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The Church and the Surprising Offense of God's Love: Reintroducing the Doctrines of Church Membership and Discipline (IX Marks) Paperback – January 8, 2010
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"What happens when you bring together one of the most misunderstood subjects (love) and one of the most ignored practices (church membership and discipline) in the church today? A book like this one. Unlike the generation raised on Mr. Spock's child-rearing advice, the Good Shepherd cares for his flock by loving discipline. There is a lot of talk these days about radical discipleship, but what we need more today is a lot more ordinary discipleship, where we realize not only in theory but in practice what it means to be conformed to Christ's image. This is the best book I've seen on this subject in a long time."
—Michael Horton, J. Gresham Machen Professor of Theology and Apologetics, Westminster Seminary California; Host, White Horse Inn; author, Core Christianity
About the Author
Jonathan Leeman (PhD, University of Wales) is the editorial director for 9Marks. He has written for a number of publications and is the author or editor of several books. He is also an occasional lecturer at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and adjunct professor at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Jonathan lives with his wife and four daughters in a suburb of Washington, DC.
Mark Dever (PhD, Cambridge University) is the senior pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, DC, and president of 9Marks (9Marks.org). Dever has authored over a dozen books and speaks at conferences nationwide.
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Leeman exercises theological care in straining to define God’s love. He defines love as not the unconditional agape love that most evangelicals (myself included) have always thought about this love. Instead he looks at the whole of Scripture and concludes that the love of God is both conditional and unconditional. As an example: God’s love for sinners. From our standpoint, God’s gift of salvation is a pure undeserved, unconditional gift. However from God’s standpoint it is conditional because His love was a response to the person and work of Christ. Regarding this great love that God has given us he says, “he gives to us because he is attracted to the display of his glory. His love for us is always conditional upon that.”
That is a staggering statement that God’s love is conditional as a response to the Son’s redemption and for the display of the Son’s glory to all peoples. He clarifies further saying that God has always loved conditionally citing Gen 2:15-16. He goes further to clarify that the good news of Christianity is not that God changed to love us unconditionally but that, “he has decided to grant his ‘conditional love’ fully and assuredly to a people contrary to what they deserve because Christ satisfied his conditions.” That is both a difficult and devastating blow to my theology of love. Christ’s obedience is stressed. Christ’s love for His Father is stressed. My love for God and God’s love for me is no longer subjective but completely anchored to the objective reality of what Christ has done.
But this love of God is not just outward, apart from any response, from the one loved. Leeman explains his view saying, “God’s love is a boomerang that natural man loves and despises. We love the embrace of the boomerang as it flies outward; we despise the demand of the boomerang as it calls us back to loving him with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength. We also despise the suggestion that his love will cause him to judge.” The boomerang word picture is helpful to show God’s love involves a response of worship and adoration. Love then involves submission which is “love for God and giving oneself for the pursuit of His glory.”
One major strength of this book is the breadth of material that Leeman was able to synthesize. His book is very well researched in the various developments of individualism to anti-authority and especially his insights (as borrowed from D.A. Carson) on the subject of God’s love. However Leeman shoots himself in the foot a little bit. He says that one of the weaknesses of the church is that it’s absence of authority is because of its failure to rest in the authority of the word of God and namely in expositional preaching. I wish he would model that statement a little bit more in his explanation of God’s boomerang love. I appreciate the survey of historical theology (from Augustine, Edwards, Luther, and even Piper) but a more potent exegesis of the more sure Word would have been his strongest argument. For example, he says: “Theologically, God is not interested merely in relationships, but in particular kinds of relationship… God-to-human and human-to-human relationships should serve the particular end of imaging or worshiping God. That is what love wants. That is what love burns for.” Unfortunately biblical support was lacking.
It is unfortunate that Leeman spends only 3 pages on when to leave a church, a very practical and significant question for church members today.
Leeman persuasively shows that true love requires a response. If we are to love like God we must love what God loves and hate what God hates. Love then is expressed to the world by how Christians are to love one another especially in the local church. This local church is what Jesus intends to use as the medium for conveying his gospel message – for protecting it, displaying it, holding it up, and making it attractive, and put it to work. Church membership is what draws the line to indicate who is in and who is out. The church is a reflection of heaven according to Leeman and is a picture of who is in heaven and who is out. He shows this by expanding upon Leon Morris’ conclusion on Matt 16:18-19, “Good reasons may be brought forward for holding that Jesus meant that the new community would exercise divinely given authority both in regulating its internal affairs and in deciding who would be admitted to and excluded from its membership.” From that statement Leeman extracts five ways that the apostolic church exercises her authority: to guard and protect the gospel, to affirm credible professors of faith, to unite such professors to itself, to bar/exclude non-credible professors, and to oversee discipleship of believers. As a former Catholic I found Leeman’s distinction between the Catholic and Protestant view of the authority of the church refreshing. He compares the authorities of a landlord vs. an ambassador. A landlord (Catholic view) has the power to enact while the ambassador (Protestant view) has authority to declare on behalf of his king. The distinction is subtle but the implications are massive. He says it best, “The church has authority not because it’s omniscient but because Christ has commissioned it to stand and speak – or better, to go and speak – in [H]is place.”
Based on this Leeman defines membership as: a covenant of union between a particular church and a Christian. This covenant consists of the church’s affirmation of the Christian’s gospel profession, the church’s promise to give oversight to the Christian, and the Christian’s promise to gather with the church and submit to its oversight. Leeman further expands seriousness of membership by calling it a covenant more than a commitment.
Leeman’s definition of church discipline flows from membership as: discipline occurs at any time sin is corrected within the church body, and it occurs fully when the church body announces that covenant between the church and member is already broken because the member has proven to be un-submissive in his or her discipleship to Christ. By this token the church withdraws its affirmation of the individual’s faith, announcing that it will cease giving oversight, and releases the individual back into the world. The first definition defines the subject as a Christian while the latter describes them as a Member. That is very clarifying and also the responsibilities of the church and why they correct in the act of church discipline.
One direct application of membership that displays God’s love through Christ’s authority is protecting the Lord’s Table from those who are not members. Leeman says, “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.”
Overall the book was very engaging and intellectually stimulating. I enjoyed Leeman’s infectious joy to tell others about the love of God by displaying that love through His church as they establish practice biblical membership and discipline.
Rediscovering the Doctrines of Church Membership and Discipline is about discovering exactly WHAT the love of God is all in the context of why it is important to be a part of a church fellowship. His primary thesis is that we (the world and many Christians) have made love into an idol that serves us and so redefined love into something that never imposes judgments, conditions or binding attachments. Such a love is NOT the love which God shows and gives. God's love brings BOTH salvation and judgment. In other words, God's love creates and affirms us, but it's purpose is so that we can glorify God. And t is this model which we MUST take into our Church structures.
Leeman expresses it brilliantly on pg122. He writes:
God's love is a boomerang that natural man loves and despises. We love the embrace of the boomerang as it flies outward; we despise the demand of the boomerang as it calls us back to loving him with all our heart, mind, soul and strength. We also despise the suggestion that his love will cause him to judge.... God's gospel is a boomerang that natural man loves and despises. We love the announcement of forgiveness and love through no merit of our own; e despise the call to repent, forsake everything and follow Jesus....God's church is a boomerang that natural man loves and despises. We love the idea of a warm fellowship that will embrace us; we despise the fellowship's requirement that we abandon the familiar blandishments of family and friends and submit to its oversight and disciplines.
Leeman goes on to argue (correctly in my opinion) that the purpose of God's love for us, is that we might glorify and worship God.
This also should have an effect on HOW we meet. Leeman takes great pains to tell us that the 'how we meet together' is not a periphery issue but a main one. He argues on pg 226 that Churches need boundaries and structures and authority. It is the church's responsibility to discipline those who deviate form the gospel. For to do so is LOVING! Writing on 1 Corinthians 5, Leeman says:
Paul calls on the Corinthian Church members to protect the gospel by no longer identifying themselves with the man committing a sin that even non-christians would question...[the church] is responsible on Jesus' behalf to ensure that this man is not allowed to publicly identify himself with Jesus.... They should exclude him.... Paul cannot know for certain that this man is not a christian but the church needs to speak for Jesus. Since the man is unrepentantly acting like a non-christian, Paul, in love, exhorts them to treat him like one by removing him.
This will be a difficult book to read for many. It blows the idea of the exclusive, non-confrontational love which has become the hallmark of our culture (as well as many Christian denominations) out of the water. What Leeman expounds here is not a harsh love, but an incredible powerful love which transforms, changes and leads to intimacy with God.
And it is this 'love' that should be reflected in our church membership and in our church discipline. Which is why it is important for us an believers to be a part of the Church. The Church itself in its structure and outworking should demonstrate the love of God. This can be seen clearly in the nine reasons why, for Leeman, we should submit to a local church:
1. Identifies us with Christ
2. Distinguishes us from the world
3. Guides us into the righteousness of Christ by presenting a standard of personal and corporate righteousness
4. Acts as a witness to non-christians
5. Glorifies God and enables us to enjoy his glory
6. Identifies us with Christ's people
7. Assists us in living the christian life through the accountability of brothers and sisters in the faith
8. Makes us responsible for specific believers
9. Protects us from the world, the flesh, and the devil
This book is not exhaustive in its study. But it is a great framework and it highlights how badly we need to have a theology, a doctrine of Church Membership and discipline which is rooted in the Doctrine of God.
I highly recommend this book.