A review of The Church and the Surprising Offense of God’s Love. By Jonathan Leeman.

Crossway, 2010. (Available in Australia at Koorong books)

When is the last time you read a book on church discipline? Worse yet, when is the last time you saw church discipline in operation? The concept and the practice have both become almost extinct in Christendom today. Certainly in the evangelical churches the very idea of church discipline seems almost unheard of.

In my library I have three older books on the topic: two from the 80s and one from the 90s. That’s it. Thus it is good news indeed that Leeman has addressed this issue, and in substantial fashion: this volume is nearly 400 pages in length.

Church discipline has become a lost art partly because the church has slavishly imitated the world and bought into its distorted concepts of acceptance, tolerance, and so on. Are Christians and Christian churches supposed to be loving? Absolutely. But the biblical concept of love is a far cry from modern trendy notions of love.

Image of The Church and the Surprising Offense of God's Love: Reintroducing the Doctrines of Church Membership and Discipline (9Marks)
The Church and the Surprising Offense of God's Love: Reintroducing the Doctrines of Church Membership and Discipline (9Marks) by Leeman, Jonathan (Author), Dever, Mark (Foreword) Amazon logo

Leeman reminds us that Christian love is intimately connected with holiness and righteousness. The church is not some social club where people can come and go as they please, but is a holy assembly of God’s people, and there are entrance conditions as well as ongoing membership requirements.

Indeed, the subtitle of this book is: “Reintroducing the Doctrines of Church Membership and Discipline”. Both practices are nearly extinct in many churches today. But as Leeman rightly shows, there is a proper place for boundaries, for regulations, and even for institutions.

Of course to speak of such things today is to risk being theologically incorrect. We have had a huge pendulum swing against one extreme, only to go to another unhelpful and unbiblical extreme. Much of the emerging church movement is an over-reaction to a legalistic, rigid and overly-institutionalised church.

But it has gone too far in the other direction, forcing us into an either/or situation, when a both/and situation is what is required.

Today the church is being undermined, as we devalue or gainsay commitment, authority, regulations, boundaries and institutions. But these all have their rightful place. The truth is, law and love work together. Rules and relationships can co-exist. Freedom and authority do go together.

We have been forced to choose one set over against the other. That leads to unbiblical excess. And such rejection of authority, of truth, of dogma, of commitment, of rules, and of institutions is not so much a faithful adherence to Scripture as surrender to the spirit of the age.

There are in fact Biblical boundaries, and they should be respected, not jettisoned. There are opposites which must be maintained. There is truth and error. Right and wrong behaviour. Good and bad teaching. Those who are God’s people and those who are not. Heaven and hell.

But the new way of doing church is to ignore or reject all these antitheses and pretend that we can get by with mushy, sentimental notions of love, acceptance and relationship. These things are indeed important, but only when done in God’s way.

Biblical love wills the highest good of the beloved. That is far different than worldly concepts of love. Love and holiness are intimately connected. When someone you love is refusing God’s best for them, real love will urge them to renounce such dangerous paths, and get back to God’s good intention.

That is what church discipline is all about. It is about restoring the wayward brother to God’s best. It is not about making excuses for sinful and destructive behaviour.

And that sort of discipline presupposes some sort of commitment. That is what Biblical church membership is all about. We commit to the Lord and one another, and seek to work for the edification of one another. But we live in an age where no one wants to commit to anything.

We simply want to float along in life with no rules, no boundaries, no commitments, and no responsibilities. Of course in such an atmosphere the vital task of church discipline cannot take place. That is why we now see a church riddled with sin, carnality and selfishness. No one is being held to account, and everyone is afraid to hold others to account.

But that is our duty as believers. And that is why this book is so important. We have drifted so far from God’s design, and so thoroughly soaked up the world’s values and beliefs, that we are not able to properly be and do church anymore.

As Leeman says, in the West today “every attachment is negotiable. We are all free agents, and every relationship and life station is a contract that can be renegotiated or cancelled…. I retain veto power over everything.”

This worldly disease has of course invaded the church big time. That is why both church membership and church discipline have almost disappeared in Christian circles today. We so much want to be like the world, that the church is no longer seen as being distinct from it. Indeed, many emerging church folk celebrate this very thing. They decry all boundaries, doctrines, truth claims, absolutes and certainties of the faith.

They refuse to see that rules and relationships in fact go together. They refuse to admit that commandments and love are actually meant to go together. They reject the idea that authority and submission are vital components of church life.

Church history is the story of pendulum swings. If in the past the church has been too institutionalised, too rigid, too legalistic and too unloving, that is not the case anymore. Now the church has swung in the opposite direction. As always, we must seek to discover and apply the Biblical balance.

This book seeks to call us back to that place. It is a timely warning of avoiding both sets of excess. The Biblical position is often difficult to attain, but we must try nonetheless. This book helps us greatly in seeking to get us back to where we should be.

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14 Replies to “A review of The Church and the Surprising Offense of God’s Love. By Jonathan Leeman.”

  1. Bill I think I will buy this book.

    I think Church discipline is very hard to put into practice. In my opinion more and more Christians have a consumerism mentality when it comes to church. Church is a product, the ministers are the sales people.

    I think if I had to use Church discipline, the most likely response I would get is that the person or persons would take out their car keys and drive to the next church.

    Joshua Bovis

  2. Hello Bill!

    What a timely moment for this article to come into my inbox, as I have recently found myself extremely challenged in the area of simply loving people…

    I tend to fall on the rigid side of things, but as God teaches me about accepting his people, I find myself afraid of falling into the new tolerance trend.

    Satan loves for us to take things to extremes, and when it comes to things like this it is so important that we turn to the word for God’s answer on these topics, not just what we “feel” is right.

    Can’t wait to order this book and have a good feast on a different perspective.

    Thanks for all you do, God uses you so much in my life and I refer people to your site constantly!

    Michelle Guillemaud, Canada

  3. Joshua,
    I think it’s the other way round. It’s the church that has a consumerism mentality, viewing people as their customers and therefore has developed their own ‘business strategy’ to attract and please their customers. So like in business, they ensure their ‘product’ is to the customers likng and minimise offending them. The churches like business rivals, are each competing to be the biggest in the city or even in the nation. Sometimes I suspect their real desire is simply to grow big in numbers, than to ensure people are truly saved and discipled through sound teaching of the word. Moral issues and boundaries are regarded as personal matters and rules are subjective and old fashion. Discipline happens only when the leadership is challenged for whatever reason.
    Barry Koh

  4. Well said Bill,
    I agree with you. I have witnessed no accountability in a church and the results of bad behaviour have been dissapointing.
    What do we do as church members in such a situation?
    If the senior pastor can’t see or accept this?????
    Tania Ellerton

  5. Thanks Tania

    Without knowing the specific details of this situation, I of course cannot make a particular reply. But I can present a general response. Usually one has two broad options in such cases: stay and fight, working to get some biblical practices put into place; or leave and find a church where biblical belief and practice are in evidence. That may not help much in your situation, but we can pray for wisdom for you as to what to do.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  6. Hi Bill,

    A mighty subject. I am blessed to belong to a church where discipline has occasionally, of necessity, been applied. Yes, we have sometimes lost people but others have been lovingly restored when they have received the gift of repentance. To those who choose to leave a fellowship when things get tough, or it’s difficult to get along with someone, my challenge is, that we are meant to grow as believers to become more and more Christlike. Difficulties with our sisters and brothers are opportunities for us to grow in patience, endurance, long – suffering. How can we learn and practise these things if we run every time we are given an opportunity?

    In regard to books on the subject, some of my favourites are ‘Spiritual Leadership’ by J.Oswald Sanders and ‘The Preacher’s Portrait’ by John Stott. I think from memory that Ray C. Stedman’s ‘Body Life’ might touch on the subject too. The best and clearest though is the apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians chpt 5 with the post script to that scenario in 2 Corinthians chpt 2.

    God bless.

    Kerry Letheby

  7. Hi Bill, if we don’t know our God as a God of judgment, then we don’t know him at all let alone fear him and the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.
    Law is a good thing for it is our tutor that leads us to Christ.
    Legalism is another thing that leads us to bondage and condemnation.
    I love the statement of a friend, His judgment is his mercy which is His grace.
    For some reason in our modernity we professing Christians conveniently dismiss Gods dealings with Israel in the old testament (a bad term) and somehow believe he overlooks our sin as trivial in the new. Who can imagine Ananias and Sapphira amongst us today? Or understand Gods harshness with them? We would not only commend their generosity, we would place them on the elders list.
    No wonder we lack any real sense of Gods presence and the world sees our God as flaky.
    Judgment begins in the house of God and because we have been cowards He sends it from outside from the world and it’s God hating humanistic governments.
    Robert Withall

  8. I may add, look at the conditions for membership in the early Methodist church under Wesley. I forget the time frame, possibly monthly or quarterly members were examined by the minister or elders and questioned as to the condition of their life, and it needed to measure up spiritually and morally and if it didn’t measures were taken to rectify it. Because of this the Methodists couldn’t hide there sin for very long.
    Robert Withall

  9. Thanks Robert

    Yes, interesting about the early Methodists. They certainly knew something about church membership and church discipline. Probably well less than 1 per cent of today’s churches would even come close to this.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  10. Many churches have now deleted ‘eldership’, so this allows the ‘minister’ to go his ‘own’ way. Sad and against Biblical teaching.
    Wonder why ‘many churches are doing their own ‘thing!’. The ministers are lost!
    Judith Bond

  11. Liz, I enjoyed reading the link you provided but I must admit that I was puzzled by the title of Gretta Vosper’s book – “With or Without God: Why the Way We Live is More Important Than What We Believe.” I would have thought that the way we live is founded on what we believe. I can’t see how the two are mutually exclusive unless I am missing something.
    Kerry Letheby

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