Church Discipline: How the Church Protects the Name of Jesus by Jonathan Leeman
Rating: 5 out of 5
Length: 4.5 – 5 hrs. To read (144 pages)
Defining church discipline and explaining how it should be practiced can be difficult. Jonathan Leeman’s book, Church Discipline, draws from Scripture to help Christians understand church discipline so they can protect “the name and reputation of Jesus Christ on earth.”
Who Should Read This Book?
Some portions of this book are specifically geared toward pastors. However, as Leeman points out, church discipline is not the exclusive responsibility of church leaders. Any Christian will benefit from reading this book and developing a gospel-centered understanding of church discipline.
Given that church discipline has fallen to the wayside in many congregations, the health of the Church would be greatly improved if many non-pastors were to educate themselves about church discipline through this book. It is one volume in the ever-growing 9Marks: Building Healthy Churches series and is indispensable reading for anyone who appreciated the other volumes on discipling and church membership.
Jonathan Leeman’s’ conversational writing style is well-tuned for a general audience. A pastor with seminary training or an average church member will find the book equally accessible. Leeman’s pastoral concern that more Christians and churches grasp what the Bible has to say about church discipline is apparent throughout the book.
Church Discipline is structured in three parts. In the first part, which constitutes the majority of the book, Leeman carefully establishes a Gospel framework for understanding and applying church discipline. The second part consists of various “case studies” through which the author shows how the framework may be applied in particular situations. Finally, in the third part, which is geared most directly toward pastors, Leeman gives practical and helpful cautions to consider before practicing church discipline. A short conclusion and appendix give pastors a checklist for church discipline as well as a list of mistakes pastors make in practicing discipline.
Church Discipline sets out to do far more than merely define church discipline and offer some case examples. Equally important to Leeman is helping Christians understand why the church should accept such a practice in the first place and what should be the motivating factor behind putting it into operation. In both cases, Leeman’s answer is the same: the Gospel.
The subtitle makes Leeman’s goal for this book clear: that the Church would protect the name of Jesus on earth. Of course, the church will never carry out that task perfectly. However, Leeman makes a compelling case that the church cannot even claim to be doing that job to the best of its ability when it neglects to discipline its members. Church discipline is something that has fallen out of use (and out of fashion) and this book is clearly aimed at reviving a practice that Leeman sees as being vital to the health of the church.
Starting with the basics of the Gospel, Leeman develops a framework for understanding and practicing church discipline that is infused with Scripture from start to finish. Defining the Gospel might seem like a point too basic to make in a book that is clearly targeted at those who are already followers of Christ. Yet as Leeman shows, there is a kind of thinned-out gospel that prevails in many churches that will poison a Christian’s understanding of church discipline if it is not exposed and corrected.
The book goes on to briefly answer questions like “What is a Christian?” and “What is church membership?” Without a clear, Biblical understanding of concepts such as these, it would do little good (and potentially cause considerable frustration and disagreement) to embark on a discussion of church discipline. Confusion about what the church is or about the nature of the individual Christian’s commitment to the local church must be resolved before coming to a right understanding of church discipline.
Practicing church discipline requires a Biblically-sound framework because churches will be faced with many situations for which there is no clear, Scriptural case study. Leeman offers a sampling of questions he received on the topic of church discipline, including “What should we do if one of our members completely abandons the faith and stops calling himself a Christian?” and “Is pursuing marriage with a non-Christian a disciplinable offense?” and “What should we do about a longtime attending nonmember who’s being divisive?”
Those are questions that do not have easy answers, but they are ones that churches should be prepared to address. They are the kinds of questions for which having a solid, Gospel-centered framework for practicing church discipline is essential.
According to this book, a lot of Christians are probably already doing more church discipline than they may realize. That is because most discipline happens informally and on a personal level, what Leeman calls formative discipline (in contrast to corrective church discipline). Each Sunday when we hear the preaching of the Word we are getting a form of church discipline. When Christians encourage one another throughout the week to pray and have their time of personal devotions, that is also a form of church discipline.
Ultimately, much church discipline will be bound up in another closely-related Biblical concept: discipling. As this book puts it: “To be discipled is, among other things, to be disciplined.” If Christians are discipling each other as they should–helping each other to follow Jesus–church discipline of the formative kind is already taking place and the need for corrective church discipline will tend to diminish.
“Corrective discipline,” as Leeman defines it, is probably what most people think of when they hear the phrase “church discipline.” It is the process that could, at the end, result in a person’s being removed from church membership, i.e., excommunication. The process of corrective church discipline, however, is to be reserved for those sins that are outward, serious, and unrepentant. That last factor is the most important in Leeman’s framework. Repentance must always be the motive of any act of church discipline, with restoration being the ultimate goal.
Although there are many passages undergirding Leeman’s case for church discipline, he focuses heavily on two familiar passages: Matthew 18:15-20 and I Corinthians 5-6. Other writers on the topic of church discipline have seen in those two passages, two differing approaches to church discipline in the words of Jesus and the writings of Paul. Leeman convincingly synthesizes those two passages and demonstrates that, in fact, Jesus and the Apostle Paul are in complete agreement with one another, despite the fact that they are describing different stages in the process of discipline.
There are five principles that form the core of this book’s church discipline framework. Churches should involve the smallest number of people possible to lead to repentance. Those who are older and wiser in the faith (including church leaders) should be the ones to lead the later stages of the process. There can be no set timeline for church discipline; the process must continue until the church is convinced that the person is characteristically unrepentant.
Heeding the admonition of James 1:19 (“let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger”), individuals should be given the benefit of the doubt. Finally, church leaders should bring the entire congregation into the process and instruct them as appropriate (although the timing and form of that involvement could vary significantly depending on the church’s form of governance).
What if the process of discipline yields the desired repentance? The church extends the person forgiveness and he or she is restored to church membership, which is an occasion for joy. There is no Scriptural basis for anything like a trial period. Rather, as Paul instructed the church at Corinth the church is to “comfort him” and “reaffirm your love for him.”
Again, however, Leeman emphasizes that the question of when restoration should occur will not always be immediately clear. Discerning whether there is sufficient evidence of repentance requires Christians to plead with God for His wisdom and to proceed carefully.
With a collection of nine case studies (constructed with elements of real-life situations he has encountered), Leeman goes on to demonstrate how the framework is applied. Each case study describes the situation, assesses the sin, assesses the repentance, notes any other factors, and describes the decision that the church reached.
It may be, Leeman admits, that some of the decisions were mistaken; he makes no claim that these decisions are the “final word.” However, the case studies are good examples of what it looks like when a church makes a well-meaning effort to apply the gospel to the area of church discipline as described in the first chapters of the book.
Before reading this book, I had only a basic understanding of what church discipline was and how it was supposed to work. How superficial that understanding really was became clear to me the more I read. I certainly could have pointed to Matthew 18 and named the general steps there, but that was about the extent of my knowledge.
The reason Leeman started by defining the Gospel quickly came into sharp focus and I am thankful that he wrote that portion of the book. In fact, the sections that define the Gospel, the church, and what it means to be a Christian are worth reading for their own sake, even for someone who is not currently interested in the topic of church discipline.
When Leeman goes to the words of the Bible he does not skate across the surface, but dives deep and picks passages apart to be sure that readers grasp the full meaning and all of its implications. For a book as relatively thin as this one (a mere 144 pages), its Scriptural interpretation is meaty.
Leeman makes clear on numerous occasions that church discipline cannot be boiled down to a set of rules, e.g., if someone commits this sin, then do that as an act of church discipline. Nevertheless, the case examples (based on real situations) are extremely helpful in understanding how the framework that is laid out in the first part of the book can be applied to specific circumstances.
If there is any weakness in Church Discipline–and believe me, I had to wrack my brain to come up with one–I think it would be that it is tilted toward those churches that have an elder-led, congregational form of government. Leeman writes on the topic of church discipline generally (and he acknowledges differences in church governance), but those from churches with different structures might have specific questions about the application of church discipline that were not treated fully in this short work.
A number of other books have been written on this topic. However, I think readers would be hard-pressed to find one that succeeds in so succinctly and so clearly building a Biblical foundation for church discipline and laying out a framework for applying it.
Leeman cautions pastors not to dive head first into practicing church discipline without first teaching on the subject. It is not enough for the pastor himself to have a firm grasp on the concept of church discipline. Without a clear understanding of these topics in the congregation, a pastor trying to put these truths into practice is setting himself up for frustration.
In writing this book, however, Leeman has given pastors just the kind of tool they need to lay that foundation for their own local church. This is exactly the kind of book that could be distributed to a board of elders (or deacons or other non-staff church leaders, as the case may be in any particular church) to spark fruitful discussions on the topic of church discipline.
- “Why would God ever leave things unclear? My guess is that, among other things, he means for us to cry out for wisdom, because crying out for wisdom requires naturally self-sufficient people like us to lean on him. All those gray areas in life function as training grounds for trust.” (pages 21-22)
- “Broadly speaking, discipline is necessary whenever a disciple departs from the way of Christ by sinning. It’s necessary whenever a gap opens up between a Christian’s profession and life, and the so-called representative of Jesus fails to represent Jesus.” (page 48)
- “Churches must not practice discipline for the sake of retribution, but for the sake of gospel love.” (page 130)