Book review: ‘The Church and the Surprising Offense of God’s Love’

Communications Staff — April 26, 2010

“The Church and the Surprising Offense of God’s Love: Reintroducing the Doctrines of Church Membership and Discipline” by Jonathan Leeman (Crossway 2010, $19.99)

If it is true that all people will know Jesus’s disciples through the love we have for one another (John 13:35) then enacting such love is of paramount importance. So what does such love look like?

Jonathan Leeman argues that such love is encapsulated in, and demonstrated by, church membership and church discipline (17). Contrary to the world’s view of love as a tolerance of everyone’s self-expression and self-centered desires, Leeman argues that the Bible pictures love as “quite simply, pointing (a person) to God” (84).

Leeman says biblical love gives oneself for the good of another and the chief good of all men is to know God. Living out biblical love centers on calling people to view submission to the Creator God, conformity to His holy character and delighting in Him as the highest possible pursuit for all men.

While the world pits love against submission to authority structures, Leeman says the Bible views them as friends. God will judge all those who do not submit to Him, Leeman argues, and church membership and discipline are thus “merciful and kind” authority structures because they serve as a “gracious warning of an even greater judgment to come” (93). Covenanting together under the authority of God through church membership and holding people accountable to that covenant through church discipline are thus loving acts.

In a day when men view church structure as flexible or believe that the Bible gives significant freedom in that area, Leeman calls for people to view such structure as having an organic connection to the Gospel itself. In his new book, Leeman focuses specifically on the structures of church membership and discipline as he believes the Bible presents them. Leeman serves as director of communications for 9Marks Ministries and is an elder at Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C.

Contrary to the world’s view that the purest, most supreme form of love is unconditional, Leeman notes that God’s love for mankind is always conditional (104). God first and foremost worships Himself, which is proper for He is the Creator of all things and is the greatest of all beings. God’s love for men is thus conditioned on them worshipping Him and submitting to His authority.

Leeman says God’s holiness constrains His love, “like water is constrained by the pipe through which it flows.” This also means that God’s holiness serves the purposes of His love, “as the pipe does water” (100). The holiness and love of God are thus dual motivators for missions and evangelism and for establishing churches that best display His holiness and love.

While authority can be and has been abused throughout human history, Christ redeemed authority by perfectly submitting to the ultimate authority, God Himself. Through His perfect submission, death and resurrection, Christ opened the door for men to use authority redemptively. Christ has been given all authority in heaven and on earth (Matt 28:18) and He has extended His authority to the local church (Matt 16; 18).

What is the nature of this authority? Leeman says Jesus grants the church “authority to guard and protect the Gospel, to affirm credible Gospel professions, to unite such professors to itself, to bar or exclude non-credible professors, and to oversee the discipleship of believers. It has the authority to draw a line in the sand around those who give a credible profession of faith” (194). And while the drawing of such lines excludes some, it is an exclusion – and an inclusion – carried out in love.

Church membership and discipline then are integrally linked to the Gospel, for they serve as God-given authority structures that mark a person as being either in good standing with God or not. While the church can make wrong judgments about people and is not the ultimate authority, it does have the authority of being Christ’s ambassadors, an authority it is wise for men to embrace and heed.

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