Book Review: The Church and the Surprising Offense of God’s Love, by Jonathan Leeman
Oh dear. I was asked to review this book as a “friendly dissenter,” but I have struggled to dissent from it. So now I am worried. Have I missed something? What is it that I am supposed to have objected to? Or what is my reputation that someone should think I would object to Leeman’s argument? The title prepares us to be surprised and offended. My only surprise was that I was not surprised, nor offended! But enough of my angst. I will do my best to take offence later in this review.
A THEOLOGICAL ARGUMENT FOR CHURCH MEMBERSHIP AND DISCIPLINE
The Church and the Surprising Offense of God’s Love is a theological argument for church membership and church discipline. And in this case the adjective “theological” is well deserved.
It begins with a helpful reflection on commitment in our culture. Individualism is not a rejection of community, argues Leeman, so much as a rejection of authority. Individualism is the attempt to structure my life according to my word. Church membership, therefore, begins with repentance.
Strange Swipes at People who Emphasize Community
This section is somewhat marred by strange swipes at people who emphasise community. Apparently we are influenced by communitarian philosophy and liberal theology. I had always thought I was influenced by the Bible’s central storyline of God’s purpose to create a people who will be his people, but apparently not. What makes this strange is that more than once Leeman expresses his agreement with the importance of community and relationships, and certainly the rest of the book reflects this, especially his discussion of what church membership involves in the final chapter.
My guess is that the real issue is an emphasis on community as an alternative to an emphasis on the Word. I would argue that you cannot have one without the other. A community which is not created by the Word is at best a social club and so does not do justice to a biblical vision of community. And proclaiming the Word outside of true community means the Word is never spoken to our hearts in the context of everyday life, creating people who are hearers of God’s Word, but not doers of that Word.
Leeman begins his argument proper with a chapter on God’s love. This is superb and should be required reading for anyone studying the doctrine of God, let alone anyone with an interest in church discipline. God’s love, argues Leeman, is more than unconditional gift. True love affirms the beloved. In the case of God’s love, his love centers on himself. He loves me not because I am lovely (and so from my perspective it is unconditional), but because Christ is lovely and I am in Christ. All love is likewise oriented to God and the good of the other. So corrective discipline is not unloving, as our culture assumes, but an expression of true love.
Chapter 3 moves on to a discussion of authority. Authority, argues Leeman, is “the authorization we have from God to create and give order to life” (140). We rightly mistrust authority because sinful people so often misuse it. But Christ’s life, death and resurrection present a different model of authority. He is the King who gives his life for his people. The move I found particularly helpful was Leeman’s argument that the church is the new reality created by Christ’s authority. Therefore, submission to the church as it proclaims Christ’s Word is where my submission to Christ is exercised in concrete terms.
Key Biblical Passages on Membership and Discipline
Leeman then considers the key biblical passages (Matthew 16, 18, 28, and to a lesser extent 1 Corinthians 5). Christ, he concludes, “authorizes the local church to proclaim and protect the gospel, to recognize or affirm those who belong to him, to unite them to itself, to oversee their discipleship, and to exclude any impostors” (169). This matters not just for the sake of church members, but because the church proclaims and displays gospel love.
The New Covenant and Church Covenants
This is followed by a chapter on covenants which, I must confess, lost me somewhat. It consists of an exposition of the New Covenant and its relation to the Old. So far, so good. But this appears to be constructed as an argument for church covenants. Leeman talks of “a covenant-like commitment” that believers make towards one another in the local church—though it is clear that his preference is for written church covenants (without the “-like”). Yet he distinguishes church covenants from the New Covenant. Perhaps the argument is simply that membership is covenant-like and this is what covenants look like, but Leeman seems to be suggesting something more than this.
The final two chapters move to application. Again, there is much to commend. The discussion of how context affects the practice of membership is handled well—those tempted to skip the three cases studies in chapter six would be well advised not to do so. A number of “What about …” questions are handled well. The short discussion on the nature of Christian freedom is worth the purchase price in itself. And the section on how membership means giving ourselves (and not just “of ourselves”) physically, socially, affectionately, financially, vocationally, ethically and spiritually would be great to read with members of your church. I was particularly challenged by his argument that resignation from membership can only be by mutual consent. It cannot be used to pre-empt church discipline or avoid reconciliation. If someone attempts to resign in order to escape discipline, then the church should enact church discipline in any case.
I have two hesitations about the book. They are both issues of emphasis rather than argument and in both cases they reflect a concern that the book does not go far enough.
Baptism and the Lord’s Supper vs. Classes, Covenants, and Lists
First, the theological sections speak of baptism as the initial act of joining the church and communion as the ongoing act of belonging to the church. But in the “practical” chapters, this emphasis disappears and is replaced by an emphasis on membership covenants, membership lists, and membership classes. We are told such things are not required by Scripture, but they are clearly preferred by Leeman (the prose is suddenly littered with the words “prudent” and “prudential”).
I have no objection to classes, covenants or lists. But they are non-biblical categories. Leeman concedes this, though keeps saying the New Testament strongly implies their use. But the clear New Testament categories are baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Your membership roll is the people who partake of the Lord’s Supper together. If you want to write their names down on a list then so be it, but let the definition be shaped by the table. Church discipline in the New Testament is not taking someone off a list, but excluding someone from the table. If your church is so big that you cannot name the people who routinely participate in the Lord’s Supper, then it is hard to see how effective discipline can take place. If you cope with numbers by discipling people through some kind of small groups, then make this the context for the Lord’s Supper and for church discipline.
This helps with another concern that Leeman highlights. He criticizes the “belonging before believing” rubric. In our church, we encourage people to involve their unbelieving friends into the life of the community because this is where people see how we love one another (John 13:34-35) and where they see the gospel adorned. They are therefore encouraged to “belong” to the community in the sense of sharing in its common life. But their need to belong to Christ and his people is regularly enacted—not by their exclusion from a list in a drawer somewhere, but publicly, whenever we share the Lord’s Supper. It allows us to create a culture that welcomes unbelievers into our common life without compromising the call for faith and repentance.
Needs More on the “Countless Acts of Love and Discipline”
Second, Leeman says that “discipleship works through countless acts of love and discipline, both formative and corrective” (312). This is the one area where I think he needed to elaborate more. I recognize that criticizing a book for what it does not say is often a cheap shot—a book cannot be expected to say everything. But I believe that “countless acts of discipline” are central to Leeman’s stated intent. Church discipline is much more than excommunication and the processes leading up to it. Indeed, excommunication often arises because the “countless acts” of corrective discipline have not been taking place. Sin and unbelief go unchallenged until the situation is beyond recovery. “Exhort one another every day … that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin” (Heb. 3:13). We need churches in which rebuke and exhortation are normal, expected and welcome. I am sure Leeman would agree, but I would argue that this is where we need to begin if we are going to create the disciplined churches Leeman rightly desires.