The Old Testament Concept of Discipline. The notion of the discipline of God, and eventually the concept of the community and its leaders effecting God's discipline, derives from the notion of domestic discipline ( Deut 21:18-21 ; Prov 22:15 ; 23:13 ). God is portrayed as a father who guides his child (i.e., the nation, more rarely an individual) to do right by the experience of physical suffering ( Deut 8:5 ; Prov 3:11-12 ). Key ideas include "chasten/chastise" ( Lev 26:18 ; Psalm 94:12 ; Hosea 7:12 ), "discipline" ( Lev 26:23 ; Deut 4:36 ; Prov 12:1 ), and "reproof" ( Job 5:17 ; Prov 6:23 ). While God generally administers discipline to the nation, the community through its leaders is charged with the responsibility to administer the legal code for individuals. This code deals almost exclusively with severe offenses that require the "cutting off" (normally, education) of the offender and gives few details concerning lesser offenses and remedial disciplinary measures. Furthermore, because Israel does not yet perceive itself in the modern (or even New Testament) sense as a religious community within a larger society, it is difficult to detect religious discipline as distinct from the Old Testament legal code. The seeds of accountability among the faithful may be seen in several strands of the tradition: removal from the assembly for ritual impurity ( Exod 12:14-20 ; Lev 17:3-9 ); standards for the evaluation of prophets ( Deut 13:1-5 ; 18:15-22 ); and admonitions to reprove other adults ( Prov 5:12-13 ; 9:7 ; 10:10 ; 19:25 ).
The New Testament and Personal Discipline. The notion of discipline as familial chastisement remains in the New Testament ( Eph 6:4 ; 2 Tim 2:25 ; Heb 12:5-11 ). In addition, the concept is derived from Hellenistic athletics of the Christian life as "training" for righteousness ( 1 Col 9:24-27 ; 1 Tim 4:7-8 ; Heb 5:14 ). Akin to these notions is the recurrent promise that instruction, submission to others, and experiences of pain will prepare the believer for greater righteousness and heavenly reward ( Rom 5:3-5 ; 2 Col 5:16-18 ; 2 Tim 3:16 ; 1 Peter 2:18-21 ).
Community Discipline in Judaism and the Early Church. Community discipline was characteristic of Christian groups in the New Testament period. Paul, for example, probably borrowed some notions from Jewish groups like the Pharisees of whose disciplinary procedures he was himself a recipient. These systems of discipline developed during the intertestamental period as reform movements among the Jews, who developed ways to establish and regulate the boundaries between themselves and outsiders.
The Qumran sectaries developed an elaborate system of penalties intended to safeguard the purity and order of the community. This included a formal reproof procedure, short-term reduction of food allowance, exclusion from ritual meals, and permanent expulsion. Rabbinic traditions suggest that the Pharisees commonly imposed a "ban, " a temporary state of social isolation imposed for deviation from ritual purity laws or for heretical views and designed to recall the offender to full participation in the community. The right to put someone under the ban was originally limited to the Sanhedrin, but some time before the destruction of the temple it was extended to groups of scribes acting together. Rabbinic sources are not clear with respect to complete expulsion from Pharisaic communities in the New Testament era, but it is reasonable to assume that unrepentant banned persons and heretics like Christians would incur more severe judgment. Paul himself five times received a severe form of punishment administered by the synagogue for heresy, the "forty lashes minus one" ( 2 Cor 11:24 ). The number of lashes was reduced from the forty prescribed in Deuteronomy 25:2-3, presumably in order to safeguard against excessive punishment.
lu 17:3-4 may represent the seed of an originally interpersonal "reproof, apology, forgiveness" formula that occurs in expanded form for community action in Matthew 18:15-17. The community becomes involved through its leaders when personal confrontation is ineffective; community action in the form of expulsion is a last resort. This deceptively simple formula combines redemptive purpose and caution with firm resolve in the process of community accountability, and it appears to be the basis of later New Testament practice.
Community Discipline in New Testament Churches. There is insufficient material to establish a "program" or "system" of community discipline for the New Testament period or even for the Pauline churches. It is possible, however, to gain some insights into disciplinary practice in the early Christian churches by examining key Pauline texts for evidence of procedural elements, culpable behaviors, and intended effects.
Galatians 6:1-5 suggests that the first step in correction of an erring believer is personal, private, and gentle (cf. 2 Col 2:5-11 ; Eph 4:29-32 ; Col 3:12-13 ; 1 Thess 5:14-15 ). The stress on humility and readiness to forgive on the part of the person who admonishes recalls the teaching of Jesus ( Matt 7:1-5 ; 18:21-35 ). The notions of self-searching censure and eagerness to effect heartfelt reconciliation, practically nonexistent in Qumran and rabbinic sources, are pervasive in Paul's letters. Indeed, Paul's disciplinary practices are convincing as remedial rather than punitive measures only to the extent that they are infused from start to finish with a pure desire for the good of the offender.
Some offenses, or the stubbornness of some offenders, require that the wider community of believers and its leaders become involved. The command to "take special note of" ( 2 Thess 3:14 ) those who are disobedient may be understood as a command to "keep written records concerning" such persons (cf. "watch out for" dissenters, Rom 16:17 ). This formal element, employed at Qumran, may have been appropriate in the case of more serious offenses, especially if the accumulation of witnesses would have a bearing on further action. "Rebuke" or "refutation" is a common term in the Pastoral Epistles, which may pertain more to doctrinal correction by community leaders ( 1 Tim 5:20 ; 2 Tim 2:25-26 ; 4:2 ; Titus 1:9 Titus 1:13 ; 2:15 ). Either "marking" or "rebuking" on the part of community leaders may constitute "witnesses" as required in the case of divisive persons in Titus 3:10-11 and in the case of elders in 1 Timothy 5:19. Paul equates warnings with witnesses when he writes of his impending third visit to the Corinthians ( 2 Cor 13:1-2 ). It is not clear whether warnings could be construed as witnesses ex post facto, but this may have been an intentional flexibility designed to avoid the legal elaborations of the Qumran sectaries and Pharisees. It also allowed the apostle and his delegates to "troubleshoot" freely with the immature and often contentious local communities.
A survey of the key passages does not strongly support the view that disciplinary action becomes increasingly centralized and formalized through the New Testament period. Rather, it appears that a pattern exists wherein jurisdiction rises in the community hierarchy according to the severity of the offense. Thus we observe that commonly occurring misbehavior is handled by all believers individually ( Gal 6:1-5 ; and parallels ); warnings are administered generally by the community ( Rom 16:17 ; 2 Thess 3:6-15 ); the factious and elders are disciplined by apostolic delegates ( 1 Tim 5:19-22 ; 2 Tim 2:25-26 ; Titus 3:10-11 ); and the most serious cases are taken up by the apostle himself ( 2 Col 13:1-2 ; 1 Tim 1:19-20 ; probably 1 Col 5:3-4 ; cf. Acts 5:1-11 ; 8:20-24 ). Admittedly, the evidence is too sparse to insist on a rigid structure. It is equally possible that, as in the case of Qumran, the group acted through its local community leaders when problems were brought to their attention, and higher authorities like Paul or his delegates acted when they deemed it appropriate. As in the case of the witness-warning sequence, a flexible adaptation of contemporary Jewish practice fit the dynamic spirit of the movement and the occasional aberrations of its local leadership.
When an individual did not respond to warning(s) or committed a serious offense, it became necessary to effect social isolation. The expressions used in the New Testament to convey this idea do not specify what is meant. Matthew 18:17 commands the community to treat the offender "as a pagan or a tax collector." Romans 16:17 tells believers to "watch out" for wrongdoers; 1 Corinthians 5:11 and 2 Thessalonians 3:14 enjoin, "do not associate" with offenders; 2 Thessalonians 3:6 commands, "keep away from" the disobedient. First Corinthians 5:11 is more specific in instructing believers not to eat with those under discipline (cf. 2 John 10-11). This recollects the Pharisaic ban, under which the offender was cut off socially from all but his immediate family. As in the case of the ban, the individual feels ashamed ( 2 Thess 3:14 ) and, when proven repentant (it is not clear how), is welcomed back "as a brother" ( 2 Thess 3:15 ; cf. 2 Col 2:5-11 ; Gal 6:1 ).
In several instances, it appears that Paul goes beyond measures intended to recall erring individuals to a final expulsion from the community. The key text in this regard is 1 Corinthians 5:1-5, where Paul responds to a case of incest by commanding, "hand this man over to Satan, " an expression employed similarly in 1 Timothy 1:20. It is clear that the early church understood the realm of Satan to be everywhere outside the fellowship of believers ( 2 Col 4:4 ; Gal 1:4 ; Eph 2:2 ) and that Paul's expression here denotes expulsion from the community. That the sentence is reformatory is confirmed by the fact that Paul ends the pronouncement in 1 Corinthians 5:5 with the express intent that the offender's spirit may be "saved in the day of the Lord"; similarly, 1 Timothy 1:20 notes that "Hymenaeus and Alexander were handed over to Satan to be taught not to blaspheme." The phrase in 1 Corinthians 5:5, "so the sinful nature may be destroyed, " is ambiguous. It almost certainly denotes physical suffering, but it is unclear whether the sufferer's life will be spared by repentance.
Behaviors Subject to Discipline. Doctrinal deviations that create division in the community are a problem for Paul ( 1 Col 1:10-11 ; 11:18-19 ; cf. Heb 12:15 ), and the disciplinary measures in Romans 16:17 and 2 Corinthians 13:1-2 appear to respond to division caused by heterodoxy (cf. Gal 5:2-12 ). The Pastoral Epistles are dominated by this concern and 1 Timothy 1:20 is a clear case in point. The danger of heresy and resultant factions to the integrity of local communities and the movement as a whole is obvious. It is not clear, however, to what extent aberrant views that did not cause splits could be tolerated. Moral deviations are in view in the two most lengthy passages, 2 Thessalonians 3:6-15 and 1 Corinthians 5:1-13 ( 1 Tim 5:19-22 ; is ambiguous cf. James 5:19-20 ; 1 John 5:16-17 ). The charge that some were "idle" in Thessalonica is taken by many to denote inactivity in expectation of an imminent parousia, but it is more likely that Paul's instruction reflects a social situation typical of a large port city, where many laborers were inactive for periods of time and dependent on patrons. Within the community of believers, some appear to have begun to presume upon the Christian goodness of patrons, and the system was in danger of devolving into freeloading, resentment, and division (perhaps echoed in 1 Col 11:18-19 ). In 1 Corinthians 5, Paul is obviously concerned about porneia [porneiva], sexual sin (vv. 1, 9, 11), but he also condemns any "so-called" brother (cf. simply "brother" in 2 Thess 3:15 ) who is "greedy, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or robber" (v. 11 NRSV). The fact that the list is expanded in 6:9-10 with special attention to sexual and property values suggests that it is not random, after the fashion of contemporary moralists, but is consciously directed at the sins of Corinth. These are of course not the only offenses subject to discipline (cf. Gal 5:19-21 ), but they are particularly dangerous to the Corinthians. Although the list does not specify the extent of the sin, it does convey a very strict moral accountability. The reason for this ethical rigorism is implied in Paul's allusion to Deuteronomy 17:7 in 5:13, "Expel the wicked man from among you." The opposite of wickedness for Paul is not cultic purity but holiness in the sense of the Spirit-controlled life of each member of the unified community. Deviation from holiness will retard the growth of the entire body, or "leaven the lump."
Effective Community Discipline. For the individual offender, the New Testament practice is clearly intended to produce repentance in an atmosphere of support and forgiveness. For the community, to hold its members accountable through disciplinary measures will maintain the moral integrity of the group. All of these principles are present at least to some extent in the contemporary Jewish practices that were apparently adapted by the primitive church, albeit in a less systematized form. The unique and potentially potent aspect of the New Testament concept of discipline is the infusion of Christ-like love into disciplinary practice. Philippians 2:1-5, although it does not address discipline directly, expresses concisely the principle behind the scattered references on the subject. The incentive of love, the sharing of the Spirit, the humble attitude that is, the mind of Christ is that which makes it possible to hold another person accountable. Thus the key to effective discipline is its reflexive element. The one who holds another accountable is first accountable to be a loving person. When this is true of a community of believers, isolation of an offender will be a compelling remedial force; the community's power to persuade or to punish brings a person back into obedient fellowship. It is the community's ability to demonstrate love in its Spirit-transformed living that constitutes a compellingly attractive force.
Thomas E. Schmidt
Bibliography. W. D. Davies and D. Allen, Matthew 8-18; G. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians; G. Forkman, The Limits of the Religious Community; G. W. H. Lampe, Christian History and Interpretation: Studies Presented to John Knox, pp. 337-61; C. J. Roetzel, Judgment in the Community; C. A. Wanamaker, The Epistles to the Thessalonians.
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
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Bibliography InformationElwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Discipline'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology".