Baptist Foundations

Article by   November 2015
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Mark Dever and Jonathan Leeman, eds. Baptist Foundations: Church Government for an Anti-Institutional Age. Nashville: B&H, 2015., xxiii + 397pp. US $44.99/£25.99

Often overlooked in the recent conservative resurgence in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) has been the recovery of ecclesiology and polity in Baptist life. Baptist pastors and theologians have discovered that the doctrine of the church sits not on the periphery but at the heart of historical Baptist reflection on the Scripture. After a century of ecclesiological desuetude, Baptist churches are earnestly attempting to articulate and to implement what they understand to be a biblical understanding of the church. 

Baptist Foundations: Church Government for an Anti-Institutional Age is a resource designed primarily for contemporary SBC leaders who want to see the church more perfectly conformed to Baptist ideals of church government. The editors, Mark Dever and Jonathan Leeman, have assembled a capable body of authors, who knowledgably and clearly address a host of issues and concerns relating to church polity. Baptist readers will appreciate not only the many lines of agreement that run across the volume, but also occasional points of disagreement (cf. pp. xi, xxii). Non-Baptist readers can hardly fail to profit from careful study of the contributors' essays. They will find many concerns and arguments with which to agree, and even areas of disagreement will prompt them to reflect on their own views in light of the Scripture's teaching. 

In the introductory chapter, Jonathan Leeman steps behind the discussion of the book and offers an "apologetic" for polity "in general" (p.3). Polity is important, in the first instance, because it "establishes the local church" (p.3). What distinguishes a local church from an ordinary assembly of Christians is its polity, and especially those "ordinances" that "are the beginning of polity" (p.4). Polity furthermore safeguards the integrity both of the gospel and of the identity of true believers in Christ. Polity is, moreover, not ancillary to but a fundamental part of the project of Christian discipleship. Finally, polity gives form to and enhances the witness of the church. 

The remainder of Baptist Foundations falls in five parts, addressing congregationalism; the ordinances; church membership and discipline; elders and deacons; and the attributes of a local church and its relationship with other local churches. In the first part, Michael Haykin surveys the recent history of congregational church government, from the post-Reformation period to the present. Stephen J. and Kirk Wellum then advance a concise and clearly-stated "biblical and theological case for congregationalism" (p.47). In doing so, the Wellums propose an understanding of the church in light of the progression of covenants in Scripture. They affirm a single people of God across redemptive history, while noting that the church is distinctly a community of the New Covenant. As such, its membership is by definition a regenerate membership, in contrast with the mixed membership of Old Covenant Israel (The church, in fact, must be seen neither as replacement for nor as renewal of Israel, but as a "third entity," p.61). The church partakes in the Already/Not Yet dynamic that characterizes life under the New Covenant. The Wellums conclude that the 'Already' requires a regenerate membership at the local church level, and proceed to question the visible/invisible church distinction, in so far as that distinction "say[s that] the invisible and universal church is pure, while the visible and local church is designed to be mixed, like ancient Israel" (p.58). 

The Wellums also make an eschatological and covenantal case for congregationalism. Within the congregation, the "final court of appeal" is the congregation and not the elders. Discipline is properly the province of the congregation as a whole. Entrusting discipline to the elders and not to the congregation as a whole would prompt the elders to "function in an old covenant sense," that is, "as distinctive mediators between God and the people..." (p.66). 

Part Two of Baptist Foundations addresses the "ordinances" of baptism and the Lord's Supper. Tom Schreiner argues that the New Testament teaches believer's baptism. Baptism is for disciples alone and, therefore, is unavailable to infants who cannot "follow Jesus in faith and discipleship" (p.93). Acts and the Epistles document only examples of adults who are baptized upon conversion. In fact, "Paul could refer to one's baptism as shorthand for their conversion" (p.99). Shawn D. Wright provides an historical overview of the practice of baptism in the Christian church. He accounts for the rise of paedobaptism, in part, as owing to a faulty understanding of the church as compromised of mixed membership, and to a flattened understanding of the covenants of Scripture. Paedobaptists fail to appreciate the newness of the New Covenant (p.119). Both Schreiner and Wright provide complementary chapters addressing the Lord's Supper. 

Part Three addresses church membership and church discipline. John Hammett and Thomas White not only make the case for regenerate church membership, but proceed to advance three necessary criteria for church membership - regeneration, believer's baptism, and acceptance of the local church's covenant (pp.173-9). In separate chapters, Hammett argues how local churches may implement these principles practically in the life of the local church (pp.181-97), while White argues for church discipline as a necessary, biblical correlate of church membership (pp.199-226). 

Part Four, the longest of the book, explores the offices of the local church. Throughout this section, the authors advance two propositions concerning church office. First, there are two standing offices in the local church, elder and deacon. Second, the "service of the Word" is entrusted to a plurality of elders (p.227). Mark Dever constructively explores the revival of these dual convictions in recent SBC history, while Benjamin L. Merkle makes a case for the elder as a single office of the New Testament (pp.229-42; 243-52). Merkle then addresses the New Testament's understanding of the qualifications for and roles of the elder, specifically defending the plurality of the eldership in the local church (pp.253-70; 271-89). After a helpful chapter by Andrew Davis addressing certain practical issues pertaining to the eldership, Merkle and Davis then address the office of deacon (pp.291-309; 311-24; 325-29). 

The concluding portion of Baptist Foundations addresses unity both within and among separate, local congregations. Jonathan Leeman argues that what "unites all Christians and all churches" is "apostolic doctrine." What unites the local church, however, is "both apostolic doctrine and apostolic office" (p.335). By "apostolic office," Leeman means "the office new covenant members assume when gathered together as churches to exercise the keys of the kingdom given by Jesus in Matthew 16 and 18" (p.335.). These two forms of unity are not unrelated - the second "involves the public presentation" of the first (p.335). There is no corresponding official or governmental bond uniting distinct congregations. Even so, congregations who have independently confessed the apostolic faith may band together in undertaking efforts promoting the Great Commission (p.373). That cooperation may extend, furthermore, to "discipline, counseling, mercy ministry [and] prayer" (p.374). 

Baptist Foundations is about as thorough and well-executed a statement of Baptist ecclesiology for the contemporary church as one could desire. The individual contributions are consistently well-done, and the editors have commendably sequenced the chapters in clear, systematic progression. Individuals preparing for ministry in Baptist congregations will want to give this volume close study. Non-Baptists will profit much and quibble little with many discussions within Baptist Foundations. Its defense of the necessity of church membership; explanation for the New Testament warrant for the office of elder; and survey of the Lord's Supper in the New Testament, to name just a few, will commend themselves to a broad readership. 

Baptist Foundations raises certain matters concerning which a Presbyterian reviewer would be well expected to express dissent. While one could merely notate differences, and restate the reasons for them, a more constructive approach presents itself. Three areas surface and resurface throughout Baptist Foundations that touch, in fundamental ways, on the nature and identity of the church. Reflecting on these three areas helps not only to bring further clarity to the viewpoints expressed in this volume, but also to lend definition to where some of the leading fundamental differences between Baptist and Presbyterian polities in fact lie. 

The first area concerns the membership of the church. The contributors of Baptist Foundations are united in their advocacy of a regenerate church membership. That is to say, "members of the church should be those who have experienced new birth" and are "united to Christ" (pp.174, 173). Several contributors lament what is perceived to be the tendency within the church, both Baptist and non-Baptist, to relax this standard of membership. On more than one occasion, Baptist Foundations appeals to church discipline as a primary, if oft neglected, means to restore the church to the purity of a regenerate membership (pp.69, 175, cf. 83, 116).

The Wellums and Shawn D. Wright make an explicitly covenantal and eschatological argument for regenerate church membership. They argue that such texts as Jer 31:29-34 demonstrate that the New Covenant inaugurates a fundamental transition in the composition of God's people from a mixed body to an exclusively regenerate body (pp.52-56; cf. 116, 119). Each local church is a present "manifestation of the one true, heavenly, eschatological church" and therefore "by design" cannot be a "mixed people, like Israel of old" (p.58). 

To maintain that the New Testament standard for membership in the Christian church is other than regeneration is indicative, in the eyes of these authors, of an under-realized eschatology. It fails to see the newness of the New Covenant. It regressively conforms the eschatological community to a pre-eschatological norm. It blunts the great eschatological advance marked by the inauguration of the last days in Christ. But is this so? One might more plausibly maintain that the position these authors advocate is guilty of an over-realized eschatology. To be sure the consummate church will be "without spot or wrinkle or any such thing," perfectly "holy and without blemish" (Eph 5:27). Every faithful Christian minister labors with this goal in mind. But that is an altogether different thing from saying that the church's present membership is an exclusively regenerate membership. 

What are some difficulties with this view? First, on more than one occasion the New Testament writers describe the church in the place of Israel in the wilderness (1 Cor 10; Heb 3-4). The church is in a place of danger and threat and, correspondingly, the New Testament writers issue dire warnings against apostasy (1 Cor 10:11-12; Heb 6:4-6). One would have expected neither the analogy nor these warnings were the New Covenant community, by design, a regenerate membership and, in this respect, qualitatively distinguished from Israel.

Second, if there is a single covenant of grace and a single people of God, then one must presume continuity in composition of the people of God in both the Old and New Covenants, unless the New Testament expressly dictates otherwise. But Paul addresses children as members of the church in Ephesus (Eph 6:1-3), and, in keeping with the precedent set under the Abrahamic covenant, whole households are baptized in the New Testament. Every indication is that believers and their seed continue to be reckoned members of the covenant community.

Third, there is the practical difficulty of implementing the ideal of a regenerate membership in the local church. To be fair, more than one contributor recognizes this dilemma. Shawn D. Wright, for instance, acknowledges that there are non-regenerate persons within the church. He further argues that one is admitted to membership by professing his faith before the congregation, who declares of the new member, "as far as we can tell, you are one of us. You have been born again..." (p.126). But it is possible, Wright notes, that one who had made a "credible ... profession of faith" in fact will prove to have "made a false profession of faith" before the congregation (p.126). In addressing the practical difficulties attending church membership, Wright's position more and more approximates the Presbyterian understanding of church membership - new members are received not on the basis of proof of regeneration but by credible profession of faith. Absent an ability to discern infallibly whether a candidate for membership is regenerate or not, the church will not in fact consist in this age of an exclusively regenerate membership. There remains, in other words, a palpable and insurmountable "not yet" for the eschatological, New Covenant church of Jesus Christ. 

A second and related area concerns the ordinances (or, sacraments) of the Lord's Supper and, especially, of baptism. Wright correctly agrees with Presbyterian theologian B.B. Warfield that "one's definition of the church will, in essence, determine one's doctrine of baptism" (p.115). If children are members of the church, then they are owed the initiatory sign of the New Covenant, baptism. If not, then baptism may not be administered to them until they believe. 

Wright's view is axiomatic to Baptist Foundations. Baptism may not be applied to persons (i.e., infants) who do not believe in Jesus Christ (p.123 et pass.). Insistence on this standard, however, is coupled with a certain tension in the contributors' arguments. Baptist Foundations commendably insists on baptism as an ordinance that objectively represents Christ and his benefits to the recipient. Wright, for instance, approvingly cites a summary description of baptism by J.I. Packer (p.120). In this summary, Packer stresses the saving work of Christ as that which baptism signifies to the baptized. Speaking in reference both to baptism and the Lord's Supper, Wright elsewhere observes that "[baptism and the Lord's Supper] portray the gospel, magnifying it and highlighting its importance" (p.84). Schreiner concurs, noting that "baptism testifies to [the] saving work [of] the death and resurrection of Jesus" (p.103). 

At the same time, Baptist Foundations conceives baptism as pointing to the believer's personal experience of salvation in Christ. In Romans 6, Schreiner argues, Paul argues that baptism by immersion is a symbol of the believer's experience of dying and rising with Christ (p.99). Since baptism testifies to what believers have undergone through faith in Christ, and since "the power of sin has not been defeated in [infants'] lives," it is wrong to baptize infants (p.99). Appealing more broadly to Rom 6:3-4, Col 2:11-12, and 1 Pet 3:21, Wright argues for baptism by immersion "because of the symbolic truth taught by putting a person under water and then bringing him up again" (p.123). Baptism, in other words, points to the believer's experience of having been united with Christ in his death and resurrection (p.123). 

Does baptism, then, point to the work of Jesus Christ or does it point to the recipient's experience of the work of Jesus Christ? The contributors argue for both, particularly accenting the latter in polemical discussions relating to baptism. But each view yields substantially different, even incompatible, theological and practical understandings of the sacrament that extend well beyond the polemics in view. The former view understands baptism to direct the gaze of the recipient to the saving work of the Lord Jesus Christ on behalf of sinners (thereby summoning the recipient to trust in Christ). The latter view understands baptism to direct the gaze of the recipient to himself, that is, to his experience of salvation. When Baptist Foundations finds itself defending the latter view, it does so contrary to its stated and laudable conviction that baptism, like the Lord's Supper, is a visible portrayal of what Christ has accomplished for his people in his death and resurrection.

A third and final area concerns the government of the church itself. Baptist Foundations begins by rightly noting that, even though "authority" has become a byword in contemporary evangelicalism, it is essential to the Bible's understanding of the church (pp.xvi-xix). What, then, does "authority" look like in the church? The contributors argue that authority has been entrusted to the congregation. The "keys" of Matt 16 and Matt 18, for instance, "belong to every member of the new covenant who has been formally recognized as such through baptism into membership of a local church" (p.353). Church membership, therefore "is not only a status; it's an office" (p.353). The responsibilities of this office include framing confessional standards and exercising church discipline, up to and including excommunication. 

Baptist Foundations also recognizes that the Scripture appoints two standing offices in the church, elder and deacon. The office of elder is an office of rule. A plurality of elders has authority in the local congregation. What, then, is the relationship between the authority of the elders and the authority of the congregants? Benjamin L. Merkle argues that the authority of the elders derives "from God, not the congregation" (p.278). This authority, Merkle continues, is a "limited" authority (p.276), referencing 1 Thess 5:12, 1 Tim 5:17, and Heb 13:17. What, then, are the limits that God has set upon the elders' authority? Their authority is limited by the Word of God; is limited to the local congregation; and is subject to the "authority of the congregation as a whole" (pp.279-80). 

How is one to negotiate the potentially competing authorities of the elders and of the congregation? Merkle counsels that "major decisions" require the participation of the congregation, not simply the elders. These include "the addition of a new elder or deacon, the budget, and a change to the constitution or bylaws" (p.281). But "most other areas of concern ... should be left to the leadership of the elders and deacons" (p.281). 

But what happens if the congregation and the elders cannot agree on a matter before them? Who has final say? If the elders do, what then becomes of the congregation's authority? If the congregation does, then have the elders been relegated to an advisory committee of the congregation? What if the congregation and elders cannot agree concerning what is a "major decision"? Who has the final say? How might one party go about appealing the decision of the other? Absent any governmental connection among congregations, how could the broader church effectively help the local church adjudicate such problems? 

The Wellums argue that the elders' authority "depends on pastoral persuasion" (p.70). While "there is a sense in which elders can make commands," they nevertheless "cannot enforce their commands without the congregation's assent" (p.70). If their efforts at persuasion fail, then the congregation has the last word. Merkle concurs, noting that "nowhere [in the New Testament] are the leaders told to force the congregation to submit to them. That is because leaders in the church must lead humbly and by example" (p.272). 

One can hardly doubt that elders are called to teach and to lead persuasively. But to conceive the elders' authority as contingent upon the successful persuasion of the congregation strips elders of the biblical authority that Christ has entrusted to them. It raises the question how may two independent parties meaningfully occupy the same authority within the same sphere?  Such an understanding of authority in the local church appears calculated to result in constant friction or a breakdown of wholesome rule altogether. 

What, then, is the alternative? Presbyterians understand Christ to have "vest[ed]" church power "in the whole body" (PCA Book of Church Order 3-1). The people exercise that power in one way and one way only - their choice of officers. All other authority (that is to say, the exercise of church power) is entrusted to those officers whom the congregation has chosen for precisely this purpose. 

Presbyterians have occasionally employed the analogy of the human body to illustrate the point. Power rests in the whole human body, but its exercise (authority) belongs to certain limbs (the hands, the feet). One could not say that power rests in the hands but not the body as a whole. Neither could one say that one's nose has the claim to exercising power that his foot does. Even so, the foot exercises power, in the words of Presbyterian theologian Thomas E. Peck, "by the life of the body, and for the good of the body" (Notes on Ecclesiology, p.85). 

This way of putting matters helps preserve those congregational rights and prerogatives acknowledged by the Scripture. It equally entrusts to elders their biblical responsibility to rule in the congregation as servants of Christ and not servants of the congregation. It stresses, however, that elders are servants of Christ. Christ, in his Word, has mandated that should an elder misuse his authority, he is to be held to account and even, in some circumstances, removed from office. The Presbyterian understanding of church power and its exercise helps to safeguard the church from subjection either to clerical or congregational tyranny, even as it also safeguards the church from lapsing into anarchy. The Presbyterian understanding of authority provides for order in the body that avoids both these extremes. 

In reviewing these three particular areas, we have been largely critical. It is fitting, then, to end on a note of appreciation precisely in connection with the areas under review. Baptist Foundations has taken the time and effort to raise questions that comparatively few in the twentieth-century evangelical church (whether Baptist or non-Baptist) were concerned to ask. They are asking and answering those questions out of a conscious self-commitment to the authority of the Word of God. The particular questions that they are raising are neither pedantic nor incidental to the Scripture's teaching. They touch on some of the most basic concerns of biblical revelation. That the contributors to Baptist Foundations have engaged these questions with uniform seriousness and thoughtfulness is a heartening indicator of vitality in the evangelical church. Whether readers agree or disagree with the particular arguments and conclusions made in this volume, no serious student of Baptist Foundations can leave this volume having failed to submit his own views on the church to renewed biblical scrutiny. If for that reason only, one may commend the editors and contributors for a job well done. 

Guy Waters is Professor of New Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, Mississippi


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