Restorative Discipline

Prior to coming to Covenant College in 2004, my wife and I worked in a Christian school for twenty-three years. For the last twelve or thirteen years of my time there, I served as the upper school principal, and in that role I had many opportunities to see God’s grace at work, particularly in and through the discipline process.

One of the students in our school for grades 7–12 was a young man named Chris. I don’t know whether Chris has ever met his father, who is serving a lengthy prison sentence for armed robbery; his mother struggled to make ends meet while working valiantly to keep the family intact. In God’s providence, Chris came to our Christian school and did well for many years, but during his junior year, we discovered that Chris and a group of four or five other boys had been stealing money, equipment, and other things from our school over a number of weeks. We were faced with a serious discipline issue. We decided early on that we wanted to administer the needed discipline, which included suspensions, counseling, restitution, and other steps, in the context of the grace of Jesus, with restoration and reconciliation as the end goal.

I suppose the easy thing to do would have been to expel all of the offending students for their theft and lying; believe me, we felt that pressure from some constituents to do just that. However, we decided to pursue a different route, one that was messy, time-consuming, and caused some people to question the wisdom of the school administration. Our plans did not work well with one student (who later was expelled after further problems with drugs, alcohol, and ultimately an arrest), but God began to work in Chris’s heart and life. It didn’t happen immediately. In fact, Chris was quite angry and unresponsive to me for the rest of his junior year and most of his senior year as well, but he made it to graduation. He went away to college and had a wonderful four years in which he excelled academically, grew as a Christian, and fulfilled a number of important functions, including leadership of the Baptist Student Union. In fact, he was the only senior who had a graduation speaking role four years later in a school that graduated hundreds of students.

My wife and I have stayed in touch with Chris, and today he is ministering in a difficult urban ministry in Memphis—extending the grace of Jesus to others—while finishing up seminary training in order to be a pastor. Recently, Chris and I exchanged e-mails, and here is part of what he wrote to me:

You need to know I often think about sitting in your office with a police detective because of my stupidity my junior year in high school. But, I’m thankful to God that he spared me. Thank you for showing me grace. I pray that God will allow my life to give a return on the investment that you made in my life. You will never know how thankful I am.

Needless to say, that e-mail is very precious to me, and even if no other positive thing happens to me, I will die a happy man! Chris is a great example of the power and promise of restorative justice and discipline in a Christian school. It is not what we did for Chris, but it is what the grace of Jesus has done for Chris and for all of us who were involved. Unfortunately, I think we often live our lives on the basis of performance and not grace. In our personal lives, in our churches, in our institutions, and in our schools we live as if we have to earn our sanctification, forgetting that the grace of Jesus is a free, unmerited gift.

The prayerful hope for all discipline within a Christian context is repentance, restitution, and restoration into the community. We know from experience that not all students respond positively to discipline. In fact, one of the most unpleasant tasks any administrator faces is reaching the point when a student must be asked to leave because of continuing discipline problems. But the Bible offers great encouragement to persevere: “Discipline your child, for in that there is hope” (Prov. 19:18); “Discipline your children, and they will give you peace; they will bring delight to your soul” (Prov. 29:17); “Moreover, we have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it” (Heb. 12:9). The prayer of every Christian school educator should be that each student become “one who loves what is good, who is self-controlled, upright, holy and disciplined” (Titus 1:8).

The potential for a school that is pursuing discipline with restoration in mind is exciting and limitless:

The Christian school community stresses the restorative power of God’s grace in individual lives and within the world community. In an age of cynicism and hopelessness, Christian school people focus on redemption, restoration, and “shalom”—as seen in history, as depicted in literature, as celebrated by the church. Because grace transcends the balance-sheet approach to life, cooperation comes before competition, service before self-interest (Vryhof 1989, 27).

When teachers confront misbehavior, or when an administrator sits across the desk from a student who has been sent to the office, they must always remember that the child’s behavior will change and the child will do what is right only by the grace of God working in the heart. Ultimately, the students cannot change their behavior any more than they can save themselves. They, like all of us, need God’s grace to save and sanctify them. The Apostle Paul describes this two-sided reality of grace: “For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all people. It teaches us to say ‘no’ to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age” (Titus 2:11–12, emphasis added). We must always hold before our students key truths: that God is in control of all things, that Jesus Christ has triumphed over sin and death, and that the Holy Spirit lives in the hearts of all believers. The grace of God is a present reality for the Christian, but often we need to pray for ourselves and our students, like Elisha prayed for his servant, “O Lord, open his eyes so he may see” (2 Kings 6:17).

God’s grace through Jesus Christ must be the generative center of discipline efforts. Although it may be tempting to try to manipulate students through guilt, fear, or intimidation, or to use some form of behavior modification to coerce them into correct behavior, ultimately these methods are doomed for failure. External conformity is one thing; a repentant and changed heart is quite another. Students, teachers, and administrators need God’s grace, not guilt. All need God’s mercy, not manipulation. As I have written elsewhere, the “three R’s” of biblical discipline for the Christian school are realistic prevention and support, rebuke, intervention, and correction when needed, but always with the goal of repentance and restoration in mind (Drexler 2007, 257–74).

Recently, I was on an early morning flight from St. Louis to Chicago. After the plane rose above a low level of clouds, we anticipated a spectacular sunrise in a beautifully clear blue sky. I was excited and even moved to the other side of the plane to watch. At one point the smallest sliver of the sun began to appear, but then it would drop back down below the horizon because we were already beginning our descent into Chicago. I kept looking and hoping, but soon we dropped below the cloud cover and the show was over.

Initially, I was disappointed that I didn’t get to witness the sunrise from the plane, but then I began to think about that glimmer of light, and how often that is what life is like for us now. We get little glimpses here and there, sometimes through relationships and community, sometimes as we discover and act on the truth, and sometimes when we experience the grace of God in profound ways. Those glimmers of grace are particularly profound in the midst of restorative discipline in the Christian school. When biblical discipline occurs in the Christian school, be it ever so imperfect and finite, the community gets a taste of the glory to come, when God’s redeemed and restored people will dwell together perfectly. “Come and see what God has done, his awesome deeds for humankind” (Ps. 66:5).

Works Cited

  • Drexler, J. L. 2007. Schools as communities: Educational leadership, relationships, and the eternal value of Christian schooling. Colorado Springs: Purposeful Design Publications.
  • Vryhof, S., J. Brouwer, S. Ulstein, and D. Vander Ark. 1989. 12 affirmations: reformed Christian schooling for the 21st Century. Grand Rapids: Baker Books.