Baptist Foundations: Church Government for an Anti-Institutional Age

Today is an anti-polity age, perhaps more than any other time in the history of the church. Yet polity remains as important now as it was in the New Testament church. Right polity strengthens Christians and their ties to one another. It is the platinum prongs that hold the diamond of the gospel in place, protecting the gospel from one generation to the next. Wrong polity, on the other hand, weakens Christians and their ties. It leaves heresies and hypocrites unchecked. It lets hurting sheep wander off and fall into canyons. It loosens the prongs so that the diamond of the gospel eventually falls to the ground and gets lost.   What then is a right or biblical polity? In this volume, representatives of several North American Baptist seminaries and a Baptist university make the exegetical and theological case for a Baptist polity. Right polity, they argue, is congregationalism, elder leadership, diaconal service, regenerate church membership, church discipline, and a Baptist approach to the ordinances. Yet this book is not just for the seminary classroom. It is for the church leader. Each section explores the pastoral applications of these arguments. How do congregationalism and elder leadership work together? When should a church practice church discipline? How can one church work with another in matters of membership and discipline?   To be read sequentially or used as a reference guide, the contributions in Baptist Polity provide a contemporary treatment of Baptist church government and structures, the first of its kind in decades.


Reviewed: 2015-11-05
How should the local church be structured? Has God given us a blueprint in the pages of Scripture that we are to follow, or has He left it up to us to decide what we think works best? Is there even such a thing as a correct polity, or form of church government?

These are all very important questions, and questions which deserve careful treatment to arrive at a biblical answer. And a new book edited by Mark Dever and Jonathan Leeman does just that. The book is titled, Baptist Foundations: Church Government for an Anti-Institutional Age.

The book seeks to develop a full-orbed Baptist ecclesiology (doctrine of the church), looking to Scripture as the final and ultimate source of authority, as well as looking to history, to our Baptist heritage over the centuries.

As the subtitle of the book suggests, we live in an age that is quite anti-institutional or anti-authoritarian. Any hint of authority, polity, or official structure is an immediate turn-off to much of our culture today, including our church culture. In his forward to this volume, James Leo Garret Jr comments on this:

“The twentieth century was not the finest epoch in Southern Baptist history with respect to ecclesiological practice. As urban churches increased in numbers of members, stress was placed on church efficiency. In the admission of members, there was less care and greater laxity, which corrective church discipline was abandoned and the use of church covenants became less frequent” (ix-x).

Though the culture at large, and our church-culture as a subset and byproduct of that larger culture, may have an anti-instiutional bent to it, the writers of this volume (and myself) are absolutely convinced that God has given the local church to be His representative on Earth, and in the pages of Scripture He has given explicit and clear blueprints as to how that church is to look. That does not mean that every church must follow a cookie-cutter mold. Surely there is room for difference, character, rural vs urban, etc. But the basic blueprint of the church, the basic elements that constitute the church, should be there, and in the way in which God has laid them out in Scripture.

So what are those elements? What topics do the contributors of this book address?

(1) Congregationalism
The first topic addressed by chapters 1 and 2 is congregationalism — that is, the people that make up the church have the final authority in the church. There is a chapter devoted to a historical look at congregationalism followed by a chapter looking at the biblical and theological case for congregationalism.

(2) The Ordinances
Next, the ordinances are discussed. The two ordinances that the Lord has given to the Church are those of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. The 5 chapters written on the ordinances are by two of my former Seminary professors at SBTS, Shawn Wright and Thomas Schreiner. After Wright discusses some preliminary issues for understanding the ordinances, both Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are looked at from a biblical standpoint (Schreiner) and then from a historical and theological standpoint (Wright).

(3) Church Membership and Discipline
Up to this point in the book there is not much controversial content among Baptists. What follows, though, on a strict regenerate church membership and corrective church discipline, will likely be a source of controversy among various groups of Baptists. However, this is probably the area of Baptist ecclesiology that needs the most thought and work in SBC churches. There 2 chapters focused on church membership, and one on church discipline — all three of which are very helpful and will help give the reader a biblical and theological framework with which to think about these two topics.

(4) Elders and Deacons
And if the chapters on church membership and discipline did not spark enough controversy, this next part on elders and deacons is sure to. The reason — the contributors argue consistently for a plural elder church leadership, as opposed to a typical “senior pastor” single-elder model. While there is a resurgence of biblical understanding related to the roles and responsibilities of elders and deacons among some Baptist churches — which results mostly in a correct understanding of Scripture’s model of plural elder leadership — there is still much work to be done. Most SBC churches still function with a “single-elder” model with a senior pastor, alongside a board of deacons (who act much more like elders than deacons), resulting in much confusion. Because of the decades of confusion on this topic, this section is the largest in the book, comprising of 7 chapters.

(5) The Church and Churches
Finally, the book looks at how Baptist churches can strive for both unity among each other, as well as how they can cooperate with other churches for the work of the ministry.

This book is an important contribution to the subject of ecclesiology, particularly Baptist ecclesiology. The contributors are all Baptists, and represent a variety of seminaries and churches. It is not a particularly short book (almost 400 pages), nor is it a particularly easy book to read. However, it is not intended to be a leisurely read that you might sit down before bed and read a few pages. Rather, it is a book meant for study, for pastors, seminary students, and members interested in the right order of the church from a Baptist perspective. As such, it is a good book and a helpful addition to help us recover a biblical ecclesiology for Baptist churches.

In accordance with FTC regulations, I would like to thank B&H Publishers for providing me with a review copy of this book in exchange for a fair and honest review.
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