Liberated through Discipline: The Five Kinds of Discipline

The term discipline, both in the Bible and in everyday usage, displays various nuances depending on the particular biblical or life context. The ideas communicated by discipline are that of chastening, instruction, nurturing, training, correction, reproof, and punishment. In the negative sense, the idea of punishment is most prominent. In the positive sense, things like nurturing, training, and instruction come to mind. However, since all discipline is based on the perfect character of God, all discipline is actually positive even though it is not always immediately apparent. Just as the Scripture says, “All discipline for the moment seems not to be joyful, but sorrowful; yet to those who have been trained by it, afterwards it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness” (Hebrews 12:11). The reality is that discipline and discipleship are so closely connected that to minimize discipline is to minimize discipleship. Lynn Buzzard notes, “To separate discipling from discipline is not only to tear words from their etymologically common roots, but also from their organic relationship.”[1]

Church discipline is often understood to refer only to the formal action of the church that removes an unrepentant brother. Actually, church discipline encompasses everything that enables the church to be and remain the church. It refers to everything from praying or counseling with a brother or sister who is struggling with a temptation to disfellowshiping someone who refuses to repent and deal with his sin. I refer to this final act of church discipline, the act of disfellowshiping, as formal church discipline. This is to distinguish the final, more serious and public phase of discipline from the various other forms of discipline such as: exhortation, encouragement, bearing each other’s burdens, praying, counseling, and teaching—to name a few.

Other than when it is referred to in the proclamation of the Scripture, discipline is commonly done one-on-one. It does the biblical teaching on church discipline a great disservice to fail to understand and emphasize the full scope of the meaning of church discipline. It is not just expelling people from the church. It is not always nor necessarily the particular sin that escalates church discipline from one-on-one to formal discipline. Most often, it is the response of the wayward that determines whether it must be elevated to the next level.

Having said that, the faithful practice of church discipline must include the willingness to implement formal church discipline. Church discipline is essential to protect the spiritual life of the church. D. M. Jackson comments, “Church discipline is a means of securing and maintaining the spiritual priority of the Christian church. This exercise arises from the fact that the church is a human institution, and the members of which are subject to the limitations and weaknesses of humanity. The Christian congregation, like every other community, needs a means of self-protection in order to suppress or eliminate whatever might impair or destroy its life.”[2]

As I understand the Scripture regarding this, there are five kinds of discipline that God has designed in order to allow a person ample opportunity to mend his ways before more serious disciplinary options become necessary.

The first kind of discipline is parental discipline. “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. Honor your father and mother (which is the first commandment with a promise,) so that it may be well with you, and that you may live long on the earth. Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:1–4). Obey is the Greek word hupakouo. It means to hearken or to hear with the intention of understanding and obeying. Verse 4 translates discipline from the word paideia, which carries the idea of “training to provide instruction, with the intent of forming proper habits of behavior.”[3]

Children are commanded to obey the instruction and discipline they receive, and parents are commanded to bring up their children in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. This is to be done without provoking them to anger. Note the benefit given to the child who obeys, “that it may be well with you, and that you may live long on the earth” (Ephesians 6:3). Parental discipline also increases the likelihood that the child will avoid more serious forms of discipline as he grows up, such as governmental or divine.

The Bible affords wonderful promises with the exercise of discipline (Proverbs 29:15, 17). Humanly speaking, discipline is directly related to the communication and reception of the gospel. Discipline teaches right and wrong, benefits and consequences, respect and choice, obedience and authority. These are all essential parts of a person being receptive to the gospel; consequently, we must conclude that the lack of parental discipline has an adverse impact upon the individual and society, but the most horrible legacy is the damage to a person’s spiritual life.

The second kind of discipline is self-discipline. Self-discipline includes both natural self-discipline and spiritual self-discipline. Natural (human) self-discipline is to be exercised by all humans because we are created in God’s image. Spiritual discipline is that aspect of self-discipline available to individuals who have been born again by faith in Christ. Learning self-discipline is integral to the maturation process. The quality of parental discipline a child receives influences him, but it does not irrevocably mold him. He still has the freedom to continue to embrace what he learned or reject it. The importance of self-discipline cannot be overemphasized because it is at the heart of every other form of discipline. Thus, every area of discipline must emphasize self-discipline.

What is true for a non-Christian is even more true for someone who becomes a believer (1 Corinthians 6:12; Colossians 3:5). There is a personal responsibility in embracing discipline as well (Proverbs 8:33, 15:32). The purpose of spiritual discipline is godliness. Paul told the young pastor Timothy, “Discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness” (1 Timothy 4:7). Discipline is the Greek word gumnazo, from which we get gymnasium and gymnastics. It means “to exercise vigorously, in any way, either the body or the mind.”[4] The Scripture speaks of training, sacrifice, choice, and all the other characteristics associated with athleticism. Paul told Timothy to be a spiritual athlete.

Later in that same paragraph Paul told Timothy, “Pay close attention to yourself and to your teaching; persevere in these things; for as you do this you will insure salvation both for yourself and for those who hear you” (1 Timothy 4:16, italics added). The theme of spiritual discipline runs through the Scripture in all the commands and various images of boxers, runners, and soldiers—to name a few (1 Corinthians 9:24–27; Philippians 2:12–16; 2 Timothy 2:3–5). Self-discipline can be readily seen in the apostle Paul (1 Corinthians 9:27). Paul knew well that “to live is Christ” (Philippians 1:21), and that choosing not to discipline himself would eventuate in being put on the shelf. He had no problem allowing divine and human responsibility to operate in concert.

The third kind of discipline is governmental. Romans 13:1–7 is the definitive passage on government and the Christian’s responsibility to respect it in the New Testament. The passage says in part, “Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities.”

The evil ones are those who operate outside of the law. They pose a threat to the very fabric of society because of their irresponsibility. I remember talking to a chaplain at Cummins State Prison in Arkansas on one of my visits there—just to be sure no rumors get started, my visits were as a pastor and not a resident. I explained to the chaplain the difficulty that I was having with a particular inmate, and he responded that the number one problem when dealing with inmates is to get them to take responsibility for their crimes. He said, “Eighty percent of them do not take responsibility for their behavior.”

Often those who have not been taught, or did not accept parental discipline or practice self-discipline, end up suffering the discipline of the state, which is always more severe and costly.

The fourth type of discipline is church discipline. I define church discipline as an intentional undertaking of the church to discipline herself according to the Scripture, in order to maintain a conducive atmosphere to meet the spiritual priority of fulfilling her mission as mandated by our Lord Jesus Christ to the glory of God (Matthew 28:18–20). This includes everything from discipline by modeling, teaching, and mentoring, all the way to disfellowshiping someone. The first issue addressed in the Gospels to the local church was the issue of church discipline (Matthew 18:15–20). Every community of believers must have a means of maintaining order because the church will inevitably receive people who are unsaved, undisciplined, unwilling to practice spiritual discipline, or revert to living like a lost person. Therefore, the church must be able to effectively deal with those situations, and that is precisely why Jesus gave us church discipline.

The final form of biblical discipline is divine discipline. Although all forms of discipline are divine since they all come from God, this discipline is distinguished from the other forms because this discipline does not necessitate an intermediary. There are actually two dimensions or levels of divine discipline. These and their differences can be gleaned from passages such as Hebrews 12:5–8 and Revelation 20:14–15. Hebrews speaks of the discipline between a father and his child saying, “and you have forgotten the exhortation which is addressed to you as sons, ‘My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, Nor faint when you are reproved by Him; For those whom the Lord loves He disciplines, And He scourges every son whom He receives.’ It is for discipline that you endure; God deals with you as with sons; for what son is there whom his father does not discipline? But if you are without discipline, of which all have become partakers, then you are illegitimate children and not sons’” (Hebrews 12:5–8). In contrast, Revelation speaks of an eternal judgement of those outside the redeemed family. Regarding discipline lightly is a significant factor or even the cause of a person becoming undisciplined and possibly having to undergo the more serious forms of discipline like governmental or divine.

This dimension of divine discipline can be anything from a loving wooing of the Holy Spirit to a rebuke from the Scripture or death. The Holy Spirit says, “Furthermore, we had earthly fathers to discipline us, and we respected them; shall we not much rather be subject to the Father of spirits, and live?” (Hebrews 12:9, italics added). If a true believer continues to resist the discipline of the Lord, He may simply take him to heaven prematurely (1 Corinthians 11:30 and 1 John 5:16).

I believe if the church faithfully practices church discipline, fewer believers will have to undergo more serious expressions of divine discipline. We often pray for God to do something miraculous about troublemakers in the church, and wonder why He does not do something. Actually, He already has; He gave us church discipline. We often pray for divine intervention in a situation that has arisen in the church, and yet the Father is waiting on us to act upon what He has already given us for such situations.

We must never fail to emphasize the liberty that discipline produces. When we have the courage and tenacity to discipline, we are actually liberating the church and the person. The cruelest thing we can do is to let an individual remain in their sin without confrontation when there is liberty to be lived.


[1] Lynn R. Buzzard and Thomas S. Brandon, Jr., Church Discipline and the Courts (Wheaton: Tyndale House Publishers, 1987), 65.
[2] D. M. Jackson, The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religion, (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1950), Ill. 8.
[3] Johannes P. Louw and Eugene A. Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament based on Semantic Domains, electronic edition of the 2nd edition, (New York: United Bible Societies, 1989), s.v. “paideia”.
[4] James Strong, The Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible: Showing Every Word of the Test of the Common English Version of the Canonical Books, and Every Occurrence of Each Word in Regular Order, electronic edition (Ontario: Woodside Bible Fellowship, 1996), s.v. “gumnazo”.