Definition of Church Discipline
Our English word for “discipline” comes from the Latin dicipulus meaning “pupil, disciple.” Thus, “discipline” originally referred to “teaching.” The idea of punishment was only secondary. A disciple is “one who accepts and follows a teacher of a doctrine or learner” (Funk and Wagnall). “Disciple” is methetes in the Greek. He is a learner. There is a close connection between Doctrine, Disciple and Discipline. Doctrine is that which is taught. A disciple is the learner or follower of the teacher, he is taught the doctrine. Discipline is instructing the disciple in the doctrine. It is a training process with correction by punishment as only one part of it, and then if it becomes necessary.
The primary meaning of discipline is not punishment.
“4) Punishment for the sake of training; correction; chastisement.”
“a) training which corrects, molds, strengthens, or perfects. b) Punishment; chastisement. c) control gained by enforcing obedience or order, orderly conduct; as troops noted for their discipline. d) Rule or system of rules affecting conduct or action. e) To train in self-control or obedience to given standards; to punish; hasten.”
Note the different words denoting what discipline involves: education, development, instruction, exercise, training, drill, correction, chastisement, punishment, and reformatory or penal action.
The Hebrew words of the Old Testament use it to refer to the disciplinary action of a parent toward his child (Pr. 3:11,12; 13:24; 22:15; 23:13) and the disciplinary action of God toward His people (Dt. 8:5; Job 5:17; Ps. 94:12).
The New Testament uses the words paideia and paideuo. Paideia means “1) the whole training and education of children, Eph. 6:4… 2) Whatever in adults also cultivates the soul, esp. by correcting mistakes and curbing passions; hence a. instruction which aims at the increase of virtue, 2 Tim. 3:16…b. acc. to bibl. assuage chastisement, chastening…Heb. 12:5…”
“Paideuo: 1)…to train children;…to be instructed or taught, to learn:…1 Tim. 1:20; to cause one to learn;…Tit. 2:12. 2) to chastise; a. to chastise or castigate with words, to correct;…2 Tim. 2:25..b. in bibl. and eccl. use employed of God, to chasten by the infliction of evils and calamities…1 Cor. 11:32; 2 Cor. 6:9; Heb. 12:6; Rev. 3:19…c. to chastise with blows, to scourge…Heb. 12:7,10…Lk. 23:26,22” (Thayer).
These Greek words are used eight times in Hebrews 12:5-11. Even when they are used to denote punishment or chastisement the object of its use is still to teach. “Hymeneus and Alexander who I delivered unto Satan that they might learn not to blaspheme” (1 Tim. 1:20).
It is clear that in the English, Hebrew, and Greek, the concept of discipline means more than just chastisement. It involves first instruction and then correction.
Two Types of Church Discipline
Usually people only think of the extreme action of withdrawing association when they talk about church discipline. Yet, the New Testament speaks of two types of discipline: instructive discipline and corrective discipline.
Instructive discipline is preventive in nature. Prevention is always better than cure. “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”. “Building boys is better than mending men.” “As the twig is bent so grows the tree.” “To cut off an offender is good; to cure him is better; but to prevent him from falling is best of all.”
The purpose of instructive discipline is basically to avoid corrective discipline. It is designed so the Christian can learn God’s Will in order to apply it to his life and please God. One errs by not knowing the scriptures (Mt. 22:29). It is the teaching or training which corrects, molds, strengthens, or perfects. This part of discipline is molding one into a new way of life (2 Cor. 5:17; Rom. 6:13,22; Gal. 5:22-26).
Instructive discipline is to be conducted in a proper manner. The church is God’s teaching institution (1 Tim. 3:15; 1Th. 1:8). The church has been designed “to edify itself for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ…from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love” (Eph. 4:12,16). Paul also wrote, “therefore let us pursue the things which make for peace and the things by which one may edify another” (Rom. 14:19). This is accomplished by the teaching in regular assemblies, plus gospel meetings, and special classes. Thus, church discipline must be viewed as an on going duty of all Christians at all times.
The need for corrective discipline would diminish significantly, if more preventive discipline were practiced. A brother can show signs of spiritual weakening and is allowed to progress to the point of going back into the world without one “little finger” raised to stop his spiritual destruction. A little encouragement might have prevented the downward trend and the need for corrective discipline.
Corrective discipline is needed when instructive discipline fails. It results from inadequate instructive discipline or the failure of the Christian to make application of that instruction to his life. Reformatory or punitive in nature. We cannot escape the idea that corrective discipline is punishment. We punish our children when they misbehave to correct them. The government punishes those citizens who are disobedient to the law to correct them. Paul was teaching the Romans how to avoid breaking the law, thus becoming subject to civil punishment. It results in the identification of the sinner and his sin, an severance of social relations, and the recognition of the severance and those who persist in sin.
“Without discipline in society, chaos would result. Without discipline families break up. Without disciple the New Testament Church will cease to edify the saints and continue to be the pillar and ground of the truth. Church discipline involves the training of disciples of Christ in the apostles doctrine, sometimes this requires corrective measures to be taken. Simply stated, “Scriptural church discipline should be defined as the total process through which saints in Christ’s body help each other grow toward spiritual maturity ‘unto the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.’ (Eph. 4:13)” (Robert S. Usrey, Church Discipline for Caring Christians: The Key To Church Growth, p. 37).
– Daniel R. Vess