutional consensus in the sixteenth century created the need for renewed reflection on the nature of ecclesial identity and discipline. Where the diversity of religious orders and scholastic traditions in the medieval period had grown up under at least a modicum of institutional unity, Protestant reform movements coalesced along confessional and geographic lines to form new and independent church bodies.

The Reformed tradition in particular, along with various Anabaptist and Radical Reformation movements, became closely identified with a disciplinarist vision for church organization. Although John Calvin (1509— 1564) is typically credited with defining church discipline as a "mark of the church" along with pure preaching of the gospel and right administration of the sacraments, other influential reformers like Peter Martyr Vermigli (1499—1562) and Jan Łaski (1499—1560) championed an understanding of the church as defined by application of discipline. Vermigli captured the dynamic between love and discipline in advocating a golden mean in the application of various forms of church discipline: "We must take heed that we avoid two extremities, and keep the mean. On the one part, that we use not a fair and flattering speech, whereby we rather nourish vices than remove them. On the other part, that we use not over rough and raw admonition: lest we rather turn a man from salvation, than lead him unto it."

This emphasis on discipline as characteristic of the true church of Christ would be codified in church orders and confessional documents. As the Belgic Confession (1561) of the Reformed tradition relates, members of the church are to keep the church's unity in part "by submitting to its instruction and discipline, by bending their necks under the yoke of Jesus Christ, and by serving to build up one another" (art. 28). The marks of the church, which include the practice of "church discipline for correcting faults" (art. 29), are intended to help believers discern and recognize the true church.

Discipline And Distinctive Churches

Discipline is thus a distinctive of the Christian church. But as the examples of the ancient Pharisees indicate, Christian discipline is further distinguished by Christian love. Jesus instructs his followers, "By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another" (John 13:35). But our love must not be the veneer of emotionalism that merely approves of anything and everything. Christian love is a tough-minded love, a love in the midst of mess and trial. It is love for friends as well as enemies, and involves the ability to discern the appropriate ways to love in concrete situations.

There's an ancient debate about whether the word religion is derived from the verb "to repeat" (relegere) or "to bind together" (religare). The emphasis in the first case is vertical and has to do with true worship, the accuracy and faithfulness of religious observance. In the second case, the emphasis is horizontal, and describes the social cohesion that attends to religious activity. But both elements are necessary and stand or fall together. As with the two great love commandments, concern to give right worship to God must come to expression in love of neighbour. And no religious community can exist without devotion and proper orientation to God.

Perhaps the gravest threat to discipleship and discipline today is the idea of the autonomous and sovereign individual self. We moderns have a big problem with authority, either recognizing it or submitting to it. The social realities of church attendance and membership today largely mean that if there is something we dislike or find uncomfortable about a particular congregation, then we simply move along until we find one that meets our desires. The greatest obstacle to church discipline and Christian discipleship today, then, is the lack of self-discipline and commitment to a church community by churchgoers themselves. This is, in fundamental ways, a deeply countercultural diagnosis. But as David Wells observes in God in the Wasteland, when "the church is authentic, when it is true to its nature as a possession of God, its cultural irrelevance becomes a very real virtue."

A church of disciples united in love becomes a foretaste of the kingdom and the soul of the broader society. As the apostle Peter urges, "Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us" (1 Pet. 2:12). The Bible uses the images of salt, light, and leaven to describe the impact of the moral and spiritual effects of the Christian church, distinguished by love and discipline, on the world.

If the Pharisees erred on the side of discipline without love, modern libertines err on the side of love without discipline. The same Jesus who warned against the legalistic and hypocritical leaven of the Pharisees likewise warned against the licentiousness of those who, out of a misplaced and mistaken understanding of love, would do away with law and discipline. In this way Jesus warns the church in Thyatira, "Nevertheless, I have this against you: You tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophet. By her teaching she misleads my servants into sexual immorality and the eating of food sacrificed to idols" (Rev. 2:20).

So we see that Jesus, no less than the book of Leviticus, does indeed concern himself with, to use Chuck Primus's phrase again, "pots and pans and genitals." Stanley Hauerwas uses Primus's formula as a way of introducing religion's binding claims on human beings. Speaking particularly about sexual responsibility, Hauerwas writes that Christians "do not believe that we have a right to do whatever we want with our bodies. We do not believe that we have a right to our bodies because when we are baptized we become members of one another; then we can tell one another what it is that we should and should not do with our bodies." The same goes for pots and pans, as Hauerwas continues, as well as for all the other areas of life.

God disciplines those whom he loves (Prov. 3:12; Heb. 12:6; Rev. 3:19); when he disciplines us in the church, can we bear such correction without running away? As Paul puts it, "You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies" (1 Cor. 6:19—20). The Heidelberg Catechism opens with this theme and expands it to apply not only to our bodies but also to our souls: "I am not my own, but belong— body and soul, in life and in death—to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ." We owe it to one another to hold each other accountable, to rebuke one another in love, to hold fast to what we have been taught, and thus to disciple others in the discipline of Jesus Christ.

Jordan Ballor
Jordan Ballor

Dr. Jordan J. Ballor is a research fellow at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty, where he also serves as executive editor of the Journal of Markets & Morality. He is a general editor of the Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology (Lexham) and is the author and editor of numerous books.


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