One of the fastest ways to get Christians squirming these days is to bring up the subject of church discipline. The Bible is clear that Christians are to exercise authority and discipline over one another, but everything in our culture tells us that we have no right to do so. How can I — a sinner myself — presume to tell another sinner what to do about his sin? Isn’t this unloving? How do we address such a difficult topic?
Jonathan Leeman certainly chose a weighty subject for his first book, but he handles the topic extraordinarily well. Rather than begin with a list of practical applications (where most discipline discussions begin and often abruptly end), Leeman takes aim at the very foundation of the church, and the purpose of church membership and discipline. These two things, he says, “define God’s love for the world.”
More than anything else, then, this is a book about God’s love. After all, if the church is to model God’s love to the world (a point on which Christians of all theological persuasions are agreed), we must first have a biblical definition of God’s love upon which to build our doctrines of the church.
Leeman begins by looking at some “cultural baggage” which has caused many people to have wrong and unbiblical perceptions of God’s love. These contemporary issues include individualism, consumerism, commitment phobia, and skepticism. Each of these have contributed to a general confusion about what love itself is, which in turn has affected our ideas about what churches should be. For instance, the belief that love must include no judgment results, among other things, in churches which are designed to make people feel relaxed and comfortable, not judged.
In the next section of the book — at 195 pages, nearly a book in itself — the author systematically defines God’s love, and the implications in the life of the church. First, he describes why God’s love offends our modern sensibilities, and the connection between our understanding of his love and church membership. He then goes on to discuss the nature of authority, and the delegated roles of authority and submission within the church. These are almost alien concepts in most churches, but Scripture is clear that God has given authority to some, and the responsibility to submit to that authority (even as those in authority submit to Christ) to others.
The final section fleshes out the true purpose of membership and discipline in the church: to define love for the world by marking off God’s people from the world and holding them up on display. Here Leeman finally gets to the nitty-gritty. How should a church responsibly affirm, oversee, and remove members? What does it mean to submit to a local church?
The practical answers given in this section will truly offend many, but they are tried and proven over centuries in the life of countless local churches. It is particularly difficult to reconcile God’s revealed plan of the authority of the local church when we see how often this authority has been abused, often with grave consequences for believers and nonbelievers alike. However, the abuse of authority — while never excused — does not negate the fact that this authority does exist, and has been plainly prescribed for us in God’s Word.
It should be noted that Leeman’s ecclesiology is unapologetically Baptist, but what he says will appeal to conservative Protestants of other denominations as well. The Baptist distinctives do not come into play too often in this book, and even when they do, one could easily take what Leeman says about baptism and the Lord’s Supper and apply it to, say, a Presbyterian understanding of the sacraments with little trouble.
As with any “IX Marks” publication, the merits of this book are many. It is worth the purchase price just for the outline in the appendices! The middle section by itself would be one of the best books ever written on the nature of God’s love. It takes a difficult and often dry area of theology and presents it in a clear and engaging way. Its size will be a deterrent for many, but please, please, PLEASE don’t let it scare you! This is a book worth spending some serious time with. I highly encourage any Christian to dig into it, but consider it an absolute must-read for any pastor or elder. Buy it here.