Sum Opinion of Book
Church Discipline is valuable in that Jonathan Leeman has thought deeply on the subject. Any Baptist delving into the topic needs to engage with this book. My primary critique of the book is that Leeman is too quick to abandon the Bible as a guide for church discipline. His general stance seems to be stand-offish; he doesn’t want to look like one of those fundamentals who have a chapter and verse for every situation. Would I recommend this book? Yes, but only for Baptists, and only until I find a better option.
Also note: this evaluation (and my take on the first half of the book) is from Jonathan Leeman, Church Discipline: How the Church Protects the Name of Jesus (Wheaton: Crossway), 2012.
Having explained the basics, foundations, and contexts for church discipline, Leeman now delves into the “how to.” In this way, Church Discipline divides similar to some Pauline epistles, between heavy dogmatics and practicum.
One fundamental theme in chapter 4 is the need for clarity. Church discipline should never be exercised in ignorance. “If you try swinging the broad, blunt sword of excommunication before members recognize their general need to hold one another accountable, you are asking for a fight” (p.67).
I appreciate some of the finer points Leeman makes in this chapter, such as the recognizable distinction between private and public sins, and that church leaders should lead the process of church discipline, and that the duration of the process should be flexible. That being said, the fruit of Leeman’s prior, prancey exegesis is beginning to flesh itself out in the execution. I believe there is too much room in Leeman’s system for subjectivity. “When a church determines that an individual is characteristically unrepentant, excommunication should follow” (pg.71). As shall become evident in the remaining chapters, this process of determining unrepentance is ambiguous and quite fluid, and unnecessarily so. This is primarily built upon the extreme (what I am calling, but which he may not call, “extreme”) discontinuity he sees between Christ’s and Paul’s teaching on church discipline.
Leeman’s concept of “large sins” plays to his pliable church discipline model. These are “a corroborating witness that” tilt scales towards swift discipline (p.73). A “large sin” comes with at least three dangers: public scandal, division, and false teaching. The first concerns the reputation of Christ, and the latter two concern the health of the church. I am not totally against a concept of “large sins” that may warrant swifter, abnormal action by a church, but I need more Biblical precedent.
What happens after church discipline? Ideally, restoration. I am very glad Leeman included a chapter on this – after all, it is the intention of church discipline in the first place! “After a person has been excommunicated from a church, restoration is simply the church declaring forgiveness toward the person and reaffirming his or her citizenship in God’s kingdom” (p.79). Here are a couple of good points from the chapter:
Once a church decides to restore a repenting individual to its fellowship and the Lord’s Table, there should be no talk of a probation period or second-class citizenship.p.80
Restoration occurs when the church is willing to once more stand before the nations and vouch for the individual’s profession of faith.p.81
I only wish the chapter was longer and more substantive. I think Leeman makes a few comments that warrant more explanation and monologue. For example, when one church accepts a man who is still under the discipline of another church, what is the first church’s relationship to the other church? His argument against “continuing authority” of a local church over a disciplined member is fair, but some of its best substance is in footnote three, and all things considered, seems scattered. I would have liked to see that final section “Are all churches bound?” run through the revision process a couple more times. Leeman’s ambiguous system of discipline crops up again:
As I said earlier, it would be nice to have a rule book for times like these: “When face with this, do that.” But it seems the Lord intends for his churches to learn what it means to trust the wisdom that he promises to give even in the toughest dilemmas, once again reminding us of how dependent we are upon him.p.83
This is an unfortunate paragraph, though very helpful in explicating Leeman’s understanding of God’s direction in church discipline. In contrast, I do believe that God has given us a rule book to know when to take what action in which circumstance. But without having Scripture as a lamp unto his feet, Leeman leaves his Bible on the shelf in difficult matters of church discipline and waits for “the wisdom [God] promises to give.” Perhaps He has already given the wisdom (i.e. His Word). This is more of a mystic than Christian idea. Leeman may respond that matters of judgment often require a fallback to natural law, like when Solomon discerned between the two women. However, Solomon’s wise discernment was not a matter of judging; it was a matter of investigating. That can turn into a rabbit trail very quickly, but suffice it to say I am less than impressed with Leeman’s willingness to abandon Scripture as a “with this, do that” book.
Part 2: Case Studies
The second part of the book (chapters 6-14) presents case studies. These are very helpful, as they depict what Leeman’s model of church discipline looks like with gasoline in the engine and air fresheners in the vents. My primary critique in Part 1 holds up in Part 2. Leeman’s systematic of church discipline seems unnecessarily ambiguous, fluid, and subjective. In most of these scenarios, I would opt for at least three formal confrontations with the sinner in question. Here are some scattered thoughts:
- Concerning “the addict,” Leeman claims that “by the time of the phone call, the discipline process had effectively been going on with Jill for years” (p.95). I disagree strongly. The steps of church discipline must be formally followed. Inevitably, this kind of ambiguous system leads to elders simply discussing the evidences of regeneration amongst each other without following the concrete process God has given us (p.96). I strongly disagree with the elders for not issuing “a congregation-wide warning” because of their own estimation of her sins (p.97). In the end, this woman was excommunicated with no formal rebuke, call to repentance, and/or warning.
- I agree with the decision for “the ‘hits the news’ lawbreaker,” but find Leeman’s commentary troubling. There is just way too much grey in the conception, because the formal steps of discipline are abandoned. And, I suspect Leeman is drawing from bad Baptist habits of hyper sensitivity towards needing to verify regeneration.
- “The self-cutting was problematic in that it displayed a weak grasp on the gospel” (p.103). Really? So, ignorance is the issue with her cutting?
- “The sin of nonattendance is not nearly as obvious as something like adultery” (p.106). Why? In what way? More subjectivity.
- Chapter 11 is a good example.
- I agree that excommunication is the correct response to “the preemptive resigner,” but I believe the chapter is fraught with poor reasoning. For starters, “they resign by the consent of the church” (p.116) is just too general of a statement. Again: “He cannot ‘unmember’ himself…. the end of this covenant-like relationship requires the consent of both parties” (p.117). Leeman links to an article called “The Preemptive Resignation – A Get Out of Jail Free Card?” I need to read that article before fully condemning his reasoning, but for now I am at least skeptical.
- “The newly decided unbeliever” is the saddest case of them all, and I hope exposes the danger behind Leeman’s subjective approach to church discipline. The weak Christian is simply let go when she renounces Christ. Leeman does not even asses the sin and repentance, as he does in the other cases. Jill’s pastor confronted her, but recommended that the discipline process stop there. Why?! Is church discipline for repentance or is it not? Is renouncing Christ a sin? Yes. Should it be repented of? Yes. Then by all means, obey Christ and extend the grace of discipline to this recent convert. Perhaps that will be the means by which God gets her attention. Remarkably, Leeman compares an apostate with a dead church member. I am broken for whoever this case study is modeled from.
- “The family member” seemed to not fit in Part 2. I would have liked to see it brought into the indicative, perhaps as a section in Part 1, or an appendix in the back.
Part 3: Getting Started
The final section of the book may be the best. Leeman gives a lot of good, simply, practical advice. Before you begin discipline in your church, teach it. Make sure everyone understands what is going to be taking place, both on foundational, definitional, and practical levels. Getting church documents in place becomes a more relevant task with every passing year.
The concept of “informed consent” may be one of the most dangerous and common pit-falls that pastors new to church discipline can fall into. Further, it requires discipline, because you have to be organized and plodding along faithfully as the months and years roll on. Only then will you have your ducks in a row if something happens.
 e.g. “Sins that are already public in nature, as in 1 Corinthians 5, may require the church leaders to say something to the entire church” (p.68).
 e.g. “…any sin that is taken before the whole church should first go to the elders” (p.70).
 I am not meaning to say that church discipline cannot be a messy, confusing matter. I simply mean that, while the weeds may be thick, God’s directions are quite straight.