Surprising Offense of God's Love

Book Review: The Surprising Offense of God’s Love

All the world needs is love, or so the saying goes. In many ways, this statement is true, in that God is love (1 John 4:8). Love infiltrates every aspect of life. Thus, a wrong definition of love can have catastrophic consequences, because the fallout also impacts every aspect of life. While volumes could be produced on a theology of love and its application, author Jonathan Leeman has taken this concept and applied it to something very important within the function of the church: membership and discipline.

Running 376 pages from cover to cover, “The Church and the Surprising Offense of God’s Love” is offensive itself. It’s not that Jonathan Leeman’s words are objectionable or repulsive, it is that the topic being addressed goes against personal wants and motives for most people. In fact, I should tell you that the author does a great job at simply outlining truth in a non-offensive way. He will challenge readers though. From chapter one to chapter seven, Leeman embarks on a single mission to present a theology of membership and discipline and why every church should be following it.

The way in which the author brings forth the discussion of membership and discipline is through the context of love. Leeman divides the book into three parts: love misdefined, love redefined, and love lived. Love misdefined seeks to explain the current definitions of love and the resulting trends from those wrong definitions. Beyond merely identifying the current direction of the culture and its misdirection, he goes further to explain the impact upon the church as a result.

Simple identification of a problem though is meaningless without a solution, which is the focus of six out of seven chapters of the book. The majority of the text fixates on establishing the foundation of correcting wrong definitions for love (chapters 2-5 in ‘Love Redefined’). Once this is established the author focuses on application to membership and doctrine in the final two chapters.

Three Positive Annotations

In seven chapters, readers will be struck by the insights Leeman has to offer. It is clear that the book was well-researched and well-thought out before it was every placed into our hands. Because of that, every reader should find themselves deeply appreciative of the book that is now held between one’s hands. In the midst of all that the book has to offer, the majority of the advantages fall into three categories.

1. A Profound Handling of Layout

Certainly layout is important, but it has no bearing on the information, or does it? In the case of Jonathan Leeman’s premises and proof, it does. While the layout of three sections itself is helpful to organize the information, his focus on layout for each chapter is crucial to readers’ understanding.

He begins each chapter by simply noting two points: The main question and the main answer. In other words, these two questions summarize what is going to be covered in the chapter by asking a question that all readers have and giving his conclusion up front. The rest of the chapter then is organized into what the author calls ‘steps.’ Each step is more of a point, with one point flowing into the next, so that readers can easily see how the conclusion can be reached. The text of the book then is simply explanations of each point so that readers can follow the author’s flow of logic to his conclusions.

2. A Profound Handling of Modern Trends

Jonathan Leeman’s grasp not just of cultural trends, but also their impact is astounding. Admittedly, cultural trends should not be the concern of the church since, like Christ, the church is often counter-cultural. However, it is important to see how those cultural trends have found their way into our churches, including the redefining of love, and impact how the churches function. Thus, the author’s points in this area, found mostly in chapter one, are critical and insightful.

As noted earlier, love impacts every aspect of life. Most of us take that to the very basic levels, but Leeman has followed that out further. Perhaps an example would be well=placed here. From pages 42-50, the author develops the concept of individualism and the need for individuals to feel complete. He traces this out to show how a redefinition of love within this setting leads to something that is about self-realization and self-expression. What does this mean? It means that people want to connect with others and evaluate church on their ability to do so. Why is this important in Jonathan Leeman’s book about membership and discipline? It’s his insightful conclusion that this type of redefinition of love and the need to connect creates automatic divisions in the church based on demographics.

Maybe for many, this conclusion was realized long ago. I suspect that it is true for many though, that they have failed to think about the connection, which is why there is now a need to discuss it in our modern era. And this conclusion represents only one out of many that the author makes for readers.

Leeman’s guidance in showing how love impacts a variety of areas and how those areas then impact our relationship to the church are helpful. They alone make the book worth reading. However, there is a secondary consequence here that is important to. By showing these connections, he has shown readers why discernment is so important in the Christian life as well. It should leave readers with a burden to look at trends and consequences with great detail and discernment.

3. A Profound Handling of Authority

Discussions of membership and discipline are incomplete if authority is not included as a topic as well. Whether it be secular authority or not, there is a wide mistrust that permeates through people resulting in a lack of deference towards authority. As a result, the subject is both detrimental and delicate. However, Jonathan Leeman deals with it superbly, primarily in chapter three.

He first as a good recognition of people’s mistrust and is able to discuss authority in light of the damage that has been done in the name of authority. He brings forth the delegation of Christ’s authority through the church and the impact that sin has had on it. In doing so, he briefly acknowledges the need for authority to be handled rightly.

The author’s ability to handle people’s mistrust is rooted in his right understanding of what authority is. Not only does he identify authority, but he is able to identify the output of authority, which is growth in a Christian’s life (pg. 144). His conclusions are based on important rationale that many will find challenging: love necessitates authority. Instead of a dichotomy existing between the two, instead, Leeman is able to explain how the two are intricately linked together (much like he described love and judgement in preceding chapters). It is his treatment of authority that I find to be one of the most desired of the book.

Three Negative Annotations

While Jonathan Leeman has written a book addressing an important aspect of the function of the church and believers, it is not without some concerns. In reading the book, there are three areas to address in short detail. Some of those areas are simply aspects that would help the readers understanding more than a concern about doctrine.

1. Weight of the Writing

No doubt the subject matter of the book is a heavy topic, and at times burdensome, for many people whether pastor or parishioner. However the author’s style and tremendous amount of detail cause the subject to weigh even more.

I appreciate the detail that is provided in the book because it helps address so many of the questions, thoughts, and trends that need to be discussed. However, Leeman’s wonderful ability to consider all aspects can cause readers to be so entrenched about a single detail that it becomes easy to forget what the original premise was.

Furthermore, the author can be repetitive. You’ll find, for example, that he will bring up the topic of biblical and romantic love at several juncture throughout the book with little distinction. It creates a series of repetitions that causes the leader to lose interest at having the same information come before him.

The same type of repetitions can be found in his description of God’s love as something that attracts people or something that repels people. At several points the concept is mentioned and expounded upon briefly, but it isn’t until later that he does so with any depth. In this case step 7 of chapter 2 when he discusses God’s love repels because it includes judgment.

In these instances, it’s not that the author has reached false conclusions, but that his writing fails to provoke people to read further and to apply the information. Instead they simply get lost in the words.

2. Weight of Leadership

Jonathan Leeman is very intentional in directing the focus of the book towards the view and role members should take of church membership and discipline. As such he has done well to address topics such as the members’ views towards authority and those in authority. However, there is significant detail lacking in attention to the roles/responsibilities of church leaders.

The author is clear that he is not going to spend time discussing every role of church leaders and instead directs readers to other resources (pg. 306). I agree with this to an extent. There is no need, nor space, to address every role, but only those related to the functions of membership and discipline. Yet, even in the brief discussions that the author does allow for there is no inclusion about the character of the task or the one performing the task.

Earlier in the book Leeman discusses the mistrust people have for leaders and authority. Does it not make sense then to address this further by allowing some opportunity to meditate upon the character qualities that God requires both of leaders and of the functions they carry out? In a book that uses love as its central theme to develop doctrine of membership and discipline, the author seems to leave out the fact that the character of those functions is love.

One quick example of this. Leeman notes, “Church membership and discipline help to define love for the world because they mark God’s people off from the world and hold them up on display” (pg. 323). Yet, this fails to acknowledge that membership and discipline are acts of love. More than showcasing love for the world, it is an outward demonstration of love for God by loving individuals. Therefore, a fuller discussion on how discipline is an act of love towards a believer, and how love should be the character of that discipline (rather than mere anger or harshness) is warranted.

3. Weight of Love

Finally, Jonathan Leeman’s treatment of love itself causes us confusion and concern. First, some will take issue with his treatment of God’s love as conditional. Leeman argues that God’s love is conditional. He even makes the great point that defining God’s love as unconditional draws one towards universalism. However, his description appears to be suggesting a works-based salvation in chapter 2). I do not think that Leeman would ever hold to such a doctrine, but the ambiguity in his writing may lead others to that conclusion, and thus further clarification would be useful.

Of far greater concern though is the author’s ever-changing definition of love and the contradictions to it that seem to appear. In fact, his constant changing of definitions makes it hard to pinpoint exactly how he would define love. At points he seems to make it God-centered and other points he seems to make it very man-centered.

Throughout the book, Leeman does a great job at developing the need for love to be God-centered. One can appreciate his focus on God in all things. Yet, at various times his description of love seems to contradict his own definition of love. At various points his focus on love seems to be responding to people rather than responding to people in God (i.e. pages 85 and 108).

Furthermore, the author goes further to suggest that there is moral love and immoral love (pg. 108). After discussing that true love must be God-centered, we are left to reason that if it is not God-centered, it is not really love. How then can love, being God-centered, possibly be immoral? My suggestion is that this can’t be true love since God is love, but that distinction is not made.

Ultimately it comes down to this. Either the author has some contradicting views or the reader and author are miscommunicating. In this case, I would suggest that the issue is that the author and reader (me) are miscommunicating. Whether this is the fault of the author or the reader I do not know. Being tainted by sin, I know that I am deficient in many ways and may bear much of the burden in this case. At the same time, I think there is just cause in addressing the concerns I have so that all readers can take them into account when attempting to be discerning in their reading.

In the end we must ask, “Did the author reach his goal of presenting a theology of membership and discipline and show how/why they should be a part of every church?” Absolutely. Then we must assess, “Did he do so biblically?” I think so, but he can at times leave readers with some questions and doubts.

Frankly, I want to make sure that I note that what I have seen from Jonathan Leeman in other venues and what I have seen from 9 Marks, I find them both to be committed to the integrity of Scripture and its application to the Christian life. I will not hesitate in recommending resources put out by them and I don’t hesitate here. In this case though, it is not an easy or quick read, and readers must sort through a lot of information to take it down to the bare basics.

I am unaware of any other resources that deals so comprehensively with membership and discipline, two misunderstood practices of the church. Therefore, The Surprising Offense of God’s Love is a needed resource. It is not merely an essential resource, it is a worthwhile one. We must recapture the importance of church membership and church discipline and exercise them in a way that is loving of God and loving of others.

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