The subject of Church polity has been treated in the past under varying guises and yet goes on largely misunderstood even in our day. Here at last in one succinct volume we have two men who have spent their entire lives immersed in ecclesial waters, no pun intended. Jonathan Leeman and Mark Dever give the Baptist people, and indeed those outside that umbrella, a clear and heavy-hitting volume in Baptist Foundations: Church Government for an Anti-Institutional Age.
In reading through this volume I see two streams it finds itself swimming in. On the one hand, they develop and present a solid case for Congregational church polity, and on the other they join with other denominations in rising against the Enlightenment rejection of authority. In the midst of a culture who embraces what Christian Smith calls Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, people are rejecting any type of authority which seeks to provide structure and boundaries in an otherwise boundless world.
What is A Church?
One definition of a Church that comes out in this volume is a good place to begin. “It is a community of belief — men and women who have owned Christ, been baptized as believers, and in so doing committed themselves to one another.” Of course in that one sentence we already begin to see a particularly Baptistic leaning. In saying they are a community of baptized believers, one can already sense where the rest of the study is going to fall.
They place that baptized people in a particular setting, which only makes sense, when you begin to see the unfolding of a covenant relationship in this section. Not only does talk of covenant permeate this section through and through, but if you understand what the authors are saying you can begin to see a thread of covenant work itself out over every member and structure of the church.
What Does the Church Do?
Part 2 develops the ideas of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Two means of grace which have had filled their share of volumes and debates. I appreciate the authors of this section in not caricaturing the view of Paedobaptism but raising relevant questions that have not yet been adequately answered. On the other side of the issue, Reformed Baptists like Sam Renihan, Pascal Denault, and Richard Barcellos have done an excellent job in creating a deep well of resources for understanding these two ordinances.
Most people won’t enjoy Part 3 of this volume. Church Membership and Discipline aren’t highly valued pieces of a church. For the most part they are ignored in lieu of making everyone feel comfortable so that they continue to fill the coffers. On the other hand, though, going all Chuck Norris on a congregant whenever they sin isn’t the right way to go about it either. They navigate this section with biblical wisdom and clarity for even the toughest critic.
Who Runs the Church?
Maybe you’ve had the same pastor for a while now and you’re thinking, “Where did this guy come from and how can we get rid of him?” Before you start a petition among the pews to the guy up there with funny jokes impeached, hold on a second. You must understand the biblical mandate on who should lead the church and what that looks like from the other side of the pulpit.
In seeking to build a church which exudes the glory of God, a Church must have a plurality of Elders set on the building of God’s people to the praise of His name. An Elder, or Pastor as you may call him, must be able to do many things for his church. He must be able to lead, teach, shepherd, and protect those whom God has placed in his care. This standing in the church must not be handled carelessly, but the man called to this position must live “above reproach”. Unfortunately examples like this are hard to come by these days.
So Why Invest In This Volume?
This volume is written from a pastoral perspective and isn’t overtly scholarly, though it does include some things many will have to digest over several readings. If you’ve heard Mark Dever speak, and for that matter many of the other authors, you can see that their hearts are set on their congregations and their minds upon the study of the Scriptures. They love God and thus this work naturally flows from that position of loving God and wanting to see His people grounded in a biblical understanding of Ecclesiology.
As I read through these pages I found this extremely biblical and very well written. It forced me to ask questions about other forms of Church polity and through that I really came to a clear understanding of the Scriptures. Though I still have much searching and understanding to do in my own life and how that plays out in the context of the church, I am glad this volume spurred me in the right direction. I would heartily commend this to the spectrum of Christian readers. From those in the pews Sunday morning to those who sit on the board and even into the academic institutions. This volume couldn’t have hit shelves at more pivotal time in the life of the Church.