When I started thumbing through Jonathan Leeman’s The Church and the Surprising Offense of God’s Love: Reintroducing the Doctrines of Church Membership and Discipline, I was a little unnerved at the task of laboring through 380 pages on local church membership and discipline. Not that I think church membership and discipline are unworthy topics; I am a baptist and polity is our darling topic, but they can be complicated and taxing. I got the same feeling when I first started Greg Wills’s Democratic Religion and Mark Dever’s Polity.
Yet, Leeman, elder at Capitol Hill Baptist Church and director of communications for 9Marks, does something surprising. He starts with God’s love, which is displayed in the gospel, making the case that the gospel is “tightly tied” to the structure of the church’s life together. If we dismiss the gospel or the structure of church life as trivial or, even, peripheral, it has massive implications for the other.
Leeman is determined to remedy common misconceptions of love in local churches. Today, our understanding of love is consumeristic, non-committal, pragmatic, and even idolatrous. Our understanding of love must begin with the Bible, which will require a change in direction—or as the Bible calls it: repentance.
The love of God, Leeman reminds us, is not centered around us, but on himself and his holiness. Judgment and salvation are connected to God’s love—it draws lines and separates. We begin to see how God’s love, the gospel, and local church membership are biblically woven together. The offensive nature of church membership is related to the offensive nature of the gospel.
Leeman makes the case that God’s loving authority is displayed in Christ—authority redeemed—and handed to his people to steward. How does the church steward this loving authority? Leeman writes, Christ authorizes the local church to proclaim and protect the gospel, to recognize or affirm those who belong to him, to unite them to itself, to oversee their discipleship, and to exclude any impostors (169). While this loving authority is properly stewarded in the governing of the local church, it is expressed in the commitment to or covenanting with one-another, where the gospel-love of God is displayed for the world.
Membership and discipline are not just discussions American Christians have the luxury of having, argues Leeman, but have implications for missions and church-planting overseas. Marking people out for the witness of the holy name of Christ is a task for every local church in every culture.
There are many reasons to love this book, but let me give four:
1. It’s the best book on the love of God since D. A. Carson’s The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God. That may sound like an overstatement, but I don’t think it’s misguided. Leeman grounds the love of God in a biblical understanding of the gospel and how Christians should function together as the body of Christ. The love of God is not an ethereal concept, but a subject of deep consequence for Christians and how they care for one another.
2. Leeman allows the Bible to speak on its own terms. Rather than allowing culture or felt needs to inform the issue of God’s love or the church’s life together, Leeman defines them in the context of the redemptive history of Scripture. This ground is rarely broken in discussions on membership and discipline.
3. Leeman doesn’t duck the difficult questions. Those, like Leeman, who argue for the Christ-given authority in the church to regulate membership are faced with many accusations of neglecting the love of Christ in favor of authoritative, loveless exclusivism. Leeman doesn’t evade the difficult issues, nor does he neglect the love of Christ. His answers are lucid and compelling.
4. The gospel is offensive to our culture and Leeman doesn’t take the offense out of it. He argues, convincingly, that we must not take the offense out of church membership and discipline either, for the sake of the gospel.
I am happy to commend The Church and the Surprising Offense of God’s Love. Since the doctrines of church membership and discipline include issues that are complicated, perplexing, and even offensive, we are indebted to Jonathan Leeman for his diligence and careful thinking.