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Christian discipline

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Christian discipline

It has been almost two years since the sad events that led to fracture between the Episcopal Church and the Diocese of South Carolina. That lasting wound had its genesis in the decision of the Disciplinary Board of Bishops that Bishop Mark Lawrence had “violated his ordination vows to ‘conform to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of The Episcopal Church’ and to ‘guard the faith, unity, and discipline of the Church.’” There is a reason why the word discipline is repeated in the charges and why it was ultimately a disciplinary board that pushed the diocese over the edge of a cliff they had been standing on for a very long time. Simply put, we have lost all sense in the Church today of what discipline actually means.

Culturally speaking, the word discipline brings to mind notions of strictness and censure. Ask the average American about “church discipline,” and he may very well speak of nuns in Catholic schools smacking their students across the knuckles with rulers. Inside the Church, we ought to know better. Discipline comes from the same root as disciple. The two concepts are intimately intertwined. To be a disciple is to be one who accepts and follows the discipline of another. As Christians, we are called to be disciples of Jesus Christ. We accept his discipline. We follow his path.

The discipline of following Christ is not primarily about following rules. If it were, we would all be in grave danger since we all have sinful hearts that prevent us from doing what is good, right, and true (Rom. 3:20-23). Rather, the discipline of Christ is about receiving from him the grace that makes us one with him and changes our hearts from blackened mounds of ash into the prisms of God’s light and love that they were always meant to be. This is not a painless process. It involves a great deal of letting go. If we follow him, his cross will be laid upon us just as surely as it was laid upon him (Matt. 10:38 and Luke 14:27). We will have to give up our possessions and our ownership of ourselves (Luke 14:33). Even our relationships to family and friends must become subordinate to Christ’s claiming of us (Matt. 10:37 and Luke 14:26). All of this is difficult. It requires suffering and great trust. But it is not an act of bartering with God. We are not giving up ourselves in order to persuade God that we are good enough to receive his favor.

Christian discipline is the receiving of a gift. Jesus is the only one who has ever actually followed the rules, and he followed them not simply because they were rules but because he was the one person who was born into this world since the Fall with a heart that already acted as a prism for God’s light and love.

A discipline is a path that leads from one place to another. If we want to get to a certain place, we move along the path that leads to that place without deviating. Like thorns and brush next to a path that has already been cut, the limits of any true discipline are not there simply to punish us for non-conformity, but to keep us from swerving onto a different path that leads away from where we want to go and towards some place lonely, desolate, and deadly. On the cross, Jesus cut a path that leads back to union with God. He became that path in his own flesh and blood. When we are baptized into Christ, we become one with him. He picks us up and carries us. Along the way, he makes us more and more like him, so that when we finally reach the Father, all he sees is his own Son standing before him, in whom he is well pleased.

Like all priests who have been ordained from the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, I made a vow at my ordination that I would “be loyal to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of Christ as this Church has received them” (BCP, p. 526). I do not believe now, nor did I then, that the primary purpose of making such a vow was to ensure that I was on the hook for any and all legal and canonical strictures that the Episcopal Church may choose to apply to me. If that is the case, then the ordination vow is no more substantive than the hundreds of consent forms we all sign without reading that give our doctors permission to treat us or that give us access to cool new apps on our smartphones.

I believe that the vow I made is far more important and relevant than that. Being loyal to the discipline of Christ means being opened to His transformative love. It means allowing Jesus into every corner of my life, even the dark corners where I do not let anyone else inside. It means trusting him to mold and shape me through the sacraments, prayer, and the hearing of the Word of God preached. In short, it means faith. Doctrine is about knowing God, and worship is about our action towards and with God, but discipline is about actually trusting in God. Christian discipline is Jesus carrying us through the dark night of the soul. It is Jesus stretching out his arms of love on the hard wood of the cross so that you and I might come within the reach of His saving embrace.

If the leaders of the Episcopal Church truly want clergy who will conform to the discipline of Christ, then they need to stop pretending that such a discipline can be found in canons, polity, and structure. The place where the discipline of Christ is to be found is at the altar rail, in the Scriptures, and in the places of both joy and suffering in our lives where the Risen Lord is at work to make us holy. The way to avoid another South Carolina in the future is to change our focus from the canons to the cross.

5 Responses to “Christian discipline”

  1. There are many lines worth highlighting in this excellent piece, but this one most:

    “The discipline of following Christ is not primarily about following rules….Rather, the discipline of Christ is about receiving from him the grace that makes us one with him and changes our hearts from blackened mounds of ash into the prisms of God’s light and love that they were always meant to be.”

    We must get away from a “heroic Christianity” that calls people to work harder and harder but never points them to the grace God offers in Jesus to live.

  2. Christopher Wells says:

    Many thanks, Fr Jonathan; a rich reflection on “the discipline of Christ,” with which I concur theologically. Surely our primary focus should be on cross rather than canons; the cross is the beating heart of the thing. That said, I’d love to hear your further reflections on the place–and theology, even–of canons and order, etc., not least “as this Church has received them” (per the last part of the ordination vow).

    An excellent teaching text on discipline, by the way, that we would do well to remember: the Anglican Communion Institute’s 2004 submission to the Lambeth Commission, Communion and Discipline. See esp. sections 4 and 6. And let’s not forget the common refrain against sec. 4 of the Covenant itself–that it sought to impose an alien disciplinary ethos upon Anglicanism (a misreading of the Covenant, in my view; and also amnestic with respect to actual Anglican history, but never mind). We need to think carefully and deeply about all of this, as an integrated part of ecclesiology.

  3. We must get away from a “heroic Christianity” that calls people to work harder and harder but never points them to the grace God offers in Jesus to live.

    Charlie, you took the words right out of my mouth. The minute grace stops being everything, it becomes nothing.

  4. Christopher, I certainly believe in the rule of law. As to how I would characterize the place of “canons and order,” I am hesitant to say too much without knowing more specifically what you are referring to. I think it is important that the Church have order and that there be accountability. And certainly, I think that being submitted to authority is part of what it means for me to be in orders. I am under the authority of my bishop, the authority of the prayer book, etc. I think those things fit into discipline, but discipline is so much more than that. One of the things I found troubling about the action towards South Carolina two years ago was that discipline was being reduced to a particular understanding of a certain set of rules without there being much interest at all in the wider principles of Christian discipleship. The fact that Bishop Lawrence was brought up on charges of breaking “discipline” but not “doctrine” is telling. I think that we can talk about doctrine and discipline as two categories in theory, sort of like how we talk about justification and sanctification as two different aspects of salvation, but in reality they are so intertwined that they really cannot be separated. Leaving aside the merits of the case and just focusing on the charges, if the Episcopal Church’s leadership now believes that it is possible for someone to be in such gross violation of discipline that they have abandoned communion, but not in violation at all of doctrine, then we have lost touch with what both of those words actually mean.

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