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Book Review: Church Discipline by Jonathan Leeman

Discipline isn’t a popular idea among many of America’s evangelical churches. Although some understand the need, others have set the practice aside, fearing that it’ll damage their efforts to reach the lost and the hurting. “Church leaders want to reach outsiders, but this good desire produces a bad temptation—to slim down the gospel to something skinnier,” writes Jonathan Leeman in Church Discipline: How the Church Protects the Name of Jesus.

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. All of these things make demands on a person. They produce the need for accountability. And when you build a church on a gospel that makes few demands and offers little accountability, church discipline just doesn’t make sense. (Location 149)

In this short book, Leeman connects discipline with discipleship, offering a gospel-centered framework, practical case studies of how to approach particular situations and solid advice for church leaders seeking to bring about a proper emphasis on this difficult aspect of discipleship and growing in godliness.

It should be noted upfront: this is not a book for those looking to be convinced of the need to practice church discipline; it’s for the church leader who is already convinced. This approach has its strengths and weaknesses, but overall, readers will be left more or less satisfied.

A key strength is readers don’t need to go through an exhaustive apologetic for the practice, although Leeman offers a broad definition of discipline. He writes, “In broad terms, church discipline is one part of the discipleship process, the part where we correct sin and point the disciple toward the better path. . . . a Christian is disciplined through instruction and correction, as in a math class where the teacher teaches the lesson and then corrects the students’ errors” (Location 287).

Leeman’s connecting of discipleship and discipline is extremely important as one can’t be a disciple without discipline. We err and thus require correction and instruction. That’s what church discipline offers. From that perspective, it seems odd that anyone would be uncomfortable with such a practice, doesn’t it? How could a genuine disciple not want to grow more and more into the image of Christ? How can we do such a thing apart from loving, corrective discipline? Indeed, he says as much himself:

Formal church discipline works best when members already know how to give and receive loving correction. They do it in their homes. They do it over lunch. They do it gently, carefully, and always with the good of the other person in mind. They don’t offer corrective words selfishly—just to “get something off the chest.” (Location 797)

Perhaps most challenging is Leeman’s assertion that “by abstaining from discipline . . . we claim that we love better than God loves. God, after all, ‘disciplines those he loves,’ and ‘he punishes everyone he accepts as a son’ (Heb. 12:6, NIV)” (Location 259). Some readers will take issue with this—these are incredibly strong words. But they’re ones we need to seriously consider. If God disciplines those he loves, why would we not do likewise, in accordance with Christian conduct and character? Does a loving father avoid disciplining his children? If we answer no, then we cannot avoid acknowledging the necessity of discipline within the church.

It’s no wonder then, Leeman’s emphasis on church membership in the context of discipline. Indeed, it’s fair to say that discipline doesn’t really happen outside the context of church membership. But what is church membership? “It’s a declaration of citizenship in Christ’s kingdom,” Leeman writes. “It’s the declaration that a professing individual is an official, licensed, card-carrying, bona fide Jesus representative” (Location 479). Thus, if one is a church member, he is subject to the authorities placed over him by Christ (that is, his local church). This is something I fear many of us fail to really understand, particularly in a highly individualistic culture such as ours.

But, Leeman writes:

Congregations need to understand therefore that part of being a disciple of Christ is knowing how to be corrected and taught by other disciples of Christ. 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. (Location 1436)

While there’s great strength in how Leeman has set up the need for discipline in the context of love for one another, some readers might struggle with his emphasis on discipline in the context of a congregational polity. It makes sense that this would be the focus of his study as this is the model of governance his church follows, but for those of us in churches following a different structure, much of the practical aspects of case studies don’t apply. I would have loved to see a little more of the practical outworking of discipline from an elder-led context to balance things out; but really, this is a minor qualm.

Church discipline isn’t something that the church can give up, no matter how noble our desire to eliminate as many barriers as possible to people coming to Christ. “Local churches exist, in part, to protect us from ourselves. It’s the brothers and sisters around us who love us and are committed to our good that help us to see the things we cannot see about ourselves. We are not the world’s experts on ‘us'” (location 1448). For the good of others, the good of ourselves, and for the sake of Christ’s name, we must be willing to practice church discipline. If you need a guide to help you get started in teaching your congregation about the importance of this practice, this book will be a great blessing to you.

Title: Church Discipline: How the Church Protects the Name of Jesus
Author: Jonathan Leeman
Publisher: Crossway (2012)

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