Disciplines of the Christian Life

Religious Serials & Series Articles

01-064 Disciplines of the Christian Life, by Jack M. Sherley LEXINGTON THEOLOGICAL QUARTERLY, Vol. 1: 109-118, October, 1966

LEXINGTON THEOLOGICAL QUARTERLY, Vol. 1: 109-118, October, 1966

by Jack M. Sherley

ACCEPTANCE, LOVE AND FORGIVENESS are central to the gospel. They are central issues in contemporary efforts in pastoral care and counseling. The place of discipline and structure has been more difficult to understand and accept. Pastors and student pastors frequently express desire to make more effective use of time, to be better disciplined in professional work. The New Testament grapples with the relation between law and gospel. Throughout the history of the church the same issue has demanded the attention of leaders and people alike.

Emphasis upon first one and then the other alternates. Moses is associated with the gift and discovery of the law. The prophets struggled to transcend shallow ceremonialism and legalism. Most pastoral and psychotherapeutic writing has pled for accepting and "non-judgmental" relationships. It is, therefore, something of a surprise to come upon the occasional assertion by a psychologist that psychotherapy is a series of judgments, rewards and punishments based on an objective standard. The therapist rewards by what he pays attention to and punishes by what he withholds attention from. By this means he gently and firmly "guides" his patient toward a more disciplined and intelligent life at the same time that the patient may indeed feel release from an old "law" that had enslaved him.

One significant statement of the importance of Christian discipline is made in Calvin's Institutes:

But because some persons, in their hatred of discipline, recoil from its very name, let them understand this: if no society, indeed, no house which has even a small family, can be kept in proper condition without discipline, it is much more necessary in the church, whose condition should be as ordered as possible. Accordingly, as the saving doctrine of Christ is the soul of the church, so does discipline serve as its sinews, through which the members of the body hold together, each in its own place. Therefore, all who desire to remove discipline or to hinder its restoration - whether they do this deliberately or out of ignorance - are surely contributing to the ultimate dissolution of the church. For what will happen if each is allowed to do what he pleases? Yet that would happen, if to the preaching of doctrine there were not added private admonitions, corrections and other aids of the sort that sustain doctrine and do not let it remain idle. Therefore, discipline is like a bridle to restrain and tame those who rage against the doctrine of Christ; or like a spur to those of little inclination; and also sometimes like a father's rod to chastise mildly and with the gentleness of Christ's Spirit those who have more seriously lapsed. (1)

What are the disciplines of the Christian life? They begin in the requirements of basic justice, honesty and industry. They include a continuing attitude of humility and repentance which seeks honest searching of both strengths and weaknesses. They include a searching of the heart for attitudes as more central than acts. They include ceremonies and structures of learning and prayer, but always they transcend particular forms of worship and catechism. These disciplines seek an integrated or centered life, one which accepts with increasing concentration the central purposes of life. In the words of Westminster Catechism, "The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever." From this center flows a disciplined concentration on prayer and service to fellowman in fulfillment of the will of God, the aim of life in the Kingdom he gives.

How are these disciplines to be passed from one generation to another? The answer to this question will be sought by examination of the factors in common underlying efforts at pastoral guidance at a number of significant points in the history of the church. In each a more or less specific procedure is offered not unlike the steps in Alcoholics Anonymous. In each there is a significant relationship both to an individual pastoral director, guide or sponsor, and to a sustaining group. In each the disciplined life arises out of honest acknowledgment of failure and need for help beyond the self to achieve any growth in self discipline.

Transmission of Christian disciplines rests ultimately on the central achievement of human civilization, the domestication of children and the building of a network of cooperation and trust without which no cultural movement forward is possible. Christian disciplines rest upon the achievements which make language and family life possible, the achievements which make government and commerce as effective as they are as vehicles for meeting human needs and desires.

The disciplines are based upon discoveries that produced the Ten Commandments. The commandments are taught as if given from outside of man, the demands of God. And yet at the same time they are seen by the man of faith as both revelations and discoveries about the heart of man and his civilization. God himself has implanted within man the capacity to see that life is possible only under conditions of mutual respect and trust. If one fears that his neighbor will kill or steal or lie or take from him the persons in whom he finds security and comfort, his own family, the resulting agony is intolerable. If he acts in undisciplined ways, he will live in fear of retaliation.

Christian disciplines and their transmission root in the inherited framework of culture broadly and Hebrew culture in particular. Christianity's unique gift is the insight about, and the relationship with, a suffering and risen Lord who draws us toward a disciplined life both by example and by the gift of himself, which is the gift of God himself. Discipline follows no longer primarily as a result of fear or anxiety concerning consequences, but from an active and positive devotion to one whose patience and tenderness, whose strong challenge toward the highest quality of life, know no bounds.

Civilization cannot move forward without more or less specific disciplines. Within Christian civilization these are subject to steady revision and correction by the spirit of Christ and by the prophetic tradition whenever legalisms form and harden as they do again and again. The visable Church and the Christian home will continually lie under the judgment of God and in his spirit bring forth new forms of discipline.

In the development of new forms it is important to rediscover the values in old forms. For example, has the method of the rabbi in Nazareth who taught Jesus any relevance for contemporary education? Is it possible to dispense with rote memorization of the word, the precept, the text and story of the Bible? What is the relation between the rote learning of words and phrases on the one hand, and the living of a responsible and thoughtful life on the other? Much contemporary educational thought is centered on this old question. It is widely counted a gain to be free from the seeming enslavement of detailed Bible-content study. But where does this actually leave the student in the development of his own discipline as well as knowledge? Neglect of early teaching of Bible content leaves a dangerous void that may never be completely filled.

There need be no exclusion of either rote learning or less structured method. The two can be held together. It is obvious that if the ancient methods of rote memorization were alone the most effective method of learning, they would not decline and drop from sight as they tend to do. On the other hand a reliance upon spontaneous approaches without adequate reference to the development of specific disciplines also appear inadequate. There is a constant tendency to seek security in the disciplines, and then to rebel against them.

It appears that little has been added to the basic skills discovered early in the development of culture and that progress now is very slow in these areas. Progress in discovering how to motivate learning and discipline, as in other areas, rests upon thorough effort to understand and describe the processes. In contrast to social learning the rate of technological progress is staggering. Certain technological advances, as they bear on education and psychological manipulation of people, are fraught with a mixture of hope and anxiety. The full effect of automated and programmed teaching has just begun to be imagined. It will remain true, however, that the motive power that draws people to learn cannot be supplied by teaching or memory machines. The computer will never outstrip the programmer except in speed of recall and correlation. What is recalled and the uses to which it is put will depend upon the motives of persons.

The key to motivation in the development of Christian disciplines lies in the relationships between persons as persons and not primarily in the degree of structure provided. Structure is essential; the question of how much and what form remains. But the concern of one person for another is the key to the process. Jesus learned in Nazareth as a boy because he knew that the rabbi and his parents cared about him as a person. They relied on traditional methods of teaching that persisted over the centuries because they had shown their value. Then, as now, -it was the careful attention paid by adults to the first efforts of the child which was a key to motivation and to learning. Continued attention and encouragement provide the rewards that ultimately develop the disciplines from within.

Affirmation of the person and his accomplishments is at the center of motivation. Acceptance of the person where he is, and faith that he can move beyond his present situation, is essential and must be accompanied by patience, with faltering and reasonable, respectful punishment for failure. Affirmation. is more powerful than direct rejection or punishment. Withholding praise is the most significant punishment for a person who has begun to learn and feels the reward of praise. The speed with which any recognition and correction are given is measurably correlated with speed and retention of learning. But ultimately it is the concern of one person for another which makes learning possible and worth pursuing.

With these principles in mind it is the purpose of this paper now to examine more closely the common elements that may be found in certain examples from the history of the church representing attempts to offer specific disciplines. These include the Spiritual Exercises of Loyola and prescriptions for public penance given by John Knox. These will be compared with the steps in Alcoholics Anonymous.

The famed Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius Loyola, (2) founder of the Jesuits, had roots, of course in the long established traditions of both monastic and military training. They effected the profound changes that they did because of the genius of the founder, the need raised by Reformation ferment, and the precise and careful structure involved. The key to power lay in the call for voluntary but radical obedience. Loyola showed significant insight into the psychological process of learning.

At the heart of the process is the relationship between the penitent, seeking the help from the Exercises, and his spiritual director. The penitent was offered a prescribed period, usually a month, for guided meditation on the meaning of hell and salvation. The step-by-step report and continually progressive submission to the spiritual director afforded opportunity for change that involved new attitudes and a more disciplined life. It was assumed that the exercises would be sought at various times in life, but the thorough-going nature of the search, and the depth and strength of the tie to the spiritual director sometimes meant a radical change in individual and group life.

At the outset the following similarities appear between the Exercises and the traditions of Alcoholics Anonymous. The significance of the spiritual director and the A.A. sponsor are similar. There is a similar involvement of the whole person, body, mind and spirit, senses and will, in a step-by-step process of concentration and reformation of life. All this is to be accomplished within a sustaining and sympathetic, yet structured and strong, if not stern, group life. The sternness is toward the uncooperative. In A.A. the person who continues to drink is welcome each time he slips and sincerely seeks readmission, but while he is drinking there is no place for him at all in the meetings.

The specific nature of the Spiritual Exercises is illustrated at the outset by the first "Annotation." The aim of Loyola was to give some understanding of the exercises to both the penitent and to the spiritual director.

First Annotation. The First Annotation is that by this name of Spiritual Exercises is meant every way of examining one's conscience of meditating, of contemplating, of praying vocally and mentally, and of performing other spiritual actions, as will be said later. For as strolling, walking and running are bodily exercises, so every way of preparing and disposing the soul to rid itself of all disordered tendencies, and after it is rid, to seek and find the Divine Will as to the management of one's life for the salvation of the soul, is called a Spiritual Exercise. (3)

Loyola continued by stressing the importance of brief explanations at each step by the spiritual director. The greater difficulty in changing the will, in contrast to changing ideas, is recognized. The efforts of each section, usually a week, involved consideration of sins, the life of Christ, the methods of prayer and the meaning of hell. The Exercises could be arranged in as little as ten days, if necessary, but usually involved thirty days. It involved a submission of will and liberty for this time and following, in a new way of life.

The director is instructed to be gentle and indulgent, if he sees that the penitent is in desolation and tempted. He is expected to help the penitent concentrate on each section without jumping ahead in the process. It is expected that the penitent will stay with the exercise at least one full hour each day and longer if possible. The Exercises are to be adapted to the age, education and ability of the individual. The penitent is expected to isolate himself from other people as much as possible in order to turn to God and return to life a better disciplined person.

The detailed instruction concerning rememberance of sins is similar to the A.A. in that it suggests an attempt to remember the whole of life, meditating specifically from year to year, from period to period. One is urged to ask what he is in relation to other people, to angels, to God. Both the detailed remembering with a professional guide in psychotherapy, and the efforts to take inventory and list all people harmed, in A.A. are, of course, an essentially similar process.

Both Calvin and Loyola actually meant to call for Christlike gentleness in pastoral care. The threat of gross upheaval during the Reformation transition led to excesses and bitter kinds of persecution. But the power of these leaders lay in their ability to offer specific disciplines which were tangible enough to bring assurance to their followers. They laid the groundwork for developments both in contemporary efforts at pastoral guidance and counseling, and in the whole of mental health care.

John Knox and the other reformers believed that their approaches were a return to Biblical methods and doctrines. Their effort provided opportunity for the individual penitent, as did Loyola. But theirs was an even stronger reliance upon group process in shaping individual character. This is illustrated by the "Form of Public Repentance" given by John Knox. (4)

The Form provided a liturgical setting with instructions in which a person might make public his repentance after being examined by the "Session and Assembly of the Ministers and Elders." The examination was to be a sharp one seeking to know what fear the person had of God's judgments, what hatred of sin and sense of God's mercy. If ignorant, he was to be carefully instructed so as to avoid any mockery. After the offender had been instructed so as to have some taste of God's judgment and mercy he was then presented in the regular Sunday worship after the sermon, and there made a statement, within a liturgical setting, of his own repentance. The liturgy closes not only with assurance of forgiveness but reminders to the congregation that the matter is now closed and no one is to condem further.

Our contemporary procedures seem at first glance to have departed largely from these historic approaches. We may need to look more closely and find what is essential in them for the renewal of the church and our own lives now. In the A.A. setting and in psychotherapy, in clinical pastoral education and some discussion groups in church life, there is a derivative and related process which enables the individual to face, step-by-step under group and leader pressure, the exact nature of his character, his characteristic responses. In clinical, pastoral, or therapy training, this includes detailed writing of interview notes so that the person examines with help how he characteristically responds to emotionally laden situations.

How does Alcoholics Anonymous actually work? It was born out of the life of the Church as a separate movement because the church proved unable to meet the needs of alcoholics within the traditional forms. It is an attempt to provide the specific disciplines in a voluntary setting. The steps are familiar. They reveal the same concerns seen in other efforts at guidance. They are:

I. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol - that our lives had become unmanageable.

II. Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.

III. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.

IV. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.

V. Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.

VI. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.

VII. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.

VIII. Made a list of all persons we had harmed and became willing to make amends to them all.

IX. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.

X. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.

XI. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.

XII. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

The question of the specific disciplines became a more urgent one for me when I came in 1953 to serve on the faculty of the seminary, and at the same time to serve as chaplain and clinical pastoral training supervisor at the U.S. Public Health Service Hospital in Lexington for the treatment of drug addicts. Here, I faced a ministry to a large number of people who had never been taught any disciplines. No one had cared enough to provide any character guidance or religious instruction. Their need was not release from over-strict conscience, the salvation of the gospel, but rather basic guidance in what it means to treat another human being with respect.

Within the hospital setting it was apparent that traditional ministries of the church were able to appeal to very few. The program of A.A. reached a large number. For this reason a continuous effort has been made to seek the answer to the question concerning transmission of basic human as well as Christian disciplines.

A review of the steps in A.A., and their relation to the Spiritual Exercises and the Reformed tradition concerning public repentance, has shown the following elements in common. The presence of a specific procedure apparently helps some persons. A trusting relationship between pastor, spiritual director, or sponsor, and the person in need is essential. The support of an understanding, though consistent, or even demanding group life appears to be essential. Apparently, the degree of formality in structure is not the most important key when compared to the significance of human relationships, but the necessity of structure is plain.

In A.A. the continual review and commentary upon the meaning of the Twelve Steps is as important as the same review and commentary on the Decalogue was in ancient times. The Steps represent a recovery for Protestants of the true significance of confession and penance. The talks in A.A. run the risk of parading one's self and so must themselves be disciplined in group life. But it is apparent that they are effective for the same reason that public repentance, properly safeguarded, was effective in motivating a penitent toward Christian discipline in John Knox's Scotland.

The liberty of the gospel is possible because of disciplines from within. The prophetic correction of any form of discipline become rigid will remain essential. But in our time as in any other we must discover again the value and importance of specific guides and disciplines, if we are to minister to all of our people.


1. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, IV, xii, 1; ed. John T. Mcneill, tr. Ford Lewis Battles, The Library of Christian Classics, XXI (London: S.C.M. Press, Ltd.; Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 196O),pp. 1229-1230.

2. The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola, tr. Father Elder Mullan, S.J. (New York: P.J. Kennedy & Sons, 1914).

3. Ignatius Loyola, "Spiritual Exercises," quoted in William A. Clebsch and Charles R. Jackl, Pastoral Care in Historical Perspective (Englewood cliffs, N.J.: Prentice - Hall, Inc., 1964), p.235.

4. John Knox, "Form of Public Repentance" quoted in William A. Clebsch and Charles R. Jaekle, op. cit., p. 256.

5. Alcoholics Anonymous (New York: Works Publishing, Inc., 1948)


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