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

I am in agreement with the overall thrust of Leeman’s desire to rehabilitate a theology of church membership for the purpose of facilitating Christian discipleship for the glory of God. However, notwithstanding Leeman’s ideals, I have to admit that the book contains several drawbacks, which impinges on the effectiveness of his proposal. While pastors may not be too keen to read further at this point, scholars of various persuasions may note that Leeman makes a number of sweeping generalizations, that appear like straw-man arguments and logical fallacies which would not hold up to expert reviews, e.g., his critique of Catholic ecclesiology, the contemporary ecclesiological mess (as he puts it), the negative review of the philosophical developments from Enlightenment to Postmodernity, the pneumatological winds in contemporary church orientations which he claims to be nothing substantial, the communitarian anthropological theology of Moltmann, Pannenberg, and Zizioulas, the hatred of God in contemporary anti-authoritarian expressions, and the questioning second-order systematic theological enterprises. What is the significance of these drawbacks in Leeman’s work, or does it matter at all in the end? Well, some of these areas are pertinent to the elder’s argument and undermine his overall project. For instance, to fault Moltmann, Pannenberg, and Zizioulas among others as example of a communitarian anthropological approach (of relational ontology) that undercuts a substance ontology, represents a particular and selective reading of these theologians; though true to some extent, Leeman has yet to demonstrate how these theologians fall within the camp he is taking a stand against; and in fact, scholars of Zizioulas and Pannenberg for instance would counter that they have held the immanence and transcendence of God in a harmonious tension that do not trade-off one for the other. In another instance, I find it ironical that while Leeman seems to have an axe to grind against second-order theological systems, he is not able to see that his own theological work is also a second-order reflection; unless Leeman has recourse unavailable to all of other finite beings, he, like the rest of us, is not able to stand outside of time and space to view systematic reflection from God’s eternal perspective.

What perhaps remains unsaid in Leeman’s work, which I think would be important for someone wishing to explicate the relevance of an old doctrine for the contemporary context, is how he intends to reconcile the manner in which the ideology and practice of church membership and discipline differ in the contexts of the early church, the medieval church, and in the contemporary settings? Church discipline in the early church and early medieval church setting were able to toe the line of affirming, supporting, and providing oversight to members’ discipleship. This is because the local church became the family for believers who were persecuted and unable to find community and acceptance outside of the church. In the middle ages and late monastic ages, at least until modernity have successfully saw the overturning of the institutional church, church membership was important for believers to maintain social acceptance with its ‘spiritual’ privileges since it was a generally accepted worldview then that “outside the church, there is no salvation.” I would argue that Church membership could be exercised more successfully under those circumstances. However, with the contemporary pluralistic notion of church, religions, and society, I wondered at the plausibility and implementation of Leeman’s proposal to return to the Surprising Offense of God’s Love. Indeed, we have to seriously concur with Leeman’s assessment that contemporary church membership views seem to be a caricature of contemporary views of love and in that sense contravenes a proper ecclesial understanding of divine love. However, Leeman’s proposal offers no real solution to the reality that in today’s ecclesiastical and denominational multiplicity, Christians who were excommunicated by a church may easily find membership with other churches that commensurate more closely with their own doctrinal positions and preferences. Yes, Leeman wisely proposes that Christians and churches should exercise respect and deference for one another and consult earlier churches especially in cases of transfer memberships. If we take a closer look at his proposal, he limits his conversations within certain Protestant groups, and more specifically within those closer to congregational models of ecclesiology; does that tell us anything about his proposal for a doctrine of church membership and discipline?

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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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