Discipline and the Believer

A study on the ways of God with His people

To discipline His people is a prerogative which God has exercised throughout the ages. Its object has always been and will continue to be His own ultimate glory, whether it be the exclusive vindication of His holiness, or the refining and development of the character of His child.

Scripture teaches much on the subject and it can best be appreciated through three avenues of study.

Paternal Discipline
affecting the character

Displayed through the Bible like a rod held in the hand of the all-wise, just and loving God, discipline is seen to affect the fives of those upon whom it was administered, thereby to establish them as examples from which many lessons may be learned today. It is God’s purpose that all His children should live lives worthy of their godly vocation, and He would therefore have them trained in His own school of experience. In that school He fits, nurtures, teaches and trains His own, that so educated each may yield to Him the peaceable fruits of righteousness. Christ Himself is thereby formed and manifested in and through the one taught.

God administered discipline in three ways.

1. Punitive. The terrible end of Korah, Dathan and Abiram, together with their families, shows how fearful is the holy judgment of God. Their sin was that of pride which rejected God’s authority and refused to recognise God’s servants. God has no compromise with pride and there was no pardon for those who displayed it. Although God does not dispense such discipline upon His people today, since He acts in longsuffering and grace in this dispensation, a review of this example will produce a chastened understanding of the wrath of God upon sin.

2. Judicial. This emphasises God’s righteousness. Moses disobeyed in striking the rock, and lost the privilege of leading the people into the promised land. Saul despised the principles of God’s rule, and lost his throne. David displeased God in numbering the people, and lost seventy thousand men as well as the confidence of many. In David’s case, others suffered, this being a sobering and challenging fact. In each case God’s will had been violated; His word had been disobeyed; His rule had been rejected; His law had been ignored. In each case, the people saw God’s just dealing and were made conscious of its rightness.

3. Corrective. This is the discipline of the family. It is a necessary part of the upbringing (the instruction and training) of the child. Sometimes the child must suffer loss or chastisement. The writer to the Hebrews deals with this side of discipline very explicitly, Heb. 12. 5-13. His quotation from the book of Proverbs reminds us that we are not to treat such chastening lightly, nor faint when rebuked, knowing that it is the Lord who chastens. The word for chastening (paideia) was used to describe the whole training and education of the child. It also speaks of the correction and curbing of passions, and includes the thought of instruction which has as its object the increase of virtue and the moulding of godlikeness in the character. It is not punishment, but a corrective measure dealing with what is displeasing to the Lord, and encouraging what is well pleasing to Him. Chastening was, and still is, a proof of God’s love to the chastened one, and is the evidence of son-ship. In this passage, a comparison is drawn between the character and object of the earthly father’s discipline and that of the Father of our spirits, vv. 9-10. The earthly father’s discipline could never be perfect because first it is for the brief period of youth, and then because human parents are fallible and are sometimes moved by anger rather than by sound judgment. In consequence of these facts, it is possible for mistakes to be made in the discipline of the child. When our Father disciplines, it is always perfect, bringing results which can conform our lives to the image of His Son. This profound passage reminds us that ‘no chastening for the present seemeth to be joyous, but grievous: nevertheless afterward it yieldeth the peaceable fruit of righteousness unto them which are exercised thereby’, v. 11.

It is important to emphasise that much corrective discipline is not the result of sin. When He brings us into the chastening chamber, we know that we can trust Him. He knows the purpose of the testing experience; He knows when to start and when to cease; He is too wise to make a mistake, and too loving to be unkind. His ultimate purpose is that the Lord Jesus Christ may be formed in us, and that His character may be displayed through us. The pattern must be weaved, the pottery moulded, the branch purged, the gold refined; looking back we shall sing with deeper understanding:

With mercy and with judgment my web of time He wove,
And aye the dews of sorrow were lustred by His love;
I’ll bless the hand that guided, I’ll bless the heart that planned,
When throned where glory dwelleth in Immanuel’s land.

Pastoral Discipline
affecting the company

The most precious organisms on earth today are the local churches in which the Lord is owned as Head. In a dark world they shine as lights, a thought enlarged in the description given by the apostle John of the vision on the isle of Patmos (Revelation 1), when he saw seven golden lampstands,in the midst of which stood the Lord Himself robed in a garment which in the light of what follows is a robe of government; see Isa. 22. 21. The lampstands speak of the churches amongst which the Lord is seen as moving in chapters two and three. In the capacity of Governor or Head, He exercises the right to pass verdict upon the conditions He sees, and He rewards and disciplines as He knows best. Aaron had the responsibility of tending the lampstands in the tabernacle, a charge given him by God Himself. The local church is a lampstand ordered according to God’s purpose and beautified by her Head, even Christ. Nevertheless, the Lord depends upon those whom He appoints to ensure that the light is kept undimmed. The Lord walks among His people in local church character, but delegates (as He delegated the angels of the seven churches) to make known His mind concerning the conditions He sees. In order that the assemblies shall fulfil their functions as lamp-stands and lights, training and discipline are necessary. To maintain these and to teach the mind of Christ, He raises up men to oversee and shepherd the flock. Such men put into practice those things which should characterise a church of God, and they seek to maintain the sovereignty of the Holy Spirit and the Headship of Christ. This is pastoral discipline, and it involves training and correction.

When exhorting the Thessalonians concerning their acknowledgement of those who are over them (as guides) in the Lord, 1 Thess. 5. 12, Paul uses of their ministry the word ‘admonish’, a word better rendered ‘train by the word’ – i.e., warnings based upon instruction. Those who are guides in the Lord are entrusted with the training of the assembly. The feeding of the lambs and the tending of the sheep is their responsibility and privilege. It must not, however, be a negative training. Admonition must have as its purpose the showing of a better way, based upon the Word of God. In this way the Lord disciplines the local assembly. It should be continuous, not only by oral teaching and ministry, but by example too. Pastoral discipline sometimes assumes a corrective character which must always have restoration as its ultimate object. Upon the sad occasion when sin is discovered in the assembly it must be judged in the spirit of humility, and whatever discipline is necessary must be recognised by the whole assembly, appreciating the hand of God in the action of the elders. This will have the same wholesome effect as was the case in Corinth: ‘what carefulness … what fear, yea, what vehement desire, yea, what zeal … In all things ye have approved yourselves’, 2 Cor. 7. 11.

As in a natural family, so in the spiritual family of the local church there is need for loving discipline in the spirit of the Lord’s own character - ‘full of grace and truth’. This is the discipline that corrects those who would walk out of step with the mind of the Lord, that seeks out the absent ones by reason of coldness of heart, that edifies, educates and encourages. This is much needed today, since an undisciplined assembly is like a family without parental control.

How is such discipline to be administered and maintained and by what manner of person? By godly men, in the spirit of meekness, spiritually equipped and mature in the holy things of God. Only by those who have known the heavy burden of souls entrusted to their care can true scriptural discipline be maintained. Only one who has himself been moulded in God’s school is able to use with holy fear the rod of discipline in the local church. A company of the Lord’s people will reflect the character of its elders, so the prayer of all who are jealous for the testimony of the Lord in the local church should be that God will raise up those who by example and precept shall lead His own into ever deepening experiences with Himself. Elders thus truly ordained by God will ensure that pastoral discipline with its manifold blessings may increase.

Personal Discipline
affecting the conduct

The Revised Version of 2 Timothy 1. 7 says that God has given us the spirit of ‘discipline’. Exhortation to self-control and the discipline of the mind underlies the two letters of Paul to Timothy to whom so much had been entrusted. His writings to this young man emphasise the principle that one whom God would take up must be disciplined and be strong in the grace of the Lord. We shall now review some aspects of discipline enjoined upon Timothy.

1. The discipline of conflict: ‘Fight the good fight of the faith’, 1 Tim. 6. 12 R.V. The word agonizo as used in the context means ‘to contend for a prize’. Whether it is a conflict or a contest, the verb implies a disciplined struggle, while the tense shows that the striving is a continuous process. The Christian life is meant to be one of victory, and for this it is necessary that we discipline ourselves. We are called to strive in the conflict and contest of the faith, which is the whole treasury of doctrine. It requires diligent control to contend earnestly, and strict discipline of mind lest we falter in the way. In other words, the discipline of conflict demands a single eye.

2. The discipline of separation: ‘No man that warreth entangleth himself with the affairs of this life’, 2 Tim. 2. 4. It should be observed that reference is made to ‘this life’ not ‘this world’. Paul is not concerned here with worldliness. He is concerned lest Timothy should be unduly involved in the affairs of every day living. There is nothing basically wrong with such affairs until they entangle the man and keep him from pleasing the Lord in his testimony and witness. The lesson is that there must be renunciation of anything that hinders the purpose of such testimony and witness, namely the honour and glory of the Lord Jesus Christ in the life of His followers. This is not easy; it requires discipline to live so heartily for the Lord that all else is held lightly.

3. The discipline of suffering: we are to ‘endure hardness’, 2 Tim. 2. 3. The soldier character of the Christian life is again to the fore. Timothy needed to be taught the discipline of fortitude. A better rendering may be ‘take your share of suffering’. Every believer must expect to suffer in some measure for the testimony’s sake, and to stand firm at such times requires self-discipline which can only be inspired by an ever increasing appreciation of the privileges of our high calling in Christ Jesus. In 1 Corinthians, Paul wrote, ‘every man that striveth for the mastery is temperate in all things . . I therefore so run, not as uncertainly; so fight I, not as one that beateth the air: but I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection: lest that by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should be a castaway’, that is, ‘should make shipwreck of my testimony’, 9.25-27. Here is a personal discipline exemplified: a sober outlook, a straight run, a solid fight. These demand discipline of mind and soundness of purpose. The wonderful vessels of our bodies can thus become controlled and disciplined so that they may become vehicles of power. These lessons can only be learned by personal application and determination. They cannot be learned in our own strength, but we ‘can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth’ us, Phil. 4. 13.

May the Lord so work upon us and in us that we may be wise servants, teachable saints, and obedient sons perfected in all things for the glory of His wondrous name.


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