Discipline, Church

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1956 Article

The doctrine and practice of church discipline have always been important in the Anabaptist and Mennonite tradition. The second article of the Schleitheim Confession (1527) calls for the conscientious and faithful use of the ban to maintain a united and faithful church.

The concept of discipline implies the adoption and maintenance by the group of standards of faith and life which are binding upon the individual members. It accordingly implies a certain doctrine of the church, namely (1) that the body of the church has authority over individual members, and (2) that the church needs clearly defined ideas of faith and conduct, which must be applied. Thus the church is not only a worshiping fellowship of believers or saints, but a body with a certain order as an essential part of its life. The concept of discipline implies that it is the duty of the church to maintain this order by the exercise of spiritual pressure as well as by the preaching of the Gospel and the proclamation of standards of righteousness and holy living. The spiritual pressure serves to impress upon the individual the serious nature of sin and transgression against the law of God and the standard of the Gospel as set forth in the standards of the church, warn the member of dangers and harm to spiritual life resulting from such transgressions, and finally severs the person from the fellowship of the body as unworthy of and dangerous to the body. The pressure may be exercised by the direct admonition of the bishop-elder, pastor, or deacon, or by the expression of the voice of the church in resolutions or votes, or by the ban and excommunication. Teaching and counseling of course usually precede and accompany such disciplinary pressures and are an aid. The purpose of all truly Scriptural discipline is the correction of errors and sins and the restoration of the offenders; discipline accordingly cannot be punitive, but must always be loving and redemptive.

Discipline and the maintenance of order was characteristic of the Anabaptist-Mennonite movement from the very beginning and in all areas, and continued to be so until in the late 19th century. By that time discipline was becoming lax in the more liberal Dutch and Northwest German groups and ultimately disappeared there. There has also been a noticeable decline in certain other groups, also in North America. This decline of the principle of discipline is something different from the change of the content of discipline, which is also noticeable in most groups. In certain groups and times discipline has been very strict and rigid with the prescription of many and detailed rules governing conduct, costume, marriage, occupations, relation with the outside world, consumption of food and beverages, etc. Disputes over strictness, details of rules, or methods of enforcement have often occurred in Mennonite history and not seldom led to schisms both in congregations and in larger groups including an entire body. In fact most Mennonite schisms have been over matters of discipline.

Historically the bishop-elder has been the bearer of disciplinary power. When his prestige has been high, discipline has been vigorous and effective. The decline in the prestige and influence of this office has usually been the signal for a decline in discipline. Originally the congregation shared directly in the disciplinary function, its approval being required to make the disciplinary proposals or acts of the bishop effective. In later times (the 19th century in Russia and early 20th century in the Mennonite Church (MC) in Pennsylvania) the bishops acquired considerable freedom of disciplinary action either as individuals or as a body (e.g., Lancaster Conference Board of Bishops). Among the Old Order Amish it is still necessary to have the congregation approve the bishop's exercise of disciplinary power.

Severe or harsh exercise of disciplinary power by the bishop often produced resentment and resistance among the membership and reduced the pastoral and preaching effectiveness of the bishop involved. At times the temptation to depend on personal pressure or authoritarian methods has resulted in a spiritually dangerous legalism and externalism. But Mennonite history has often proved that proper discipline, combined with good pastoral work and effective preaching, produces a wholesome church administration and leadership, which makes for a strong and vigorous church with high standards, in contrast to the church without discipline, when each "does that which is right in his own eyes."

The decision of the Anabaptists to withdraw from the state churches, both Catholic and Protestant, but particularly the Protestant, was in a certain sense the result of differing concepts concerning church discipline, which in turn were based on differing concepts of the church and the nature of Christianity. one of the most common charges by the Anabaptists was that the state churches tolerated sin among both members and clergy and did not attempt to maintain true holiness. The Lutheran churches did establish a certain amount of discipline, which gradually died out (excommunication was practically dead by the 17th century), and minor forms of discipline were displaced largely in the rationalistic period. The Calvinistic churches believed in discipline and practiced it much more than the Lutherans; in fact they considered true discipline as one of the marks of the true church. Even in Calvinism, however, discipline gradually died out. From the 18th century on, discipline was almost invisible in all Protestantism except the English Free Churches and the North American denominations. The state churches had come to rely on preaching and religious instruction in the schools and on catechism. Methodism revived discipline and maintained it vigorously until the late 19th century.

The influence of the Anabaptist critique on the practice of discipline in the Reformation period is now recognized, though not fully studied. The best example is Hesse, Germany, where Martin Bucer was called in by the authorities to aid in meeting the Anabaptist challenge and where the Ziegenhain Kirchen-Ordnung of 1538 was the direct result of a conscientious attempt to meet the Anabaptist critique. Adam Krafft, who was the court chaplain and Professor of Theology at the University of Marburg, and other leading clergymen had openly admitted the validity of the Anabaptist critique for some years and called for a stricter discipline as the best means to turn the Anabaptists. Bucer had been forced to face the Anabaptist challenge in Strasbourg from 1525 on, where the Anabaptist influence in a stricter discipline is admitted. Whether Calvin was influenced in his disciplinary concepts by Anabaptism, particularly during his Strasbourg period 1538-41 or even 1535-36 (he married Idelette de Bure, the widow of an Anabaptist), is uncertain. Zwingli's introduction of discipline in Zürich was certainly motivated in part by the Anabaptist threat. The Bernese government struggled with the Anabaptists for three centuries and more than once admitted the prevalence of offensive sins and vices in the church, as the Anabaptists charged. In 1585, for instance, an official mandate declared, "This is the greatest reason that many God-fearing pious people forsake our church [to join the Brethren]."

This major difference between the state churches, for that matter the mass of nominal Christendom at all times, and the Anabaptist-Mennonite movement has always been present. But it is not only the latter who have called for and practiced discipline, but a long series of separatist groups from the very beginning of Christian history down to the present day. The requirement of discipline is in fact regarded by most students of church history and the sociology of religion as a characteristic of the "sect-type." -- Harold S. Bender

1990 Update

The subject of Anabaptist church discipline has received careful examination in two 1970s studies. Ervin Schlabach, "The rule of Christ among the early Swiss Anabaptists" (1977) shows that the prevailing use of the term "ban" (Meidung) among the Anabaptists brought with it some of its prior connotations in the Catholic church, in that Anabaptist ban practice did not always make a clear distinction between the ban as admonition and the ban as punishment. "In spite of the repeated emphasis of the early Swiss leaders to practice the ban only in sincere Christian love, the potential punitive implications of the ban became increasingly problematic after Schleitheim." "After Schleitheim the Anabaptist church discipline took a variety of forms, including different degrees of punishment in dealing with offenses" (pp. 149-50). Schlabach states that concern for the ban may have taken precedence over concern for believers' baptism by the second decade of the Anabaptist movement.

The study by Jean Runzo, "Communal discipline in the early Anabaptist communities of Switzerland, South and Central Germany, Austria, and Moravia, 1525-1550" (1978) is an essay upon "the actual operation of discipline, and the theory upon which it was based, within the Anabaptist communities in these regions.... Discipline among these groups was not a uniform phenomenon, as has often been thought" (p. 1). According to Runzo it was the Swiss Brethren who were most "rigorous" in the use of the ban. "In contrast ... the early south German and Austrian Anabaptists ... developed a more individual ... less community-oriented" discipline. The Hutterites, thanks to the "relative stability" and "rich communal life" of their settlements in Moravia "afford our best example ... of the actual operation of discipline."

The interested scholar will find an affirmation of church discipline in practically every Anabaptist and Mennonite confession of faith since Schleitheim, though there are few studies that explicitly review this theme in such confessions. One limited but useful study of the Swiss tradition (William R. McGrath, Christlicher Ordnung, or Christian Discipline, 1966) collects pertinent statements on discipline found in 10 confessions or regulations from Schleitheim (1527) to a Holmes Co., Ohio conference of 1865. The later examples of these regulations (Ordnungen) focus increasingly upon such matters as clothing and house decorations.

The 1963 Mennonite Church (MC) Confession of Faith contains a paragraph (art. 8: "The Church of Christ") on the "authority" given the church "to exercise discipline" in order "to restore . . . members who fall into sin, . . . to promote the purity of the church, . . . and to maintain the witness of the church before the world." The General Conference Mennonite (GCM) "Common Confession" of 1896, reprinted in the 1959, 1968, and 1984 General Conference constitutions, requires of congregations "the practice of a scriptural church discipline (Mt 18:15-17; Gal. 6:1)." The 1975 Mennonite Brethren Confession of Faith calls for a "constructive church discipline: under the standard of God's word to admonish, counsel, exclude (if necessary), and reinstate the repentant into fellowship." Article 14 in the 1995 Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective says "Discipline is intended to liberate erring brothers and sisters from sin, to enable them to return to a right relationship with God, and to restore them to fellowship in the church." 

A 1955 survey limited to the General Conference Mennonite Church (GCM) yielded 229 responses to a questionnaire mailed to 286 congregations (80 percent return). It shows that 74 percent of the responding congregations made provision for church discipline in their written constitutions. Forty-nine percent reported they did practice discipline; 51 percent reported they did not. Of the discipline actions reported, the highest proportion concerned immorality (27 percent), the next highest, beliefs (23 percent). Of the 376 persons dealt with, 49 percent were restored, 25 percent transferred, and 23 percent were lost to the church (Studies in Church Discipline, 1958, appendix).

The landmark sociological study by J. Howard Kauffman and Leland Harder of five North American Mennonite denominations (1975) found 60 percent of the respondents to its questionnaire agreeing that "Mennonite and Brethren in Christ churches should practice a thorough church discipline so that faltering or unfaithful members can be built up and restored or, in exceptional cases, excluded." it could be added that 24 percent were uncertain about this statement, and 13 percent disagreed. However, 35 percent agreed with the questionnaire statement, "The way to work with members in the church who have lapsed from the standards is never to exclude them from the church but rather to keep them on the membership roll, hoping they will mend their ways by heeding the advice of the minister or following the example of upright members." Again, it could be added that 24 percent were uncertain about the statement just mentioned, and 26 percent disagreed.

As a reliable social-scientific sampling, the Kauffman-Harder study, brief as it is on the subject of church discipline, is unquestionably important as a reliable indicator of the position of five denominations of North American Mennonites in their belief or profession with respect to church discipline in the 1970s. Except for occasional student seminar studies of discipline in a local or district area, very few modern studies have been done on the actual practice of church discipline among Mennonites.

If the Anabaptist concept and practice of church discipline already showed diversity, contemporary Mennonite conceptions and practices show even more diversity in Mennonite churches from the Soviet Union to Western Europe, North and South America, Africa, India, Indonesia, Taiwan, and Japan, not to mention Australia. A fairly traditional discipline, including "shunning" (avoidance) continues to be exercised among the Amish and Hutterites of North America and in the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite (often called the Holdeman Church). A much less traditional form of discipline is practiced in the Mennonite Church (MC), the General Conference Mennonite Church, and the Mennonite Brethren Church. For example, in many congregations of the Mennonite Church, remarriage after divorce is no longer cause for indefinite excommunication as was generally the case until the 1960s.

In the 1980s the term church discipline is not used much among English-speaking Mennonite congregations of North America, but the reality is often there, practiced with most commendable Christian love and tact under other terms (e.g. "pastoral counseling"). Confidentiality determines that much of this Christian ministry does not become visible. In spiritually healthy congregations good teaching reduces the need for "corrective discipline." In many cases, however, the only course congregations take is periodic removal of the names of inactive members from the church's membership roster.

A theological study of church discipline by the present writer, Discipling the Brother (1972, 1979, 1988) urges a view of church discipline based upon the central Anabaptist and Mennonite doctrine of discipleship. Church discipline is a ministry analogous to evangelism and mission. As evangelism and mission bring unbelievers into the way of Christ (discipleship), church discipline seeks to keep in the way of discipleship, or to restore to it, those believers who are in danger of abandoning the faith, whether through transgression, doctrinal error, coldness of heart, or any other cause. Like evangelism, the ministry of church discipline proposes to use only the power of the gospel and of the Spirit of God. Like evangelism, church discipline is not punitive, yet it brings erring believers to decision through the word of admonition, which is the presentation of the gospel. They must then be dealt with (again as in evangelism) according to their response. The goal of church discipline is thus the restoration of erring believers to the way of discipleship, the realization of a sanctified church, and the enhancement of the church's witness in the world. -- Marlin Jeschke


Concern pamphlet no. 14. 1967.

Jeschke, Marlin. Discipling the Brother. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1972, 1979, reissued in 1988 as Discipling in the Church.

Kauffman, J. Howard and Leland Harder. Anabaptists Four Centuries Later: a Profile of Five Mennonite and Brethren in Christ Denominations. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1975.

Loewen, Howard John. One Lord, One Church, One Hope, and One God: Mennonite Confessions of Faith. Text-Reader Series, 2. Elkhart, IN: Institute of Mennonite Studies, 1985.

Runzo, Jean Ellen Goodban. "Communal Discipline in the Early Anabaptist Communities of Switzerland, South and Central Germany, Austria, and Moravia, 1525-1550." PhD diss., U. of Michigan, 1978.

Schlabach, Ervin A. "The Rule of Christ Among the Early Swiss Anabaptists." ThD diss., Chicago Theological Seminary, 1977.

Studies of Church Discipline. Newton, KS: MPO, 1958.

Additional Information

Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective

Mennonite Brethren Confession (1975)

Seven Articles of Schleitheim

Author(s) Harold S. Bender
Marlin Jeschke
Date Published 1990

Cite This Article

MLA style

Bender, Harold S. and Marlin Jeschke. "Discipline, Church." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1990. Web. 29 Jul 2021. https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Discipline,_Church&oldid=162922.

APA style

Bender, Harold S. and Marlin Jeschke. (1990). Discipline, Church. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 29 July 2021, from https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Discipline,_Church&oldid=162922.


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 2, pp. 69-70; vol. 5, pp. 239-240. All rights reserved.

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