Leadership Letters
Leadership Letters

Writings on Christian leadership and leader development by Malcolm Webber

July 2002
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The Role of Discipline in the Forming of Character

Malcolm WebberMalcolm Webber

In the forming of character in the life of a leader, discipline is an essential element. In fact, discipline lies at the heart of character.

Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize. (1 Cor. 9:24-27)

Without the essential quality of discipline, all other leadership virtues remain as dwarfs: they cannot grow. J. Oswald Sanders wrote:

Before we can conquer the world, we must first conquer the self. A leader is a person who has learned to obey a discipline imposed from without, and has then taken on a more rigorous discipline from within. Those who rebel against authority, and scorn self-discipline – who shirk the rigors and turn from the sacrifices – do not qualify to lead. Many who drop out of ministry are sufficiently gifted, but have large areas of life floating free from the Holy Spirit’s control. Lazy and disorganized people never rise to true leadership.1

Thus, the progression of discipline in the life of a leader is as follows: First, he submits to discipline from without. By doing so, he develops discipline from within. When that is mature, he is then permitted by God to give discipline to others. He has become a leader.

Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the command of God our Savior and of Christ Jesus our hope, (1 Tim. 1:1)

Paul’s choice of the word “command” is significant. In this letter he commands Timothy to command the church and the false teachers to do certain things. Thus, he who gives commands is himself under command. Paul was not only under God’s command; he was also accountable to the church at Antioch (Acts 13:3; 14:26-28; 15:2-3, 35-40; 18:22-23) as well as to the leaders in Jerusalem (Gal. 2:2).

These three stages in the development of character are depicted in the following graphic:

Three Stages of Discipline

This is the order of character development: one submits to discipline first. Then, in that context, internal discipline is built. Once internal discipline is in place, God permits him – and man trusts him – to lead others. This order cannot be reversed. Internal discipline must be in place in the leader before he can effectively lead others, and his own external discipline must be in place before he can build true inward discipline. Thus, if one does not truly submit himself to another, he should never be trusted with true leadership responsibility.

Furthermore, please notice that these three stages are cumulative. They are not sequential in the sense of giving up one when moving to the next. They do not replace each other. The healthy leader maintains both his submission to others and his internal self-discipline while he leads others.

Here is another way of presenting these three stages using slightly different terms:

Three Stages of Discipline - Leadership

Naturally, this process takes time.

In our next letter we will look at the testing and proving process of an emerging leader.

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1 Spiritual Leadership, p. 52.


This month’s recommended web site is Internet Resources for the Study and Teaching of Theology. A large annotated index of Internet resources relating to theological studies.

This month’s recommended book is The Transforming Work of the Holy Spirit in the Christian’s Life by Malcolm Webber. A simple but powerful description of exactly how the Holy Spirit actually brings about internal transformation and how we can best work with Him in this process.

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