The purpose of this article is to identify and examine the various forms of discipline that are applicable to Christians. To achieve this, we shall study the twelfth chapter of the book of Hebrews, which handles this very subject in detail. In this passage, the writer continues to encourage believers to move on in their pilgrimage to perfection with patience and perseverance. However, he also reveals how our God, the author and finisher of our faith, brings us to this goal of perfection in our lives through the multifaceted application of discipline. We shall begin, firstly, by laying the foundation and then proceed, secondly, to examine the wider context, and, thirdly, the specific context in which the various facets of discipline are identified and applied to all Christians.

The Foundation for Biblical Discipline

  1. Observe that, according to this chapter of the book of Hebrews, the pilgrimage of a Christian is metaphorically presented as a race (v1) that takes them out of this present world into glory where Christ “has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (v2). This race is “marked out for us” by our God who is the “author and finisher of our faith”. This means that every true child of God is engaged in a race to go out of this world. Therefore, if this is how the Christian life must be pictured in totality, then the need for training becomes inevitable. This must be common sense as no-one ever attempts to run in a competition of any magnitude without prior preparations by way of any form of training at all. This could lead to disqualification even before the race starts. So it is also with pilgrims to the celestial city. Discipline, or training in this sense, is inevitable.
  2. Observe further that this particular race, which is expected of all pilgrims, is one that is attended with several dangers, hardships, temptations and discouragements (v1–4). The race is viewed as a difficult and a dangerous one. The writer bids his readers, however, not to succumb to them even if it comes to the point of shedding blood (v3–4). He assures them that this race is tailor-made for them and that God would provide the means for them to reach the desired end of perfection. He proves this from verses 5 to 9. It is clear from this argument that discipline, or training, is the means that God uses to make his racers surmount the hindrances and cross the finishing line to victory. Again, we are able to see the inevitability of discipline in ensuring that there is perseverance in reaching the end.
  3. Observe also that the writer understands this race of the pilgrims to be a metaphor for the pursuit of holiness in their lives. This is how this metaphor must be understood. Just as an athlete has to run with speed to the finishing line to take his coveted price, so also must the pilgrims pursue holiness to its utmost as far as is humanly possible because “without holiness no-one will see the Lord” (v14). This necessitates the employment or the application of the various forms of discipline upon a believer with haste (speed) in order to “produce a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it”(v11). This, the writer emphasises through out this chapter, is because “God disciplines us for our good that we may share in his holiness” (v10). The prevalence of the fruit of holiness in the soul is what will preserve Christians from being shaken and destroyed at the end of the world (v25–29). Again, discipline becomes inevitable in the perfection of the fruit of holiness resulting in preservation from the future wrath.

The Definition of Discipline

The Greek Thayer Bible Dictionarydefines discipline (Gk: paideia) as follows:

1) The whole training and education of children (which relates to the cultivation of mind and morals, and employs for this purpose now commands and admonitions, now reproof and punishment). It also includes the training and care of the body.

2) Whatever in adults also cultivates the soul, especially by correcting mistakes and curbing passions, e.g. a) instruction which aims at increasing virtue, or b) chastisement, chastening, (of the evils with which God visits men for their amendment).

That means that God trains, cultivates, educates, commands, admonishes, reproves, punishes, instructs, chastises, corrects and rehabilitates “everyone he accepts as a son” (v6). There is no Christian (pilgrim) who does not undergo this kind of training unless those who are “illegitimate children and not true sons” (v8).

Let us discover now the multifaceted application of biblical discipline; Firstly, in its wider context, and secondly, in its specific context.

The Wider Context

The Lord God applies discipline to “everyone he accepts as a son” (v6) without exception. This is the preserve of the pilgrims alone. The endowment or distribution of discipline in a wider context is revealed to us as based on the filial relationship that subsists between the pilgrims themselves and the “author and finisher of their faith” who is none other than the triune God (v5–8). This becomes the ground upon which the Father executes the various facets of discipline on his own sons without reservation, and thus he brings them through the “race set for them” to perfection in glory. The point to remember is that the derivation of the right to execute the various facets of discipline and the display of omnipotent power to bring it to completion is grounded upon this spiritual relationship (v7–8). This becomes the wider scope in which this subject must be understood (Phil. 1:6). We must understand that this is a direct or indirect intervention of God in the lives of “everyone he accepts as a son.”

We must also remember that the executions of these various forms of discipline are multiple and mysterious e.g. the various forms used on Job and Joseph. in the Old Testament. For instance, the Lord God may choose to use earthquakes, volcanoes, tsunamis, war, or civil strife. Or he may choose to use sickness, losses, or death. In other words, these methods are the “trials of many kinds” that James speaks about (James 1:2–4). The apostle Paul speaking elsewhere in 2 Tim 2:5 says that, “And also if anyone competes in athletics, he is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules”. When these rules are adhered to they produce a harvest of holiness, (v5–6). The application of discipline to each individual athlete is never pleasant at all but is very painful as can be attested to by those who have passed through them (v10–11).

The prophet David positively praises the application of discipline in his personal life when he writes, “Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I keep your word” and also, “It is good for me that I have been afflicted, that I may learn your statutes” (Ps 119:67, 71).

The Specific Context

The specific context of discipline is based on Hebrews 12:22–23 where we read, “But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are registered in heaven, to God the Judge of all, to the spirits of just men made perfect”. In this passage, the writer identifies another relationship that subsists between the Lord God and those “he accepts as sons”. It is a relationship that subsists through the church. While as in the wider context the Lord God uses the spiritual relationship of a father to this sons, in this specific context he uses the relationship of the church to its head to accomplish the same goals.

By church (Gk: ekklesia) he means those who are “called out”, or merely the assembly of redeemed believers. It is defined as a property of the Lord Jesus Christ who is also identified by the same title elsewhere as the “firstborn from the dead” (Col.1:15; Rev.1:5). He is said to be the head of this church, which he purchased with his own blood (v24 & Epe.5: 23; Acts 20: 28).

Notice that the believers, or the ekklesia, are said to be part and parcel of his body. This is where the emphasis is placed. The believers, who happen to be “the sons of God” (v23b) are also said to belong to the Lord Jesus through the church (v24). The metaphor of the head and the body is often used to show the relationship that exists between Christ and believers. Believers, therefore, are joint members with Christ! This mystical union with Christ (Eph.5:32) is what is responsible for the believer’s sanctifications or the pursuance of holiness in their souls. This is clearly stated in Ephesians 5:26–27, “that he might sanctify and cleanse her with the washing of water by the word, that he might present her to himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that she should be holy and without blemish.” I am sure the readers are now able to see that whether considered in the wider context or the specific context, the ultimate goal is still the same; that is, to produce holiness in the souls of believers, “without which no-one shall see the Lord” (v14).

Forms of Discipline

Let us now enquire into the specific forms of discipline that the Lord Jesus Christ, as Head of his Church, uses in order to produce a “harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it”(v11). There are two forms of discipline:

1)  Formative discipline: This is the positive process by which the church conforms its members more and more into the image of Christ. It is by:

  • The diligent application of the Word of God as it is regularly taught byits elders in the church’s meetings (Revelation 2, 3).
  • The mutual care and exhortation of the members as they act as one another’s keeper (Ephesians 4:7–16).
  • The orderly utilisation of the gifts Christ has bestowed upon each member of the church (Romans 12:3–8).
  • The watchful oversight of the elders over the flock on a one-to-one basis (Hebrews 13:17).

2)  Corrective discipline: This is the process by which the church reforms (restores) its members from their sinful ways. Its aim is not to restore the culprit to perfection but to the path of formative discipline. Corrective discipline is by:

  • Public rebuke. This is a censure upon a member before the gathered church meant to call the member to public confession of his sin (1 Timothy 5:20). Its effect is to show that the elders are not countenancing this sin of which the person concerned may actually even be repentant.
  • Disassociation. This is a call upon the rest of the church to avoid a member whose ways may be contagious but not grave enough to warrant excommunication (2 Thessalonians 3:6–15). The person is still treated as a brother, but is not allowed influential or supportive interaction.
  • Excommunication. This is a call upon the rest of the church to withdraw every form of family privilege from a member so that henceforth he is treated as if he is an unbeliever (1 Corinthians 5:1–5). Such a person may be allowed to attend the preaching of God’s Word, but that is all. This is the highest form of church discipline in Scripture.

Conclusion

  1. These various forms of discipline once understood, appreciated, and accepted, will increase the momentum of pursuing holiness in those who are saved. A consequential healing and strengthening process will take place in the legs and arms—so essential in winning a race as an athlete (v12–13). And as the momentum thus progresses, sin and its corrupting offshoots will be rooted out and destroyed (v14–17).
  2. Those undergoing discipline either in the wider or specific (church discipline) context should count themselves highly favoured by God because “Blessed is the man you discipline, O Lord, the man you teach from your law” (Ps. 94:12). Those who do not submit to every form of discipline for whatever reasons are considered as “illegitimate and not sons” (v8).