An expert defense of how God's holy love is biblically, theologically, and practically represented to a watching world through the practices of church membership and discipline.
About the Author
Jonathan Leeman(PhD, University of Wales) is the editorial director for 9Marks. He is the author or editor of over a dozen books and teaches at several seminaries. Jonathan lives with his wife and four daughters in a suburb of Washington, DC, andis an elder at Cheverly Baptist Church.
Mark Dever (PhD, Cambridge University) is the senior pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, DC, and president of 9Marks (9Marks.org). Dever has authored over a dozen books and speaks at conferences nationwide.
Read an Excerpt
THE IDOLATRY OF LOVE
"All you need is love."
— John Lennon
Main Question: How do our common cultural conceptions of love today hinder our acceptance of church membership and discipline?
Main Answer: We have made love into an idol that serves us and so have redefined love into something that never imposes judgments, conditions, or binding attachments.
Step 1: Doing a doctrine of the church requires us to consider our cultural baggage.
The Risky Business of Ecclesiology
Tampering with the doctrine of the church is a risky business. Perhaps more than with any other Christian doctrine, the doctrine of the church — also called "ecclesiology" — is where the variables of personal ambition and vain conceit factor into all the equations. Ecclesiology is the domain of turf wars and political rivalries. It's where the embattled pastor and his ornery deacon board haggle yet again over where the "buck stops"; where the local Episcopal church has to determine what it means to separate from the larger Episcopal communion that has forsaken the gospel; where the presbytery decides whether a member's lifestyle places her outside the community's affirmation of faith.
One might say that it's comparatively easy to debate God's foreknowledge, or whether regeneration precedes conversion, or what the millennium is. Raise one of these topics, and over half the church will shrug their shoulders and claim agnosticism. But raise the topic of who has final say over the church budget, or who chooses a new pastor, or whether the church has the right to discipline the elder's wayward adult son, and you won't find many agnostics here. Sure enough, church history is replete with examples of theologians changing their ecclesiology to suit political circumstance.
In other words, there's a "real worldness" to the doctrine of the church. Deciding who receives baptism and the Lord's Supper and who doesn't is a "political" decision in a way other doctrinal decisions are not. So is deciding who has the final say in decision-making matters. As such, our ideas about ecclesiology will be uniquely affected by the personal experiences we bring to bear, coupled with the ambitions and fears harbored in our hearts. Some writers have speculated that the Scriptures don't have much to say about how Christians should exactly structure their churches, so Christians can fashion and refashion their churches to best suit their missiological contexts. I think it's better — and less speculative about why God did what he did — to remove the normative element from this proposal and say, simply as a matter of sociological description, that our doctrine of the church is at least as likely, if not more likely than other doctrines, to be shaped by our time and place.
After all, is it coincidental that for fifteen hundred years churches moved toward a centralized authority while the world was ruled by Caesars and Charleses? Is it coincidental that democratic revolutions of the eighteenth century and the proliferation of democratic governments that have followed ever since have been roughly matched by a similar proliferation of congregational and other non-connectional forms of church government? Yes, exceptions occurred. But doesn't it stand to reason that, when a culture becomes accustomed to a particular form of government, churches will more likely adopt those same forms? The same is true of business models. It's only natural for people to pattern their church after what works at the office. Committees in the forties and fifties? CEO pastors in the nineties? Multi-campus franchises today? Finally, is it terribly surprising that, in the anti-institutional, anti-boundary, anti-authority postmodern West, Christian leaders today would increasingly call for the de-institutionalization of the church?
For these reasons, it's helpful to consider a writer's context as he or she writes about the doctrine of the church. In the introduction we considered the call for "less institution" and "more community" among many writers today. The theologian Jürgen Moltmann makes this kind of statement in the early pages of his work on ecclesiology, but he does so staring into the "crisis of the national and established churches in 'Christian' countries of long standing," like Germany's state Lutheran church. Given what he's looking at, I'm entirely sympathetic with Moltmann. But what if a writer says the same thing as he is looking at revivalistic and seeker-sensitive Southern Baptist churches, as one Southern Baptist Convention leader does in his popular-level book for pastors? Even though I'm closer to the Baptist author theologically, I'm a little more suspicious.
So tampering with the doctrine of the church is a risky business because it's particularly susceptible to the realities of enculturation generally and personal ambition specifically. That's why I want to devote an entire chapter to examining some of the forces that most likely affect how we view the matters of church membership and discipline today. We don't come to these topics without cultural baggage. We come with a train full.
A Culturally Counterintuitive Proposal
If the doctrine of the church gets wrapped up with the ambitions and fears of the heart, doing a cultural baggage check is far more involved than asking what presuppositions or opinions we might have about the church. It's a matter of examining fundamental conceptions of love, God, and more. What's more, our understanding of Christian doctrine — especially ecclesiology — ties into every area of our lives. The fact that my wife enjoys romantic comedies on Saturday nights, or that I like watching action-adventure movies, affects how we gather with the church on Sunday mornings more than we realize. Indeed, the very fact that we will watch movies on Saturday evenings instead of sing songs in the old family parlor by lantern light will affect how we give and receive love to other members of our church.
My main argument in this chapter is that our ideas about love are more idolatrous than we realize. To see this, I want to pick up the storyline that we began in the introduction concerning the Romantic impulse latent within postmodern, Western culture against structures, boundaries, or anything reeking of exclusivism. After all, I trust that most Christian readers will find this book's principal proposal — that God intends for the exclusivistic practices of church membership and discipline to help (re)define love and beauty for fallen human beings — deeply counterintuitive. The very elements that comprise the DNA of our Western postmodern culture cause most of us to react against anything remotely suggestive of institutionalism or exclusivism, like white blood cells programmatically responding to foreign bacteria. The one boundary most people agree upon these days is the boundary keeping boundary makers out! Most pertinently, it contradicts our ideas about love. We regard love as the very thing that calls us to wield our hammers and knock down the old walls of division rather than build them.
Why does it feel unloving to draw clear borders around a church? Is it? What do we take "love" to be? Are our notions of love in fact biblical? Many writers today say that Christians in the West are overly (1) individualistic. And along with such individualism, they say, comes (2) consumerism, (3) a reluctance to make commitments generally, and (4) a skepticism toward all absolute truth.
Step 2: Individualism has left us detached, which sends us searching for a love that makes us feel complete. We want churches to do the same.
Picture seventeen-year-old Benjamin Franklin, the son of a candle maker who would become a printer, scientist, inventor, author, and ambassador, walking into the city of Philadelphia for the first time not knowing a single soul, tromping up Market Street with nothing more than a Dutch dollar in his pocket, a loaf of bread under each arm, and a third in his hand, and surveying the city in which he would one day help to lead the American colonies through a revolution and into nationhood.
Picture twelve-year-old African-American slave Frederick Douglass, who would one day be the most internationally renowned abolitionist of an era and the occasional counselor to President Abraham Lincoln on matters of slavery, hunched over a piece of cement with a lump of chalk in his fingers teaching himself to write by mimicking the letters he observed shipbuilders mark on pieces of lumber — "L." for larboard side, "S." for starboard side, "L.F." for larboard side forward, "S.A." for starboard side aft.
Picture seven-year-old Amelia Earhart, author, early women's rights advocate, and the first female to fly an airplane unaccompanied across the Atlantic Ocean, standing with bruised lip and torn dress after her homemade roller-coaster, cobbled together from a wooden box and planks propped up against an eight-foot tool shed and greased by lard, spilled her onto the ground, and then exclaiming to her sister, "Oh, Pidge, it's just like flying!"
EVERY ATTACHMENT IS NEGOTIABLE
Remarkable stories like those have presented the American cultural conscience — my own conscience — with a glorious vision of the self-reliant, self-made, self-defining man or woman. Not class, ethnicity, gender, parish, or actual iron shackles could bind such heroes. To adapt Charles Wesley's hymn, their chains broke off, their hearts were free, they rose, went forth, and followed the proverbial me.
Such real life biographies inspired the world of popular fiction, in everything from the Westward ventures of James Fennimore Cooper's Deerslayer or Pioneers to the upward ventures of Horatio Alger's Ragged Dick or Struggling Upward. Arising out of such fiction grew up what has been called the myth of the American Adam. Like Adam standing in the garden of Eden, like the first Pilgrims who stepped off the Mayflower at Plymouth Rock, every new generation of Americans has perceived itself as unbounded by national borders or tradition, space or time, as the Western frontier stretched beyond the imagination's reach, offering limitless opportunity to create new worlds. Why is such fiction significant? Because the fiction that a public writes and reads reveals what a public values and despises. Fast-forwarding to our day, one needs only go to the movies to see that the myth of the American Adam remains alive and well, albeit without the hope-inspiring visions of the past. In the 2000s, Jason Bourne, a CIA trained assassin with limitless powers of self-defense and a bad case of amnesia, perhaps embodies it best. And Bourne stands in a long line of Lone Ranger heroes, from Superman in the 1970s, to Indiana Jones in the 1980s, to the Terminator in the 1990s (notice the growing nihilism in this trajectory).
There are so many ways we could tell the history of individualism. I have described it as an English major might. A church historian could go back and tell the story of Luther's Reformation and his doctrine of the priesthood of all believers. This could be followed by the 1555 Peace of Augsburg, which granted the princes of Europe the ability to determine whether their domain would be Protestant or Catholic. This could be followed by the 1648 Peace of Westphalia, which granted the religious minorities of Europe the freedom to decide that question differently from their prince, so long as they remained Roman Catholic, Lutheran, or Reformed. This could be followed by the 1689 Act of Toleration, which granted British citizens the right to gather in their own houses of worship with their own pastors, so long as they remained Trinitarian and Protestant, and this could be followed by the non-establishment clause in the U.S. Bill of Rights. A student of political theory would probably fill his history with characters like King John and the Magna Carta, Thomas Hobbes and his social contract, John Locke's talk of the "consent of the governed," Rousseau's version of the social contract, the Declaration of Independence, and the head of the king of France resting in the bottom of a bucket in the middle of a cheering throng.
Whatever figures and stories we use to narrate the emerging drama of the Individual, the outcome of the story is the same for the average person in Western culture today: every attachment is negotiable. We are all free agents, and every relationship and life station is a contract that can be renegotiated or canceled, whether we are dealing with the prince, the parents, the spouse, the salesman, the boss, the ballot box, the courtroom judge, or, of course, the local church. I am principally obligated to myself and maximizing my life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness. Among my various relationships, I may choose to identify with another party, but only so long as doing so is demonstrably conducive to personal advantage. I retain veto power over everything. When in the course of human events it becomes necessary to dissolve the bands which have connected me to others, I dissolve them.
This ability to negotiate and veto my commitments, of course, stretches all the way to heaven and into eternity. Sociologist Robert Bellah introduced us to the now infamous term "Sheilaism." Sheila Larson was an individual his research team interviewed who felt licensed to cast a religion in her own image by picking and choosing among her favorite religious and moral principles, thereby "transform[ing] external authority into internal meaning" — almost like restaurant customers surveying the salad bar, which is precisely how one Unitarian minister has defined her religion: a salad bowl.
It's true that group identity has been on the rise at least since the 1960s. This has occurred among feminists seeking to carve out an empowered space for individuals belonging to the demographic category called "women" (or "womyn") as well as among some elements of the civil rights movement seeking greater measures of ethnic solidarity. It has also occurred increasingly among "lifestyle enclaves," self-identified cultural blocks not formed around an ethnic, religious, or other traditional form of group identity but around some other type of lifestyle decision such as homosexuality, Harley riding, or hip-hop — movements complete with their own magazines, movies, churches, styles of dress, patterns of speech, and so on. I don't believe that this demographic Balkanization has done anything to undermine or displace the supremacy of the individual. It has simply given him new tools for asserting — or at least attempting to assert — his individual supremacy.
INDIVIDUALISM AND LOVE
What does all this have to do with how we define love today? The growth of individualism over the last several centuries has dramatically affected all areas of Western life, including how Westerners today understand and experience love. As sociologist Anthony Giddens tells the story, most marriages in premodern Europe were entered into not for the sake of love or sexual attraction but for economic reasons. For the poor at least, marriage was a means of organizing labor. When love was spoken of in the context of marriage, it was characterized as the compassionate love between a husband and wife running a household or farm together Beginning in the late eighteenth century, however, what Giddens calls "romantic love" began to arise amidst a flurry of novels, many authored by women, which situated the love relationship, like a novel, in a narrative of self-discovery and self-expression.
Passionate love itself was nothing new to the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Everything from relics of poetry that have survived from Ancient Egypt to Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet portray an all-consuming, sexual, and passionate love that envelops an individual or a couple, almost like sickness, disrupting their everyday obligations and activities and inspiring them to acts of heroism, sacrifice, or despair. Culturally distinct about the emerging romantic love of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was this narrative of self-realization that involved not just sexual attraction but the discovery of another individual with certain characteristics that would supposedly complete the lone individual. Hence Giddens writes:
Romantic love presumes some degree of self-interrogation. How do I feel about the other? How does the other feel about me? Are our feelings "profound" enough to support a longterm involvement? Unlike amour passion [passionate love], which uproots erratically, romantic love detaches individuals from wider social circumstances in a different way. It provides for a long-term life trajectory, oriented to an anticipated yet malleable future. Giddens doesn't speculate on the origins or causes of romantic love. Perhaps it was the reaction to the sense people had of feeling adrift as many of their traditional moorings were cut by the rationalistic individualism of the Enlightenment? As much as the Romantics wanted to define themselves against the Enlightenment, they remained derivative of it, in the same way that post-modernity is derivative of modernity (simultaneously a reaction against and yet sharing some of its most basic presuppositions).(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Church and the Surprising Offense of God's Love"
Copyright © 2010 9Marks.
Excerpted by permission of Good News Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Part 1 Love Misdefined,
1 The Idolatry of Love,
Part 2 Love Redefined,
2 The Nature of Love,
3 The Rule of Love,
4 The Charter of Love,
5 The Covenant of Love,
Part 3 Love Lived,
6 The Affirmation and Witness of Love,
7 The Submission and Freedom of Love,
Appendix: Outline of the Book,
What People are Saying About This
"What happens when you bring together one of the most misunderstood subjects (love) and one of the most ignored practices (church membership and discipline) in the church today? A book like this one. Unlike the generation raised on Mr. Spock's child-rearing advice, the Good Shepherd cares for his flock by loving discipline. There is a lot of talk these days about radical discipleship, but what we need more today is a lot more ordinary discipleship, where we realize not only in theory but in practice what it means to be conformed to Christ's image. This is the best book I've seen on this subject in a long time."
Michael Horton, J. Gresham Machen Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics, Westminster Seminary California
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This is an awesome book about the biblical basis for church membership and church discipline! The author explains how we have twisted and redefined God's love into something that is palatable for us, instead of truly understanding that biblically God's love marks boundaries and enforces them.
Recognizing that discipline is a lost element of church polity, I was anticipating a more practical how-to related to this topic. Nearly one-third of the book is devoted to deep theological reflections on God's love and authority, but it's so "heady" that few readers will make it through. It's extremely academic and could easily be used in seminary courses. The research and writing are well done, but I'm afraid the small percentage of folks interested in church discipline will not find what they are looking for here.