Discipline (Lat. disciplina, instruction, learning), a term used ecclesiastically to denote the application, in the Christian Church, of rules for the order and purity of the lives of its members; also the body of rules for the government, worship, etc. of any particular Church, enacted by its authority, and generally published in a "Book of Discipline."
I. Church Discipline. —
(I.) In the Early Church. The first rule of discipline in the N.T. is given in Mt 18:15-17: "Moreover, if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother. But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established. And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the Church; but if he neglect to hear the Church, let him be unto thee as a heathen man and a publican." Here the aims are
(1) the reformation of the offender; and, that failing,
(2) the purification of the Church. The method is,
(a) that the offended person takes the first step, and, that failing,
(b) a small Church committee acts; and, in case of their failure,
(c) the Church is called in, and the obstinate offender is cut off from fellowship.
The apostolical discipline is illustrated by the case of the incestuous person (1Co 5:1-11). Here Paul excommunicates the offender,
(1) verse 3, stating his own judgment concerning the offense and its perpetrator;
(2) verse 4, stating that he acts "in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ;" and,
(3) associating with himself the whole body of the Corinthian Church, acting also "with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ." (Compare De Wette and Stanley, in loc.; Schaff, Apostolic Church, § 122; Coleman, Apostolic and Primitive Church, chapter 5).
In verse 12 he implies that the "judgment" lies with the Church, "Do not ye judge them that are within?" He enjoins strict separation from immoral professors of religion: verse 11, "But now I have written unto you not to keep company, if any man that is called a brother be a fornicator, or covetous, or an idolater, or a railer, or a drunkard, or an extortioner: with such a one no not to eat." In the case of the incestuous person the exercise of discipline brought penitence; and the apostle (2 Corinthians 2) exhorts the Church to "forgive and comfort him," and restore him to fellowship. On the apostolical discipline, both as to doctrine and morals, compare also 2Th 3:6; 1Ti 1:20; 2Jo 1:9-11: "He that abideth in the doctrine of Christ, he hath both the Father and the Son. If there come any unto you, and bring not this doctrine, receive him not into your house, neither bid him God speed, for he that biddeth him God speed is partaker of his evil deeds." The exercise of discipline (1) by reproof, (2) by censure, (3) by excommunication, was kept in the hands of the Church as a whole (not of any special class or order in the Church), during its earliest and best ages. See a summing up of the evidence on this point in Coleman, Apostolical and Primitive Church, chapter 5. '"The primitive Church never pretended to exercise discipline upon any but such as were within her pale, in the largest sense, by some act of their own profession, and even upon these she never pretended to exercise her discipline so far as to cancel or disannul their baptism. But the discipline of the Church consisted in a power to deprive men of the benefits of external communion, such as public prayer, receiving the Eucharist, and other acts of divine worship. This power, before the establishment of the Church by human laws, was a mere spiritual authority, or, as St. Cyprian terms it, a spiritual sword, affecting the soul and not the body" (Hook, Church Dictionary, s.v.). On the so-called secret discipline of the ancient Church, SEE ARCANI DISCIPLINA.
As to the exercise of discipline, it seems clear "that the action of the laity was requisite, as late as the middle of the third century, in all disciplinary proceedings of the Church. By the beginning of the fourth century, however, this cardinal right, through the operation of causes which have been briefly mentioned, and which may be more fully specified hereafter, was greatly abridged, and shortly was wholly lost. This fact illustrates the progress of the ecclesiastical hierarchy. While the right of the laity is yet undisputed, the power of the bishop begins at first to be partially asserted and occasionally admitted, the people occupying a neutral position between submission and open hostility. But from disuse to denial, and from denial to extinction of neglected privileges and powers, the descent is natural, short, and rapid. From about the middle of the fourth century, accordingly, the bishops assumed the control of the whole penal jurisdiction of the laity, opening and shutting at pleasure, the doors of the Church, inflicting sentence of excommunication, and prescribing at their discretion the austerities of penance, and again absolving the penitents, and restoring them to the Church by their own arbitrary powers. The people accordingly, no longer having any part in the trial of offenses, ceased to watch for the purity of the Church, connived at offenses, and concealed the offender, not caring to interfere with the prerogative of the bishop, in which they had no further interest. The speedy and sad corruption of the Church was but the natural consequence of this loose and arbitrary discipline. Nor was it to be doubted that this was one efficient cause of that degeneracy which succeeded" (Coleman, Apostolical and Primitive Church, chapter 5). "This transition changed essentially the relations of the officers to the members of the Church, and the conditions of Church membership. The officers of the Church, instead of receiving authority and office from that body for their service, claim authority and commission from God for the exercise of their functions. They are now the rulers; not the servants, as at the beginning they were, of the Church. A union with the Church by a public profession is a transaction not so much between the Church and the professing Christian, as between him and the bishop. The contracting, covenanting parties are the bishop and the believer. The sovereign authority of the Church is merged and lost in that of the priesthood. Ecclesiastical discipline naturally resolves itself into a system of penance administered by the priesthood, in whom alone authority is vested for the punishment of offenses" (Coleman, Ancient Christianity, chapter 22).
II. In the Middle Ages, and in the Roman Church, the system of penitential discipline, for the treatment of persons confessing their sin, grew up into full proportions. SEE PENANCE; SEE PENITENTIAL DISCIPLINE. In the Roman Church, and among some Protestant writers, the word discipline, standing alone, implies only penitential, and not punitive discipline.
III. In the Modern Church. — The exercise of punitive discipline in the modern Church is found to be impossible, or nearly so, in state churches. In the Church of England, and the Protestant state churches on the Continent of Europe, it is almost unknown. Where citizens, as such, are ipso facto Church members, to punish the Church member is to affect a man's citizenship.
On the other hand, in Free churches, whether in Europe or America, discipline by reproof, censure, suspension, or excommunication is not only possible, but is actually practiced very generally. The following passage contains principles on which the Free Protestant churches of modern Christendom generally act with regard to discipline.
"Godly discipline has ever been regarded as one of the notes or marks of a true Church. Our Protestant forefathers charged the Church of Rome with being greatly wanting in this, and scarce deserving the name of Church by reason of such want. Discipline relates to the laws of any society, and the penalties of disobedience. All institutions must have laws in order to good government. Christ's kingdom has its laws and penalties. Many of them were expressly appointed by Christ himself. Others, in conformity with the same, have from time to time been added by the Church. To obey the powers ordained of God, whether civil or ecclesiastical, when exercised according to his revealed will, is a bounden duty. Ministers, at the time of their ordination, promise faithful obedience to those who are placed over them, and who exercise their authority according to prescribed rules. A due respect also is required to their godly admonitions and judgments. This obedience and respect are to be shown not merely to those with whom we may agree in sentiment or sympathize in theological views, but to those also from whom we differ; and this may be done without any improper sacrifice of Christian liberty or right of private judgment. As to the rules and regulations of the Church, whether the observance be specially required by rulers or not, the true Christian will hold himself bound to render it. He will not select such of them as he most approves, or as most accord with his doctrines, and scrupulously observe these, making such observance a test, and denouncing those who differ from him; but, he will resolve to obey them all, out of respect to the authority enjoining them. And yet, since God himself, preferring mercy to sacrifice, allows even his holy Sabbath to be violated as to its letter, and sacrifices and offerings to be withheld, So a wise discretion has ever been conceded to God's ministers in the observance of inferior rules, or in regard to things become obsolete, having due reference to times, places, and circumstances. Wherever such discretion has not been allowed or exercised, the result has been that men have strained at the gnat and swallowed the camel; have tithed mint, anise, and cummin, and neglected the weightier matters of the law. It should always be remembered that, as the Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath, so rubrics and canons were made for the Church, and not the Church for them" (Bishop Meade, True Churchman).
In Presbyterian churches, discipline is exercised by the Session (q.v.), an appeal lying to the Presbytery, and thence to Synod and General Assembly. In the "Form of Government" of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (book 2), the general principles of discipline are laid down as follows:
I. Discipline is the exercise of that authority and the application of that system of laws which the Lord Jesus Christ has appointed in his Church.
II. The exercise of discipline is highly important and necessary. Its ends are, the removal of offenses; the vindication of the honor of Christ; the promotion of the purity and general edification of the Church; and also the benefit of the offender himself.
III. An offense is anything in the principles or practice of a Church member which is contrary to the word of God, or which, if it be not in its own nature sinful, may tempt others to sin, or mar their spiritual edification.
IV. Nothing, therefore, ought to be considered by any judicatory as an offense, or admitted as matter of accusation, which cannot be proved to be such from Scripture, or from the regulations and practice of the Church, founded on Scripture, and which does not involve those evils which discipline is intended to prevent.
V. The exercise of discipline in such a manner as to edify the Church requires not only much of the spirit of piety, but also much prudence and discretion. It becomes the rulers of the Church, therefore, to take into view all the circumstances which may give a different character to conduct, and render it more or less offensive; and which may, of course, require a very different mode of proceeding in similar cases, at different times, for the attainment of the same end.
VI. All baptized persons are members of the Church, are under its care and subject to its government and discipline; and when they have arrived at the years of discretion, they are bound to perform all the duties of Church members.
VII. Offences are either private or public, to each of which appropriate modes of proceeding belong." In Congregational churches, discipline is administered by the Church. For the principles and methods of Congregational discipline, see Punchard, View of Congregationalism (1844), 177 sq.; Dexter, On Congregationalism (1865), 259 sq.
In the Methodist Episcopal Church an accused member is brought to trial before a committee of not less than five, who shall not be members of the Quarterly Conference. In the selection of the committee, the parties may challenge for cause. The pastor presides at the trial. If the majority find him guilty, the pastor executes the sentence of expulsion. Appeals are allowed to the Quarterly and Annual Conferences (Discipline, part 3, chapter 1).
In the Constitutions of the Reformed churches of America (German and Dutch), the principles and rules of discipline laid down are very similar to that of the Presbyterian Church above cited. See Constitution of the German Reformed Church (1854), part 3, page 32; Constitution of the Reformed Dutch Church of North America (Philippians 1840), chapter 4, page 32.
Literature. — On the discipline of the ancient Church, see, besides the authors already cited, Bingham, Orig. Ecclesiastes book 16, chapter 1; Schaff, Hist. of the Christian Church, 1, § 114; Neander, Church History (Torrey's), volumes 1 and 2; Barrow, On the Pope's Supremacy, Works, 3:232 sq. (N.Y. ed.); and the references under SEE PENANCE; SEE PENITENTIAL DISCIPLINE.
On Church discipline in general, see Hooker, Ecclesiastes Polity; Watson, Theological Institutes, 2:572 sq. (N.Y. ed.); Dwight, Theology (New Haven, 1836), 4:386 sq.; Walker, Church Discipline (Boston 1854, 18mo); Hill, Pastoral Function in the Church (Lond. 1855. chapter 1); James, Church-members' Guide; Porter, Compendium of Methodism (N.Y. 12mo); and works on pastoral and practical theology generally. SEE DISCIPLINE, BOOK OF; SEE EXCOMMUNICATION; SEE ECCLESIASTICAL POLITY.