Let’s get this straight up front – I’m a fan of 9Marks.  I think they are incredibly helpful for restoring a Biblical ecclesiology of the local church.  I’m a local church Pastor, I love the local church…it’s “God’s Plan A” for the proclamation and ministry of the gospel.

I’m also a fan of Jonathan Leeman.  Despite the fact that he is my doppleganger, he is a unique voice crying out for the elevation of importance of the local church in an ocean of gospel-light pragmatism.

Leeman is also smart.  Really smart.  Like PhD smart.  But he is also very approachable and funny.  I had the privilege of sharing a meal with him while at a recent 9Marks event.  When he is writing, he is in his element.  When he is writing about ecclesiology and church history, he is pressing the boundaries of a joyous nerd fest.  He is in his lane.  So that made this book for me, particularly the first part, a little dense.  It was like I was saying “OK, Dr. Leeman.  I know you are excited about this…but…”  BUT, the thing is he has reason to be.  The church should be something of very high priority because it is the very authority of God in the world, and it’s time we start acting like it.

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So, that brings us to “Don’t Fire Your Church Members.”  Which I’ll admit, I really didn’t understand the title until I got a few pages into this book, then I had the “Ohhhh.  I see”  moment.  Church congregations have been Biblically given a huge responsibility, and we should be enabling that responsibility, not taking it away.

As the subtitle gives away, Leeman is firmly in the congregationalist camp. Specifically, an elder-led, congregationally ruled camp, as opposed to an elder-ruled camp where the members [if there is actual biblical membership] have little to no say.

As you may have figured out, I’m pretty passionate about this too.  How we “do” church is extremely important and the Bible has lots to say about it.  I have seen first hand the carnage that is left in the wake of non-biblical ecclesiology, and as hard as it may be to overcome our pre-conceived notions of what a church should look like, it’s a whole lot better than dealing with the aftermath, immature believers, and weak theology that will hinder a church for years to come.  As Leeman writes “the question for a Christian, always comes back to, What is Biblical?” [9]

Leeman’s thesis is that congregationalism isn’t just a conclusion drawn from a few proof-texts, it’s the culmination of the Bible’s covenantal trajectory that began with Adam.  “Jesus, the last Adam and federal head of God’s new covenant people, fulfilled the office perfectly both for his own sake and on behalf of his people. These people have now been hired and deputized to fulfill the same Adamic office of priest-king. This involves representing Christ, seeking to expand the reach of Christ’s kingdom and guarding the people of God in holiness, which includes watching over both the what of the knowledge of God in the gospel and the who of the knowledge of God in the gospel.” [59]

This theme of “what” and “who” of the gospel will permeate through the book in a very helpful and accessible way.   The church should be crystal clear on what the gospel is, and how that impacts and informs everything we do, and it should be crystal clear on who makes up the biblical membership of the church itself.

The church represents God in the world and it’s palpable and public presence depends on it’s order, or polity. [71]  Get it wrong, and people get the wrong idea about God the gospel.  THIS is why how we “do” church is a really, really big deal.

Leeman is fairly well known for his position on the “keys” in Matthew 16:13-20.  This is where Peter confesses that Jesus is “the Christ, the Son of the living God,” [16:16]  and Jesus replies that Peter is right and “on this rock I will build my church and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it.” [16:18]  Roman Catholic theology inaccurately uses this to justify that Peter has been granted the status of the first Pope and hence all other Catholic Popes have their authority tracked back to this lineage.

What this fails to grasp is that it’s not Peter that Jesus will be his church on, it’s Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Messiah.  Jesus goes on to give Peter the “keys” to bind and loose things.  Leeman writes “the keys are the authority to judge an declare on what as well as who.  They deputize their holder to pronounce a judgement concerning the who and what of the gospel: what is the right confession and practice of the gospel, and who is a right confessor.” [77]  Who holds the keys?  Fast forward to Matthew 18 and Jesus is giving binding and loosing instructions on how to wield the keys of church discipline to the members of the church [in the Greek, all of the “you”/῾υμιν῾ references are plural!] – AKA “wherever 2 or 3 are gathered in my name.”  [Matthew 18:15-20]

So what then?  So…are our churches biblically reflecting this model?  Are they being lead by biblical elders? [1 Timothy 3; Titus 1] Is the church set up in order to facilitate this model?  Leeman is bold, but not surprising if you know 9Marks  – “To put this another way, a gathering is an essential part of a church being a church. By definition there is no such thing as a multi-site or multi-service “church”…” [100]

Yet, what do we see dotting the landscape of American churches?  Over the years, I’ve become firmly convinced in the dangers of the multi-site model…I’m still working through the multi-service aspect.  Yes, I would agree that is preferred, but there are a host of logistical questions/challenges that go along with that…

How is this most practically done?  Biblical preaching through pastors/elders, Biblical membership and the ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Table.  “A particular church is a gathering of two or three witnesses who together testify to the name of Jesus and their shared membership in him. They do this by preaching the gospel and by employing the keys of the kingdom through the ordinances.” [103]

Church members are given direct responsibility in encouraging one another’s growth and correcting when necessary [Matt 18:15-20; Gal 6:1].  Every church member should be able to distinguish between the true gospel and a false gospel.  [Gal 1:6-9]  Therefore, every church member has an awful lot of responsibility in the what and who of the gospel-centered running of the local church.  They should not be fired from such an important responsibility by having it taken off their plate.

To do this, an understanding of how the Holy Spirit establishes elders and their role in leading this model is necessary.  Leeman helpfully points out that Ephesians 4 clearly teaches that pastors and elders have been “given” for the “equipping of the saints for the work of the ministry and the building up of the body of Christ.” [Eph 4:11-12]

How then do we go forward?  In working with other congregations, we should care how they are doing, how they are structured.  Working with them in partnership of the gospel and lovingly speaking truth.  Some will not agree and our partnerships can therefore be limited.

Within our own churches, this is where 9Marks shines.  They have many helpful resources to help churches think through how to establish what Leeman calls a “new covenant culture – a gospel culture.” [172]  The author provides a good summary in the final chapter, but definitely check out the foundational book “Nine Marks of a Healthy Church” to get started.

I’m very thankful for this book and glad I stuck with it.  It’s only by reading things that challenge our thinking will we grow.  May it be in the knowledge of the grace of God in Jesus Christ.

 

 

 

 

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