SummaryThe premise behind the book is that too many Christians fail to recognize the importance of church membership, based on a faulty view of the church and Christianity. Thus, Leeman argues that when Christians understand biblical church membership, their view of Christianity and membership will change (p.18). The purpose of the book, then, is to lay out a biblical vision of church membership. This vision begins with Jesus’ imperium; that is, his complete authority over all things (p.21). Leeman then offers five biblical big ideas—based on Jesus’ imperium—that should govern one’s view of the church and Christianity.
First, believers should see themselves as citizens of a kingdom who “gather together under [Jesus’] supreme rule,” which makes the church distinctly different from a volunteer organization (p.26). Secondly, the church is an outpost or embassy of Jesus’ kingdom. Third, as an embassy, a chief function of the church is to “identify and affirm” who can rightly claim kingdom citizenship (p.29). Fourth, a church member is a person publicly recognized as a Christian by a local church. Finally, Leeman argues that Christians don’t join the local church, “they submit to” it (p.30).
Apart from Jesus’ imperium, Leeman’s vision hinges on two biblical texts. The first is Matthew 16:18-19, where Jesus gave the apostles the authority to confirm “true gospel confessions and confessors” in order to determine rightful kingdom citizenship (pp.58-59). The second is Matthew 18:15-20, where Jesus’ focus is on the local church and its authority to remove one from membership. This “presupposes an overarching authority” of the local church to affirm who is worthy to represent King Jesus in the kingdom (p.61). As such, the church is authorized by Jesus to affirm and disciple professing Christians as true kingdom citizens, and to remove or “expose imposters” (p.64).
A church member, then, is one who submits to the authority of the local church to affirm his or her kingdom citizenship, for oversight of his or her discipleship and to serve the church (pp.64-65). A church member is also one who understands and believes the gospel, and has followed-up with baptism (pp.85; 89). Leeman infers that such people are legitimately redeemed in Christ, and therefore committed to progressing in their sanctification, recognizing their need to humbly submit to the authority of the church—and to one another—as Christ humbled himself (p. 93-94; cf. Phil. 2:5-11).
Leeman’s entire argument is based on a high Christology formed under the idea of Jesus’ imperium: “Jesus is the authority to which all other authorities must answer” (p.21). This supreme authority is what allows the church to march across all national boundaries to the ends of the earth. No one can stop the advancement of the church, not governments or presidents—“not even the gates of hell”—because Jesus has been given all authority in heaven and earth (p.21; John 19:11; Rev. 1:5; 6:15-17; cf. Phil. 2:10; Matt. 28:18). A Christian who rightly understands Jesus’ imperium will understand that nothing is beyond the scope of the lordship and authority of Christ. This high Christology informs other doctrines in the book, such as ecclesiology (what is the church?) and soteriology (who is a member?).
Since Jesus has supreme authority, and since he has given the church the authority to go to the ends of the earth to establish his kingdom, the church must have the authority to determine who is a kingdom citizen. This is an important function of the church because Jesus “predicted that all sorts of imposters would” claim to be citizens of his kingdom (p.55; Matt.7:21-23; 24:5; 25:44-45). Based on Jesus’ authority, the church acts as an embassy that has the power to determine who can receive the rights and privileges of kingdom citizenship.
Jesus’ imperium also translates into his lordship over individual Christians, who—in recognition of Jesus’ authority, including his establishment of the church— rightly submit (join) to the authority of the local church. Christians submit to the local church to publicly identify with Christ and receive communion, for the purpose of fellowship with one another, to give financially for the advancement of the gospel, and to receive “instruction, counsel, accountability, and discipline in matters that are addressed by God’s Word” (pp.95-103). Christians submit in much the same way Jesus submitted himself to die on the cross “for our good, so we should submit our whole lives for one another’s good” (p.95).
The only Christological addition to be considered comes from Colossians 1:18-20. This passage indicates that Jesus’ imperium is fundamentally rooted in his resurrection. Because Jesus has overcome death—humanity’s greatest enemy—he proved his divine authority and demonstrated why he should occupy first place in all things for Christians. He is lord of creation, the church, and over individual believers. Thus a believer’s submission to the local church should be a natural outgrowth of the recognition of Jesus’ divine authority.
Leeman argues that the church is the institution that Jesus “created and authorized” to herald the gospel, affirm kingdom citizenship, and to provide for discipleship and discipline (p.64). In addition, the church is a local group of Christians who gather around gospel preaching and gospel ordinances and who gather regularly under Jesus’ name (p.52). Importantly, how a local church express these marks might differ upon cultural contexts, especially where hostility and severe persecution toward Christians is an ever present reality. So, although all churches will not look the same and all membership processes will be different, three basic marks of membership must exists in all true churches of the faith: Church members must (1) have a correct view of Jesus and his gospel; (2) be willing to take up one’s cross daily and (3) identify with Christ’s church (p.124). All of these marks are based on Jesus’ imperium, which gives authority to the church and rightfully demands that believers submit to the church.
Perhaps it is for the sake of brevity, or perhaps it is only softly inferred, but Leeman’s definition of the church omits its purpose as a place of worship. This is regretful since the church is the Temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 3:16; 2 Cor. 6:16; Eph. 2:21-22); that is, a place where Christians gather to worship Jesus in recognition of his supreme authority. Any definition of the church and what constitutes a church member should include the practice of worship. After all, Jesus said God is looking for people who will worship him in spirit and in truth (John 4:23-24).
The doctrine of soteriology is essential, for salvation is the first and most important criterion for church membership; or, as Leeman says, “Church membership begins when a local church affirms an individual Christian’s profession of faith” (p.85). In short, those who are saved must clearly comprehend the gospel, believe the gospel, and live the gospel.
Saving faith begins with a proper understanding of the identity and mission of Jesus. He is the Christ, the Son of God, who died for the sins of mankind (p.85). But it also begins with a proper understanding of humanity’s brokenness. Jesus did not just die for the sins of others; he “died on the cross for my sins. Now he’s my Lord and I’m following him” (p.87). Properly understood, this leads to another important component of salvation—repentance. The fully redeemed are those who mourn their sin, resolve to turn from it and trust completely in the righteousness of Christ. Such people recognize their “lack of moral perfection” and have a desire to combat sin in their personal lives (pp.88-89). True faith in Christ results in repentance, and when combined, these two aspects form biblical salvation.
Those who repent and believe must also follow with baptism. Although baptism is not salvific, it is the natural first step for the redeemed, who will strive to live out the gospel and be obedient to Christ, for he desires that all who profess faith in him “to publicly identify with him and his people” (p.89). Leeman says it best when he says, “To refuse baptism would seem, well, unrepentant” (p.89). In sum, those who are truly saved—and ready for church membership—will understand and believe the gospel, repent of their sin, and follow in baptism.
One addition to consider on this topic, which Leeman did not mention, is believer’s union with Christ, a core principle of salvation. Since believers are “in Christ,” and since the church is Christ’s body (Ephesians 1:22-23; 5:29-30), it should be natural for all true believers to desire to be a part of the church.
ReflectionDo I believe that Jesus has imperium?
In our current cultural milieu, we are bombarded with seeds of doubt regarding the church. Every day, it seems, we read how atheism and agnosticism are on the rise. In a moment of all honesty, there have been days when I have wondered about the future of the church. Thus I want to continually remind myself that Jesus’ imperium guarantees the continued success of his church and rest confidently in that truth.
Am I submitting to the church?
I want to know as a pastor in training if I am setting the example for others in this area. If not, then I need to reexamine the role Jesus Christ and his church play in my life. To that end, Leeman offers eight practical ways that professing Christians can rightly judge the answer to this question (pp.95-103). On the whole the answer is currently yes, although I long to do better in certain areas. For example, I desire to grow in affection toward my brothers and sisters in Christ. I want to find joy in their joy and mourn when they mourn (p.99).
How will I change the membership process in a church that needs to change?
Should I have the members read this book, or one similar? Should I present my case to the deacons/elders first and then seek ways to instruct the congregation gently and lovingly? Most likely, such a transition will take time, patience, persistence, and most of all a deep rooted love for the congregation. In such a case, another question arises: will the current members of such a church need to go through the new membership process? I cannot as yet answer these questions fully, but I resolve to work through them before these issues arise.
Do I see the church as something greater than a volunteer organization?
Having read this book, I have a clear picture of the fundamental difference between volunteer organizations and the church. The church is not a place where I volunteer; it is a place where I serve Christ and others because of what Christ has done for me. I am compelled to serve, not forced to volunteer. I willingly submit as Christ willingly submitted to death.
Do I lay down my life for my fellow brothers and sisters?
In his conclusion, Leeman argues that church members live the gospel and “display Christ’s love for the world” when we sacrifice ourselves for one another through love. I want to examine my life daily to look for opportunities to lay down my life and love my fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. I want to lead by example in this area, especially as I prepare for pastoral ministry in the hopes that the congregation will see the reality of Christ in me.
ConclusionThe primary insight I learned from this book is how to succinctly communicate the importance of biblical church membership, and why it’s important, to all who profess faith in Christ. Leeman is right when he suggests that most Christians need to fundamentally change how they view the role of the church in their lives. This book has prepared me to recognize and counter false views of the church and church membership in a loving and convincing manner. This will serve me well as a pastor and as a Christian who seeks to live out the gospel not only in the church but also in the public square.