Church Discipline does NOT Equal Discipleship

kinnon —  May 10, 2012 — 8 Comments

Over the course of the last two years when I’ve deigned to write, I’ve written a fair amount about discipleship. In one of those posts, one of the commenters TimD, wrote of his experience of discipleship as that of command and control. For him, discipleship is a scary word.

Discipleship meant encouraging the newbies to buy into the program. To believe all the right doctrines and theologies and to become convinced that we were the right ones and the Baptists, Pentacostals, Catholics, etc were all wrong (to a greater or lesser extent). And any practical expression of discipleship in that context was focused on one of two things: 1) converting others to think the same we did, and 2) complying with the shallow morality checklist (church attendance, no sex or smoking, while ignoring greater issues of justice because there wasn’t a verse for that). The Bible study, teaching historicity, etc. all served these pathetic ends.

Discipline ≠ Discipleship

As I skip from node to node on the interwebs, I see lots of concern from church leaders on how to effectively practice church discipline. It reminds me of reading and reviewing the book, Why We Love the Church, where DeYoung and Kluck pontificate on the importance of discipline, i.e. Obeying Leaders!

Rather than a thoughtful and engaging book on Christ and His Church, this book’s title could just as easily have been “Why We Love Hebrews 13:17 – Obey your leaders and submit to them.” Kluck and DeYoung (who write separate chapters in the book) both quote this verse and approvingly quote other writers who say things like, “Without church membership there’s no place for the important role of church discipline (page 162).” My note scrawled in the margin screams “versus discipleship?

Discipline and discipleship may have the same root but are worked out in a person’s life in very different ways. Below is the common (dictionary) understanding of the word, discipline:

• the practice of training people to obey rules or a code of behavior, using punishment to correct disobedience

• the controlled behavior resulting from such training: he was able to maintain discipline among his men.

When you add the not necessarily accurate translation of Hebrews 13:17 — submit/obey leaders —to discipline being understood as the above, it becomes easy to see how church discipline defaults to command and control. (UPDATE: See Lance and Lin’s contributions on this in the comments.)

When discipleship and discipline are conflated you get what TimD describes at the opening of the post.

Jesus, in the Great Commission, tells us to go and make disciples. It is simply not debatable that the model for doing this is Jesus himself.

And what do we see in the Gospels; Jesus living and focusing most of his energy over a three-year period on his band of followers. It wasn’t him building a large platform from where He could gather the multitudes to discipline them — with new rules and regulations — but rather it was Jesus pouring his life into a small group of people. People who would go on to turn the world upside down after Christ’s ascension.

He actively demonstrated the kingdom come, while walking hundreds of miles with his followers at his side, eating together, laughing together, in Luke 10 sending his disciples off in twos to return to him with their wonder-filled stories. He, to paraphrase the instructions of many of my writing coaches, showed them rather than told them.

In fact, he discipled them, didn’t he.

Were there times when he was incredibly frustrated with them and rebuked them?

Of course.

But, because the Jesus model of discipleship is fully relational, even when he rebuked his disciples they never doubted he loved them. His discipling was the furthest thing from command and control. (If your confused on this read Matthew 20:28 again… or even for the first time.)

So, I ask you, in the way Jesus made disciples, how do we conflate what far too many church leaders excitedly call church discipline with discipleship?



A television editor, writer & director since 1978. A Christian since 1982. More than a little frustrated with the Church in the West since late in the last millennium.

8 responses to Church Discipline does NOT Equal Discipleship

  1. For most of us, growing up, we quickly learned what the word obey meant. It meant, “Do what you’re told.” At times it meant do it and do it now, or face the consequences. Along with you, Bill, I can’t count the times I have heard the following verse quoted as a proof text for hierarchical leadership
    Hebrews 13:17
    The message seems clear enough; “Do what your leaders tell you to do.” But that is not the message we hear when we look at the Greek definition of the word “obey,” used in this verse. It is not the often-used hypakouō, which means to hearken to a command. And it is not peitharcheō, which means to obey a superior. The word for obey in this verse is peithō, which means to be persuaded by. The author of Hebrews is pleading for the saints to be persuaded by those who are of deeper spiritual maturity. The first big problem is in the way 99% of church dudes define “Leader”-they do so from a Hierarchical (Gentile) based model. Leader means one thing to these guys–dominator. “Do what I say” rather than from a servantship (which Jesus clearly ordered) posture, which would be “persuasion” and entreaty, rather than command and demand. Your description of a relational discipleship is the platform for this type of leading that is based from relationship rather than rank.

  2. Bill, My concern is that evangelicalism (And mainly the Reformed/NC movement) has redefined quite a few terms. This is just one of them. Discipleship now brings up visions of church discipline for “sinning by asking questions” and a bizarre interpretation of Matthew 18 including a disagreement with PUBLIC teaching is now gossip. Even the word “Gospel” has been redefined to include everything from marriage to kids to long term sanctification by preaching the Gospel to yourself every day. Elder led means elder rule because of the bad translation of Hebrews 13:17 from the church/state days. The list of new definitions is long.

    I have gotten to the point that if I am to have any interaction at all with certain segments of Christendom, common terms have to be defined first because often times we are talking about two different things.

  3. Lance, Thanks for pointing that out about Hebrews 13. I did a long series on it on my blog a few years back because I got so sick of hearing it quoted in order to “lord it over” people.

    It basically says something close to this:

    Listen to those who have gone before you and let them persuade you.

    The thing that really got to me in my research is how the exact same Greek words were used differently (correctly even) in other parts of the NT. Hmmm.

  4. This is the exact verse used by an elder to me when we were were having difficulties with our church. It was read over again and again in a lording fashion. I, too, wrote about it on my blog. Is there a hyper-authoritarian book of verses or something?

  5. i agree. discipleship is definitely not the same as applying church discipline. i also agree that discipleship is first and foremost relational. to these i would add that discipleship is also not training classes, seminary courses, sitting thru church ‘services’ or group bible studies. and you can’t be discipled by someone who doesn’t ‘know’ you or know that they are discipling you.
    having been discipled and discipling many over the last 15-20yrs, the weakest ‘strenght’ of the church today is in the area of one on one, personal hands on, paul-timothy-barnabas relational, ‘walk thru life together’ discipleship.
    many people ‘talk’ about it and write about it and broadcast that the church must do it, but very few actually just shut up (and i’m not telling you to) and actually DO IT.

  6. Absolutely love this discussion; brings clarity and so much freedom.. thank you all..


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