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 David Schrock is the pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Seymour, Indiana and the assistant editor for the Journal for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. He is the husband of Wendy and the father of two energetic boys. Read More by this Author

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24