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.
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.