At the beginning of the year, we should be considering habits and practices that will build our most holy faith (Jude 21) for the next 365 days. Such disciplines begin with personal habits that enable us to commune with God. And books on practicing spiritual disciplines typically have about a dozen habits to consider.
For instance, Donald Whitney’s Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life lists ten: (1) Bible intake (in two parts), (2) prayer, (3) worship, (4) evangelism, (5) serving, (6) stewardship, (7) fasting, (8) silence and solitude, (9) journaling, and (10) learning. Whitney also has another book on corporate disciplines. Similarly, but more mystically, Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline enumerates twelve disciplines under three orientations: inward disciplines include (1) meditation, (2) prayer, (3) fasting, and (4) study; outward disciplines involve (5) simplicity, (6) solitude, (7) submission, and (8) service; and corporate disciplines consist of (9) confession, (10) worship, (11) guidance, and (12) celebration.
Because Scripture does not publish an authorized list of disciplines, an exhaustive list cannot be produced. Even a cursory reading these two lists invites comment on the best way to think about practicing the habits Jesus commanded. Is worship only corporate? How is solitude outward? Does solitude have to be silent? Whitney and Foster discuss these questions in their books with different emphases based on their different theological and ecclesial backgrounds. (As a Reformed Baptist it’s not surprising that I find Whitney’s book, full of Puritan Spirituality, the better book).
But what makes both of these books the same is their challenge to individuals to grow in personal godliness. Indeed, both books highlight the personal model of Jesus, a man who undeniably practiced the spiritual disciplines and taught his followers to do the same. In short, personal spiritual disciplines are part and parcel of faith in the Lord.
That said, personal disciplines are not private disciplines. As Foster rightly identify, there is an outward and corporate aspect to the Christian’s spiritual life. Understanding this interpersonal dynamic, Donald Whitney wrote a companion volume, Spiritual Disciplines within the Church to correct the hyper-individualism fostered by an unbalanced concern for personal, spiritual disciplines.
A Third Horizon in Spiritual Formation
Still, I wonder if there is something more that ought to be stressed in the spiritual formation of a believer? Is it possible that those who attend regularly to Bible intake, prayer, worship, evangelism, and even fasting may be incomplete in their spiritual development? In addition to personal disciplines and church practices, could it be that there is a third horizon that must be developed in order for a disciple to walk worthy of the gospel?
I suspect there is. And it falls under the banner of practices of Christian love that engages the world. In other words, as the personal disciplines supply the spiritual sap on which the soul feeds and grows, the public disciplines—for lack of a better term—develop spiritual strength in a believer who is learning to counteract the gale force winds of the world.
To use the imagery of Isaiah 61:3, “oaks of righteousness” are only formed when personal and public disciplines work together. Only as individual believers feed on the Lord in their personal disciplines and exercise their faith publicly will they grow to be spiritually mature. To neglect the former will result in brittle dryness; to neglect the latter will create saplings always in need of an external brace.
The relationship between personal and public disciplines is symbiotic. One the one hand, God keeps his children through the spiritual habits of Bible reading, prayer, worship, etc. Only as they practice these disciplines will they have clarity and conviction to stand up for truth. On the other, as Christians take their faith into the marketplace is the genuineness of their faith proven true. Only as they love their enemies, pray for those who persecute them, speak up for the defenseless, care for the needy, and proclaim the truth of the gospel will their well-nourished soul grow rugged and strong—like a well-aged oak, strengthened through seventy years of stress and storm.
It is through the personal and public disciplines that disciples in Christ are matured and oaks of righteousness are made. But what are the public disciplines?
The Public Disciplines
It is possible that the term “public discipline” is infelicitous. It may be better to call them Christian virtues, acts of love and justice, generosity and rescue that reveal the genuine character of our faith. As James 2 says, “Faith without deeds” is dead, and thus public disciplines are a way of categorizing and encouraging those “deeds.” Because there are times when spiritual life doesn’t result in public action, these “disciplines” should be stressed to help Christians work out their faith in love (Gal 5:6; cf. 1 John 3:18).
Genuine faith leads to a life full of fruit—speech and actions, initiatives and projects that serve the needs of others. As Paul says in Ephesians 2:10, those who are in Christ Jesus (i.e., those who have been saved by grace through faith, 2:8–9) are created in Christ Jesus for good works. Surely, these good works are manifold and beyond enumeration (cf. John 14:12), but I would suggest that Scripture gives us insight into what kinds of works they may include. That just as Scripture teaches us practice disciplines to pursue, it also gives us public disciplines to pursue.
So without any other preface, here are ten public disciplines to cultivate. I don’t consider this an exhaustive list, but it is a start. If you have other umbrella topics, let me know.
- Sanctity of Marriage and the Marriage Bed — the vocal defense of biblical marriage, coupled with a lifestyle that puts to death sexual sin and helps others to do the same.
- Sanctity of Life — the active protection of the unborn, the mental disabled, and the aged.
- Care for Orphans and Widows — while we have a special care for those in the church, we should also look for ways to adopt and care for the most vulnerable.
- Productivity in Vocation — the daily use of skills, knowledge, and resources to create ‘products’ that serve the needs of others.
- Generosity to the Poor — aside from giving first-fruits to the church, we must care for the poor who reside near us. (N.B. The near us is important. We are not called to solve poverty, but to care for those whose needs we are near.)
- Engagement in Politics — praying for leaders; honoring leaders; and working with leaders for the improvement of the world. (This is especially true in America, where every citizen plays a part in government).
- Improvement of the Neighborhood — taking an active role to improve the neighborhood (e.g., the block, the HOA, or the club to which you belong) that God has placed you.
- Passion for Ethnic Reconciliation and International Missions — sharing God’s burden for the nations, we must reach across cultural and ethnic boundaries to make peace and share the Gospel with those who do not know.
- Commitment to the Imagination — esteeming and/or creating writing, drawing, painting, sculpting beautiful things that extol God and reflect his beauty.
- Care of Creation — stewarding well the earth, the animals, and the bodies God has given to us.
Again, these “public disciplines” may be bettered termed “virtues” or even “good works.” Importantly, these disciplines are not the gospel, nor does every Christian have to pursue them equally. But because Christ has redeemed us for good works, these disciplines are entailments of the gospel to which growing disciples should pursue. And we should pursue them, even as many focus all their “gospel-centered” attention on one or more of these, demanding that others do the same.
I recognize that these public disciplines have often been conflated with the gospel, thereby confusing the gospel. But because some people are obscuring the gospel with these practices of social justice does not mean that Christians should not seek to do good in public spaces. Just the opposite. Instead of denying or avoiding these practices, because that’s what some others with a passion for social justice focus on, we should let all of Scripture speak. And we who know the gospel, should seek to walk in the good works (i.e., public disciplines) that God has called us to. Again, moral proximity matters, and I am not calling Christians to do all of them equally. I am simply saying that as important as Bible reading and personal prayer are, so are outward exercises of faith, hope, and love.
A Call for Public Spiritual Disciplines
In the end, these public disciplines ought to be pursued for more than just personal, spiritual enhancement. These public acts of love are for the good of our neighbors and the testimony of Christ’s bride. Without them, the church will not be the City on a Hill that brings glory to Jesus (Matt 5:13–16). Only as his disciples take their faith into public will the love of God be seen. Only as the church loves its neighbors through orphan care, racial reconciliation, and public works, will its neighbors begin to see the difference Christ makes. For centuries the church has done that, and it must continue to do so today.
Public disciplines are not actions devoid of the gospel; they depend upon the gospel and are motivated by the saving work of Christ. Even as these good works do not “preach” the gospel, they do lead to gospel conversations and make the gospel plausible to a lost and dying world. In this way, they are pre-evangelistic (meaning, they prepare the way for Christians to proclaim the gospel) and “pre-millennial” (in that, they display life in God’s kingdom). They are disciplines predicated on the dichotomy of love and hate—where believers grow in love for neighbor, even as we grow to hate evil, injustice, and the deadly effects of Satanic lies.
In fact, it is this pursuit of loving good and hating evil that best straightens and strengthens young believers. Evidence of Christianity’s weakness today is its single-sided “love wins” mentality. What a focus of the public disciplines does is to take well-fed but quiescent Christians and (by God’s grace) turn them into royal priests who stand boldly for Christ and his kingdom. Thus, maturity comes not just when we learn how to have a quiet time, but when our time in the Bible and prayer leads us to care for orphans and widows, fast for reconciliation, go to jail for speaking the truth in love about same sex marriage, and gladly suffer for the sake of the elect.
This is the kind of Christianity that is needed today. It begins with a thriving relationship with Jesus sustained and strengthened by personal spiritual disciplines. But private devotions must lead to public actions. It’s here that talking about “public spiritual disciplines” and teaching how to pursue them will be helpful and necessary if the church is going to be a strong witness for Christ.
May God help us to abide in him and stand firm in the public square, so that together the church in America might become a forest of righteous oaks.
Soli Deo Gloria, ds