Congregational Discipline In The Shepherd Of Hermas

One of the more remarkable aspects of the often neglected Shepherd of Hermas is the way that congregational discipline runs throughout the pages of the book.  In a way, this ought not to surprise us.  After all, Eusebius and others report that Hermas was the brother of an early Bishop of Rome named Pius, and one would well expect that the interesting literature of the one brother, a layman, would help support the interest of order represented by his brother the leader of the Church of Rome during the middle of the second century AD.  However, although the Shepherd of Hermas is not a conspicuously elevated piece of literature [1], it does deal with the issue of congregational discipline in a subtle way, though a pervasive one.  Let us take a look at how the theme of spiritual discipline is woven throughout the Shepherd of Hermas, at least briefly.

We can first note the importance of congregational discipline in the very structure of the Shepherd of Hermas.  The second book of the Shepherd of Hermas is titled “Commandments,” and the commandments given are rather straightforward:  having faith in God, avoiding evil speaking and giving alms for the poor, avoiding falsehood, putting one’s wife away for adultery, the wickedness of sins of the heart and the importance of patience, recognizing the difference between various spirits in man, fearing God and not fearing the devil, shunning evil and doing good, praying to God without ceasing in full confidence, not grieving the Holy Spirit, living in the knowledge that we will be tried by our works, and the possibility of keeping the commandments of God.  The fact that an entire aspect of this book, filled with reputed conversations between the author/narrator and angels, is devoted to commandments suggests that a major aspect of this book is the cultivation of Christian virtue.  And what we find is consistent with a strong works-based virtue that is not unfamiliar in contemporary Christian circles.  The Shepherd of Hermas, it should be noted, is not very tolerant of the contemporary fondness for ragamuffin Christians as this book repeatedly makes clear in its strong condemnation of carnal Christians.

One aspect of the view of discipline within the Shepherd of Hermas is the discipline that should take place within the household.  Indeed, very early on in the book (18), Hermas is told about the sins and blasphemies of Hermas’ children and the lack of restraint of Hermas’ wife, which Hermas himself is given the charge to deal with.  Here we see that the first line of defense when one deals with corporate discipline is discipline within the household, where believing husbands are expected to set a godly example for wives, and where believing parents are expected to correct wayward children.  Had the author been a single man instead of a family man, the book would likely have gone in a different direction than it did.  Even at the beginning of the book, though, the author gives direction to the church at large:  “You will tell, therefore, those who preside over the church, to direct their ways in righteousness, that they may receive in full the promises with great joy (18).”  Here we see that immediately after discussing discipline within the household that the Shepherd of Hermas is interested in the subject of discipline within the larger household of God.

Likewise, the Shepherd of Hermas’ emphasis on the church being one tower fitted together makes the issue of congregational discipline a rather serious one:  “But myriads of men were carrying stones to it, some dragging them from the depths, others removing them from the land, and they handed them to these six men (21).”  As the somewhat tediously reported vision continues we see that some of the stones were polished and fitted exactly and so they joined perfectly with each other, the sign of a church that is well-ordered.  Unfortunately, other stones taken from the earth included stones that were rejected and some that were cut down and cast far from the tower, other stones were burned by fire and still others were unable to reach the water like they wanted to because they were not properly fit in with others.  The collective view of the church that the Shepherd of Hermas shows makes it clear that a major part of being part of God’s church is being able to fit in with unity with the body of Christ.  There is no conception of Christianity being just about one’s relationship with God, but believers must fit into the larger plan of God and must be polished through obedience and so united that the lines of joining are not visible, which is clearly not the case often among believers today.

We have already noted that the Shepherd of Hermas views some women as the agents of destruction for some believers due to sensuality, but it is worthwhile to examine once again the language of congregational discipline here:  “Having seen these women, they desired to have them, and closed themselves with their strength, and put off the strength of the virgins.  These, accordingly, were rejected from the house of God, and were given over to these women (90).”  The question naturally follows as to how they were rejected from the house of God.  Several different possibilities remain here.  It is possible that they may be physically present within the church but may be rejected spiritually by God for their unrepented sins.  It is possible that they will reject God’s ways themselves because of their lack of interest in repenting, as is the case with many who get caught up in the corrupt ways of the world do at present.  It is also possible that in their sins of, presumably, sexual immorality, they are disfellowshipped by the church as happened as early as 1 Corinthians.  In either way, there is an aspect of rejection for sin and division envisioned here within the Shepherd of Hermas.

Ultimately, though, it should be noted that the Shepherd of Hermas views the Lord of the tower, “the glorious man (84)” as being the one who judges stones as fit for the tower.  Indeed, the author states that there were exceedingly brilliant round stones that were hard to fit with others but that would be worked on by the Shepherd (presumably Christ Jesus) to join the tower, even if it took a lot of work.  Although the Shepherd of Hermas is a book with a tough-minded view towards Christianity and towards moral judgement, ultimately the message is hopeful that those who come to a belief in Christ, even if they do not find it easy to be united with their brethren, ultimately will find some place in the tower that is being built out of the various stones that represent individual believers.  Hermas is not interested in political designs of conflict management nor seeking, necessarily, for control over the lives of members, but the fact that brethren are part of a larger collective identity as brethren in the Family of God and members of His Church requires some sort of recognition of this fact in our lives and conduct, and means that God will ultimately judge His own people and fit them where they best belong according to their God-given talents and abilities and they way they have been refined through living a godly life as believers.  Ultimately, this vision is a positive one, focusing on the glorious whole that believers are a part of, rather than an enumeration of the punishments and discipline to which those believers are subject to as they are polished and refined and put into place with others.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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1 Response to Congregational Discipline In The Shepherd Of Hermas

  1. Pingback: Are We Different Stones In The Same Building? | Edge Induced Cohesion

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