Discipline vs Punishment

In seeking to fulfill the Great Commission, I hope we will be mindful of our behavior modification posture and modality.

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These words are pretty much used synonymously – but there is a difference, so let’s disambiguate. Why?

  • To use the words correctly
  • To be more concise
  • Misuse of the word “discipline” conveys an unintended negative connotation

But today’s blog is not just a word study to sharpen our vocabulary.

One of the commands in the Great Commission is to “make disciples”. The word “disciples” comes from the same root word as “discipline”. So, does that mean we are to go around punishing people into submission? Obviously not.

The purpose of punishment is discipline. If punishment is effective, there will be no future need for it.

It really helps if you think of the word “discipline” as always having the implied word “self” before it – therefore “self discipline”.

Here’s another way to think of it. When you hear someone being referred to as “a well disciplined child”. Does that mean a “well punished child”? Of course not.

None of us like being on the receiving end of punishment or discipline – after all, it’s painful! But we need to be mindful that the intent is NOT to make us miserable. In fact, the opposite is true. For example, a well trained dog can be let out to run free and play. On the other hand, a poorly trained dog must be kept on a leash.

Punishment should be reserved for when circumstances don’t allow for longer term solutions. While effective when needed, punishment has two undesirable side effects:

  • Damaged relationships
  • Long term behavior change is not assured

When punishment is used, you have to invest in mending and rebuilding the relationship. Furthermore, without teaching the purpose of the punishment, the undesirable behavior is likely to reoccur.

Punishment attempts to change behavior from the outside in. Discipline, on the other hand, attempts to change the behavior from the inside out.

We live in a world that wants immediate gratification. We have fast food, microwaves, and countless other time saving innovations. Yet, it seems we’re on a treadmill at break neck speed. Where is all the time we are saving?

I think punishment has it’s appeal in that it promises immediate results. Are we perhaps lazy and don’t want to invest in discipline instead? It seems that parents, as well as churches, have adopted a model that resembles “sin management” more than “making disciples”.

Somewhat akin to punishment is the use of excessive supervision. I know of parents who are obsessed with regulating their child’s behavior. They install tracking software on their phones. They only permit use of the computer or television at certain times when the parent is in the room. They insist on excessive “checking in” – texting their children to get a constant deposition on their whereabouts. I’m sure they love their children, but here’s my question:

What’s going to happen when you’re not there to manipulate the circumstances? Do you intend to outlive your children to keep them in line?

Punishment and excessive supervision rely on two key elements:

  • Superior force
  • Always being present

Now if anybody is justified in using punishment to the exclusion of discipline – it would be God. After all, He is omnipotent and omnipresent. God could very much force us to do His will. God could very much just zap us when we do wrong. Yet, in His wisdom, He disciplines us.

The bible is flavored with examples of both punishment and discipline. It’s not a case of choosing one to the exclusion of the other. It’s a case of choosing when each are appropriate.

The constant need for punishment does not indicate a high degree of discipline – it indicates a lack of it.

In seeking to fulfill the Great Commission, I hope we will be mindful of our behavior modification posture and modality.


That’s what I think. I’m interested in your thoughts. There’s lots of ways to hit me up so let me hear from you.

You can leave your comments below.

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Author: Mark Prasek

Christian Technologist. Find me on Twitter @DataGenesis

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