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Archive for April, 2010

Church Membership and Discipline: An Interview with Jonathan Leeman

Original post from TGC Reviews at The Gospel Coalition

Editor’s Note
: The following Q&A is with Jonathan Leeman. Leeman is Director of Communications at 9Marks Ministries and author of The Church and the Surprising Offense of God’s Love: Reintroducing the Doctrines of Church Membership and Discipline. (Crossway, 2010. 384 pages.)

1.  Your subtitle is Reintroducing the Doctrines of Church Membership and Discipline. Why do these doctrines need to be “reintroduced”?

You noticed the “re”! I wondered if anyone would. That was my way of suggesting that many evangelical churches have either stopped practicing membership and discipline or, if they do practice it, they’re doing it by inertia, without a developed theological understanding of why–hence, I also refer to these practices as doctrines.

2.  Who did you write this book for? What sort of audience did you have in mind while writing?

Principally, I was thinking of church leaders and seminarians. That said, it’s a bit long for busy pastors because I had a couple of larger academic conversations in mind as well. Many of the shorter practical books for church leaders being written these days, especially some of the popular ones, rest on deeper theological/philosophical assumptions that, I believe, are problematic. For that reason, I didn’t feel able to simply write a shorter work (which would have been more readable) without discussing some of those back ground assumptions. Then again, maybe I’m just long winded.

3.  Did you write this in response to a particular view of membership and discipline, or just because there is a neglect of the topic?

Yes and yes. There is neglect, and there are many wrong views. Wrong view # 1: membership as country club membership (come and go as you please; enjoy the benefits). Wrong view # 2: centered-set ideas of belonging before believing.  Wrong view # 3: membership in the local church is unnecessary because membership in the universal church is what counts. Wrong view # 4: you must obey your leaders at all costs. There are probably more, but that gives you the gist.

4.  You call ecclesiology “risky business” — even more risky than other theological debates, like divine foreknowledge or eschatology.  Why?

Because ecclesiology is “political.” That is, it affects the power structures in a local church: who picks the pastor and the color of the carpets? Where does the buck stop? Who has to give an account to whom? Debates about divine foreknowledge can get rowdy, but ecclesiology is the stuff of turf wars and lawsuits. Just ask one of my fellow elders whose law firm is presently attempting to protect the property of several conservative formerly Episcopal, now Anglican churches. (Of course these things are related, but you get the point.)

5.  You go into some complicated abstractions on the doctrine of God’s love, especially in Chapter 2 “The Nature of Love.” Why spend so much energy on this “difficult doctrine” in a book about church membership? In other words, what’s the connection between God’s love and church membership?

It’s hard to have a conversation about membership and discipline, which, I believe, are “exclusivistic” concepts in the Bible, without first addressing common conceptions about God’s love. Many people today, both inside and outside the church, tend to view God’s love as universalistic and unconditional. So any talk about church “boundaries” and discipline seems inherently unloving to us. God’s love is, in some ways, universal and unconditional (better: contra-conditional, as D. Powlison puts it), but God’s love is fundamentally holy, which means it centers on him, it makes demands, and it has an exclusive component (just as my love for my wife is exclusive). But until we understand this, we’re going to have a hard time seeing that membership boundaries and church discipline are, when exercised rightly, loving and representative of God’s love.

6.  You argue that God’s love is expressed in the Gospel and the Gospel is “tightly tied to the structure of the church’s corporate life together.” If a biblical understanding of the Gospel is diminished, what implications does it have on our understanding of the church’s  corporate life together, and if a biblical understanding of church membership is diminished, what implications does it have on our understanding of the Gospel?

Everyone would agree, I think, that the church consists of the people of the gospel. Therefore, it’s inevitable that the manner in which you define the gospel will affect who you allow to be church members. For instance, if the gospel is, “God loves everyone unconditionally,” then church membership, at most, might offer a few privileges, just like credit card membership, but in the end it’s just not that important. Church disipline, moreover, becomes utterly inexplicable. If the gospel is, “God is preparing a bride for his Son,” then church membership and discipline become something altogether different. Now let’s move in the oppositie direction: if I have a right gospel but a wrong polity, that polity will affect who belongs to the church and, eventually, it will affect the church’s conception of the gospel. In short, our gospel and our polity are not the same things, but God means for the latter to protect and display the former.

7.  You use the language of “submission” and spend a lot of time talking about authority. Can authority be abused? In what sense do Christians “submit” to churches? Are there limits?

Yes, authority can be abused–that’s one of the main points of the Old Testament. But yes, Christians should submit to their local churches for an affirmation of their profession of faith in baptism and the Lord’s Supper as well as for the course of their daily discipleship. Limits? The easy answer is, churches must not require anything beyond what Scripture requires. The more complicated answer depends on a distinction which must be made between the entire congregation’s “authority of command” and the elders’ “authority of counsel.” This is a tough conversation. Can I just say, read chapters 3, 6, and especially 7?

8.  Some might say this debate is for those who have the luxury of having it in American evangelicalism. How is this a relevant issue for missions and church-planting overseas?

The issue of membership and disipline is relevant for every place Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 6–”Come out and be separate!”–are relevant. I spend half of chapter 6 looking at what biblical teaching on membership and discipline might mean for specific congregations (i) in Muslim Central Asia, (ii) Dubai, UAE, (iii) Brazil, (iv) and Delhi, India. I conclude that there are some contextual differences between such locations, but that in every location the church needs to be a marked-off, clearly distinct, holy, and loving body of people who are a witness to Christ’s saving power through their very corporate existence.

Church Planting & Cultivating Diversity

In Mike McKinley’s new book, Church Planting is for Wimps, he addresses the fact that only 5% of Protestant congregations in America are multiracial churches (defined as a church with an ethnic mix where no more than 80% of the congregation is of one dominant group). “If you are planting a church in a rural country where 99% of the population belongs to one ethnic group, I can understand why your church is mono-ethnic,” explains McKinley. “But if we’re starting churches in cities and growing suburbs, locations with great diversity, shouldn’t our churches reflect that diversity? It could be that our efforts to “engage the culture” have pigeon-holed us into reaching only one culture group.”

What should characterize a church plant that wants to reach people from all kinds of backgrounds? McKinley offers a few thoughts:

  1. How do you show intentional love to people from different cultures? People from other cultures will know pretty quickly whether they are welcomed or merely tolerated as a curiosity.
  2. Are you intentional about having members from other cultures involved in leading corporate gatherings? Are they leading in prayer, Bible reading, singing, or preaching?
  3. Who comprises your elder board? At Mckinley’s church, 40% of the elder board is non-white non-Americans.
  4. How do you order your service? Many brothers and sisters from other cultures are attracted by how similar our services are to the ones in their home countries. Sure the music is different and the way people dress is different. But Christians gathered in churches in Thailand, in South Africa, in Niger, in Guatemala all do the same things: they pray, sing, read the Bible, and listen to the Word being preached. The more we focus on doing those things, the more “at home” international brothers and sisters feel. The more we import movies and drama and pop culture into the church, the more specific and targeted our gatherings feel, and the less comfortable these brothers and sisters feel.

Learn more about Church Planting is for Wimps or download a PDF of the intro and chapter one.

April 21, 2010 | Posted in: AAA - BLOG UPDATE,Church Membership,Church Ministry,Life / Doctrine | Author: Crossway Staff @ 7:03 am | 0 Comments »

New Fiction from Crossway! The Sword by Bryan Litfin

The Sword Trailer from Crossway on Vimeo.

Learn more about The Sword, Bryan Litfin, or read excerpts here.

April 13, 2010 | Posted in: AAA - BLOG UPDATE,Book News,News,Video | Author: Crossway Staff @ 6:00 am | (2) Comments »

Domesticating Christianity

it-is-wellThe cross seems to be fading in public worship. While the symbol may still be prevalent on web sites and in some architecture, is seems to be disappearing from songs and sermons in the church. In It is Well, Mark Dever and Michael Lawrence assert that the neglect of the cross in the church is the result of something more than our growing fascination with the subjective and with self-improvement. There is a growing hostility to the whole notion that Christ suffered as a substitute, that God would desire such a thing, or that God is at all wrathful.

Theologians have reread parts of the Bible—or set it aside—in order to fashion a seemingly more humane religion, a religion of improvement rather than rescue. In such a domesticated version of Christianity, there is no place for a bloody cross.

And that’s where It is Well: Expositions on Substitutionary Atonement comes in. Dever and Lawrence work through crucial texts from the Old and New Testament that shape our understanding of the atonement to show how deeply rooted the atonement and substitution are in the story of the Bible.

“We Christians serve no mute God,” Dever explains. “God predicts, God acts, and God interprets his actions. Long ago God revealed the connection between sin and death. He taught his people that forgiveness would involve sacrifice, and he planted the concept of substitution from very early in human history. Isaiah the prophet was given unusual clarity about the substitution that we as fallen humans would require, and that God would provide. And in the life and ministry of Jesus, all the prophesies came true. God provided a substitute for us.”

Learn more about It is Well or read the intro and chapter 3.

April 12, 2010 | Posted in: AAA - BLOG UPDATE,Book News,News | Author: Crossway Staff @ 7:30 am | 0 Comments »

What the Gospel Isn’t

In an effort to make the gospel bigger or more relevant, Greg Gilbert (author of What is the Gospel?) suggests that these substitute gospels are really less than the gospel, or no gospel at all. “Whatever the specifics, the result is that over and over again, the death of Jesus in the place of sinners is assumed, marginalized, or even (sometimes deliberately) ignored,” explains Gilbert.

3 Substitute Gospels
Adapted from What is the Gospel? (Download the full chapter)

  1. “Jesus is Lord” is not the Gospel
    One of the most popular of these “bigger” gospels is the claim that the good news is simply the proclamation that “Jesus is Lord.” Of course, the declaration that “Jesus is Lord” is absolutely, magnificently true! And that declaration of Jesus’ lordship is essential to the gospel message. But surely it’s not correct to say that the declaration “Jesus is Lord” is the whole sum and substance of the Christian good news.
  2. Gospel-Fall-Redemption-Consummation is not the Gospel
    Actually that outline is a really good way to summarize the Bible’s main story line. God creates the world, man sins, God acts in the Messiah Jesus to redeem a people for himself, and history comes to an end with the final consummation of his glorious kingdom. In fact, when you understand and articulate it rightly, the creation-fall-redemption-consummation outline provides a good framework for a faithful presentation of the biblical gospel. The problem, though, is that creation-fall-redemptionconsummation has been used wrongly by some as a way to place the emphasis of the gospel on God’s promise to renew the world, rather than on the cross. Just like the proclamation that “Jesus is Lord” is not good news unless there is a way to be forgiven of your rebellion against him, so the fact that God is remaking the world is not good news unless you can be included in that.
  3. Cultural Transformation is not the Gospel
    I think that is a noble goal, and I also think that the effort to resist evil in society, whether personal or systemic, is a biblical one. I actually think it’s possible to be a committed transformationalist and at the same time be committed to keeping the cross of Jesus at the very center of the biblical story and of the good news. My main concern is that cultural redemption subtly becomes the great promise and point of the gospel—which of course means that the cross, deliberately or not, is pushed out of that position. The highest excitement and joy are ignited by the promise of a reformed culture rather than by the work of Christ on the cross. The most fervent appeals are for people to join God in his work of changing the world, rather than to repent and believe in Jesus. The Bible’s story line is said to pivot on the remaking of the world rather than on the substitutionary death of Jesus. And in the process, Christianity becomes less about grace and faith, and more a banal religion of “Live like this, and we’ll change the world.” That’s not Christianity; it’s moralism.
April 9, 2010 | Posted in: AAA - BLOG UPDATE,Church Ministry,Evangelism / Missions,Life / Doctrine,The Gospel,Theology | Author: Crossway Staff @ 7:11 am | (2) Comments »