Let me start by saying that this is quite a chunky book, considering the strap line: ‘Reintroducing the Doctrines of Church Membership and Discipline.’ 350+ pages on the topic of membership and discipline seems a bit on the extreme side!
However, despite initial misgivings, I have to say that this is an absolute gem of a book (from a Baptistic, congregationalist perspective at least). It’s a book that is set out in three parts. The first part looks at how we may have incorrectly defined love in our self-obsessed culture. The second invites us to consider a rethink of the definition of God’s love, and the final part looks at some considerations for what this means for the local church body, specifically in relation to membership and discipline.
Regular readers of this blog know that I am not given to grand statements of praise and back slapping for authors but, for once, I have to say that this is a book that not only deeply challenged me (for many have done that), but helped me to think more clearly in terms of my ecclesiology and practice, gave me a greater understanding of God, his love and an even deeper regard and love for my local church. This book made me want to be a better pastor to my people, and a better colleague to my elders.
Relax everybody! I’ve not turned all gooey and this is not a complete love in, nor do I receive any payment for this review! This book is simply outstanding as far as I am concerned. Why am I even reviewing a book on this topic on a church-planting blog? For a couple of reasons:
1. This book will seek to tweak and correct your understanding of who God is and how great his love is for himself. Yes, read that sentence again.
“How great is God’s love for God. The fire of God’s love must burn over something. In God’s love for God, his love burns for nothing other than the most exquisite beauty; for nothing other than matchless moral rectitude; for nothing other than universe creating and sustaining power; for nothing other than a perfectly careful justice; for nothing other than his all-encompassing wisdom of his Son, a Son who images back to Him his own self. When the father beholds the Son, the fires of his love burns for all this – with infinite delight and pleasure in the good of this perfect Son. That’s how great this love is.” (p.106).
Church planters and/or gospel workers in schemes (and Christians everywhere) often make the mistake of doing this ministry motivated by the wrong sort of ‘love’. They can do it to show how much God loves poor and desperate people, etc. You’ve heard the chat. But God’s love is offensive because it doesn’t burn for us first and foremost. It doesn’t burn for the lost in our schemes first and foremost. It burns for his own glory. Let that settle in to your soul! That’s a thought so alien, so offensive to many of us that our first instinct is to fight it. I loved this part of the book so much and was so incredibly moved by it that I actually wrote the author an email! I spent a long time reflecting on this and what it means in my ministry and what it means to my congregation.
2. Church planters need to think carefully before they start about what type of church they want to plant. In the angst to gather a core or attract people, particularly in places like ours, we can rush in and just accept any old fruit bat off the streets. We can get sucked into the thought that church is just about relationships and community. Whilst superficially true, churches are about much more than that. Churches need structure, boundaries, statements of faith and, dare I say it, codes of practice. Of course, churches in schemes are going to be messy, but we need to be sure about how we are going to work through that mess by having a clear polity regardless of our ecclesiological convictions. Leeman reminds us by stating: “I would encourage church plants and house churches to have deliberate conversations from the outset that mimic the structure of a membership class, asking: What’s our statement of faith? How will decisions be made? How will we hold one another accountable? With whom will we affiliate?” (p.295)
3. This book reminds us to love our local churches. This seems an odd thing to say to those who love and want to plant churches. But, sometimes we can give the idea that we’re going to do it differently. Like our church won’t make the mistakes of the past. But, if we’re seeking to build gospel centred, biblically faithful churches then we can’t ignore our rich historical heritage. It’s the one thing that constantly amazes me as a planter and a trainer. So many young men today turn up on my doorstep wanting to be a church planter and yet they hate the local church. They hate authority. They hate the idea of submission. They hate the idea of discipline. This book reminds us that for any church (or planting movement) to thrive, these are the essential elements that should mark out any faith community seeking to preach Christ and proclaim God’s good news of love and reconciliation.
If you’re a planter, buy this book. If you’re an elder, buy this book for you and your team. Stuff it, if you’re a believer in Jesus who claims to know and love God and his people in a deeper way, go out and buy this book and take a long, hard look in the mirror. ‘Is there anything wrong with it’, I hear you say? Probably. I was too busy being challenged by the good bits to notice.
I loved it, in case you’re still wondering!