The Church and The Surprising Offense of God’s Love

Leeman, Jonathan. The Church and the Surprising Offense of God’s Love: Reintroducing the Doctrines of Church Membership and Discipline. Crossway: Wheaton, 2010.

Church membership and discipline are two topics that aren’t given priority in many churches. In fact, over the last three decades, numerous books and articles have been written that either implicitly or explicitly argue that church membership is irrelevant, unnecessary, or dated and therefore can be dispensed with (See n. 15 in the introduction for specific books). According to Leeman, “Among these voices, the words repeated over and over are ‘less institutionalism’ and ‘more authentic community’ or ‘less structure and more love.'” The problem with membership is related in the following quote on p. 33:

“In my experience as well, asking the average Christian how important committed church membership is to his or her Christianity will yield an answer somewhere in between ‘Not at all’ and ‘Sort of.’ Many Christians are happy to attend a particular church indefinitely without formally joining. Others are happy to visit different churches from one month to the next and continue in this pattern for a year or more. Still others don’t attend church at all and try to sustain their spiritual lives through a self-directed use of Christian books, fellowship groups, radio stations, or other forms of Christian media. Should you attempt to explain the importance, even necessity, of joining a church to someone with such a mindset, you will probably meet with, at best, a shrug of the shoulders or more likely the charge ‘That’s legalism’ or ‘That’s dogmatic’ or ‘That’s not loving.’ Mention the words church discipline and you can be pretty confident that these charges will follow.”

Concerning church discipline I had a conversation a few years ago with a pastor who said, “Jon, if we do church discipline, we will have Channel 9 News at our door.” I understand the concerns. But, these concerns are not grounded in the Scriptures. Since the Protestant Reformation the general agreement about what a church must do in order to be a biblical church includes preaching the gospel from the Word of God and observing the ordinances of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Though, not always as explicit, it was generally agreed that a healthy church should practice church discipline. In other words, churches have been given great authority by the Lord Jesus to guard and protect membership (see especially Matt. 16:18-19).

With these things in mind, Leeman’s aim is to examine the boundary lines of local church membership and discipline. In this way the book is a theology of these truths. But, he doesn’t simply articulate a theology of these topics, but also argues for how vital these practices are to biblical Christianity, the life of the church, the church’s work of disciple-making, and the display of God’s glory in the world. From the beginning he argues that membership and discipline properly understood and applied, display the Gospel of Jesus Christ. On the contrary, the opposite is true. Churches that do not understand and practice local church  membership and discipline do not display the Gospel of Jesus Christ properly to the world.

As difficult as this task might be, Leeman goes a step further and proves (in my opinion) that church membership and discipline are rooted in the Love of God. In this way, this book may be considered a biblical theology on the love of God as it relates to membership and discipline. It is precisely this “twist” that makes the book unique. It is filled with culture, theology, careful exegesis, and specific applications for the local church.

This book by Leeman is an excellent resource for any local church of any denomination that wants to display the glory of God in the specifics of membership and discipline. I can not recommend a book on this topic more highly. It is more substantial and longer than other books, but please continue reading. When you get to chapter five, you will be amazed how Leeman proves membership and discipline are rooted in God’s covenant of love. Chapters six and seven are FULL of practical application. I will end this short review with one quote that I found very helpful on the topic of submission in the local church:

“In spite of the fact that most people want to separate love and submission, everyone knows that love and submission involve risk. We see shadows of it in the stories of childhood where the hero risks all for the happily-ever-after ending with the beautiful damsel. What’s unexpected about Christianity is that its great hero doesn’t risk all for a damsel but for a whore. Then he calls everyone that he saves to submit to this whore–the bride still being made ready, the church. When you get down to it, people are not afraid of submitting. They’re afraid of submitting to ugliness. We love submitting to beauty” (p. 350).

You gotta read it!

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