This review will begin backwards. Why even be interested in a book like Baptist Foundations? Students and laymen may (and should) take interest in this, whether to know the views of Baptist friends or to be able to interact with a solid book in their own denomination, this book has a lot of weight to it. But Baptist Foundations is pertinent for pastors and elders—yes, of any denomination (to wrestle and interact with)—but certainly of Baptist churches. In the foreword, James Garrett Jr. says,
Most beliefs that have ever been claimed as Baptist distinctives are ecclesiological in nature; for example, regenerate church membership, believer’s baptism by immersion, various forms of close or strict Communion, congregational polity and autonomy, religious liberty, separation of church and state, and so forth. (ix)
Baptist Foundations is written with Ephesians 4.11–14 in mind. The pastors/elders/overseers (and the deacons!) are not to take all of the work upon themselves, but they are to train the church for ministry both within the church body and outside among those whom they rub shoulders with on a daily basis. The local church—the elders and the members—has been given the keys of the kingdom. This book seeks to teach how to use them properly by presenting the proper structure of the church.
In the Preface, Mark Dever and Jonathan Leeman state, “Church polity, most fundamentally, is about exercising God’s authority after him” (xvi). Some revile the idea of being under authority in a church (and some have good reason!), but nonetheless, God has desired to show the world his authority ruled through his church (1 Cor 6.1–8, 9–11). They add, “The congregation is called to exercise one kind of authority, the elders or pastors another kind” (xvi).
After calling for a return to a concern for church polity and an ongoing (or a brand new) humble submission to the Christ-given authority of a local church body, the reader arrives at the Introduction (Leeman). According to Leeman, polity officiates (or “establishes”) a local church, it guards what the gospel message is and who its believers are (and doesn’t mix them with non-believers), it shapes Christian discipleship, strengthens a church’s witness through the hard work of the shepherds to train their members in knowing the Word and understanding our redemption in Christ.
There are five sections to Baptist Foundations. One of the primary distinctives among Baptists is the authority given to the church as seen in Matthew 18.15–18. In part one, Michael Haykin provides the historical background to the rise of congregationalism (ch. 1), and Stephen and Kirk Wellum provide the biblical and theological case for it (2).
In part two, Shawn Wright prepares the reader by five ways through which we should understand the ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper (3). Wright spends two chapters (5 and 7) on the history and theology of these two ordinances, and Tom Schreiner gives two chapters on how these two ordinances are taught in the Bible (4 and 6). Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are for those who proclaim Christ as their Lord—thus, it is not to be given to infants. In baptism believers remember Christ’s death and resurrection for them. At the Supper, they remember how he died for them, and they look forward to the great eschatological banquet of the new creation.
In part three, John Hammett and Thomas White cover church membership and discipline. Though some churches have used church membership to bring guilt on their members who don’t do or give enough, church membership shows you are committed to the church and it’s members (8 and 9). In this commitment, all have God-given authority to keep one another (including the leadership) accountable. Leeman says, “A local church is a real-life embassy, set in the present, that represents Christ’s future kingdom and his coming universal church” (171). All members are to be regenerate. No church is perfect, but it ought to be easier to maintain sound doctrine with fully regenerate church members than with a mixed membership (for what non-Christian wants to follow Christ’s commands?). This section covers some practical matters as to when and how church discipline should (and should not) occur (10).
Part four covers elders and deacons. Dever scans through history to show how the biblical plurality of elders and deacons changed to what is seen today in many churches and denominations (11). Ben Merckle shows how in the Bible the terms “elder,” “overseer,” “pastor,” and “shepherd” all refer to the same church position (12). There is no notion of a senior pastor nor of an official distinction between elders who teach and elders who rule. Merckle then covers the qualifications (13) for plural eldership and their role (14) in church office. They work hard, lead, admonish, shepherd, equip—all with limited authority over the church members, but equal authority with the other elders (whether full-time or not). Merckle examines the office of deacon (16), and Andrew Davis lays out some practical issues to both elders (15) and deacons (17).
Part five, consisting of two chapters written by Leeman, covers the church and churches. (18) Leeman looks at the unity of the church throughout church history in the dual lenses of holiness (“Who is holy, and what makes a person holy?”) and apostolicity (“Who or what possesses the apostle’s authority, and what is it an authority to do?”—p. 334). Do Christians become members of a church through their status as saints or through what the church has been authorized to do—Christians enter through baptism? For Leeman, the church—the elders and the members—hold the keys to the kingdom (Matt 18.18). All Christians and their churches are united together under the Gospel, but local church members (i.e., those of the same church body) can “participate in the formal discipline of one another, whereas two Christians belonging to different churches cannot” (366).
In the final chapter (20), Leeman provides 25 practical implications from this book for Baptist churches.
We live in an anti-institutional age. Many have been burned by churches and have broken away from them. To them, it is appropriate to do so for they are “the church.” However, that complicates matters when we’re called to love one another, discipline one another, treat the unrepentant as not a part of the local church, and so on. What churches need are both humble leaders and a good structure. Being a Baptist myself, I could agree with much in the book. While the practical matters for elders and deacons don’t mean much to me know, they surely will in the future (either when I am one of these things or when I am under the elders), and they will be very handy for those elders who are in a tough spot (like wanting to avoid being sued when church discipline occurs—there are some suggestions on that matter).
I think and hope this book would be read widely. Membership has been abused, but it makes church discipline difficult (how do you discipline someone who isn’t even a member)? We live in a non-committal age, but entering into the membership of a local body means you are committed to that local church body.
This book will not solve everything, but it provides a strong foundation to work on.
*Those in other denominations will probably take beef with Wright’s and Schreiner’s chapters on baptism and the Lord’s Supper. These chapters are short, but longer discussions may be found in their works Believer’s Baptism and the Lord’s Supper.
- Editors: Mark Dever/Jonathan Leeman
- Hardcover: 432 pages
- Publisher: B&H Academic (June 15, 2015)
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Disclosure: I received this book free from B&H Academic. The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 http://www.access.gpo.gov/nara/cfr/waisidx_03/16cfr255_03.html.