The Church and the Surprising Offense of God’s Love by Jonathan Leeman has so far proven to be a challenge. Not that it is difficult reading—it definitely is not. It is challenging in that it forces thought, and not just passive “that’s interesting” thought, but thought that necessarily draws conclusions—conclusions with which the reader may or may not be comfortable; conclusions that will incite passion in one way or another. This is a book not to just read, but to study and meditate upon. Read this book; put copies in the hands of your pastors (which I did, and am now reading it myself at his recommendation).
I’ve decided to take a different approach to blogging this book than I have with others. The chapters are long and dense, and deserve more attention than just a few comments on a pithy excerpt. So I’ve taken notes on Chapter One and present them here, under Leeman’s own headings, as my summary. The headings are as you would find them in the book; the body text is my summary. Anything in quotation marks is, as you might guess, a direct quote. The length is ridiculous for a blog post, I know, but I think I did well to condense thirty-five pages into about 2,000 words.
Chapter One The Idolatry of Love
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
Leeman explains why building an ecclesiology for the church is more hazardous than codifying other doctrines. Discussions of ecclesiology, more than any other, can bring to the surface our personal ambitions and vain conceit. Ecclesiology involves such volatile decisions as who will receive baptism and be allowed at the Lord’s Table. Ecclesiology is especially vulnerable to attachment to our cultural baggage. We are prone to applying our civic politics and business ethics to our view of the church.
A Culturally Counterintuitive Proposal
Our ideas about love are more idolatrous than we realize. Western culture instinctively resists structures, boundaries, and exclusivism. Romantic notions of love tell us that conditions and borders are unloving. Leeman writes, “The one boundary most people agree upon these days is the boundary keeping boundary makers out!”
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.
Western heroes, historical and fictional (e.g., Benjamin Franklin, Indiana Jones), all fit the individualist mold.
Every Attachment Is Negotiable “We are all free agents, and every relationship and life station is a contract that can be renegotiated or canceled, [including our relationship to] the local church.” Choices are predominantly subject to the obligation to self, personal happiness and advantage. “When in the course of human events it becomes necessary to dissolve the bands which have connected me to others, I dissolve them.”
Individualism and Love The growth of individualism has caused a shift in our definition of love. Whereas love was once thought of primarily as compassion, individualism has emphasized romantic love, or simple passion.
Romantic Love Versus Biblical Love Romantic love is not entirely unbiblical (see Song of Songs). But the romance of the Bible differs from that which grew out of eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in that the modern romantic lover’s “absolute moral reference was an exclusive fidelity to the love relationship and its maximization. . . . the romantic lover finds his or her souls completion in the other. In love!” This finding what can only be found in God is what makes love idolatrous. And when love is all about self-fulfillment, it must also become undiscerning and nonjudgmental. “So Americans tend to describe churches as ’loving’ when those churches make us feel relaxed and comfortable, not judged.”
Self-Expressive Love in Churches With this individualistic, self-fulfilling view of love comes an individualistic, self-expressive view of worship. So “song lyrics do not so much present an opportunity to meditate on God’s love for sinners . . . but on repeated expressions of the sinner’s love for God. Sunday school classes and other church groups will divide into homogeneous units with shared life experience, rather than the old seeking to disciple the young, and the young valuing and desiring discipleship from the old. Preaching becomes group counseling on the felt needs of the congregation. The gospel becomes therapy.
Step 3: Consumerism has caused us to focus on the desirability of the object of love, rather than the process of loving. We view churches as products which satisfy us or not.
This section examines “three aspects of individualism: consumerism, a fear of commitment, and a skepticism toward all dogma.” Consumerism assumes exchange. That, in itself is not a problem; salvation is an exchange: our sin for Christ’s righteousness. The problem with consumerism is that it secularizes the exchange. “It’s about exchanging something in this world for something else in this world. We seek our peace and rest and shalom and joy in this world or in this age.” In a secularized, consumeristic exchange, what is lost is the knowledge that the heart is the first thing that must be exchanged—a heart of stone for a heart of flesh. A consumeristic mindset does not examine whether appetites are directed toward right desires.
Consumerism and Love When we make material, financial exchanges, we can hardly claim to be motivated by love for the buyer/seller with whom we are dealing. We simply try to make the most advantageous exchange we can for ourselves. When consumerism steps into the territory of love, the focus shifts from love itself to the object of love, and the value of the exchange in the love relationship. “We are more concerned about who loves us than we are about loving.” It is all about getting, not giving.
Consumeristic Love in Churches “When pastors fail to teach Christians that the problem of love begins with the faculty to love rather than with the various objects of love, the critical faculties that Christians develop in the shopping mall transfer to their church lives.” They judge the music, the preaching, the people around them, etc., according to how well they are served by them. “They judge the church rather than letting God’s word judge them. In all this they utterly fail to recognize that they are not loving their neighbor as themselves.” Rather than correct such sinful attitudes, savvy church leaders learn to exploit them to yield the desired statistics. “Virtues like holiness, self-sacrifice, and faith can’t be counted, so never mind. As Mark Dever has said, statistical figures are worshipped more than carved ones.”
Step 4: Commitment phobia takes commitment out of love and love becomes about what’s advantageous to me. The idea of commitment is removed from our view of churches.
“The drive to pursue happiness in the negotiations and renegotiations of our various contracts means making sure that no contract is too binding.” Americans no longer join clubs, associations, and civic groups as they have in the past. Rather than join organizations that ask for hand-on involvement, they prefer to support groups that require nothing more than payment of a membership fee. Marriage is down, cohabitation and divorce are up.
Commitment Phobia and Love Lack of commitment turns love relationships into present-only exchanges. As long as the benefits and advantages measure up to expectations, the relationship continues. The future remains to be seen.
Commitment-less Love in Churches “When the idea of a binding commitment is removed from the definition of love, churches become places where personal sacrifices are seldom made, so the gospel is seldom pictured.” Christians move from one church to another lightly, with no thoughts about the consequences to others. After all, there is no responsibility involved, is there? Sadly, many of these church-hoppers are only following the examples of many pastors who come, stay a few years, and leave. If the shepherd makes no long-term commitment to the flock, why should individual sheep feel any obligation? This weakens the connection between doctrine and practice. While professing to believe the gospel, commitments made—or rather, not made—do anything but demonstrate the gospel. “Their symbolic burial and resurrection from the waters of baptism indicate that they mean to take up their cross and follow their Lord, but the very ethic of their commitment-less love does not provide them with the opportunity to fulfill these professions with their actions.”
Step 5: Skepticism removes all judgment from love, causing us to expect unconditional acceptance from churches. Pragmatism also results.
Another outgrowth of individualism is a skepticism toward doctrine, an especially any absolute truth claims. Doctrines are retained or discarded based upon their utilitarian value to the goals of the individual.
Skepticism and Love When love is separated from truth, love is defined as unconditional acceptance. The opposite of love, then is judgmentalism., intolerance, and exclusivism. Love requires you to “accept me as I am, and tolerate whatever I say or think without condemning it . . . and affirming my lifestyle decisions as legitimate and good.”
Unconditional Acceptance in Churches The evangelical call today, in the name of love, is to emphasize orthopraxy over orthodoxy. This results in a religion of emotion; intellectual objectivity has been banished. The objective What has God said? is replaced with the subjective What is God saying to you?
The Inevitability of Pragmatism Pragmatism is the inevitable result when doctrine and boundaries are tossed out. Superficial measurable results become the test practice. The legitimacy of methods is measured by that which can be seen, rather than being faithful to the Word and trusting God to produce true spiritual fruit, which is largely unseen. Ironically, pragmatism may be accompanied by a pseudo-spirituality, an emphasis on the leading of the Spirit. Sadly, following the Spirit as we know he leads through Scripture is not in view. This is all about Experiencing God-style subjectivity.
Connecting the Dots
The connection between all these cultural values and an unwillingness to commit and submit to a local congregation should be obvious. We are self-serving, independent individuals, whose real and fictional heroes are rugged, self-sufficient individuals (e.g., Indiana Jones. In a culture in which love is inseparable from freedom, commitment and submission just don’t compute.
Step 6: But what is individualism really? It’s a hatred of authority. And behind the hatred of authority is a diminished God.
The Root Problem
After all that has been said about individualism, Leeman admits that many opponents of the institutional church are committed communitarians who are “committed not to free agency but to a relational concept of the human being. The believe that human peace, meaningfulness, and joy can be found only in community.”
Communitarianism “. . . the postmodern and communitarian reaction against modernistic individualism remains derivative of that individualism . . . The postmodern self may be socially constituted and delimited . . . but within his limitations no authority exists to stay his hand or say to him, ’What have you done?’ He can come and go as he pleases, invoking this or that group membership according to whim.”
Anti-Authority-ism Communitarianism is not the antidote to individualism, because the real problem is not individualism; the real problem is anti-authority-ism. “The solution . . . is to reintroduce the conception of submission to God’s revealed will as it’s located in the local church.”
Authority in Churches That authority is unpopular in the church is plainly seen in the debates over everything from the role of women in the church and home to the sovereignty of God over history and salvation. “The ideas of love and authority remain almost wholly at odds.” Evidence of this is found in the preponderance of therapeutic preaching rather than expositional preaching, which demonstrates a recognition of “God’s intention to employ authoritative pronouncements through human mediators in our life and growth as Christians [and] that Christ enters the Christian’s life with the authority of a king who commands repentance and obedience. So the church gathers to hear what the king has authoritatively said in his Word.” Rather than expound the Scriptures, and risk running into anything demanding, shepherds scratch the sheep where they itch.
Secularizing the Idea of Disobedience
By “secularizing,” Leeman means replacing sin with inoffensive euphemisms, e.g., insecurity=fear of man, consumerism=greed. “We shouldn’t address insecurity by pointing to its opposite—self-confidence; we should talk about the fear of God.” We should address consumerism by talking “about the things that have supplanted God as an object of worship.” Individualism is the secular euphemism for hatred of authority. It is not, as some say, a failure or fear of relationship. It is, rather, a rejection of a particular kind of relationship, one that requires obedience.
A Diminished God
The communitarian emphasis on relationship and ambivalence toward authority leaves us with a diminished God. “The wages of sin is death not just because our sin breaks our relationship with God, [but] because it offends against his glorious, beautiful, holy, resplendent majesty! . . . because God’s glory is weighty and infinite, and we have fallen short of it.”
Step 7: Church membership, then, begins with repentance.
“If the root problem in our culture and in our churches is anti-authority-ism and the despising of God’s glory, then the solution is not simply joining community and making relationships; the solution is repentance. It’s a changing of heart and direction. This repentance includes . . . joining a particular kind of community where self is no longer sovereign and where one is called to obedience to others as an expression of obedience to God. It’s the joining of a community where worship of God is supreme in everything. . . . submitting to a local church and becoming a member is an external enactment of what it means to submit to Christ and become a member of his body. It’s keeping the imperative of what Christ has accomplished in the indicative. Submitting to a local church on earth, in the language of Christian ethics, is a becoming of what we are in heaven.”
The spirit of the age rebels against boundaries and limits, so God and his love have been redefined so that there are none. “This idol called love” commands us to live and let live, without expectations, limits, or judgment.
Today’s hymn is from the “Church” section of the Concordia.
80 The Church’s One Foundation The Church’s one foundation Is Jesus Christ her Lord; She is His new creation By water and the Word: From heaven He came and sought her To be His holy bride; With His own blood He bought her, And for her life He died. Elect from every nation, Yet one o’er all the earth; Her charter of salvation, One Lord, one faith, one birth; One holy Name she blesses, Partakes one holy food; And to one hope she presses, With ev’ry grace endued. ’Mid toil and tribulation, And tumult of her war, She waits the consummation Of peace forevermore; Till, with the vision glorious Her longing eyes are blest, And the great Church victorious, Shall be the Church at rest. Yet she on earth hath union With God the Three in One, And mystic sweet communion With those whose rest is won: Oh, happy ones and holy! Lord, give us grace that we, Like them, the meek and lowly, On high may dwell with Thee. —The Concordia Hymnal (Augsburg Publishing House), 1960.
The traditional tune for this hymn, Aurelia, was written by Samuel Sebastian Wesley (1810–1876), grandson of Charles Wesley.
Asked of a recently-relocated family: ‚ÄúHave you found a church you like?‚Äù A lot can be implied in a simple question like that, depending on who is asking and who is being asked, so you shouldn‚Äôt jump to conclusions about the individuals involved. However, lacking some deeper understanding, that‚Äôs a really bad question. It makes the choice of a church subjective, dependent on personal preferences. Ask, instead, ‚ÄúHave you found a biblical church?‚Äù
When you are looking for a church, don‚Äôt look for one that makes you comfortable. (This is not a call to intentionally go ‚Äúoutside your ‚Äòcomfort zone,‚Äô‚Äù or any other trendy pseudo-spiritual clich?©.) Look for a body that is biblical in doctrine and practice, and then love that church. If you can‚Äôt be comfortable among brothers and sisters who are thinking and doing biblically, the problem is yours.
It’s been a while since I’ve written anything strident. Here’s something for you controversyphiles. This being the Lenten season, and feeling the need for some self flagellation, I picked up (figuratively, as it’s in my Kindle for PC) Mark Driscoll’s Confessions of a Reformission Rev. As you may already have observed, I’m no fan of Driscoll. I approach his work with prejudice, and no apologies. The list of reasons for my disdain is long and well documented, but it begins with the quotation below, which I have seen on several occasions, but have just encountered for the first time in its original source.
So I decided to start a church, for three reasons. First, I hated going to church and wanted one I liked, so I thought I would just start my own. Second, God had spoken to me in one of those weird charismatic moments and told me to start a church. Third, I am scared of God and try to do what he says. —Mark Driscoll, Confessions of a Reformission Rev. (Zondervan, 2006), Kindle Locations 547–549.
As a tangent, Driscoll also claims that he married his wife because God told him to, which, if I was Grace Driscoll, would be rather disappointing. But I rather suspect there was something a bit more romantic and, dare I say, in an entirely non-reprehending manner, fleshly behind his move to matrimony. So we’ll just let that be that, hoping that, as we refrain from discussing the secrets of Driscoll’s marriage, he might follow suit and, to put it in the blunt language he so prizes, just shut up about it.
As I’ve said, there is a long list of reasons, some of them quite spectacular, to reject Driscoll as any kind of spiritual leader, and I don’t need to belabor them here, since you either already know of them or are perfectly able to Google "Mark Driscoll" yourself. Those sins are far from unimportant, but we wouldn’t even be talking about them if something much more fundamental had been recognized the first time Driscoll’s name hit the mainstream. The most fundamental disqualification of Mark Driscoll is found in the quotation above, namely, that he is self-ordained.
I find no word anywhere that he was ever recognized by the elders of any church as gifted and qualified for the office of elder, and consequently trained and raised to that position, mentored by his elders. No, he occupies the office because, if we believe his story, the voices in his head said he should. And that is not a source of authority in the church of Jesus Christ. That is not how a man becomes a pastor.
But none of that was ever questioned. On the contrary, publishers snapped up his manuscript submissions, pastors who should have known better gave him platforms at their conferences, bloggers drooled all over themselves reading and praising him, and Driscoll became a sweetheart of the Young, Restless, and ersatz-Reformed. It all reminds me of the day I, an aspartame-hating sugar purist, picked up a can of Fresca, didn’t check the ingredients, and liked it. By the time I found out, I had been drinking it so long that I just decided to ignore the facts and, well, it’s still in my refrigerator.
Comparing fraudulent ministerial qualifications to artificial sweetener would, of course, be ridiculous. I trust you haven’t missed the point. While aspartame is harmful in extreme quantities, a smidgin here or there is probably quite harmless. An unqualified shepherd is anything but harmless, as becomes more evident every time Driscoll’s name hits the news.
It’s easy to get excited about the outrageous things we see on blogs, Twitter, and the news. What ought to concern us more are the ordinary things that happen quietly—or don’t—in the orderly routine of the church.
Here is my unpopular opinion for the week.
I don’t like women’s Bible studies. I don’t like men’s Bible studies, either. I really don’t care for any modifier-added Bible study. It’s not just because they tend to focus narrowly on group-specific topics, losing the wider context of “the whole purpose of God” (Acts 20:27), and tend to drift into silliness and even heresy,* nor is it just because they are often not led by qualified teachers.†
I know I risk of sounding like an old fogey longing for the good old days, but just as the past may not have been as good as remembered, the present isn’t so new and improved—and this is one example of the old days actually being better days. I remember a time when Wednesday was Bible study night, and everyone came and studied together under pastoral leadership. Now it’s a men’s study here, a women’s study there; here a small group, there a young adults class, everywhere a seniors group; Old MacDonald split his church, E-I-E-I-O. In the name of meeting specific needs—which, I’m afraid, really means catering to special interests—many churches are splintered into so many segments that they look more like collections of amputated limbs than whole bodies.
I’m not pushing for the full family-integrated program, although I think it has a lot to teach us about being a body. Neither am I pushing for Wednesday night; an adult class on Sunday morning will serve just fine. But how is the church to function as a body when every part goes off in its own direction, only coming together for the formal‡ Lord’s Day worship service?
Surely there are good reasons for men to gather with men, and women with women. But if those gatherings replace the integrated Elder-led Bible study, or in any way contribute to the fragmenting of the body, I’d rather see them abandoned entirely.
* e.g., Wild at Heart, Beth Moore, etc. † Not every group has to be taught by an Elder, but active pastoral oversight is essential. ‡ Yes, it should be formal, and yes, it should be dominated by preaching, and no, it’s not the time for dialogue.
The shepherds of Christ’s church are not priests—they do not stand as mediators between God and man. The function of a Christian pastor is to lead the church to the one mediator (1 Timothy 2:5), through the Word in which he is revealed.
I fail to see that St. Paul ever supports the favourite theory that there was intended to be a sacerdotal ministry, a sacrificing priesthood in the Church of Christ. There is not a word in the Acts or in his Epistles to the Churches to warrant such a notion. It is nowhere written, ‘God hath set some in the Church, first apostles, then priests’ (1 Cor. 12:28). There is a conspicuous absence of the theory in the Pastoral Epistles to Timothy and Titus, where, if anywhere, we might have expected to find it. On the contrary, in these very Epistles, we read such expressions as these, ‘God hath manifested His Word through preaching,’ ‘I am appointed a preacher.’ ‘I am ordained a preacher.’ ‘That by me the preaching might be fully known’ (1 Tim. 2:7; 2 Tim. 1:11; 2 Tim. 4:17; Tit. 1:3). And, to crown all, one of his last injunctions to his friend Timothy, when he leaves him in charge of an organized Church, is this pithy sentence, ‘Preach the Word’ (2 Tim. 4:2). In short, I believe St. Paul would have us understand that, however various the works for which the Christian minister is set apart, his first, foremost, and principal work is to be the preacher and proclaimer of God’s Word. —J. C. Ryle, Holiness (Banner of Truth, 2014), 380.
While the Roman Catholic religion (and, to some degree, Lutheran churches) elevate pastors to the level of priests, others diminish the office and even reject it. Neither are biblical. The pastoral office is scriptural, good, and honorable.
While we refuse to allow that a sacrificing priesthood has any warrant of Scripture, let us beware in these days that we do not rush into the extreme of undervaluing the office which the minister of Christ holds. There is some danger in this direction. Let us grasp firmly certain fixed principles about the Christian ministry, and, however strong our dislike of priesthood and aversion to Romanism, let nothing tempt us to let these principles slip out of our hands. Surely there is solid middle ground between a grovelling idolatry of sacerdotalism on one hand, and a disorderly anarchy on the other. Surely it does not follow, because we will not be Papists in this matter of the ministry, that we must needs be Quakers or Plymouth Brethren. This, at any rate, was not in the mind of St. Paul. (a) For one thing, let us settle it firmly in our minds that the ministerial office is a Scriptural Institution. I need not weary you with quotations to prove this point. I will simply advise you to read the Epistles to Timothy and Titus and judge for yourselves. If these Epistles do not authorize a ministry, there is, to my mind, no meaning in words. Take a jury of the first twelve intelligent, honest, disinterested, unprejudiced men you can find, and set them down with a New Testament to examine this question by them selves: ‘Is the Christian ministry a Scriptural thing or not?’ I have no doubt what their verdict would be. (b) For another thing, let us settle it in our minds that the ministerial office is a most wise and useful provision of God. It secures the regular maintenance of all Christ’s ordinances and means of grace. It provides an undying machinery for promoting the awakening of sinners and the edification of saints. All experience proves that everybody’s business soon becomes nobody’s business; and if this is true in other matters, it is no less true in the matter of religion. Our God is a God of order, and a God who works by means, and we have no right to expect His cause to be kept up by constant miraculous interpositions, while His servants stand idle. For the uninterrupted preaching of the Word and administration of the sacraments, no better plan can be devised than the appointment of a regular order of men who shall give themselves wholly to Christ’s business. (c) For another thing, let us settle it firmly in our minds that the ministerial office is an honourable privilege. It is an honour to be the Ambassador of a King: the very person of such an officer of state is respected, and called legally sacred. . . . But how much greater honour is it to be the ambassador of the King of kings, and to proclaim the good news of the conquest achieved on Calvary! To serve directly such a Master, to carry such a message, to know that the results of our work, if God shall bless it, are eternal, this is indeed a privilege. Other labourers may work for a corruptible crown, but the minister of Christ for an incorruptible. Never is a land in worse condition than when the ministers of religion have caused their office to be ridiculed and despised. It is a tremendous word in Malachi: ‘I have made you contemptible and base before all the people, according as ye have not kept my ways’ (Malachi 2:9). But, whether men will hear or forbear, the office of a faithful ambassador is honourable. It was a fine saying of an old missionary on his death-bed, who died at the age of ninety-six, ‘The very best thing that a man can do is to preach the Gospel.’ —J. C. Ryle, Holiness (Banner of Truth, 2014), 380–382.