Church Discipline by Jonathan Leeman (Crossway, 2012), part of the IX Mark’s series, is a succinct, practical introduction to church discipline. I recommend it for pastors thinking through this local church responsibility. However, the book is really only for Baptist congregations. Presbyterians may not benefit as much.
I’m not a fan of the “fundamentalist religion vs. gospel wisdom” dichotomy Leeman presents. “So often in life it would be nice to have a rule book that made everything black and white: ‘When faced with this, do that” (p.21). Leeman intentionally includes the word “everything,” because he does not mean to suggest that there is no “black and white” picture painting in Scripture. However, he does come down on what he calls “fundamentalist religion,” which “wants black-and-whites in places where the Bible is silent. It demands certainty where none is offered” (Idid.).
“God’s Word does provide us with the broad guidelines, for framework. Our task is to understand that framework and then sensitively apply It from one situation to another, always walking in trust, always asking for wisdom” (p.22). This seems to be a fundamental nail in Leeman’s thought-box, because in a recent interview on CrossPolitic, he said the same thing. I agree that Scripture does not explicitly detail every ethical situation. However, I would appreciate less credence to ambiguity. The Bible is not nearly as “grey” as Leeman paints. This introduction smells a bit too Southern Baptist for my taste.
I appreciate Leeman’s thought that “church discipline is one part of the discipleship process” (p.27). It is “corrective” discipline, “to correct the disciple through correcting sin” (Ibid.). I’m not completely sold on fitting church discipline into the “discipleship” category, but Leeman provides a good presentation of the position. Here is a good definition of church discipline: “Church discipline is the act of removing an individual from membership in the church and participation in the Lord’s Table” (Ibid.). The Christic and Apostolic presentations on discipline is also great (pp.28-33). This chapter does a fine job defining New Testament church discipline.
At the end of Chapter One, Leeman proposed that we cannot have proper church discipline with “a thinned-out- gospel” (p.34). Cheap grace won’t do, and page 37 gives a good, short explanation of the Biblical gospel. Leeman then proceeds to fill-out the earthly realities that the gospel creates – the Christian life (pp.28-29), the local church (pp.39-41), and church membership (pp.42-43). It’s worth noting that he is unashamedly credobaptist in these definitions, for example: a Christian is “someone who has been forgiven and united to God through the new covenant in Christ’s blood. And it’s someone who has been given a new nature by the Spirit” (p.38). A paedobaptist would include unjustified, unregenerate people in this group (similar to Old Covenant).
I am not a stickler for Calvin’s definition of a local church, but I still wasn’t keen on Leeman’s: “To define the local church institutionally, then, we could say that it is a group of Christians who regularly gather in Christ’s name to officially affirm and oversee one another’s membership in Jesus Christ and his kingdom through gospel preaching and gospel ordinances” (p.41). So unregenerate people cannot be part of a local church? Is a generally accurate understanding of church discipline, in the membership body, necessary for a local church to be a true church? I infer from this definition that “no” and “yes,” respectively, are the correct answers – and I disagree. But I greatly benefited from Leeman’s surrounding treatment of “the keys of the kingdom.” “A church does not make someone a citizen of the kingdom. But it does have the responsibility for declaring who does and who does not belong to Christ’s kingdom” (p.40).
He concludes with four foundational assumptions for church discipline. I think these are great, and they tie the chapter together nicely. “Christians are called, as a matter of obedience to Christ, to submit to the affirmation and oversight of local churches” (p.44).
In this chapter, Leeman answers the question, “When is discipline necessary?” I really only had one problem, but it permeates the chapter. First, a few things I appreciated – like this golden paragraph: “Formal church discipline or excommunication is warranted when an individual seems to happily abide in known sin. There’s no evidence that the Spirit is making him or her uncomfortable, other than the discomfort of getting caught. Rather, obedience to sin’s desires is characteristic” (p.50). Again: “Does the person repeatedly refuse to repent, such that the person’s profession eventually becomes unbelievable and not affirmable?” (p.52). And the concluding sentences: “My pastor advised me, ‘It’s not surprising that this man would be tempted toward this sin. The real question is, how will he respond to your rebuke? It’s his response to correction that will reveal where his heart truly lies” (p.65). In statements like these, I believe Leeman strikes gold, more eloquently and clearly than I could.
At the same time, I think the chapter is muddied by language which pulls-back from this simpler principle. Leeman’s distaste for black-and-white solutions seems to stand out.
Somewhere there is a line in between sins that you expect of Christians, and sins which make you think that someone may not be a Christian…. Formal church discipline or excommunication is warranted, broadly speaking, when an individual crosses from the first domain to the second, from sins we expect to sins we don’t.p.49
In all fairness, I do not believe Leeman is trying to be as, erm, black-and-white as we could make him out to be in these sentences. For example, the next paragraph starts off: “There’s a difference, for instance, between an ordinary lie that is repented of, and a lie that a person builds a life upon and refuses to relinquish” (Ibid.). So, here we have the principle of repentance, which I quoted from above.
But then, there are other statements which suggest Leeman isn’t for a simply “no repentance” rule: “Some sins or sin patterns will cause a whole assembly of people to lose trust in a person’s profession of faith” (p.50). “Scripture is always our guide for what counts as a sin, but pastoral care is needed to determine which sins require discipline, and to what extent” (p.51). “As subjective as it sounds, different situational factors will affect what we expect of a Christian” (Ibid.). Subjectivity is indeed my critique.
Leeman’s threefold minimum standard for church discipline is outward, serious, and unrepentant sins. I agree with the first and third, but of the second: “A sin must be serious” (p.55). Because of the clear gospel presentation he gave earlier, I know that he does not mean to suggest that all sins, in and of themselves before the presence of our holy God, can be divided into serious and non-serious. All sin is serious. I trust that Leeman agrees with that, and so I am left with the assumption that he is referring to severity in the context of his previous statements of sins we expect and do not expect. This is supported by the distinction he is making between this point and that of repentance.
“All three of these factors [outward, serious, unrepentant] should be present before a church moves toward excommunication” (Ibid.). I hate to pick at single sentences, but this one is too clear to avoid. A sin could be outward and unrepented of, and yet church discipline not be appropriate, because the congregation didn’t believe it was serious? This further impresses upon me that Leeman recognizes some kind of weight in the “severity” of a sin. He is looking for a balance: “…the decision to move toward excommunication is always about examining the dynamic between the sin and a person’s overall posture of repentance. It’s not a sin scale that we need; it’s a sin-versus-repentance balance” (p.57).
I see some wisdom in this principle, and I will continue thinking and studying over the topic. However, I am firmly convinced that there is no sin a Christian is incapable of committing. Further, Leeman’s approach seems too open to subjectivity. This is the kind of subjectivity that lends itself to posthumously excommunicating George Whitefield because of his involvement in slavery. If I have doubts as to whether or not slave-supporters like George Whitefield could be saved, I first need to look in a mirror, and I second need to revisit David’s adultery-murder fiasco. So this is a point where I think Leeman could use a bit more reliability not he black-and-white principles of Scripture.
In pages 55-63, Leeman compares Christ’s approach to discipline with Paul’s. The sticking-point is that Paul seems to circumnavigate the multiple confrontational approach Christ commanded, where members of the congregation, and perhaps the congregation as a whole before the end, pleads with the sinner to repent. Leeman’s engagement with Paul’s instruction is thoughtful and well-reasoned. Anyone developing their understanding of church discipline should consult this position. The point I take issue with is Leeman’s conclusion that Christ’s steps were not followed in Corinth.