A Call of Public Spiritual Disciplines

February 16, 2016

Books on practicing the Spiritual disciplines typically have about a dozen topics. 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. Likewise, 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.

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 identifies there is both 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 any 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? Could it be that there is a third horizon—the first two being the individual in relationship with God (worship) and the individual being in relationship with the church (fellowship)—that must be developed in order for a man or woman to walk worthy of the gospel?

I suspect there is. And I would suggest the third horizon is the formation of Christian love as he or she 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 spiritual dryness; to neglect the latter will create saplings always in need of an external brace.

The relationship between personal and public disciplines is symbiotic. On 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.

Therefore, 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.” And 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 fruitful life—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. Just as Scripture teaches us personal disciplines to practice, 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.

  • 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 Human 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 outside the church.
  • Productivity in Vocation — the daily use of skills, knowledge, and resources to create ‘products’ that serve the needs of others. Through various occupations, Christians fulfill Jesus command to love their neighbor.
  • Generosity to the Poor — aside from giving first-fruits to the church, we must care for the poor who reside near us. We should look for ways to care for the impoverished, hungry, and homeless, even as we stand against industries that prey upon them.
  • Engagement in Politics — praying for, honoring, drafting policies, and working with leaders for the improvement of the world. This should never replace our first priority to Christ and his kingdom, but as national citizens we are called to be salt and light. (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 that God has placed you. “Neighboring” displays the love of God and facilitates ways to speak gospel truth.
  • Passion for Racial Reconciliation and International Missions — sharing God’s burden for the nations, we must reach across cultural and racial boundaries to make peace and share the Gospel with those who do not know the Gospel.
  • Commitment to the Imagination— esteeming and/or creating art, literature, poetry, song, and education that extols God and reflect his beauty.
  • Care of Creation — stewarding all creation in such a way that the earth, the animals, and the bodies God has given to us are best utilized to honor him.

Again, these “public disciplines” may be bettered termed “virtues.” However, since they are found in Scripture as commandments, they are more than just the cultivation of spontaneous virtue. As with the personal disciplines, they take Spirit-empowered effort and attention. Because godliness is never produced without discipline (1 Timothy 4:8), they are not by-products, but strategic operations, tangible applications of the Cultural Mandate and Great Commandment. They should not be set over or against the Great Commission, but as a part of the way Christian disciples honor God with the spheres of creation they have been given to subdue and rule.

A Call for Public Spiritual Disciplines 

By enumerating these public disciplines, I am highlighting a needed area of development in Christian discipleship and spiritual formation. As Nancy Pearcy has observed,

Most Christian students [and non-students] simply don’t know how to express their faith perspective in language suitable for the public square. Like immigrants who have not yet mastered the grammar of their new country, they are self-conscious. In private, they speak to one another in the mother tongue of their religion, but in [public] they are uncertain how to express their religious perspective in the accents of the . . . world.[1]

Therefore, public disciplines ought to be pursued for more than just personal, spiritual enhancement. These public actions 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 are motivated by the saving work of Christ; they desire to see their actions lead to gospel conversations. In this way, they are pre-evangelistic (meaning, they prepare the way for Christians to proclaim the gospel) and “pre-millennial” (in that, they foreshadow life in the coming 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 love (loving the good) and hate (hating evil) that best stretches 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

[1] Nancy Pearcey, Total Truth: Liberating Christianity from Its Cultural Captivity (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2004), 68.

David Schrock
David Schrock pastors Occoquan Bible Church in Woodbridge, Virginia. A two-time graduate of Southern Seminary (M.Div., Ph.D.), David has written and reviewed books for The Gospel Coalition, Credo Magazine, and PureHope Ministries. He also blogs at Via Emmaus.