Book Review: Rediscover Church- Why the Body of Christ is Essential by Hansen and Leeman

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Collin Hansen and Jonathan Leeman, Rediscover Church: Why the Body of Christ Is Essential. Crossway, 2021. 161 pages.

The Right Book by the Wrong People

Rediscover Church: Why the Body of Christ is Essential is a book aimed at addressing a real need in the evangelical church context post-COVID. The problem is that it’s written by precisely the wrong people.

What do I mean? Imagine if you lost your house in a fire. Then imagine, a few days later, the arsonist drops by to tell you it was high time to get out of your hotel room and back into a house of your own.  Or maybe a more relatable scenario is this: How would you feel if the financial advisor who told you to sell all your Bitcoin in 2009 stopped by to scold you for not having more crypto in your portfolio?

That, in a nutshell, is Rediscover Church. The entire project is an exercise in “do as we say, not as we did.”

Written by Jonathan Leeman and Collin Hansen, the book thinks of itself as a call to recommit to the local church, including the non-negotiable and necessarily local, in-person aspects of church life. So, do they make a compelling case for recommitting, re-covenanting with, and rediscovering church?

Before we can answer those questions, we must appropriately situate these authors in their broader context. This book is published by Crossway but represents both the parachurch organizations 9 Marks and The Gospel Coalition (TGC). It would be harder to find better second-tier (i.e. not founder-level) representatives for these brands than Leeman and Hansen. Both men have been at the forefront of their respective parachurch organization’s activities for years. To make the point clearer, Rediscover Church ends with advertisements for each parachurch organization. The activity of these two brands since 2020 is the unavoidable context for whatever the message of Rediscover Church turns out to be.

In light of that, I will admit I had assumptions coming into this book. However, I also suspected that Rediscover Church would be a throwback to the old days at 9 Marks, back when the importance of attending a local church was a subject no one doubted them to address in a biblical manner. I anticipated Rediscover Church would be a trip in a time machine, back to before 9 Marks openly embraced politically progressive ideology and partners (such as pushing Divided by Faith, soft-pedaling syncretism on racial issues by CRT-advocates, arguing that voting for a pro-abortion candidate should be a morally legitimate option for church members, marching in pseudo-Christian BLM rallies, platforming divisive social justice warriors like Thabiti Anyabwile and John Onwuchekwa, and K. Edward Copeland, etc.). And all that was before they choose to take a public stance against John MacArthur and Grace Community Church who encouraged Christians to go ahead and meet in local bodies in contravention to the absurd government ban on church gathering. And time does not permit me to document all the many and varied movements of TGC from their prior position as a faithful organization into a center-left attack dog on average Christians, but just google “Joe Carter” or “Why I Hate August” and you will find plenty of evidence soon enough.

Thus, I was concerned that one of the main issues with the book would be Leeman and Hansen would be writing as if the reader didn’t know about their political/doctrinal shift and attempt to stop local churches from gathering. I suspected this book would represent a bit of sleight-of-hand: “Forget we ever said or did that. Remember – we’re the local church guys!” I expected the book to speak in the voice of The Wizard of Oz – “pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!”

What I found, though, was much worse than what I had feared. Not only did the authors pretend to still be faithful and stalwart representatives of conservative evangelicalism, but Rediscover Church is also itself a deeply confused book, one that tries to combine oil and water, achieving the usual degree of  success with such attempts.

Flashes of the Old 9 Marks Strength

Despite my disillusionment with 9 Marks and TGC in 2020 and 2021, I had high hopes in some ways for this book. 9 Marks built their brand – and still tries to – by teaching on the centrality of the local church in God’s design. Now, to be fair, some of that bygone commitment and vigor shows up in Rediscover Church.

Well, they show up in two of Leeman’s chapters – Chapters 5 and 6, titled, “Is Joining Necessary?” and “Is Church Discipline Really Loving?” respectively. The reason these chapters are so strong is that they are a distillation of Leeman’s excellent 2009 book, The Church and the Surprising Offense of God’s Love: Reintroducing the Doctrines of Church Membership and Discipline. Written before Leeman turned sympathetic to wokeness, The Church and the Surprising Offense of God’s Love is a superb presentation of the importance of high standards in the local church reflecting God’s instructions about the nature of the church, discipleship, and discipline.

Unfortunately, that is where the glimpses of the old 9 Marks end. Chapters 5 and 6 are, as mentioned, quite good. But, having read both books, my recommendation is that the reader of this review should put down Rediscover Church and pick up The Church and the Surprising Offense of God’s Love instead.

Too Much of the New Commitment to the Spirit of the Age

What destroys Rediscover Church is ultimately a small-scale version of the cultural compromises that have ruined 9 Marks and TGC’s credibility – the embrace of fashionable political and theological commitments, always left-leaning, at the expense of biblical fidelity.

The book wastes absolutely no time getting into alignment with the spirit of the age. Just over two paragraphs into the introduction, (which I suspect was written by Hasen, considering it utilizes the TGC-favorite conspiracy theory boogeyman) we find the progressive zeitgeist holding the pen:

COVID-19, however, accelerated the long-trending separation between personal faith and organized religion. The shutdowns caught all of us by surprise in their sudden onset and indefinite duration. And it’s hard to get back in the habit once it’s been broken for more than a year. That problem is not unique to church. Try getting back to the gym when you’ve been scared to darken the doors for months.

Resuming church attendance would be hard enough if our only problem were that a deadly disease kept us apart much longer than many expected. But fear of contracting COVID-19 might be the least of the reasons that convinced many Christians to stay away from church. Debates over masks, vaccines, and much else divided church members trapped in their homes and glued to Facebook feeds filled with dire warnings and conspiracy theories. Christians liked each other a lot more before social media. Take away the unifying experience of weekly worship together under the same roof, and the bonds of affection have frayed.

But that’s not all. Recent elections—for American readers, at least—might have been even more divisive. How can Christians worship alongside voters with such different priorities? Sure, Christians might share the same views on the Trinity, baptism, and even eschatology. But what good is that when we feel more in common with our political allies who might not even be Christians?

The same goes for the causes of racial unrest. Why can unbelieving neighbors see the solutions so clearly, we might wonder, when the couple we used to sit behind at church every week promotes such ignorant and even dangerous views in their public postings? It’s enough to make many think they could never be safe or comfortable returning to that same church.

And don’t ask about pastors. They’ve heard our complaints. Why didn’t they reach out to check on us while we were locked down at home? How did they even spend their time during the pandemic? The online sermons were lackluster, when anyone bothered to tune in while distracted by stir-crazy children. Anyway, regular pastors can’t compare to the courageous leaders who tackled the issues head-on in TV interviews and articles. Plus, the pandemic made it easier than ever before to watch other pastors’ online sermons without guilt and skip our own church. We knew that no one would ever know the difference, since we couldn’t see our pastors in person anyway.

“The shutdowns caught us by surprise” is the first head-scratching moment. Who, exactly, is supposed to have been caught by surprise by the telegraphed attacks on the local church following on the heels of the arrival of COIVD-19? The authors want you to remember the past… differently… than it played out  – in order to provide a cover story for their failure to guard the assembling of the body — which they are now going to encourage! This is classic gaslighting.

They go on to write that, “Debates over masks, vaccines, and much else divided church members trapped in their homes and glued to Facebook feeds filled with dire warnings and conspiracy theories.” This is just repeating the convenient narrative sold by high-profile evangelical personalities to explain why church members were so frustrated by the same leaders (and their followers in the local church) who laid down so easily for obvious propaganda and government over-reach.

“But what good is that when we feel more in common with our political allies who might not even be Christians?” is the closest a reader comes to an honest confession from the writers but this opportunity is never capitalized on, moving right into another political give-away:

The same goes for the causes of racial unrest. Why can unbelieving neighbors see the solutions so clearly, we might wonder, when the couple we used to sit behind at church every week promotes such ignorant and even dangerous views in their public postings? It’s enough to make many think they could never be safe or comfortable returning to that same church.

As is standard for the proponents of Critical Theory, there is only one acceptable answer to accusations of racism. Any pushback or even questioning the assertions of CRT/I is met with the accusation of more racism and warnings that the pro-CRT/I faction does not feel safe around those who do not immediately accede to those demanding fealty to neo-racists claims made through CRT/I. Leeman and Hansen are unable – or, perhaps, uninterested – in concealing their pre-commitment to fashionable yet regressive race propaganda.

Thus, just a few words into the introduction, Rediscover Church reveals its fatal flaw: The authors write with an inability to evaluate the fashionable ideas of the age in light of Scripture, and they ultimately refuse to stand with the church in the face of faddish cultural criticism.

One more giveaway, this one much more humorous – the list of endorsers appear to have been chosen according to how little chance exists their name could be mistaken for the name of a normie white guy, J Mack Stiles being the exception that demonstrates the rule. Conrad Mbewe is among those endorsers, so the others may be just as faithful as Mbewe but, still, one suspects faithfulness was not the sole guiding purpose for whose endorsements were used.

A Truly Bizarre Internal Contradiction

The most fascinating aspect of Rediscover Church is how internally conflicted the book is. As mentioned earlier, the contributors are aligned not so much by any theological tradition as they are by political concerns. Their general incompatibility outside of fashionable political trends reveals itself clearly in Hansen’s chapter, “How Do I Love Members Who Are Different?”

There Hansen criticizes communities that build through exclusion. After taking a few moments to create a convenient dichotomy of building community around either diversity or uniformity, Hansen writes this:

At first, these two perspectives—diversity and uniformity—might appear to be pushing in opposite directions. But these differences obscure the underlying similarities. Both perspectives create community through exclusion. It’s more obvious in the uniformity perspective. If you put out the wrong yard sign, don’t go to the right church, or associate with people from the wrong caste, you’re excluded from the community. The same thing happens, though, in the push toward diversity. Only a certain kind of diversity is allowed. You can be from a different ethnicity, but you cannot disagree on sexual ethics. You can be proud to come from another country, but you cannot support the wrong political party. You can be celebrated for your gender, but not for insisting on biological differences between the genders.

Whatever their pretenses, both perspectives create community through exclusion. They’re like fraternities or sororities, which build community by creating an exclusive club. You can enter only by permission. The same goes for a country club or a neighborhood that filters out undesirable elements by income level. Or for a protest march that brooks no protest from within. Or for an academic program that snuffs out free inquiry and ideological dissent. You’re in because others are out.

Hansen is a true son of TGC. He longs for a world of Generally Reformed-ish But Not Too Serious About It Squishy Ecumenism, governed by the High Priesthood of TGC writers and their friends. Nothing is surprising about his perspective.

What is surprising, however, is that this chapter in the book comes right after Leeman’s chapter, “Is Church Discipline Really Loving?” As mentioned above, this is one of the chapters in Rediscover Church that is a derivation of Leeman’s The Church and the Surprising Offense of God’s Love. In both the original book and the Church Discipline chapter in Rediscover Church, the idea of creating community through exclusion (i.e. church membership and discipline) is presented not just positively but as essential to fulfill the church’s calling.

If one steps outside the world of Rediscover Church to take a fresh look at The Church and the Surprising Offense of God’s Love the contradiction between the two authors is even clearer. If one printed all of Surprising Offense on single sheets of paper, tacked them to a large wall, and threw a dart the point would likely land in some form of the word “exclude.” Virtually every use of the term in Surprising Offense is positive. This is the truest in Chapter 4 of Surprising Offense, “The Charter of Love”, which gives the particularly pointed comment about the goodness of exclusion and its compatibility with the Great Commission:

[Paul] uses the first half of chapter 6 to explain the extravagant lengths to which he would go to “make many rich” in the gospel (6:1–10). Then, in the second half of chapter 6, Paul tells the church to “go out” and “be separate.” Apparently, Paul sees no contradiction between the call to be an ambassador of reconciliation and the call to exclude unbelievers from the church. Mission and holiness are not opposed to one another; they work together.

Many other quotes from Surprising Offense could be marshaled to prove the point. The fundamental reality is that Leeman and Hansen foundationally have different understandings of the nature of the church they want you to rediscover.

Hansen really can’t help himself. At the end of Chapter 8, “How Do We Love Outsiders” we find this fairly shocking conclusion:

So does the church exist for insiders or outsiders? In complementary ways, both. The apostle Paul taught, “So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith” (Gal. 6:10). Every outsider is welcome in church and invited to become an insider by faith.

Inside the church, Christians learn to obey everything Jesus commanded, including how they should honor God and love outsiders in their families, their work, and their neighborhoods. Together, when insiders do good to one another, they shine as a beacon of holy hope for a world trapped by the darkness of night.

Contrast those two paragraphs with Leeman’s (superior) perspective, written only a few pages earlier (in Chapter 3, “Do We Really Need to Gather”), and notice how Leeman’s understanding of the church is built on the ideas that (a) the church exists for Christ, rather than either insiders or outsiders and (b) is exclusively defined by insiders:

What’s a gathered church? It’s an embassy of heaven. Step inside your church or ours, and what should you find? 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.

Not only that, you should experience the beginning of heaven’s culture. The heavenly citizens in this embassy are poor in spirit and meek. As they follow Christ, they hunger and thirst for righteousness. They’re pure in heart. They’re peacemakers who turn the other cheek, walk the extra mile, and give their shirt and jacket if you ask. They won’t even look at a woman lustfully, much less commit adultery; they won’t even hate, much less commit murder.

Jesus didn’t ask the United Nations, the U.S. Supreme Court, or the Oxford University philosophy department to represent him and declare his judgments. He asked the humble, the lowly, the “things that are not” (1 Cor. 1:28). He asked your church and ours. 

Whatever unity the authors have found in embracing the political opinions currently en vogue they have unexamined disagreements that surfaced in Rediscover Church. The old Leeman is still in there, somewhere – if only in his previous writings – and old Jonathan disagrees with what Collin thinks of the church. Hansen’s favorite description of the church, “fellowship of differents”, is in deep conflict with Leeman’s “Embassy of Heaven”, even if there is some small measure of overlap in their concerns.

Indulge one more contrast?

Hansen, Chapter 7, “How Do I Love Members Who Are Different?” writes:

That’s why we need to rediscover the church as the fellowship of differents…

No one had ever seen or heard anything like [the church]. Christianity, then, was uniquely appealing to people across the Roman Empire because Jesus brought together the people who didn’t normally associate—slaves and free people, poor and wealthy, Jews and Gentiles. This unified diversity also made Christianity uniquely threatening to the political powers in Rome, who rightly saw their authority subverted by the values of a higher kingdom.

This kind of community, this fellowship of differents united by Christ alone, is what we need to rediscover in the church. And it’s the kind of community that gets noticed by the world. It’s the kind of community that threatens the world’s status quo. This community is built on common love and belief in Jesus Christ…

The body is a fellowship of differents. We are not alike, and we need each other. We have not been gifted the same way, and that’s how God intended it for our good. We confess the same belief in Jesus Christ, but we enjoy a diversity of experiences. This is God’s vision for the church that we must rediscover.

Now compare that to Leeman, in Surprising Offense, from Chapter 6, “The Affirmation of Witness of Love”:

Second, we need to be at least a little suspicious about all the talk of our vast [cultural] differences. Christians should remember that the academy and the world have a vested spiritual interest in blocking the channels of gospel communication and in disobeying the Word of God. It shouldn’t surprise us when the philosophies of the world, speaking with the urbane and tweed-jacketed tone of a literature professor, tell us that our concepts about God’s being, the gospel of penal substitution, or the practice of church membership are modern, Western, Platonic, oppressive, or something along these lines. There may be occasional merit to aspects of such critiques, but we must also maintain the ability to respond, “Yes, that is what you would say,” given our knowledge of the world’s spiritual commitments. I’m not saying that a Christian’s commitments are perfect either, but that’s all the more reason to submit to God’s Word as best we can. Not only did the apostle Paul adapt some aspects of his method from culture to culture, but he also predicted that the attacks against the gospel would vary from culture to culture (1 Cor. 1:20–25).

Hansen and Leeman. TGC and 9 Marks. Oil and water, despite being in the same political bottle.

Repentance Before Writing

I, for one, would love to have the pre-woke-colonized 9 Marks back and, along with them, the pre-woke-colonized Leeman. I believe their pre-2020 work was incredibly helpful and deeply needed. Leeman, in particular, has much to offer the church – if he will publicly own and disavow his errors. His article attempting to put a stop to MacArthur’s influence in continuing to gather as a church was nothing short of a catastrophe, not least of all for his credibility. Participating in a BLM-adjacent social justice rally – while churches in the area were told to stay closed! – put an end to the matter for anyone paying attention.

Christianity offers a way back, though, through repentance. Would that Leeman would avail himself of this critical resource. Hansen, too, might find his way back to usefulness through the same mechanism but doing so would create a tremendous workload for him as an editor at TGC. He might start his repentance by repudiating and removing Joe Carter’s extensive attacks on Christians before moving on to every TGC Canada and Australia article justifying government tyranny against the church through the most obscene mental gymnastics.

Until these gentlemen do the necessary work of repentance – specifically for their work in stopping Christians from gathering in local churches – any call they issue to Rediscover Church is an expression of nuclear-grade hypocrisy.

Resources for Church Members and Those Who Shepherd Them

It remains true that our moment needs a compelling presentation of the importance of local- church gatherings that might counteract the messaging from 9 Marks, TGC, and other evangelical platforms during the height of COVID restrictions. We need to recover a high view of the local church and the Lord’s Day gathering. This is, in fact, a pressing need.

However, we need it from authors who are not the people who created the problem they are trying to solve. We need it from leaders who can call believers back to the local church from a place of integrity. We need that call from pastors and writers who were not publishing pieces in the last several months calling for just the opposite of returning to a high view of the local church. Perhaps someone from Grace Community Church, a church that never wavered from their commitment to the gathering of the body, even in the face of more intense government pressure than that which caused the 9 Marks mother church to retreat. Does anyone reading this have Mike Riccardi’s ear? He is an example of a faithful churchman who could write the kind of book Rediscover Church should have been – and write it with credibility.

Friends, particularly pastors: you and your church people decidedly do not need to read Rediscover Church. The book is too internally conflicted and too externally compromised by the author’s brands and public conduct to be put in front of Christians.

If you want to read something from the 9 Marks brand that would help your church then go back to the pillar publications issued from before their political turn. The original 9 Marks of a Healthy Church is a stellar book. So is Leeman’s The Church and the Surprising Offense of God’s Love.

Just be sure to warn whoever you give those books to about the tragic turn those authors and brands took.

Addendum: Mark Dever’s Legacy

In late 2019 it appeared that Mark Dever’s legacy as a champion of the local church was unshakably sealed. 2020 and on, however, has conclusively demonstrated that was a hasty conclusion. In recent years Dever has called for fellow pastors to, “go with the government” when it came to the question of whether churches should gather because, Dever said, “they have expertise you just don’t have.” His parachurch organization aimed at strengthening local churches allowed the publication of a piece attempting to stop Grace Community Church from influencing other churches to continue gathering as a local body. The same piece affirmed J.D. Greear’s abandonment of his church under the guise of shifting to small groups rather than showing the same conviction MacArthur and GCC embodied.

Capitol Hill Baptist Church willingly closed its doors at the government’s insistence. They meekly asked for permission to re-open and stayed closed until even the government acknowledged the church should have never closed in the first place. The church has become a factory of woke-colonized men who sow animosity wherever they land. Together for the Gospel has become Twogether for the Gospel on its deathbed. 9 Marks became as significant a contributor to the sidelining of the gathered local church as can be found among evangelical parachurch organizations.

Rediscover Church was a thin plaster over the destruction wrought by Dever’s organizations, words, and example. Like Leeman, I hope to see the day Dever repents and then repudiates these errors. I hope that day comes before this new legacy becomes unalterable.

1 thought on “Book Review: Rediscover Church- Why the Body of Christ is Essential by Hansen and Leeman

  1. Thank you for the review. As someone found 9marks material very helpful in the past I’m saddened to see this mission drift inside the organization.

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