Church Membership and Discipline: An Interview with Jonathan Leeman

Original post from TGC Reviews at The Gospel Coalition

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.)

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.

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.

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.

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.)

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.

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 discipline, 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 opposite 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.

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?

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.

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