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After several conversations with a dear friend concerning the nature of the church’s authority, he bought me the 2010 book, The Church and the Surprising Offense of God’s Love: Reintroducing the Doctrines of Church Membership and Discipline, by Jonathan Leeman. Leeman argues, in sum, that God’s love is defined for the world by the practices of formal church membership and discipline. This book is endorsed by prominent Southern Baptist pastor, Mark Dever, and by the Reformed theologian, Michael Horton. It represents a trend among recent confessional evangelicals in North America to reclaim (against the backdrop of its de-emphasis) the doctrine of the church and its centrality in the life of the believer. While I benefited from many sections in the book, I’m uneasy about this new re-emphasis on church authority. In my judgment, many ambiguities attend the recent Protestant recovery of “church authority.” And as much as I consider myself to have a “high ecclesiology,” the flavor seems off here. Many of Leeman’s most controversial statements must die the death of a thousand qualifications – some of which he gives and some of which he does not give. Here are a few thoughts:
1. The concern for “clarity” as it concerns the relationship between the visible and invisible church can, in fact, be unprincipled. Over and over again in Leeman’s book, he argues that church membership and discipline are God’s way of guarding His name, making clear what His love actually looks like, etc. The less we practice formal membership and discipline, presumably, the less clear we are about the exclusive nature of the gospel and Jesus’ gospel demand for repentance. But, the “boundary” between the visible and invisible church has never been particularly clear. Look at the people Paul can meaningfully call “brothers” and “churches” in his Corinthian correspondence. Consider the letters to the seven churches in Revelation. The objective behavior difference between the visible church and the world is sometimes sadly blurry. But this is just a feature of living in the age between Christ’s first and second comings. Certainly, the line between the church and the world is not endlessly elastic. Paul did, after all, oust someone in 1 Corinthians. And surely if a person said, “I don’t believe in Jesus anymore,” they’d be out. But the threshold of entrance into the church in the New Testament is not particularly high.
As much as we might like to make the line more clear, we are not authorized to do so in the New Testament. While the entrance threshold is quite low (i.e. basic confession and the lack of any explicit evidence against the confession) – the standard that the confessed are held to is rather high. Paul spends a lot more time in his epistles exhorting confessors than he does questioning the “reality” of their faith. In any case, once we focus too much on church membership and making the line “clear,” where do we stop? Church history is, after all, riddled with churches that have all sorts of ways of making “extra sure” that individuals’ confessions are real – and with terrible consequences.
The answer to nominalism in our churches is not to “up the ante” for church-membership, but to encourage and disciple one another with the word of God. We do not need to construct artificial forms of community (see below), but rather be ever more vigilant in pursuing the love of God through the gospel. The risk of luke-warm Christianity is not a risk Jesus saw fit to absolutely eradicate. And this is precisely because the church is a school for sinners, not a club for saints – a contention that surely everyone in the current debate would agree with.
2. While I think the first point constitutes the largest sentimental problem with Leeman’s paradigm, the largest semantic problem has to do with his equivocal use of “authority” in ecclesiological matters. Again and again, we are told that the church has been given Christ’s authority. We are told that the local church (not individual Christians) has been authorized to speak in His name, declare who belongs to Him, separate those who don’t, disciple its members, etc. This might offend us, we are reminded, but this is only for the same reason that God’s authority offends us.
There is a major problem with putting the matter this way. As I’m sure Leeman would agree, when it pertains to Christian conscience, the church only has the authority of the word. If the church excommunicates you for no good reason, it has no spiritual implications. If the church doesn’t excommunicate you when it should, then you are still in big spiritual trouble! Why? Because the church is only declaring externally what is already true spiritually. The only “authority of Christ” it has is an “inasmuch as” authority. That is, it has “ministerial” and declarative authority. But, this authority really belongs to every individual Christian. Spouses can minister God’s word to one another and to their children. Individual can admonish one another and rebuke one another with the word. And inasmuch as their admonishments, encouragements and rebukes accurately reflect the word, they are (indeed!) speaking for Christ! The only difference the “group” makes is with respect to the “group,” not with respect to the underlying spiritual realities so declared. Certainly only a body of believers can kick someone out – but that is because of the nature of belonging to a collective body. Certainly only a local church (not an individual) can refuse you the Lord’s Supper or baptism, but that is because both of these are communal events which require more than one person. But here is the key. The spiritual meaning and implication of this refusal to the sacraments is not different when it is said by a group or by an individual, because all that is being said is what God’s word says. It is not as though one is “right with God” up until the moment of excommunication and then they’re “out with God” when the church gavel hits. That is just a visible testimony of what is already true of someone – and which can (in principle) be stated by any believer. And this is also, by the way, the reason the tense of the verbs in Matthew 16 matters. “What you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven” can also be translated “shall have been bound in heaven” (future passive). In other words, the earthly binding takes its “binding” quality from its already heavenly archetype.
And so, the church does not have “spiritual authority” in any way analogous to the earthly authority of a parent over the life of a child or a magistrate over a citizen. The church has this sort of authority only as it pertains to certain externals: the time of worship, the order of the service, the “Cider House Rules” of each particular church community, etc. These are a function of the church being like any other organization or political structure. As a political or institutional structure, the church has no particular or unique relation to Christian conscience. It is only in respect of its gathering around the word and sacraments that the corporate church has a particular relationship to Christian conscience – but this is (again!) a function of the word being gathered around and its ministry rather than a function of the institutional quality as such. The “spiritual authority” is only ever the word – and this exists in principle with any priest (i.e. believer) ministering in God’s name.
Of course, we certainly render our elders and pastors the submission and deference due their office, service, etc. We want to make their lives a blessing in gratitude for their ministry to us! And (hopefully!) as exemplars of what the word looks like in practice, we might take their council as more weighted in moral and spiritual matters than most other church members. Indeed, churches normally hire someone to explain the word and it is normative for a believer to go to such a person for help in understanding what God’s word requires us to do and believe. But in all these cases, as it pertains to Christian conscience, we are only bound to follow these men inasmuch as they proclaim the word accurately – and (in precisely this sense) we are just as obliged to listen to any brother or sister who accurately applies the word to us. Again, the most obvious difference between the authority of any individual in Christ’s body and its leaders (or the church corporate) is in the non-binding prudential matters which are a part of any institutional organization of people.
3. Behind this semantic issue is a confusion, in my judgment, about what the “church” is. The visible church is just the totality of the baptized in the world. The church is just the people of God called out of the world. They exist prior to their institutional expression. This is why a mother can “minister” to her child. The church is a community (both worldwide and local) and has all the ambiguities of normal human communities. Indeed, in founding the church, did Jesus’ even found a particular institutional form? For the most part, the history of church structure and government has been a history of Christian prudence. Like Jethro’s prudential suggestion that Moses institute judges in the Old Testament, so the New Testament church basically follows the Inter-Testamental Synagogue pattern (See James Burtachaell’s From Synagogue to Church). In Acts, the founding of the office of the deacon seems to be rooted in particular problems that require a particular solution. And what is more, most human communities in history have had something very similar to “elders” and “deacons.” Even in Ephesians 4, Paul’s exposition of the “word ministries” assumes the prior existence of the church to which the ministries are given as fitting to “build up” the people with the word. In sum, the church is just the community of confessors and the political form they take is rooted in nature and in Christian prudence as guided by Scripture.
The point here is not to say that we can pick and chose any form of ecclesiastical organization that we want – any more than we can say the same of human government generally. The point is rather to say that the rhetoric which is associated with “ministers” and “offices” that Jesus has given to the church as “authorities in His name” understate the extent to which these ministries stand in continuity with the ministries of Israel and with all human communities. And in recognizing this, we move a step away from viewing the church as a people associated with a priestly caste and rather just call the church the people – the offices just comprising the political expression of the people in the manner that all human communities express themselves. Far from making a “free for all” blueprint as it pertains to forms of ecclesiastical government, however, there are independent arguments (both Scriptural and prudential) to be made for particular forms of church organization.
Putting the matter this way also helps to clarify that the individual Christian has the same relationship to the word as “the church” does corporately. Both as individuals and a body, we stand under the word. The body nor its officers mediate the word to the individual as a political ambassador reading decrees. Any individual can receive such decrees from the word individually or from another Christian apart from a particular institutional expression – even if we recognize a particular blessing in the worship gathering and the uniqueness of the manner (preaching and sacraments) in which we receive the word there.
4. As stated above, there is a failure here to perceive how the church as an institution is not unique among human institutions. Making the church as a local institution something “special” in this sense creates lots of awkward problems. Am I “more obligated” to members of my local church than to members of another local church? Am I “more” of a spiritual family with my local church than with other believers throughout the world? Should I submit my resources and my calling “more” to the local church than to other churches, believers, or unbelievers? If the institutional church is just the natural political expression of the baptized community, then the answer to all these questions is very simple: It depends – and it depends on precisely the same sorts of “neighbor loving” or “group” considerations that obtain in any other institution. Does the fact that one has a significant ministry in the life of one’s unbelieving neighbors play a role in making a decision about whether or not to move? Does the societal benefit that incurs when one uses their gifts at their job perhaps mitigate against an offer to make more money?
Certainly it is a problem to move from church to church willy-nilly. But this is not because our “church vows” obligate us otherwise, but because we shouldn’t behave this way in any community of which we are a valuable part. Members in Alcoholics Anonymous, for instance, develop deep relationships with one another and really need each other. It would reflect bad character to skip from AA chapter to AA chapter without building the deep and personal relationships for which the program was designed. The problem of “church skipping” is not to be solved by binding the conscience (comparing local church membership to a marriage contract, for instance), but rather by dealing with the societal impulses that make us unable to commit and love people.
5. This leads to a final point. It seems to me that the “return to ecclesiology” (which is a good thing!) can have some uncritical “pendulum” effects. In a culture awash in options, a culture in which there is nothing forcing us to commit to anything, where we can divorce at will, choose to form relationships in ways that our forefathers would never have dreamed, etc – we face many complex pastoral problems that former generations did not have to face. The solution to this, however, does not lie in the artificial erection of boundaries or laws to “compensate” for the modern situation. The solution is to reflect upon the uniqueness of our situation, pray for wisdom, and seek the Spirit’s help in building up natural community and accountability in the way that human beings have always done. Behind this solution is the old Reformed notion that redemption renews (rather than replaces) creation. The reason church community looks very much like natural community is that God is in the business of redeeming creation. And for precisely this reason, the problem of church membership and discipline is not different from the problem that faces our human communities generally. We don’t suffer from a problem of church commitment only, but from job commitment, marriage commitment, organizational commitment, friendship commitment, etc. The solution is to analyze the way in which our modern situation destroys natural human bonds and flourishing and to recover nature – but as moved along by grace.
The other solution is to recover the Reformed doctrine of the “two kingdoms,” for which I recommend Brad Littlejohn’s recent series.