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A couple weeks ago, some of our church members were listing ways that we can be a more loving church. Many ideas were suggested:

  • Welcoming guests
  • Caring for each other in times of trial
  • Celebrating with one another over successes, etc.

Eventually, the discussion arrived at the need for challenging one another to holiness. One comment in particular stood out. In some churches, when a couple gets divorced, others will gossip and say, “I’ve seen that coming for years.” The question came up: How is it loving to see a family self-destructing, but to not intervene, challenge, rebuke and restore?

That conversation brings me to a recent book by Jonathan Leeman: The Church and the Surprising Offense of God’s Love: Reintroducing the Doctrines of Church Membership and Discipline (Crossway, 2010). This book was given away at the 2010 Together for the Gospel. I had the chance to work my way through it this summer and found it to be a very helpful resource for thinking through the nature of Christian love and church leadership. Today, Jonathan joins me for a conversation about his book.

Trevin Wax: What I like about your work, Jonathan, is that you are challenging us to adopt a more biblical view of love. Why is it that this view seems so “offensive?”

Jonathan Leeman: Great question, Trevin. The offensiveness of God’s love and Christian love is that it calls us to holiness. It grabs us wherever we are, but then it refuses to leave us wherever we are. It calls us to conform to Christ’s image.

As sinners who are in love with our sin, we don’t always like being asked to let go of our idols. But Christian love is willing to offer the socially awkward word of rebuke. Christian love is willing to risk stepping on someone’s toes because you don’t want to see them continue heading down the path of sin and self-destruction.

Think about this in our culture in particular. We are suspicious of anyone who claims to have “the truth.” But Christian love (which John’s epistles tell us always comes together with truth–just read 2 John!) not only claims to have the truth, as revealed in the Bible, it’s presumptuous enough to say to someone, “Oh, friend, this truth applies to you and you need to hear it and give up that idol which you love so much. That idol is a liar and only promises more bondage. I love you, please hear me.”

In a word, God’s love is offensive because it refuses to tolerate our sin. It calls us to life and freedom, but we prefer our slavery.

Trevin Wax: So God’s love calls us to holiness, but it doesn’t mean that our church will be perfect, right? I’m recalling a section in your book when you expound on the “love chapter” in 1 Corinthians 13 and show how the biblical understanding of love takes place within the context of a church that has a myriad of problems.

Jonathan Leeman: Perfect? Goodness no. That’s like asking whether a car repair garage is for perfect cars. No, it’s a place for broken down cars! Come one, come all! But come recognizing that we’re a repair shop, and we’re going to get to work.

Think of 1 Corinthians 13’s words: “Love does not delight in evil but rejoices in the truth.” In the car repair garage of the church, we’re going to “always trust, always hope, always persevere” in pointing people away from the evils of broken down engines and the truth of life-giving engines. Okay, so this analogy is getting ridiculous. I have no idea what that last sentence means.

Let me drop the analogy: Sometimes churches emphasize, “We’ll love you right where you’re at.” That’s exactly right. Jesus’ work of atonement covers you right where you’re at. As the hymn writer puts it, “If you wait until you’re better, you will never come at all.'” But it’s just the first step.

A second emphasis needs to follow: “Not only does Jesus’ blood cover your sins, The Holy Spirit has the power to change you, and give you new life, new affections, new freedom, and a new obedience to God’s perfect way.” This is where the whole emphasis on kingdom living comes in.

Bottom line: A church is a place where a bunch of broken sinners help one another battle sin.

Trevin Wax: So then the key here isn’t sin. It’s repentance. The church isn’t separate from the world in that we’re sinless; it’s that we seek that the whole of our life be one of repentance (to borrow from Martin Luther).

You write about church discipline and the sad necessity of excluding people from membership. Talk of excluding someone smacks of meanness and hate, not love, for most people. How can discipline or even exclusion be an act of love?

Jonathan Leeman: Well, think of Hebrews 12 where we’re told that God disciplines us like a father who disciplines the son he loves, so that we might grow in righteousness and peace. This is a theme you see throughout the Scriptures–Proverbs even says that a parent who doesn’t discipline a child hates that child. Wow. That’s not how our culture thinks, is it?

But what about actually excluding someone from a local church? Read Matthew 18:15-20. Jesus makes it clear that we should pursue a person who is sinning again and again, calling them to repent. But if in the final analysis, that person chooses his or her sin over repentance, Jesus says to treat the individual as someone outside the covenant community–that is, not a Christian. He or she has been given a choice between their sin and Jesus, and the person has said, “I choose my sin, thank you.”

Paul then goes on to explicitly say that we should exclude such a person exactly so that they may finally recognize what they’re doing, repent, and be saved (1 Cor. 5:5).

So you exclude that person’s for love’s sake:

  • Love for the individual, that he or she might be warned and brought to repentance.
  • Love for every member of the church, that they too might be warned about the deceit of sin.
  • Love for non-Christians in the community, so that they might see that Christians really are those who have been changed by the Spirit and fight against sin.
  • Love most of all for Christ and his reputation and his glory since he has identified himself with the church.

Trevin Wax: During my time in Romania, I knew a single mother who was a member of the village church I served. After several years in which she appeared to be living faithfully for Christ, she moved in with an unsaved man. The leaders and the members of our church begged her to repent over a period of several months, but when she did not, they excluded her. She was always welcome in church (she still attended occasionally), but she knew that there was a line between repentance and unrepentance. She, the church, and consequently the village knew the difference. (Perhaps that’s why we evangelicals were called “repenters” in Romania.) Why is it important to keep these clear lines of distinction between Christianity and the world? And how might we accomplish this effectively in a sprawling, urban culture in which our relationships tend to be much more shallow?

Jonathan Leeman: Oh, yes, situations like this are just heart-breaking. So tough. But I would agree with this church’s action. From the beginning of the Bible to the end, God always draws a light of distinction between his people and the world. The Garden of Eden had an inside and an outside, as did Noah’s Ark, the people of God in the wilderness, the nation of Israel, and finally the church. Read 2 Corinthians 6:14 to 7:1. Paul couldn’t be clearer about this line.

Why is it important to keep the line clear? God’s people in the Old Testament and New are to be a holy nation and royal priesthood. As we image the character of God in Christ, we show the world what God is like. That doesn’t mean God’s people are perfect, as we’ve already talked about, but it does mean they are fighting sin and being conformed to the image of Christ from one degree of glory to the next (2 Cor. 3:18).

I admit, this is a tough balance. It’s easy to veer toward legalistic Phariseeism. That is not the answer. It’s easy to veer toward cheap-grace easy believism. That is not the answer. Rather, we need to talk about grace and repentance, as you’ve been highlighting. Jesus is Savior and Lord. God’s people recognize both.

Last thought: people talk about blurring the lines between the inside of the church and outside (belonging before believing) because we’re in a post-Christian nation. I actually think that we need to do just the opposite in a culture where:

  1. there are many false Jesus-es;
  2. nominal Christianity is prevalent;
  3. society is complex (through transience, technology, globalization, etc);
  4. society is at least marginally favorable toward Christianity (unlike, say, a Muslim nation or the first century).

All of these factors make it harder to know who on earth represents Jesus, so the church must take greater care in making the line clear. In a Muslim nation, its very clear who belongs to Christ’s people and who does not. It’s harder to tell in the sprawling, Western urban culture.

Trevin Wax: Thanks, Jonathan, for pointing us back to Scripture and getting us thinking about the nature of God’s love and the church’s responsibility to magnify the King.


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3 thoughts on “Holiness, Love and the Church: A Conversation with Jonathan Leeman”

  1. Phil Taylor says:

    Hi Trevin,

    Good interview. The book is full of gold but could you find out if Jonathan intends to release a 100 page summary for the average Joe? It is simply too long to put into the hands of those who need it most but the content is so good.

    Phil.

  2. Derek Leman says:

    Jonathan:

    I rarely encounter people with the name Leman/Leeman (a decent number of Lehmans). Interesting.

    How does exclusion work in a culture where people will just go to the church down the street?

    Derek Leman

  3. Jonathan Leeman says:

    Phil, I know what you mean. I hope to work on a shorter version soon. Thanks for the encouragement.

    Derek, I’ve always thought the same about the spelling–it’s rare. Not sure how it happened. Exclusion is not quite as effective in a culture where people just go elsewhere. But churches are still called to be biblical and faithful before God, no matter what the churches are doing down the street. Also, you can trust that whenever someone is disciplined, it rocks them, even if they can just go elsewhere. God uses it.

    But the reality you describe is one reason why your church and mine should take an interest in encouraging and praying for the other churches in our neighborhoods. If one healthy church is surrounded by five unhealthy churches, who wins the witness war?

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Trevin Wax


​Trevin Wax is Bible and Reference Publisher at LifeWay Christian Resources and managing editor of The Gospel Project. You can follow him on Twitter or receive blog posts via email. Click here for Trevin’s full bio.

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