Book Review: The Transforming Community, by Mark Lauterbach
I have to admit Mark Lauterbach's book on church discipline The Transforming Community started kind of slow for me. It's not a quick, bullet-pointed read like Jay Adams' Handbook of Church Discipline (click here for a review). Adams, you might say, marches up to the podium, marshals a few texts on church discipline, turns to the chalkboard behind him, and dashes out numbered lessons with a clacking piece of chalk.
By comparison, Lauterbach's book is a little more, well, touchy-feely. If Adams is the no-nonsense instructor of artillery (think General Stonewall Jackson from the Virginia Military Institute), Lauterbach is the contemplative professor of rhetoric (think Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain hailing from a private liberal arts college in Maine). Lauterbach says his book "could be seen" as a book about church discipline, but "really" it's a book about "Spirit-empowered community." He wants to paint the larger picture. What's the goal of the local church and its relationship to the universal church? What is the nature of a hard heart and how does self-deceit work? How does the gospel fit into all this?
THIS BOOK SNEAKS UP ON YOU
Yet Lauterbach's book sneaks up on you. He says things like, "The Gospel itself is a message which disciplines," and, "Grace disciplines" (57, 58). What?! Doesn't the gospel mean we're "forgiven"? And grace mean we're "accepted"?
If you're not careful, Lauterbach's book just might cause a paradigm shift in how you think about grace and the gospel, as well as how you think about the church. He believes that the gospel actually changes people, and that grace transforms them. The gospel does this, he says, by joining each of us to a community of people and giving us new corporate identities. Our salvation, if it's a true salvation, must be worked out among Christ's people somewhere on earth. Further, it's the church's daily actions of discipline, almost like boot camp, that trains and sharpens this transforming community. We learn to be holy and loving through the church's discipline so that the world might see something different among us.
If your church doesn't practice church discipline, you may want to recheck what it thinks the gospel is.
MANY MORE REASONS WHY THIS IS A GREAT BOOK
In all this, Lauterbach strikes a balance that some recent missional writers miss: the church is interested in both evangelism and edification, since the two necessarily work together. The gospel requires the church both to embrace and to exclude. The missional tilt toward the church's evangelistic purposes can mean all embrace and no exclusion, an imbalance Lauterbach's work helpfully corrects.
Yet Lauterbach's pastoral tone is nothing if not gracious and patient, which is another way his book is a little different than Adams'. Adams tries to help Christians soften their tone when confronting another Christian by encouraging them to offer only a "tentative rebuke." He instructs the confronter to say, "if you have an explanation, I am ready to hear it before passing final judgment" (Adams, 50). A little bit like a panther preparing to pounce? Lauterbach essentially says the same thing, but he encourages the reader to be a friend who gives the benefit of the doubt, not to be a prosecuting attorney: "Assume you have misunderstood. State it that way. Most of the time, we have misread the situation. You are there to get the facts, not hold an inquisition" (108).
Transforming Community covers all the standard material about the whethers, the whys, and the hows of church discipline. What's more, just about every point of biblical exegesis or theological application is backed up by some personal story. The reader begins to wonder if God has given Mark Lauterbach the two-decades plus pastoral career he has exactly so that Lauterbach could write this book. The number and variety of anecdotes is astonishing.
THINGS THAT COULD BE BETTER
The book would be helped by adding a few elements of a handbook, such as numbered lists, bullet points, or clearly marked subheadings. He offers practical steps throughout, but they're buried in the chapters. Also, he makes a silly comment about not putting church discipline situations to a vote in the church "because obedience to God is not something we vote on" (169). How can the church be said to obey if it's never given a decision to make? Besides, don't the elders have to somehow decide whether or not to discipline? I fear that the elders who keep the congregation from making such decisions just might be usurping the power of the keys from the church.
GIVE IT TO YOUR ELDERS AND CHURCH MEMBERS
These matters aside, I'd say Lauterbach's book is a great resource to give your elders and church members, perhaps even better than Adams' classic work on the topic.