Book Review: Church Discipline

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Book Reviewed:

Leeman, Jonathan, Church Discipline: How the Church Protects the Name of Jesus. Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2012. 143 pp. $14.99.

Reviewed by: Dr. Stephen Kim

Churches all around us are folding to a ‘consumer-oriented’ ecclesiology. In our rush to plant churches, grow churches, and attract people; we have eroded our holiness. Jonathan Leeman’s book is an attempt to recover the church’s holiness through the biblical mandate of church discipline. Indeed, the title of the book is most fitting as Leeman strives to “protect the name of Jesus” through a well articulated, thoughtful, and nuanced book on church discipline. The book attempts to not only give the theological underpinnings for church discipline, but it also helpfully attempts to demonstrate how to go about practicing it. Leeman attempts to nail the practical aspects of church discipline through case studies in the latter half of the book. Lastly, another seemingly evident goal of the book is its accessibility. In both its length and language, the book is not bogged down by dense theological jargon or lengthy debates on ancillary issues. Rather, Leeman ostensibly produces a book that is a smooth read and a rather quick one. This goal will likely gain the book a larger readership and thereby help churches become acclimated to what is indeed, a very important topic.

GENERAL STRUCTURE

While most books really begin at the first chapter, Leeman’s book really begins at the preface. Entitled, A Tale of Two Gospels, Leeman begins the book by asking the readers, “Which ‘gospel’ do you believe in?” (p.11). He then gives the readers the following two choices:

Gospel 1: God is holy. We have all sinned, separating us from God. But God sent his Son to die on the cross and rise again so that we might be forgiven. Everyone who believes in Jesus can have eternal life. We’re not justified by works. We’re justified by faith alone. The gospel therefore calls all people to “just believe!” An unconditionally loving God will take you as you are. (p.11)

Gospel 2: God is holy. We have all sinned, separating us from God. But God sent his Son to die on the cross and rise again so that that we might be forgiven and begin to follow the Son as King and Lord. Anyone who repents and believes can have eternal life, a life which begins today and stretches into eternity. We’re not justified by works. We’re justified by faith alone, but the faith which works is never alone. The gospel therefore calls all people to “repent and believe.” A contraconditionally loving God will take you contrary to what you deserve, and then enable you by the power of the Spirit to become holy and obedient like his Son. By reconciling you to himself, God also reconciles you to his family, the church, and enables you as his people to represent together his own holy character and triune glory. (p. 11)

The reason why Leeman starts off the book with the two disparate gospel presentations is because he believes that the gospel we choose will directly shade the way we view church discipline. This is a valid point and a great way to start off the book. While not invalidating the first gospel presentation, Leeman believes that the second presentation is a more robust one that naturally leads a church to seek the implementation of church discipline. From there, Leeman proceeds into the introduction, in which he gives a framework for the rest of the book by essentially asking why and how we ought to discipline. In the introduction, Leeman also includes a list of questions regarding church discipline that he has received as an editor for 9Marks Ministries. The questions are very specific and form the backbone for what will later be presentations of case studies by the author. An essential part of Leeman’s introduction is his rationale for how his work differs from that of other authors on the topic. Leeman writes,

Writers on church discipline from past centuries sometimes made lists from the Bible of which sins warrant church discipline. The idea was to give church leaders a basic guide for checking their own pastoral crises against. (p. 17)

Works on discipline from writers in our own day typically walk readers through the steps Jesus laid out in Matthew 18:15-20. They explain how to approach the sinner in private, then with two or three, then with the church. They pay less attention to different kinds of sin, and the widening-circle approach of Matthew 18 is treated as the catch-all. (p. 17)

There’s much to commend both of these approaches, but my method is a little different. I hope to establish a theological framework that accounts for the variety of approaches that the scriptural authors themselves take. For instance, Paul has a different approach in 1 Corinthians 5 than Jesus does in Matthew 18. Paul simply tells the church to exclude the sinner with no mention of first giving a warning. Why? Some writers have said that it’s because the sin is “publicly scandalous.” But that would seem to make the church’s decision about who belongs in the kingdom of heaven depend on the evolving moral standards of society, which strikes me as strange. Is there not a theological connection between Matthew 18 and 1 Corinthians 5? I believe that there is, and we find it by considering church discipline in light of the gospel. (p. 18)

From the introduction, Leeman proceeds to structure the book into three parts. In part one, Leeman establishes the framework for discipline. Leeman establishes this framework via five sub-parts. First he tackles the biblical basics of discipline. Essentially, in this chapter, he gives the reader the difference between “formative” discipline and “corrective” discipline, and also gives us the biblical grounds for exercising church discipline. Second, he gives us a gospel framework for understanding discipline. In this chapter, Leeman gives us the gospel and demonstrates how the individual Christian, the gospel, and church membership all intersect. Third, Leeman gives us a sense of when church discipline is needed. Using Scripture, Leeman tries to give the reader a discerning eye as to when church discipline ought to be taken and when there ought to be no action. In this chapter, Leeman also gives a host of situational considerations that we ought to have prior to levying church discipline on an individual; and tackles the thorny issue of disparate approaches to church discipline taken by Jesus and Paul. Fourth, Leeman approaches the question of, “How does a church practice church discipline?” The speed of the process, the persons involved in the process, the involvement of the congregation, and his own church’s approach are all discussed in this chapter. Finally, the first part closes with a chapter on restoration and how it works. Leeman addresses both when and how restoration occurs. He also addresses the controversial question of whether or not churches ought to honor one another’s excommunication decisions.

In part two of the book, Leeman applies the framework that he established in part one to nine different case studies. The case studies were of: the adulterer, the addict, the “hits the news” lawbreaker, the bruised reed, the nonattending member, the faithfully-attending and divisive nonmember, the preemptive resigner, the newly-decided unbeliever, and the family member. Each of these case studies were helpfully presented in a manner that will enable the reader to tackle a similar situation in his home church context.

The last and third part of the book was a section entitled, “Getting Started.” In it, Leeman gives the nuts-and-bolts of church-wide preparation for the implementation of church discipline. Not only was a there a pastoral checklist for church discipline, but there was also an appendix containing common mistakes made by pastors.

KEY ARGUMENTS & CRITICAL EVALUATION

The initial key argument is the author’s assertion that church discipline hinges on the belief in a robust gospel. Leeman writes, “It’s comparatively easy to talk about God’s grace, unconditional love, and faith. It’s harder to talk about God’s holiness, Christ’s lordship, a Spirit-given repentance, and the new covenant reality of the church” (p. 13). Leeman rightly asserts that the new covenant does make demands on a person, and that those demands are realized with accountability within a local church (p. 13). It is the author’s belief that a proper understanding of the gospel leads to, and makes sense of church discipline. A watered-down gospel will create a context where church discipline will not make any sense. This point was both needed and helpful as Leeman started the book for the gospel is indeed foundational to all good works done within the church. If the church is to be “salt and light,” then we must be distinct and holy. These demands are made by Christ and are aided to fruition through the means of church discipline. Leeman writes church discipline is a demonstration of love and that “by abstaining from discipline, on the other hand, we claim that we love better than God loves” (p. 23). Leeman draws this conclusion based on the Scriptural evidence which shows that God disciplines everyone he loves (e.g., Heb 12:6).

Is it all the same thing?

At the outset of this book, Leeman makes a distinction between ‘formative’ discipline and ‘corrective’ discipline. According to Leeman, formative discipline “helps to form the disciple through instruction” (p. 27). Corrective discipline, on the other hand, “helps to correct the disciple through correcting sin” (p. 27). Leeman admits that although both corrective and formative discipline work together, his book focuses on corrective discipline. This was a helpful note for it set the reader on to proper expectations. As for the precise definition of church discipline, Leeman declares:

In more specific and formal terms, church discipline is the act of removing an individual from membership in the church and participation in the Lord’s Table. It is not an act of forbidding an individual from attending the church’s public gatherings. It is the church’s public statement that it can no longer affirm the person’s profession of faith by calling him or her a Christian. It’s the refusal to give a person the Lord’s Supper. It’s excommunicating, or ex-communion-ing, the person. (p. 27-28)

To be clear, then, I will treat these terms synonymously: “to excommunicate” is “to exclude from fellowship,” which is to “remove from the Lord’s Table,” which is “to formally discipline.” Some people treat one or two of these things as different stages in the process; I do not. (p. 28)

I believe that Leeman errs in treating excommunication, exclusion from fellowship, removal from the Lord’s Table, and formal church discipline as synonymous. Scripture informs us that formal church discipline could occur without the offending person’s exclusion from fellowship. In fact, in the famed eighteenth chapter of Matthew, Jesus instructs us not to exclude the person from fellowship until all other measures of formal discipline are taken by the church. It isn’t until half-way through the seventeenth verse that Jesus calls for exclusion from fellowship. The rebuke by individuals and eventually reprimand by the entire church are all forms of formal discipline that ought to precede exclusion from fellowship. This is an important distinction to make because God, nations, churches and parents all practice discipline at times without fully ‘cutting off’ the offending individual.

Fundamentally, excommunication and discipline should not be viewed synonymously. Although excommunication could be the church’s discipline in a particular situation, the two also could be mutually exclusive. Elsewhere, Leeman rightly believes that, “Excommunication is a church’s declaration that it can no longer affirm that an individual is a Christian” (p. 44). This is essentially a correct definition for the term ‘excommunication’ because church membership is the exact opposite. As Leeman himself declared, church membership is “a declaration of citizenship in Christ’s kingdom….It’s the declaration that a professing individual is an official, licensed, card-carrying, bona fide Jesus representative” (p. 42). Hence, it logically follows that if excommunication is the dismembering of an individual from the church and the public declaration that the individual is not a Christian, then we must carefully note that formal discipline can (at times) occur without excommunication. The two should not, and cannot, be synonymous. Again, texts such as Matthew 18 reveal that formal discipline and reproof clearly often occur prior to excommunication. Furthermore, texts such as 2 Thessalonians 3:15 even reveal a form of formal discipline wherein an individual is not declared an unbeliever: “Take special note of anyone who does not obey our instruction in this letter. Do not associate with them, in order that they may feel ashamed. Yet do not regard them as an enemy, but warn them as you would a fellow believer” (2 Thes 3:14-15, NIV). Clearly, formal discipline does indeed occur at times without excommunication.

Should Ex-communicants be Banished from Sunday Worship Gatherings?

There is also a disconnect between Leeman’s definition for excommunication and his view on its practical execution. Leeman writes that to excommunicate is to exclude someone from fellowship (p. 28). He also writes that, “In more specific and formal terms, church discipline is the act of removing an individual from membership in the church and participation in the Lord’s Table” (p. 27). However, when it comes to executing an excommunication in real time, Leeman writes that, “It is not an act of forbidding an individual from attending the church’s public gatherings” (p. 27). Hence, according to Leeman, a person could continue attending church although he has been formally excommunicated. In practice therefore, in Leeman’s church, there could be a person who has been removed from membership through excommunication and be barred from the Lord’s Table; but is nonetheless, still attending Sunday worship services, speaking with new comers and spiritually younger believers after service, and even eating in the fellowship hall with the rest of the church at the conclusion of the worship service (provided lunch is provided and unbelievers are invited to eat with the church after service). The sad reality is that often, the excommunicated individual has a bitter heart which now looks to cause discomfort to the ones who have meted out the discipline. This sort of bitterness goes back to the time of Cain and is nothing new. But just as God banished Cain, so too, must the excommunicating church completely banish the offender until believable repentance is demonstrated.

From the pages of Scripture, we see that excommunication is the act of completely purging or removing (ἐξάρατε) an offender from the church. Unlike what is purported by Leeman, excommunication always resulted in the complete removal of the offender from the church’s midst. In the early churches, the offender was not permitted to join the church when the church was gathered for worship. Paul’s command to the Corinthian church couldn’t be any clearer: “REMOVE THE WICKED MAN FROM AMONG YOURSELVES” (1 Cor 5:13, NASB). This was not merely a command prohibiting lunch or business association. This also was not merely a barring from the Lord’s Table or exclusion from some formal membership log. Instead, this adjudication by the apostle was a call for the literal removal of the sinner from the congregation of the worshiping church. One could literally feel the force of the apostle’s command whenever one reads 1 Corinthians 5:13. This very well prohibits lunch and business interactions with the individual outside of the church as well (2 Jn 1:10), but the primary injunction was for the removal of the individual from the church’s worship service. We must remember that the New Testament church was not a building, but rather, it was the people of God gathered for the worship of God. Hence, a command to remove an individual from among themselves was–at its core–a command to prohibit an individual from attending their worship services. It was a command to “hand him over to Satan” (1 Cor 5:6). Again, the central reason for this is rooted in the theological significance of the church’s corporate Sunday gathering. Yes, the church enjoyed food and fellowship whenever she gathered, but the main reason why the New Testament church gathered was to worship God. Excommunication therefore, was primarily the apostle’s command for the church to remove the offender from the church’s worship service.

The possible reason why Leeman comes to this faulty conclusion is because many people automatically believe that if a person is excommunicated, then he is now to be treated like an unbeliever. Leeman probably reasons that since unbelievers are permitted to join us on Sundays for worship (1 Cor 14:24), therefore, those who have been excommunicated should also be allowed to join us for Sunday worship services. This however, is an error. While it is true that the offender is declared ‘an unbeliever’ by the church, Scripture clearly makes a distinction for the unbeliever who has been excommunicated by the church. Scripture calls for us to cease all interactions with such an individual (a prohibition never issued against an unbeliever who has never been excommunicated): “If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house or give him any greeting, for whoever greets him takes part in his wicked works” (2 Jn 1:10-11). A key point about John’s injunction in 2 John is the fact that the apostle actually prohibits the believer from permitting the unbeliever of even setting foot in his house. Although exegetically, the 2 John text is likely addressing private homes and private individuals, an extrapolation to the household of God (i.e., the church) could certainly be made–especially because many early New Testament churches met in private homes (e.g., Rom 16:5). It would appear that John is preventing the excommunicated person from even receiving the blessings of a warm welcome that often accompanies the access into a church’s Sunday morning worship gathering.

Finally, one only needs to look to the Old Testament to see the finality of what it meant to ‘cut off’ an individual from God’s covenant community (Lv 18:29). Although such ‘cutting off’ certainly did mean that the person was prohibited from interacting with other Israelites in daily living, the injunction was primarily meant to cut the offender off from the presence and worship of Yahweh. Likewise, whenever a New Testament church excommunicates an individual, that person is not merely no longer permitted to come to the Lord’s Table, but rather, the individual is to be forbidden from even attending the church’s corporate worship gatherings. This seems to be the plain understanding from the apostolic texts which prohibit Christians from even greeting excommunicated individuals (it is virtually impossible to not greet an individual who is sitting next to you in a worship service). It is highly unlikely that the New Testament Church had such a highly nuanced differentiation between participation in the Lord’s Supper, a formal membership roll, and general admission into the church’s weekly corporate gathering. Hence, a person being purged from their midst (1 Cor 5:13) could only mean a complete ban from all church life for that individual–especially a ban from the church’s Sunday corporate worship gatherings. Allowing a wolf to continue to attend church (even if the church’s leadership notifies everyone of the wolf’s presence) is not just a spiritual disaster waiting to explode, but it is also disobedience to the Lord’s plain command (e.g., 1 Cor 5:13).

The Difference Between Jesus’s and Paul’s Approach to Church Discipline

Another key argument Leeman raised was the issue of ‘when’ to discipline. Leeman argues for a “sin-versus-repentance balance” (p. 57). In explaining why Paul’s approach to church discipline in 1 Corinthians 5 looks so different from Jesus’ approach in Matthew 18, Leeman does not go the classical route of saying that the difference is due to the fact that the sin in Paul’s case was both egregious and heinous in nature. Leeman does not go that route because as he explains, “For starters, it makes the decision of whether to excommunicate dependent on the standards of the world, which are not holy and are always changing. One society’s scandal is another society’s badge of honor (think of abortion or homosexuality)” (p. 56-57). So instead, Leeman concludes, “Paul begins with the assumption of unyielding unrepentance. Jesus’s process exists for the purpose of determining whether or not a person is unyieldingly unrepentant–for determining what Paul takes as a given…Again, it [Paul’s passage] begins just short of where Matthew 18 ends” (p. 60).

While it is fine to have a “sin-versus-repentance balance,” due to the highly subjective nature of church discipline however, it is not wise to adopt Leeman’s conclusion regarding the differences between the Matthean and Pauline church discipline passages. Instead, I believe that it is helpful for us to acknowledge the fact that many weightier sins are unanimously agreed to be weightier by the people of God due to the guidance of the Holy Spirit and Scripture. It makes sense to say that if God certainly views certain sins as ‘heavier’ than others (e.g., John 19:11), then God would also allow his people to view such sins in like manner. In other words, the wickedness of a sin is objectively discernible by most within the Church. For example, both culture and society might change their views on the wickedness of homosexuality, but God has not changed his view that homosexuality is an extreme abomination. As a result, God graciously expects his people to also view homosexuality in the same manner as attested by the apostle Jude: “Just as Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities, which likewise indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural desire, serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire” (Jude 1:7, ESV). Essentially, Jude is saying that Sodom and Gomorrah serves as an example for all of us to understand just how much God loathes the sins of sexual immorality and homosexuality. As the angels were able to objectively discern whether or not the men of Sodom were “great sinners” (Genesis 13:13), so likewise–for the most part–we too (through God’s Word), can objectively discern the heinous nature of a particular sin.

As the book proceeds, Leeman also naturally begins to see the reality of the fact that certain sins are both clearly and objectively worse than others. Leeman later writes, “There are some sins that we really would not expect a Christian to do. And to do them means one is probably not a Christian, or at least that’s how the church will treat the individual until the church’s trust can once again be earned” (p. 62). That observation, I believe, should serve to truly explain the difference between Jesus’s approach and Paul’s approach to church discipline. Jesus starts off with an offense committed by one individual to another (Mt 18:15). It would seem, therefore, that the sin was not necessarily egregious in nature. Paul, on the other hand, is dealing with a sin that is so bad that even the pagans saw it as a vice (1 Cor 5:1). In Jesus’s case, the sinner is given three opportunities to repent. In Paul’s case, because of the severity of the sin, excommunication is immediately executed.

Knowing when to use Jesus’s method of church discipline versus Paul’s method requires wisdom and discernment. God, however, gave the local church the power to wisely carry out both as needed. It is wise to admit that church discipline is, at times, subjective in nature and carried out at the discernment of a church that is composed of fallible human beings. This admission however, should not weaken or thwart the church’s power to exercise church discipline. Leeman correctly writes, “Will the local church exercise the keys perfectly? No. It will make mistakes, just like any other authority established by Jesus makes mistakes. The local church is an imperfect representation of Christ’s end-time gathering. But the fact that it makes mistakes, just like presidents and parents do, does not mean it is without an authoritative mandate” (p. 41).

Should an Excommunication be Binding on all Churches?

Another argument that Leeman made was that churches do not have to recognize the excommunications of other churches. Leeman writes,

            But it’s not just the Roman Catholics and the Anglicans for whom this is true. Some historical Baptists have argued that, when a church excommunicates an individual, the individual is still under the authority of that church, at least until it lifts the ban. In the meantime, another Baptist church must not usurp the first church’s authority by receiving the individual as a member.

            In my estimation, this argument is mistaken. Churches do have the authority to receive individuals disciplined by another congregation. They may not be wise to do so. And they would certainly be wise to investigate the action of the first church. But in the final analysis Jesus has given every congregation the authority of the keys for binding and loosing, and one congregation’s decisions are not binding on another. (p. 84)

This position however, brings up serious questions about the universal nature of Bride of Christ and the efficacy of church discipline. In effect, I believe this plays right into the hands of the heavily ‘consumer-oriented’ church mentality that exists in North America today. One of the reasons why so many churches do not exercise church discipline is because many churches operate with a business mindset and know full well that one church’s loss will be another church’s gain–no questions asked. Documents such as a church’s “Letter of Transfer” are completely foreign to most churches. This however, was not the way New Testament churches operated. Yes, each church was autonomous, but Paul also often expected unity and uniformity within “all the churches of the saints” (1 Cor 14:33). If a member is biblically excommunicated from a church, then that member should not be able to go down the street to another church and sympathetically obtain membership from them. If excommunication is the formal declaration by a church that person is not a Christian, then allowance for a church to rescind another church’s excommunication actually testifies to differences in soteriology between the churches (which then, is a very big problem). If all the churches of the saints indeed do have one baptism, one body of Scripture, and one Lord; then each local church’s decision to excommunicate should be binding upon all churches. When Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Mt 18:18), one clearly and certainly senses the binding nature of excommunication. The verse loses its force if another church down the block is able to rescind an excommunication. The only time an excommunication ought not be honored is if a church can biblically prove that the excommunication was unbiblical. Sola Scriptura ought to be our guiding light on this matter. If the reasons for excommunication were truly biblical, then every church ought to honor the excommunication. To not do so would be severely detrimental to the excommunicated soul.

Overall

Overall, the author made many cogent arguments for church discipline that were biblically rooted. It was refreshing to read the case studies and discover many conclusions that I would personally agree with. The argument, for example, for excommunicating the preemptive resigner was both compelling and logical. I plan on taking Leeman’s position on this issue in the future. Leeman writes,

            Joe attempted to avoid excommunication by resigning his membership. Was this legitimate? No. Christians are called, as a matter of obedience to Christ, to submit to the affirmation and oversight of local churches. People join churches by the consent of the church, and they resign by the consent of the church. That is to say, a person cannot walk up to a church and say, “I’m a member now.” Churches of every polity have some way of testing and then affirming a person’s profession of faith. Jesus gave the apostolic church the keys of the kingdom for this very purpose. (p. 116)

THE BOOK’S VALUE FOR EXPOSITORY PREACHING

Leeman acutely recognizes the value and need for good preaching prior to the exercising of church discipline. Leeman writes,

            If the idea of church discipline is to make any sense to a church at all, a congregation must have a robust understanding of the gospel and what it means to be a Christian, as we discussed in the preface and chapter 2. Being a Christian is not just about making a one-time decision; it’s about a faith and repentance that yield a whole new pattern of decisions. It’s about submitting to Christ as Lord.

            God intends for his people to look different than the world. He intends for them to live holy lives and to war against sin. That’s what it means to repent. Repentance does not mean that a person has stopped sinning, but it does mean that he has declared war against sin. A congregation must understand these things before one can expect it to understand church discipline.  (p. 126-127)

Expository sermons cultivate a culture of church discipline within the church. Both the New and Old Testaments are rich with passages encouraging God’s covenant community to look out for one another, sharpen one another, and yes, even rebuke one another. Leeman himself writes, “In fact, just about any text in the Bible on holiness, repentance, conversion, lordship, and discipleship, not to mention texts touching on the broad themes of redemptive history such as Israel’s boundary markers or exile, can easily be applied in the direction of discipline” (p. 130).

Finally, expository sermons help us to embrace church discipline because ultimately, the pages of Scripture exude the glory of God and this naturally leads to a church’s pursuit of discipline and holiness. A biblical understanding of the ordinances, the gospel, church membership and discipline, all come through careful and diligent expository preaching. It is critical that prior to exercising church discipline, the church is properly taught the Word–particularly as it pertains to the discipline of the church. As Leeman said, “Pastors need to encourage church members to build relationships with one another in which correction and instruction are normal. They should teach them that a gospel-grounded individual learns how to invite correction, and how to tenderly give it” (p. 128).

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About Dr. Stephen Kim

Dr. Stephen Kim is the senior pastor of Mustard Seed Church in New York City. He has also served as Associate Director of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, NYC Extension Center. Pastor Stephen is the happy husband of one beautiful woman and the joyous father of four beautiful children. As a pastor and writer, he is passionate about accurately feeding Christians the Word of God: “Who then is the faithful and wise servant, whom his master has set over his household, to give them their food at the proper time?" (Matthew 24:45).
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