The Church and the Surprising Offense of God’s Love (Jonathan Leeman)
Since the dawn of the Church there have always been those opposed to the work of God and His Church. Some have persecuted it, others have corrupted it and, in the present day, many are largely apathetic toward it. Understandably, pastors are concerned for the culture and are curious as to what may done to bolster their church’s attendance.
While the Church has properly diagnosed the problem, an appropriate remedy cannot seem to be agreed upon. Christian bookstores are flooded with bestsellers that offer different models that are designed to charm people through the church’s front doors. However, the question remains with many, “Is numerical growth the guiding statistic for measuring the health and success of a church?”
In his book, The Church and the Surprising Offense of God’s Love, Jonathan Leeman seeks to answer this question. In answering it he looks not to a model designed to attract numbers, but to the neglected subject of church membership and church discipline. Upon reading the words “membership” and “discipline” many pastors may cringe in fear of what their congregants may think. Simultaneously some church members are appalled by such rigid ecclesial structures and practices – ideas that to them are puritanical or antiquated.
The Purpose and Summary of the Book
In consideration of such reactions, both from pastors and laymen, Leeman recognizes the church’s attempt to separate form from content, as if they are in incompatible or unrelated . Leeman addresses this misconception and, in doing so, sums up a key assumption of the book: “The structure of the church’s corporate life together is tightly tied to the structure of the gospel, and the content of the gospel is tightly tied to the structure of the churches corporate life together. They shape and implicate one another” . This assumption sets the stage for the rest of the book.
Through the introduction and the first several chapters, Leeman gives a biblical definition of the term “love”. While this may seem irrelevant to the subjects of membership and discipline, Leeman shows that love is foundational to this study. He explains, “You will only understand what or who the church is if you first understand who God is” . In so doing, he is simply trying to explain some of our common presuppositions about human love in order to build a case for how Scripture portrays divine love. The problem is that, “We assume not that God is love but that love is God” .
While he highlights it in the beginning of the book, Leeman continues to weave the theme of love throughout the entire book, focusing on true, biblical love as he addresses topics such as authority and submission. For example, an important misconception that he corrects is the assumption that authority and love are in direct opposition with one another. He explains that this is false. Christ, for example, was not only a humble servant, but also a Master who exercised authority. Leeman unravels this concept in order to show that the church is a place where authority and submission are guided and grounded in love.
Leeman spends the last several chapters explaining what church membership and discipline should look like in the local church. While awareness of cultural differences among the global body of Christ is necessary, true love results nonetheless in the enactment of church discipline wherever Christ’s church can be found. Leeman does not leave the reader helpless simply with ideas and abstractions. By using Scripture, he clearly explains how the different members of the body of Christ are to play their role in pursuing purity and holiness in their local congregation.
Leeman explains that membership is the way in which the local church affirms that one is a true member of the body of Christ. To put it simply, when membership is correctly practiced, the church is saying that it truly believes that each particular member has partaken of the heavenly gift of salvation and is in a biblical relationship with Christ. “Membership and discipline are not artificially erected structures. They are not legalistic impositions upon new-covenant grace. They are an organic and inevitable outgrowth of Christ’s redemptive work and the gospel call to repentance and faith” .
Who is the Book For and Why It Is Important?
This is not a book for the faint-of-heart. After all, it totals over 350 pages. Yet this is not only a book for the pastor or seminarian, but a great guide and resource for all Christians. As Leeman explains throughout the book, every member of the church has a responsibility to take part in church membership and discipline.
The Church has swallowed the lie that it is impossible to love, yet still confront one another on issues that involve personal sin. After all, it is the Christian’s love for others and their desire to honor God’s holiness that should prompt their confrontation of sin. While such confrontation may exist on a corporate level and may even result in excommunication or the removal of membership, it is founded upon God’s holiness and God’s love.
While this may sound harsh and unloving to modern believers, it is biblical. In our “politically correct” society, we are terrified of the possibility of offending others (God’s love, however, is often offensive). In fact, it is so offensive that divine love incarnate was found worthy of death.
There are countless volumes about ecclesiology, but few are as thorough, well structured, or overtly biblical as this one. Jonathan Leeman’s work calls the reader to be centrally focused on seeking and displaying God’s glory, something that is frequently missing from more recent books on the doctrine of the church that tend to be mostly man-centered.
Should I Read This Book?
The reader who wants a fun and witty book that will help them to simply fill their sanctuaries on Sunday morning would probably want to avoid this book. While this is a book about building and growing a healthy church, it is not so much concerned with numerical growth as it is with preserving the purity of Christ’s Bride. And the means by which this purity is preserved is a biblical understanding of membership and discipline.
The reader who struggles with whether or not they “need” to be an active member of a local church, or the reader who is already actively involved in a church leadership role, should read this book. Pastors especially should let this book encourage and equip them to take membership and discipline seriously. For those who are not involved in church leadership, and for those who fail to practice biblical membership or church discipline, may this book prompt you to begin this biblical mandate.
 For more reflections on this, see Matthew S. Bracey, “Greek Tragedies & Christian Churches: Musings & Observations.”
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