Jonathan Leeman's book The Church and the Surprising Offense of God's Love: Reintroducing the Doctrines of Church Membership and Discipline (IX Marks) is a passionate and convincing defense of church membership and discipline, rooted in an invigorating theological discussion of the love of God.
"Membership and discipline are not artificially erected structures," Leeman writes. "They are not legalistic impositions upon new-covenant grace. They are an organic and inevitable outgrowth of Christ's redemptive work and the gospel call to repentance and faith. Missing local church membership is like missing the fact that Christians are called to pursue good works, or love their neighbors, or care for the poor, or pray to God, or follow in the way of Christ. Submitting oneself to a local church is what a true believer does, just like a true believer pursues good works, loves his or her neighbor, and so forth. Someone who refuses to join--or better, to submit to--a local church is like someone who refuses to pursue a life of righteousness. It calls into question the authenticity of his or her faith (16)."
Surprisingly broad in scope (375 pages, with footnotes on about half the pages), Leeman's book impressed me with the depth of its scholarship, critiquing and synthesizing the ideas of thinkers as old and current as Jay Adams, Augustine, Karl Barth, George Barna, Jacques Barzun, Craig Blomberg, John Calvin, D. A. Carson, Rene Déscarte, Jonathan Edwards, Michel Foucault, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Paul Hiebert, Søren Kierkegaard, Dan Kimball, Martin Luther, Brian McLaren, Leon Morris, Mark Noll, Karl Popper, Ayn Rand, William P. Young (of The Shack), Alexis de Tocqueville, Paul David Tripp, Frank Viola, Charles Wesley, and N. T. Wright. Yet it also contains some very helpful practical advice for the local church that is trying to implement or refine its practice of membership. It is also thoroughly soaked in God's Word, with a three-column Scripture index that is over six pages long.
"What we need, I believe," Leeman writes, "is a truly systematic theology of church membership and discipline. We need to consider how the practices of local church membership and discipline fit into the larger matters of God's love, God's judgment, God's authority, and the gospel (17)." Leeman attempts present this systematic theology in a way that churches of many denominations, regardless of their unique church structures, can benefit.
Leeman's book is well-organized, even containing a 5-1/2 page outline of the entire book in an appendix! Here Leeman records, for each chapter of the book, its main question, his main answer to that question, and each of the steps of his argument within that chapter. These same questions, argument steps, and answers are set apart as headings within the text of the book, making it easier to review and use the book after you are done reading it.
Now to an overview of the book. Here is the table of contents:
Part 1 - Love Misdefined
1. The Idolatry of Love
Part 2 - Love Redefined
2. The Nature of Love
3. The Rule of Love
4. The Charter of Love
5. The Covenant of Love
Part 3 - Love Lived
6. The Affirmation and Witness of Love
7. The Submission and Freedom of Love
Leeman surveys his book like this:
"Chapter 1 begins as a sociological consideration of the cultural factors that inhibit meaningful church membership and discipline.... Ultimately, I will argue that these sociological considerations give way to spiritual ones.
"Chapters 2 to 5 present one sustained theological argument for church membership and discipline. Chapter 2 attempts to articulate a right understanding of love. Chapter 3 attempts to articulate a godly understanding of authority. I take the time to do both these things for two reasons. First, church membership is a function of God's love and authority exercised among covenanting believers. Second, I believe that most evangelicals have, at best, reductionistic understandings of love and authority. You might almost say that I'm trying to use these two chapters to introduce a new worldview before making the more specific arguments concerning church membership and discipline in chapters 4 and 5. If you're anxious to cut to the chase, however, go straight to chapter 4, where I formally define church membership and discipline, and I defent this definition based on Matthew 16, 18, and 28. Membership, I argue, is a kind of covenant. Chapter 5 then pans the camera in on this covenant and considers what exactly it is in light of the covenants of the Old Testament and the new covenant.
"Chapters 6 and 7 are then an attempt to get more practical and 'apply' the doctrine developed in the previous four chapters. Chapter 6 walks the reader through the membership and discipline process from the church's perspective. Chapter 7 does the same from the individual Christian's perspective (36)."
If you want a theological defense of church membership, a book that convinces you that membership and discipline are a vitally important part of Jesus' gospel, then this may be the best book you can read. Leeman's passion springs from his own life journey: "I may have been converted by God through the very decision to submit to [a] pastor's authority" (162). As an assistant pastor in an urban Mennonite church, I cannot resist quoting this book to my own fellow elders and fellow church members. How I long for more of the "clear line between church and world" that Leeman describes--for a church where relationship is not pitted against structure, where we realize that "God is not interested merely in relationships, but in particular kinds of relationships" (138). "I am not suggesting that people cannot come to faith gradually, or even hand their allegiance over to Christ gradually.... Still, we must not lose sight of the fact that the church publicly represents an alternative reality to the world. We have to cross the border" (165).
If you want a "how to" manual, there will be other books that deal in a more detailed fashion with the disciplinary steps outlined in Matthew, as well as the passages from the Epistles about church discipline (Jay Adams does this well in Handbook of Church Discipline: A Right and Privilege of Every Church Member (Jay Adams Library). However, the final chapters of Leeman's book do contain many helpful insights about matters such as membership classes, doctrinal statements, observing the Lord's Supper, responding to abusive authorities, and disciplining sinful or absent members.
Here are some more favorite quotes from Leeman's book:
- "The universal church is to the local church as faith is to deeds" (213).
- "The nature of our salvation and the relationship between faith and deeds require Christians to submit to the local church. Submitting to a local church, or what we typically speak of as "joining a local church," is faith putting on deeds.... A Christian must choose to join a church, just as a Christian must choose to submit to Christ, but having chosen Christ, a Christian has no choice but to choose a church to join" (215).
- "On the one hand, the local church practices baptism, as commanded by Christ in the charter of Matthew 16, 18, and 28. On the other hand, the local church practices the Lord's Supper, as commanded when Jesus promised a new covenant in Matthew 26. If we bring these two things together, we have the two marks of church membership. Church members are simply those marked off by baptism and the Lord's Supper in a local congregation. That's the church" (247-48).
- "If submitting to Christ through conversion should immediately translate into submitting to a local church through baptism, then the Lord's Supper is a meal reserved for baptized members of churches. For a Christian to partake of the Lord's Supper without having first submitted to the authority of some local church through baptism is to claim an authority that Jesus never gave to the lone Christian.... It's to say, 'Jesus may have authorized the apostolic church [defined by Leeman as every local church that 'is built on the foundation of the apostles' and 'guards and proclaims the apostles' teaching,' 181] to bind and loose, which in turn declares some individuals as possessing the right to represent Jesus on earth and not others, but never mind all that. I know who I am! Forget the church.' In short, partaking of the Lord's Supper without being a baptized member of a local church is an act of presumption and disdain for the authority of Christ himself" (304).
- "Corrective church discipline is a small act of judgment on earth that dimly points to God's final judgment in heaven. It's performed with the hope that it will help bring a sinner to repentance before that final judgment comes. When we get down to it, therefore, I think discipline is hard to do, because we treat God's final judgment so lightly" (322).
Finally, a few things I wish this book did better:
- Discuss what the NT Epistles say about the application of church discipline. (Leeman focuses mostly on Matthew's ecclesiological foundations.)
- Consider more carefully the biblical parameters for church standards. Leeman does say, "A church should never bind a believer's conscience where Scripture does not bind it" (299), "The church does not have the authority to keep one whom Christ has united to himself from itself" (218), and "[Pastors and teachers] cannot command or formally require a member or even the church to do something.... Church members are commanded to obey them, but that obedience is to extend no further than where the Bible prescribes" (212). However, does the Bible itself actually prescribe that churches cannot prescribe some "essentials" (Acts 15:28, NASB) for membership?
- Explain in more detail how parachurch ministries can function without undermining authentic church membership and discipline. Leeman gives about 1 page to this topic.
If you've read this far, you know I am enthusiastic about this book. If church membership and discipline is an interest of yours, or if they are weak in your church, you will do well to read this book, comparing it with Scripture and asking God what he wants to teach you.