Book Review: The Thirteenth Discipline: Formative and Reformative Discipline in Congregational Life by Lionel Moriah
Reviewer: Kwasi Kena
Is Your Church Ready for New Christians?
A few years ago, I read a blog presented as an open letter from a layperson who stated a laundry list of demands regarding what a church should or should not do to attract new members. The article betrayed the prevailing consumer-centered attitudes so often catered to by church development literature. I agree that churches should be aware of prevailing sentiments regarding treatment of first-time visitors (don’t embarrass them), understand the need to create user-friendly bulletins (“When do I stand up and what do I say?”), and provide clear statements of faith (“What do you believe?”). However, these items are side dishes and not the main meal.
Catering to consumer demands should not preempt higher priorities such as forming Christian disciples and engaging them in mission and ministry. Visitors and new Christians need to see a clear Christian distinctive demonstrated by the membership. They also need to see evidence of a disciple-forming process in place.
A fundamental question facing churches today is how to develop Christian character among current and new members of the congregation. For author Lionel Moriah, the answer to this question is a matter of discipline — the thirteenth discipline, to be exact.
The Thirteen Discipline
In his book, The Thirteenth Discipline: Formative and Reformative Discipline in Congregational Life, Moriah promotes Christian discipline as the “central to the modus operandi of a healthy church.” The book title intentionally references Richard Foster’s classic Celebration of Discipline, in which Foster names twelve “classical disciplines” as “essential to experiential Christianity.” Foster organizes these twelve disciplines into three categories:
Inward disciplines: meditation, prayer, fasting, study
Outward disciplines: simplicity, solitude, submission, service
Corporate disciplines: confession, worship, guidance, celebration
Moriah aims to persuade readers to add Christian discipline to Foster’s twelve, thus creating a thirteenth, essential discipline.
Churches, Reclaim Your Distinctive Character!
The early church once demonstrated its distinctive character and witness as a people of God by exercising the ministry of Christian discipline within its ranks. Author Lionel Moriah urges clergy and church leaders to help congregations reclaim their distinctive character by incorporating discipline into congregational life that will promote spiritual maturity and restoration of those who wander into ungodly behavior.
Historically, the church has embraced the virtue of exercising discipline internally. The author notes the consistent practice of church discipline through his Reformed tradition. People from a Wesleyan heritage could do the same through examination of the class and band meetings instituted by John Wesley.
Sadly, many members of churches in our Western culture now hold a negative view of discipline. We live in a culture of individualism that shuns and decries the notion of submission to mutual spiritual authority. One’s Christian development is considered “a private and personal matter” in such an ethos.
The Dual Function of Christian Discipline
The term discipline conjures negative connotations within the minds of some. Such notions must be dispelled. Moriah demythologizes false beliefs about Christian discipline and its practice through a concise examination of discipline in biblical, theological, and historical records.
Here are some key points:
Christian discipline (also called church discipline) carries a dual function: formation and reformation. The Great Commission commands us to engage in formative discipline—teach them to observe all things (Matthew 28:19-20).
Covenant, which forms the basis for relationship with God and others, also serves as the foundation for the exercise of Christian discipline.
Reformative discipline (which many people believe is the sole definition of discipline) must be motivated by agapé. Even in extreme cases such as excommunication, the ultimate hope of the church must be for restoration of the transgressor. We clergy should take every opportunity to publicly address and emphasize any principle involved through teaching and preaching when a sin is committed.
Formation Precedes Reformation
Moriah provides concise exegesis of passages of Scripture pertaining to reformative discipline. Included among the examples are Jesus and the adulterous woman (John 8) and Achan’s plunder of items devoted to idols (Joshua 7). In each case, Moriah offers thoughtful commentary and arrives at reasonable conclusions. Jesus demonstrated a balanced approach between truth (condemnation of sin) and grace (withholds condemnation of the sinner). From the extreme discipline applied to Achan, Moriah extracts this principle, “discipline is only legitimately applied where there has been adequate teaching or instruction as well as voluntary commitment to the principle and intent of the command.”
Does Your Church Develop Christian Character?
In the introduction, Moriah grabs readers by the collar with a gripping, modern parable about a new pastor who soon discovers the laissez faire attitude among church leaders toward a member involved in an adulterous relationship. The new pastor admonishes the offending party and seeks to apply church discipline, but leaders prefer to protect the stability of the congregation by sweeping the incident under rug and letting things take their natural course. Ultimately, leaders favored resignation of the new pastor to applying church discipline.
Some churches suffer from a “culture of niceness.” In short, personal holiness falls a distant second to maintaining cordial relationships among church members.
A Call to Be Courageous
Near the end of the book, Moriah points readers toward The Cairns Decision, a sobering civil law case in Canada, in which the court, despite its lack of expertise, engaged in exegesis of Scripture and determined that a church had wrongfully applied a biblical principle from Matthew 18 to a case of sexual assault. The issues raised by this court case and the subsequent discussions about the need to create process and protocol for the application of discipline, make The Thirteenth Discipline a must-read for all clergy and church leaders who desire to foster spiritual maturity through formative and restorative Christian discipline. Caring for the Christian community through reformative discipline in today’s litigious society requires courage and wisdom.
The Author’s Hope
Moriah hopes his book will begin to satisfy the current need for resources that support the sound practice of Christian discipline, stimulate further research on the exercise of discipline, and assist those who struggle to minister amid “a culture of fear of giving offense.”
Each chapter concludes with devotional material and questions, making it suitable for personal or group study.
Read this book, talk about its content, and develop your Christian distinctive through formative and reformative discipline. By so doing, your congregation will be better prepared to receive visitors and new Christians.