Rediscover Church: Why the Body of Christ Is Essential. By Collin Hansen & Jonathan Leeman. Crossway, 2021. 160 pages, paper, $12.99
I still find it hard to believe. A flu virus succeeded in doing what centuries of persecution by Roman pagans, Ottoman Muslims, Hindu nationalists, Eastern European atheists, and Chinese communists could not: stop Christians from gathering together for fellowship, prayer, participation in the sacraments, and the proper discerning of the Word of God.
While our persecuted brethren from the past met together secretly in homes or caves, strengthening each other in the face of possible martyrdom, we who live in the freest nation on earth huddled in our homes, more afraid of facing public scorn than of forsaking the assembly of the saints. Yes, many people with compromised immune systems had legitimate COVID-19 fears, but most of us, myself included, allowed social and political pressure and media-fed anxiety to keep us from congregating together.
Of course, it was easy for most of us to justify the breach in fellowship since we could livestream sermons, listen to worship music on YouTube, and give to charity through PayPal. Were we not getting all the spiritual nourishment we needed in the comfort and safety of our own homes? Maybe all that business of going to a church building and meeting people face to face was old-fashioned and out-of-date. How much is really lost when we conduct our Christian walk apart from the physical church with its institutionalized programs, messy relationships, and inevitable egos and hypocrisies?
Collin Hansen and Jonathan Leeman assure us that a great deal is lost, that we are, in fact, forsaking the very commission that Christ gave us. In Rediscover Church: Why the Body of Christ Is Essential, Hansen, editor in chief of the Gospel Coalition, and Leeman, editorial director of 9Marks, provide a compact, powerful, highly accessible defense of the assembling of the saints that all people who find themselves questioning the efficacy and necessity of church should wrestle with.
Lest we try to wiggle out of that necessity by playing semantical games, Hansen and Leeman make crystal clear what they mean by church: “A church is a group of Christians who assemble as an earthly embassy of Christ’s heavenly kingdom to proclaim the good news and commands of Christ the King; to affirm one another as his citizens through the ordinances; and to display God’s own holiness and love through a unified and diverse people in all the world, following the teaching and example of elders” (26).
After offering this rich, multilayered definition, Hansen and Leeman analyze it phrase by phrase over the course of eight chapters. All the facets of the definition are insightful, but I will focus here on three facets that I found particularly illuminating and challenging and which, I believe, offer much-needed clarity as to the precise mission of the church and why we need to be there in person for that mission to be accomplished effectively.
God’s Earthly Embassy
While most Christians are aware that the Bible calls upon us to be ambassadors for Christ (2 Corinthians 5:20), few of us make the connection that if we are ambassadors, then the church is the embassy where we work. “An embassy,” Leeman explains, “is an officially sanctioned outpost of one nation inside the borders of another nation.” In that sense, it is no exaggeration to say that “[g]athered churches are embassies of heaven” (54). The church represents Christ’s kingdom the way the American embassy in France represents the political leadership, economic goals, and diverse but unified culture of America.
In keeping with his analogy, Leeman describes what we should find when we enter one of these embassies of heaven: “A whole different nation—sojourners, exiles, citizens of Christ’s kingdom. Inside such churches, you'll hear the King of heaven's words declared. You'll hear heaven’s language of faith, hope, and love. You'll get a taste of the end-time heavenly banquet through the Lord’s Supper. And you'll be charged with its diplomatic business as you’re called to bring the gospel to your nation and every other nation” (54).
It is not enough for there to be random Americans walking around individually in Paris, embodying American values. There needs to be a physical place in that foreign land were the distinctive language and beliefs and behaviors of Christ followers can be heard and studied and seen. Apart from the physical embassy and the gathering of people within that embassy, that language and those beliefs and behaviors will remain abstractions. The witness of America, and all that she stands for, will be lessened. Parisians will be robbed of the chance to stand on American soil without ever leaving France.
Recalling a time when he had to go to the American embassy in Brussels, Belgium to have his passport renewed, Leeman muses that the “embassy didn’t make me a citizen. I was a citizen by birth. But it did officially recognize and affirm my citizenship. It speaks for the United States in a way that I cannot, even though I am a U. S. citizen” (71). In a similar way, Leeman goes on to explain, churches do not make us into members; that was done by the new birth effected in Christ. But they do grant us passports in the form of the Christ-ordained ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper.
Embassies derive their authority from the American government. Churches derive their authority from Christ who committed to them the keys of the kingdom, with the power to bind and loose (Matthew 16:17-19). Those keys, according to Matthew 18:15-20, are used by each local church “to affirm true confessors of the gospel” as well as to remove “from membership anyone whose life and profession don’t match” (72). Membership is not a requirement for being saved, but it gives us a place within the embassy through which we can serve Christ and his kingdom. It also signals to the outside world that we are good and faithful representatives of the teachings and virtues of our heavenly nation.
The Teaching and Example of the Elders
Just as Leeman uses the analogy of an embassy to highlight the church’s role as an outpost of heaven with the power to affirm and, literally, ex-communicate members, so Hansen uses the analogy of a mail carrier to highlight the preacher’s role to deliver the Word of God to his congregation without burdening it with narrowly-political or hyper-personal editorializing. “The preacher’s authority covers all God has said but does not go beyond what God has said. . . . He has the authority to deliver the mail. Nothing else” (59). That does not mean a good preacher should not offer advice to his congregation, but it does mean that the Bible must be “the basis but also the limit of the sermon” (59).
In our polarized, conspiracy-minded world, where even fellow believers seem unable to refrain from demonizing those whom they disagree with on politics or health or social justice, Hansen’s reminder of the foundation and boundary of the preacher’s authority is much needed. After meditating on Paul’s warnings in 1 Timothy 1:4 and 2 Timothy 4:3-4 about the dangers of being swayed by false speculations and myths, Hansen offers this incisive, if troubling commentary: “Paul might have thought Satan himself created the internet as a tool to divide and distract churches with endless speculation” (63).
But who is to be entrusted with the Christ-given authority to preach the Word to the citizen-members of Christ’s outpost on earth? Leeman argues that that authority is given not only to the head preacher but to all those appointed elders by the church. The job of the elders is the same as that that Paul laid down for Timothy and Titus: “the slow, patient, day-to-day, repetitious work of seeking to grow people in godliness. An elder doesn't force but teaches, because a forced act of godliness is no godliness at all” (129).
That is a high calling and a vital one, but it does not absolve the other members of the church from performing their role in the body, nor does it elevate elders to an aristocratic position that cuts them off from the man in the pew. “Elders do not constitute a separate ‘class’ of Christians . . . The difference between an elder and a member, though formally designated by a title, is largely a difference of maturity, not class. Like a parent with a child, the elder constantly works to call the member up and into maturity. It is a distinct office, to be sure. And not every mature Christian qualifies. Yet the point remains: an elder strives to duplicate himself insofar as he imitates Christ” (130-131).
Inside and Outside
After surveying four main theories as to what the chief aim of the church should be—evangelism, good works, healing, dispensing grace—Hansen reminds his readers that whatever that aim is, it must be linked to the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20). In his parting words to his disciples (the insiders), Jesus, speaking from a position of full authority, commands them to make disciples of all nations. That is to say, he assigns to them “the business of turning outsiders into insiders through conversion” (117).
But to do that, the church must do more than get people saved. If it is to accomplish the full extent of Jesus’ Great Commission, then it must teach those new disciples all that Jesus taught his disciples. To do that, Hansen argues, “a church must build relationships of depth and endurance,” but it is “impossible to teach everything Jesus commanded to people you barely know and hardly see” (118). Such a statement would have been true sixty, forty, or twenty years ago, but it is even more true, and pressingly so, today.
The rise in biblical illiteracy has become more and more evident in churches, schools, and society at large. So much so, in fact, that Hansen reports a consistent message he has been hearing from youth pastors, a message that highlights the church’s need to increase its commitment to preaching the Word and equipping the saints: “it takes twice the amount of time to make the same amount of progress in discipleship today as a decade ago. Fewer and fewer outsiders know anything Jesus said beyond generic allusions to judgment and love. When they become insiders, they understand little about what it means to follow Jesus—who he is, what he has done, what he has commanded” (118).
It is because of this biblical and spiritual superficiality in outsiders and insiders alike that Hansen insists that the “rediscovered church can't afford to repeat the same basic self-help mantras without plumbing any theological depths” (118). Unfortunately, that kind of plumbing cannot take place when members forsake the gathering of the saints in favor of passively watching a live-streamed sermon. The church is a body, and the parts of that body cannot grow or function properly if they are separated by time and space.
“We’re not the first to observe,” write Hansen and Leeman in their conclusion, “that the automobile effectively ended church discipline for many churches. All of a sudden, someone could divorce his wife without cause and simply drive to a different neighborhood or town for church. He would never need to repent publicly at the demand of church leaders called to protect and care for his ex-wife and children” (142).
What was true for the automobile is even more true for the virtual church of today. The First Baptist Church of Cyberspace can neither equip nor discipline its members, for it does not know its members. It is a body disjointed, and such a body cannot represent the Kingdom of Heaven on earthly soil. Just so, a virtual embassy can provide neither safety for its citizens nor a witness to the foreign land in which it resides.
Louis Markos is Professor in English and Scholar in Residence at Houston Baptist University, holding the Robert H. Ray Chair in Humanities. His works include From Plato to Christ: How Platonic Thought Shaped the Christian Faith, The Myth Made Fact: Reading Greek and Roman Mythology through Christian Eyes, From Achilles to Christ, and On the Shoulders of Hobbits: The Road to Virtue with Tolkien and Lewis.
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