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January 1976 · Vol. 5 No. 1 · pp. 3–10 

In Search of Discipline: Ethical Covenants and Codes in the Local Church

Herbert Giesbrecht

The specific issue before us is this: How does the Christian Church—the Church in its local and congregational form—determine what is proper ethical behavior for its members; and how does it best guide its members, in very practical terms, toward such behavior?

The issue is concisely stated by Paul in his first Letter to Timothy: “I hope to come to you soon, but I am writing these instructions to you so that . . . you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the Church of the living God, the pillar and bulwark of the truth” (3:14-15). It is, I think, a salutary fact that Paul, in this distinctly pastoral and practical letter, connects the Church of Christ (the Son) with the Church of God (the Father). Paul’s statement reminds us that the Church of Christ is a carefully planned venture of God which was in his mind from the beginning (cf. Romans 1:1-6) and by means of which he is, once more and indeed in a more final sense, making known his truth and working out his purposes among men. And Paul’s statement reminds us, very simply, that what God had always expected from his own people—moral behavior which manifests and honors a “living God”—he expects from them still, and that as he sought to motivate them to such behavior once—by sharing his “strong truth” with them—so he seeks to motivate them still.

A broad overview of the redemptive and disciplinary dealings of God with man reveals that God did not confine himself to a single and inflexible approach. His resourceful mind sought out a variety of ways in which to exhort, to instruct, to discipline and to guide his people. These ways of God included both strict command and kindly invitation, both rational argument and emotional appeal, both stern warning and gracious promise, and (not least of all) both general principle and detailed regulation,—according to the needs of the occasion. God’s dealings with Israel embraced law as well as grace, and he gave detailed prescriptions for moral conduct as well as broadly-based exhortations to such conduct (cf. Genesis 13-17 and Exodus 19-20).

While some of us have overstressed God’s use of law and detailed statute, prior to the advent of Christ, others among us have erred equally as much in absolving the Church of Christ from all further need for detailed prescription to guide the moral conduct of its members. It may be no easy task to properly relate the New Testament Church to that of Israel as the chosen people of God, but there can be no doubt that Christ himself perceived a direct connection between the two. This connection is carefully considered in {4} George E. Ladd’s probing study, Jesus and the Kingdom (see particularly chapter ten: “Jesus, Israel and His Disciples”). Ladd’s general conclusion is that “Jesus’ announcement of his purpose to build his [church] suggests primarily what we have already discovered in our study of discipleship, viz., that the fellowship established by Jesus stands in direct continuity with the Old Testament Israel” (p. 256).

But what is more important for this study is the fact that Jesus, in his own teaching about the connections between the Israel of God and the Church which he was then establishing, never deprecated the “law” to which the religious leaders of Israel clung so tenaciously nor minimized its continuing relevance even for members of the newly-proclaimed “kingdom of heaven”. Whatever differences the coming of Jesus Christ and the creation of his Church entailed for the ethical instruction and guidance of God’s people—and these differences are not insignificant—the abrogation of the law of God and the elimination of all ethical regulation and prescription are clearly not among them. Jesus’ own words, cited in Matthew 5:17-20, seem crucial and decisive on this matter.

These few introductory comments do not begin to chart the outlines of a theology of “church discipline” which should serve as basis and background for any discussion of ethical codes in the local church. The restrictions of space which have been imposed render a more comprehensive treatment of the subject quite impossible here. I propose, therefore, to focus my remarks primarily on the practical formulation and implementation of a covenantal code of ethics in the local church.

These observations and suggestions, and that is all they presume to be, should be viewed as deductions personally derived from the scriptures rather than as explicit and incontrovertible declarations of the Scriptures in themselves. But in defense of them I plead the words of Paul: “And I think that I too have the Spirit of God” (1 Cor. 7:40). These suggestions will deal with three specific aspects only of what is really a large subject: (1) the original formulation of a covenantal code of ethics; (2) the practical application of such a code of ethical prescriptions in the local church; and (3) the continuing review and revision of it by the local church. I hope that these comments will stimulate reflection upon, and more penetrating discussion of, the entire subject of church discipline.


It is not always easy to state the precise difference between an ethical principle and an ethical prescription (rule), but the fact that there is a distinction between principle and prescription (rule), must be made clear. If a church is to attach proper but not undue significance to ethical rules, it must understand that the latter are basically derivative, shaped according to the needs of the local situation and therefore also subject to review and possible revision. A brotherhood of believers can be spared much needless perplexity and pain if it understands from the outset that while ethical principles are fixed and enduring, specific ethical prescriptions may require periodic amendment or may even be altogether discarded without spiritual loss to the church in given situations.

While obvious examples of Paul’s differentiation between principle and {5} prescription do occur in his letters (his First Letter to the Corinthians offers many such examples), it continues to be a special responsibility of the preaching and teaching leadership of a church to clarify the distinction between them in contemporary terms. This clarification will require an intimate acquaintance with the composition of the congregation and of its characteristic needs; a continuing alertness to the specific problems and pressures of society which impinge on the congregation (or possibly on a conference of congregations) will of course need to be involved; but it should be the preaching and teaching leaders (“elders”) of the congregation who assume primary responsibility for providing the data and directives which the congregation needs to come to a decision that might carry covenantal force for all (cf. 1 Thess. 5:11-14; 1 Tim. 3:1-7; 5:17-22; 1 Peter 5:1-5). How much “leadership Direction” and how much “congregational discussion” should be involved in the process toward consensus would depend (in my view) on the spiritual maturity of the congregation and perhaps also on the relative difficulty of the issues which are being considered.

The most crucial thing in any such movement toward consensus, it seems to me, is the general tenor and spirit of it, not its precise procedures nor even (within certain limits of course) its precise outcomes (cf. the action of the council at Jerusalem in Acts 15)! Here, as in every circumstance involving particularities of life (whether of the individual or of the congregation), much must be left, finally, to the subtle pressure and guidance of the Holy Spirit. And the Spirit of God is certainly not bound to a few fixed procedures or outcomes which may be dear to the hearts of certain members in a given congregation.

How specific or detailed such ethical codes should be is another question which is very difficult to answer precisely. Much, once again, depends on the spiritual maturity and level of discernment of the members of the church and on the spirit in which these codes are both conceived and implemented in the church. The popularly repeated caution against “pharisaical casuistry” is certainly in order here. A very detailed code of rules can mislead members about the actual role which such prescriptions should serve in the life of the church and can inhibit the progress of members toward that “more excellent way” to which the Apostle Paul refers in 1 Corinthians 12:31. But Robert Raines’ warning, recently expressed in his book, New Life in the Church, is apropos here: “Having recognized that pharisaism is a very real temptation for any person who takes the Christian life seriously, let us face the fact that this is not the problem for most contemporary church members. Our present danger is that of laxity, self-indulgence, and the rejection of all authority and discipline. And the plain truth is, only the disciplined change the world” (p. 57)! On the one hand, the church must always guard against setting up “false limits of its own”, to quote from F. W. Faber’s familiar hymn:

But we make His love too narrow
By false limits of our own.
And we magnify its strictness
With a zeal He will not own.

On the other hand, the church needs also to recognize the potential disciplinary value of ethical rules which are sensitive to both the principles of Scripture and the spirit of the times. An old but enduring classic in the realm of devotional literature, William Law’s A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life, {6} makes a strong case for the potential value of prescriptions in the practise of Christian piety, and one is tempted to quote from it at length. One brief excerpt must suffice.

“By ‘rule’ must here be constantly understood a religious rule observed upon a principle of duty to God. For if a man should oblige himself to be moderate in his meals only in regard to his stomach, or abstain from drinking only to avoid the headache, he might be exact in these rules without being at all the better man for them. But when he is moderate and regular in either of these things out of a sense of Christian sobriety and self-denial, that he may offer unto God a more reasonable and holy life, then it is that the smallest rule of this kind is naturally the beginning of a great piety.”

It is in the spirit of Law’s comments on the nature and purpose of religious “rules”, we suggest, that all specific prescriptions for a church ought to be conceived and formulated.

A local church should not be unduly influenced by either the particular practices of other neighboring churches or by the popular sentiments of secular society as such in its efforts to formulate an ethical code which will be useful to its own members. Here the comment recently voiced by Elizabeth Elliot (in the June 6, 1975, issue of Christianity Today) is entirely relevant: “Changes made by the church merely to accommodate changes taking place in the world have resulted in a loss of power.” A church should display a legitimate and sturdy independence from the prejudices and popular assumptions which dominate people generally and should consider rather, in its formulation of a “covenantal ethic,” the deepest spiritual needs of its own members and the powerful and often insidious forces in secular society which threaten their continuing vitality as disciples of the living Christ.

But having cautioned against a simple and uncritical falling into line with the specific ethical practices of others (and even of other evangelical churches), we need to adjust the balance somewhat by speaking also of the need for a fundamental unity among congregations which are part of a larger conference. The matter of conference polity and its implications for the degree of autonomy which obtains in the local congregation lies beyond the scope of this paper. I wish to assert the simple fact here, nevertheless, that a conference of churches will find it difficult to maintain an essential unity, unless the individual congregations in fact do consult each other often and do seek a common mind on these ethical issues insofar as this is practically possible.

This consultation might take various forms: special study conferences (a current practice), conference retreats and seminars, discussion among churches via conference periodicals, and itinerant ministries in congregations by selected conference personnel (an earlier practice among the Mennonite Brethren). In these matters much spiritual discernment and tact will need to be exercised by all if unity, in respect to basic questions, and tolerance, in respect to secondary questions, are to be honestly and effectively promoted. Here, once again, individual congregations will need to learn, time and again, what the distinctions really are between agreeing on basic principles of ethics and differing from each other on what are really prescriptions for ethical conduct and practice (at the local church level). {7}


Enough has already been said about the purpose of prescriptive codes and about the spirit in which they are to be conceived and formulated to make extended comment on their application in the church quite unnecessary. It is important that not only the substance but the larger biblical context of specific prescriptions which have been adopted by a local congregation be repeatedly clarified for the members by its teaching brethren. Particularly younger, and new, members of the church should be instructed (catechism classes, if you will) in ways which enable them to grasp firmly both the need and the biblical grounds for such prescriptions. Ethical codes and covenants should not and need not remain solemn documents, only to be consulted when the congregational discipline of erring members is called for. They should be kept integrally linked to the “living fellowship” of the congregation, through both instruction and practice; and their relevance to the needs of the congregation must be constantly reaffirmed. Personal and mutual exhortation can become more vital and effective only as the scriptural basis and purpose of these covenants are properly understood by members. When cases of spiritual lapse do emerge in the congregation, in which more serious and formal action seems necessary, the church will have been better prepared for such action by this continued instruction.

When a congregation persistently resists and resents all thought of formal disciplinary action, we may be certain that it has not correctly understood or is knowingly disobedient to the instructions of the New Testament and stands in need of spiritual counsel and Direction. When, on the other hand, a congregation seems overly-eager to chastise or even to ban every erring member from its fellowship, it also stands in urgent need of spiritual instruction. We need constantly to remind ourselves that it is the same Christ who commanded his disciples to regard the stubbornly rebellious brother as a “Gentile and a tax collector” (Matthew 18:17) who, on the other hand, told them the parable of the wheat and the tares (Matthew 13:24-30), in which parable servants were advised not to be over-anxious about gathering up the weeds lest in gathering up the latter they would “root up also the wheat along with them.” And it is the same Paul who bade the Corinthian church “not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of immorality or greed” (1 Cor. 5:11) who also bade the Galatian Christians to “bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2).

And it is the same John Wesley who yearned passionately for the souls of men who also purged his societies regularly of merely nominal and persistently disobedient members. His Journal entry for March 12, 1743, to cite one example only, refers to the expulsion of sixty-four members from a society at Chowden and lists the reasons for expulsion as follows: “two for cursing and swearing; two for habitual Sabbath-breaking; seventeen for drunkenness; two for retailing spirituous liquors; three for quarreling and brawling; one for beating his wife; three for habitual, wilful lying; four for railing and evil-speaking; one for idleness and laziness; and nine-and-twenty for lightness and carelessness.” Wesley did not worry excessively about the reduction of society members in number. His attitude is aptly expressed in one brief entry (for June 18, 1744): “But number is an inconsiderable circumstance. May God increase {8} them in faith and love.” His attitude in this matter is one which deserves our serious consideration.


As we have intimated repeatedly, these prescriptive codes by which the members of a local congregation covenant to abide remain derivative and existential in nature. They are not as fixed and final in character as were, reputedly, the “laws of the Medes and Persians” or as are the principles of Scripture from which they are inferred or derived. They remain subject to review and amendment. This is not to say that specific issues (whether social, economic, political, or religious in character) are constantly changing and that churches must be forever revising “covenants” and “codes” in order to remain afloat in the tidal changes of society. Some issues (alcoholism, various kinds of sexual indulgence and perversion, varieties of insubordination to constituted authority, to name a few) have a peculiar way of recurring and are never very far away from the doorsteps of the Christian Church. Again, other issues and problems which surface in secular society seem to present entirely new forms and faces to the Church and pose new kinds of threats for her continuing vitality and new challenges for her spiritual response. In any case, the spiritually alert congregation will see in the periodic review of her own covenant or code special opportunities for a more thorough-going study of scriptural principles and for a bolder application of them to troublesome or perilous situations that happen to erupt within and around her.

In the course of such review, the typical church will usually have to contend with members who assume a more conservative (traditional?) stance and members who assume a more open (liberal? progressive?) stance, with those who are disposed to act on impulse and those who deliberate rather carefully before they act, with members who prefer to be told precisely how to act in specific life situations and with members who choose to decide for themselves, perhaps even apart from all group consensus. Because of this, the members of a congregation need to learn to debate matters of ethical conduct in the spirit of challenge and charity. It is the art of gracious and effectual debate which Christians who have covenanted to fellowship and work together need to practice and perfect, not to impress each other with their individual intelligence but in order that the Spirit of God may use such debate, in his own sovereign way, to bring about unity of understanding and unity of spirit in the congregation.

It is this sort of free and effectual discussion which James D. Glasse had in mind when he boldly asserted in his book, Putting It Together in the Parish (1972), “People have very different levels of tolerance for conflict and controversy. No one can be made to fight against his will. At the same time, those who want to contend for what they believe in should not be kept from conflict if they are willing to fight by the rules. Can we learn to fight like Christians in the Church? I believe we can. I know we must” (p. 121). It is this difficult art which John Wesley evidently had in mind, although he stated the matter more delicately than did Glasse, when, among his instructions to his church “stewards” in London, he included the following rule: “In all debates, you are to watch over your spirits, avoiding as fire all clamour and contention, being swift to hear, slow to speak, in honour every man preferring another {9} before himself” (Volume II of Journal, page 21). And it is his awareness of the possibility and importance of such discussion and debate in the church which best explains the apostle Paul’s distinctive manner of argumentation and appeal in certain instances in which he addresses himself to the reasoning minds of his readers (cf. 1 Cor. 10:15; Rom. 3-4; Gal. 3; Col. 2:8-23).

Here, as in the original formulation of a code, the teaching and preaching brethren of a congregation bear a primary responsibility; it is they who should give adequate Direction to such debate and who should discern when it is becoming a fruitless and futile exercise for the congregation. When the latter situation prevails, the spiritual leaders are obliged to curtail debate and to speak a decisive word to the congregation. The New Testament certainly does not countenance contentious and endless debate on any questions, whether these are doctrinal or practical in nature, and is quite unsparing in its censure of factious members: “I appeal to you, brethren, to take note of those who create dissensions and difficulties, in opposition to the doctrine which you have been taught; avoid them” (Romans 16:17). “As for a man who is factious, after admonishing him once or twice, have nothing more to do with him, knowing that such a person is perverted and sinful” (Titus 3:10-11). However, such words of censure and warning with respect to the abuse of debate should not be permitted to intimidate the honest efforts of a congregation to seek a common mind through debate on specific issues.


We have spoken about a variety of elements which properly belong in a church’s endeavors to deal with ethical codes and covenants. We have not spoken, thus far, about the role of prayer in these endeavors. It would be a great mistake for us to assume too readily that every Christian congregation is sufficiently aware of the importance of prayer or to assume that prayer will look after itself when a congregation seeks consensus on specific questions. It is precisely honest and continuing prayer which is often bypassed by congregations as they discuss and debate, define and decree, ethical matters. And yet it is sustained prayer which is essential to set the minds of Christians free for the discerning analysis of issues and situations, free for the fruitful interaction between opposing viewpoints in debate, and free for the tactful implementation of ethical codes in the exigencies of congregational life. When all has been said and done, it is the discipline of corporate prayer which most enriches a congregation “in Christ with all speech and all knowledge” and which enables it to become “united in the same mind and the same judgment” (1 Cor. 1:5, 10). About this there should be not doubt whatever.

The formulation, application, and review of covenantal codes of ethics are therefore all integral aspects of the earthly pilgrimage of the Church as it contends daily with the world and the devil. To be sure such codes have not the reputed character of medieval talismans which can quickly charm away all evils that may trouble a church. They can, however, serve as practical “means of grace” to assist the Church in that spiritual conflict to which it is always and everywhere committed. Finally, it is the larger purpose and goal of this spiritual conflict which must fill the moral vision of a congregation and not merely the substance of a particular ethical code to which it may have committed itself at a given point in time.

Thomas Kelly, in his A Testament of Devotion (p. 47), has compellingly {10} described the larger purpose and goal of this conflict: “God plucks the world out of our hearts, loosening the chains of attachment. And he hurls the world into our hearts, where we and he together carry it in infinitely tender love.” Unless and until this kind of vision breaks in upon a congregation and becomes an increasingly exciting reality for it, any code or covenant which it may possess remains at best a well-formulated rule-book, impressive, perhaps, but largely powerless in its enduring influence upon the minds and spirits of the members of that congregation.

Professor Giesbrecht is Librarian and Archivist at the Mennonite Brethren Bible College and College of Arts, Winnipeg, Manitoba.

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