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Rethinking Discipline

2008 March 25
by Julie Clawson

Thinking out loud here on the topic of discipline. I know that there are different meanings of the word depending on one’s intent and purposes, but I sometimes wonder if we restrict what we mean by the term too much in certain circumstances.

The etymology of “discipline” takes us to the Latin terms referring to the instruction given to a disciple. Instruction/discipline was necessary in order to shape a disciple. So Jesus instructing his disciples is discipline. Yet over time the emphasis shifted from shaping a follower to dictating the manner or rules by which the disciple should live. Later the term evolved to refer to punishments inflicted if said rules were not followed.

The two areas I most commonly hear the term used are in reference to child rearing and spiritual disciplines. In both areas, I think we often focus so much on the later meanings of the term that we fail to remember its roots. Instead of shaping disciples (ourselves spiritually or our children) we dwell on legalism and rules. We have checklists for how to be a good Christian and are often punished personally by guilt or corporately through ridicule and ostracism if those rules aren’t followed. We don’t go to church, do our quiet time, appear engaged in worship and we suffer the consequences. And of course we all know the arbitrary rules and punishments we inflict upon our kids all the time. But I wonder if we are effectively making disciples? Are we instructing them and helping shape them (and ourselves) into disciples who choose to follow a certain path? Or have we just created good systems of rules and punishments that keep some people in bounds some of the time?

I’m not saying get rid of rules, just wondering if we limit our understanding of discipline to our detriment.


4 Responses leave one →
  1. March 26, 2008

    My thoughts on this are all over the place. I’m into grace based parenting – and want that to invade ever relationship that I have with everyone. I get stuck with the legalist camp. I find it hard to extend grace to them.
    More thoughts possibly later.

  2. Karl permalink
    March 26, 2008

    Short answer – yes. Dallas Willard and Richard Foster have a lot to say on this topic.

    The concept of discipline does contain and involve rules and consequences, but those are just a couple (out of many) aspects of discipline, and they are means, not ends. i.e. in and of themselves rules and punishments/consequences aren’t “discipline” but are small parts of a multifaceted whole that results in one being a “disciplined one” or a disciple.

  3. March 26, 2008

    Thinking about discipline in the spiritual sense…I recently noticed something while studying about discipleship. I noticed that the Greek word translated “disciple” is simply, “learner” or “pupil”. In other words, “disciple” wasn’t really Jesus’ term. WE are the ones who have used that Anglo-Latin word, and all the variations of it, to focus on the “disciplines” of “discipleship”, when Jesus just wants us to follow Him and learn from Him. Yes, there is the “discipline of the Lord” and all, but have we possibly misunderstood the heart of following Jesus because of this translation of the word?

    Just something to add to your thoughts.

  4. March 27, 2008

    There is a similar tendency I’ve noticed with the related words “ascetic” and “asceticism”.

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