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Feb

08

2011

The Church and the Surprising Offense of God's Love


The Church and the Surprising Offense of God's Love by Jonathan Leeman contains a surprising thesis supported by solid argument, pictured with continuous illustration and tethered down from its theological heights by good practical considerations. 

The subtitle of the book is "Reintroducing the Doctrines of Church Membership and Discipline." This may not sound like a very exciting topic, but if you're interested in the topic (and even if you're not!) I think you'll find  it a very exciting book! As he describes it, it is a systematic theology of church membership. I have agreed with these concepts (and taught them!) for some time, but this book put a foundation under my feet. It changed the issue for me from something "good" to something "mandatory", from it being not unbiblical, to being biblical. Seriously, a landmark book for me.

The basic thesis of the book is that while church membership and church discipline today are argued against as unloving and counter-productive to producing true community in the church, these are the very things given to us to define God's love for the world to see. God's love is a boundary-drawing love. 

The first 168 pages are really all about love. He begins with a very insightful analysis of our contemporary ideas of love and gets the root and the fruit of our individualism and explains why we despise things like boundary markers and like things like inclusiveness. Yet the solution to our individualism is not community, because deeper than individualism is that our love is idolatrous and we despise authority. 

He then defines the nature of love as that he pictures as a boomerang sent out from God and drawing us back to him. True love is God-centered and not man-centered. Something truly loving is something that reveals more of God to us and lets us know him more, not simply something that makes us feel better. He then talks about authority and relates godly authority to love as the exercise of love, which acts rightfully to "create life", to draw people to God, to extend God's loving purposes to the world.

This is the foundation he builds the rest of the book upon. Chapter 4, "The Charter of Love" is really the heart of the book. Here he builds the biblical case for church membership and discipline as a charter given by the Lord Jesus to the church "to mark off who credibly speaks for him, to hold them together, to teach them, and to oversee their lives together." (183)  This is exactly the content of what happens in church membership and discipline. He then says, "I believe that Christians must therefore be united to a church." 

The biblical case is made of up of Matthew 16, Matthew 18 and Matthew 28. The core of it is Matthew 16:18-19, where Jesus gives to Peter "the keys of the kingdom of heaven". He gives a thorough and, to me, convincing argument that these keys are connected to permitting in or putting out of the one place on earth submitted to the King's rule: the church. These keys are passed on to the church in Matt 18. He makes another interesting connection to Matt 28 which connects this authority given by Jesus to baptizing, discipling and teaching obedience. 

"The power of the keys" is the "charter" that the Lord has given to the church. It is the first place I've heard this argument, but it all flows rather nicely. He concludes this with other considerations of why membership is important and beneficial. 

This radically altered my conception of membership. It is no longer something "beneficial" that can be shown by a few implications (e.g. how else can we love each other, how else can we do discipline, how else can we submit to elders, etc.), but is rather mandated by the Lord Jesus and is the way the Lord intends to build the church, through us exercising the power of the keys. His authority is in the church, and nowhere else, and therefore we must be members of local churches.

Beyond this, there was a chapter on how the relationship between the believer and the church is that of a covenant, and how this covenant relates to the New Covenant. This honestly wasn't as good as the previous chapter, which is pretty hard to follow. The book then closes with two practical chapters thinking through how to implement membership and discipline from the church's side and then the individual's side. 

That's the basic argument and what I learned from the book. I superbly enjoyed it. Beyond the content, it is well written and well illustrated and easy to follow. It's quite a long book though (350+ pages), and you might need some encouragement to pick it up. I hope I have whet your appetite and convinced you its worth your time to read! 

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Matt Hauck (郝柏昇)

A once enemy now son, forgiven and freed by Jesus' blood, adopted and called by grace for glory.   (more...)

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