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Jonathan Leeman’s The Church and the Surprising Offense of God’s Love, reviewed by Timothy Lim Teck Ngern

Perhaps some readers will ask; how has the church succumbed to this idolatrous love? Leeman argues that the belief of the prevailing churches, that God loves unconditionally and indiscriminately, does not represent the biblical concept of God’s love; rather it demonstrates a thoroughly, man-centered theology—theology becomes refashioned for therapeutic purposes. The biblical view of God’s love demonstrates grace/inclusivity on the one hand, and discrimination/exclusivity on the other hand. God’s love is aimed at humanity’s good, but the good that is fixed and certain in, by, and for God and God alone; we are to love whoever and whatever God loves, and to oppose everyone and everything God opposes—To love God, and to follow God’s love is to simultaneously embrace a love-hate relationship (p.86). Biblical love, which is holy and centers on God alone shows that God’s love is conditional (p.94-105); this is an affront to the natural human’s desire to place themselves at the center, and as such, humanity will always be offended at God’s offer of love, at the gospel, and at the church—this is because God’s love and judgment which exists in concert will render judgment against humanity’s self-centeredness and desire for God’s unconditional love without judgment (p.106, 115).

Ignoring God’s rule of love comes with this mis-definition of God’s love. Leeman suggests that when love is mis-defined, churches would ground their misplaced theology of church membership on a “relational ontology” (i.e., it is all about relationships) without recourse to “substance ontology” (i.e., substance prefigures relationships) and “pre-modern authority” (p.138-139). He acknowledges that in the fallen world, abuses of authority may occur frequently; but to reject human authority in view of human tendencies to mistrust authority because of humanity’s experience of the abuses of power and authority is not a valid reason for supplanting God’s rule of love. When authority becomes relegated to a lower place in the life of the church, and when churches follow “love” understood as “whatever works for you/us” motif, churches will no longer become the avenue for cultivating discipleship; this is because true discipleship enacts submission to Christ (and the authorities he instituted in the fallen world) and practices love towards one another.

In chapters four and five—the Charter of Love, and the Covenant of Love—Leeman reviews the New Testament churches’ view of church membership, particularly Matthew 16, 18, and 28 as the metaphor for understanding the practice of church authority and divine love, and explores its relationship with the Old Testament’s concept of God’s exclusionary love. Here, he defines church membership as the covenantal union between a particular church and a Christian which consists of the church’s affirmation of the believer’s gospel profession, and the church’s promise to provide oversight to the nurture of the Christian, keep promise to gather with and submit to the church’s oversight (p.217). Church discipline is understood as corrective in nature, for operation within the church body, especially the covenant between members and their churches; and when members becomes unsubmissive in their discipleship, the local church must withdraw its affirmation of the individual’s profession of faith, announce its termination to provide pastoral oversight, and release the individual into the world (p.220). On a lesser degree, Leeman recommends that other Christians from other churches do share in the covenantal responsibility in view of the gospel connection, those Christians from other churches must always operate out of respect and deference for each Christian’s local church. In Part III, Leeman continued to explicate practical examples of how membership and discipline are to be exercised, which I will not comment on that but to say that it bears careful consideration.

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Category: Fall 2012, In Depth

About the Author: Timothy Teck Ngern Lim, M.Div. (BGST, Singapore), Ph.D. (Regent University), is a Visiting Lecturer for London School of Theology and Research Tutor for King's Evangelical Divinity School (London). He is on the advisory board of One in Christ (Turvey) and area book review editor for Evangelical Review of Society & Politics. He is an evangelical theologian ordained as a Teaching Elder with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). He has published in ecclesiology, ecumenical theology, and interdisciplinarity. A recent monograph published entitled Ecclesial Recognition with Hegelian Philosophy, Social Psychology, and Continental Political Theory: An Interdisciplinary Proposal (Brill, 2017).

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