[By “Christian discipline” I mean where Christian believers confront other Christian believers about unorthodox beliefs or unethical and immoral practices that are part of the latter’s life. The aim and goal is not to put anyone down or elevate anyone else but to restore the offending Christian to Christian orthodoxy and orthopraxy – right belief and right practice.]
In my experience in the Church, Christian discipline has been either focused exclusively on the outside appearance of righteousness, been attempted ineffectively outside of relationship or is not practiced it at all. I think we need to re-think how we approach Christine discipline. To provide an example for discussion I will use myself.
During my high school years I had an incredibly foul mouth. I was also regularly attending BVG’s high school ministries and would self-identify as a Christian. I am tempted to credit my foul language with how I idolized the military men I was encountering in my Jr. Navy program but the truth is I had my Christian family screaming obscenities at me long before I ever considered joining the military. Ultimately, I choose to use very foul language which was undoubtedly coming from a deep place of anger and resentment in my heart.
During this time an acquaintance of mine from church came up in an unannounced manner, swung his arm around my shoulder and mentioned with a rather smug smile on his face that he had noticed my foul language at school, pointed out my hypocrisy and told me I needed to watch my language.
I was furious. Not only did this Christian lack any real relationship with me but in our brief interactions through school he had been incredibly prideful and arrogant towards me and we had watched a soft-core porno together. My reaction was typical. I outwardly nodded and agreed with him but inside my heart I already raging and in my head I was thinking, Who the f—k does this guy think he is!?
I think from this experience my three issues with how we approach Christian discipline can be discussed.
First, my peer held me to account for my external behavior with no concern for the state of my heart that drove those behaviors. I was essentially told to “clean the outside of your cup,” something Jesus declared a futile practice. (Matt 23:25) External behavior is a symptom of the state of one’s heart. For as Jesus says, “For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of.” (Matt 12:34)
To provide another example, my old college pastor was fond of the adage, “Garbage in, garbage out.” The message being what media we listen to or watch will change the state of our heart. This was a warning to not watch or listen to media that celebrated immorality. While it is good to be critical of what we watch or listen to, I think this is the exact opposite of what Jesus teaches.
I think Jesus teaches that the state of a person’s heart produces the outward behaviors we can see, not that the outward behaviors dictate the state of the heart. Instead of the media shaping the state of our heart, the state of our heart dictates what media we are drawn to.
Instead of going around and telling fellow Christians to, “Stop using foul language” or “respect your parents” or “stop sleeping around” we should also ask, “Why are you using foul language? Why are you so angry?” or “What is the root of your frustration with your parents?” or “Why are you sleeping around? Why do you think this is a solution?” I say “also” because we are accountable for our external behavior (Matt 12:36) and my concern is not that addressing external behavior is bad; often this is all that we can see and all that indicates there is a problem. My concern is that we stop there and never get to what is driving these behaviors from below the surface. Understanding and addressing what is driving the external behaviors we see should be the aim of Christian discipline for as Jesus says, “Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean.” (Matt 23:26 – italics mine) Where we only tell people to clean up their external behavior, and never seek to understand or address the state of their heart, we miss opportunities to truly help fellow Christians.
Second, this peer attempted to discipline me without a relationship. A Christian acquaintance tried to take on the responsibilities of a Christian brother. I do not think that the Bible where it talks about Christian discipline and handling sin within the church refers to “brothers and sisters” for no reason. I think this is suggestive of who should be doing the disciplining (Gal 6:1 and Matt 18:15-17). While some might suggest this is just the language of the day I think it was indicative of the highly relational and communal nature of the early church, something we are still called to today yet many times miss out on.
I do not think it is appropriate for Christians to discipline other Christians outside the context of a real relationship; simply seeing someone at church does not provide enough of a relationship to do Christian discipline. While one does not need such a relationship to confront blatant sin or false teaching (Jesus didn’t have a relationship with everyone He rebuked) I think in-house restorative Christian discipline should be done by those discipling the individual, parents and friends, not acquaintances. This is not always possible, and our highly individualistic approach to Church and faith in the West is not conducive to this, but it is the ideal.
Also, such relationships should include reciprocity. I would never discipline someone I did not explicitly or implicitly invite to do the same to me. To do so would be to give of the air of “I have it all together – you need to step up to my level” something that is not exactly in keeping with Christian humility or honest about the fallen nature of humanity. Yes some Christians are more mature than others, but no Christian is done with the process of sanctification, at least not in this life.
Third, while many people at church undoubtedly observed my duplicitous behavior only one Christian talked to me about it (and in my eyes he did so as a hypocrite). My point is that many other Christians chose not to address my behavior, let alone my behavior and the state of my heart. I think many Christians fear confrontation in general and feel it is more loving to be gracious and not say anything, hoping the problem will get solved. This looks a lot more like denial than the body of Christ functioning as it should.
I think it can be incredibly loving for Christians to confront one another as sometimes we fail to see our own glaring faults and, “Better is open rebuke than hidden love.” (Prov 27:5) I truly wish my closest friends in high school had disciplined me in a way that got to the heart of the issue and supported me as I dealt with what was really going on. Sadly, more often than not people in a position to intervene did nothing and the select few that did stopped at my external behavior.
I also fear some might use Jesus’ words regarding hypocrisy as an “out” of sorts (I know I have). To avoid engaging in Christian discipline we claim our hypocrisy alleviates the responsibility we have to other Christian brothers and sisters. “How dare I talk to them about ‘X’ when I am doing ‘Y’ and no one knows about it…I would be a hypocrite, so it’s best just to leave it alone…” This is ridiculous. If one read’s Jesus statement on hypocrisy to its end in Matthew 7:3-5 one will notice that the reason Christ calls us to deal with ourselves first is so that then we will “see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.” (Matt 7:5) Jesus words here were not, “Never notice or talk to a fellow Christian about sin in their life.” That would be incongruous with His own behavior and other scriptures. Jesus exhortation here was to make sure that when we engaged in Christian discipline we did not do so as hypocrites. We are to get our own houses in order before we presume to help anyone else do the same.
In my entire life I have probably had less than five occasions where I have encountered Christian discipline done well, either talking to someone else about an issue or having someone confront me about my behavior. This is ridiculously low considering the fallen nature of man, the amount of time I have spent with Christians and the hypocritical nature of most of my life. People not speaking up, to “not rock the boat” or not offend me have just let me walk longer in my hypocrisy and I have done the same to others. Where Christian discipline is not practiced or not practiced well, everyone loses. I truly hope that we can re-examine this part of our faith and learn to practice and receive it on a more regular basis. Lord knows we need it.