April 20, 2015

Want to Read a Great Book With an Awful Cover? Look No Further

This book fell into my hands through my friendship with 9Marks. They asked me to do a review for them, but it laid on my pile for months before I got round to it. It was one of those that I picked up but then got distracted by another one and so put it back until it got pushed further and further down the priorities. You know the drill.

If I’m completely honest, this is not the type of book that I would normally gravitate toward. Despite my close friendship with Dever et al, I don’t spend my days thumbing through books on polity and waxing lyrical on all issues ecclesiological. I have other stuff to do.

If I’m even more honest, this book kept getting pushed aside because of the cover. It is just, well, drab. In fact, it reminded me of a 1980’s school textbook. Frankly, it looked boring, uninviting and unattractive. I wasn’t inspired or driven by curiosity to pick it up. Indeed, I felt like they could have made a bit more effort in the old graphics department given how much publishing has raised its game in today’s ever-crowded market. I’m sure there’s some special reason for the graphic but it is not clear what that is (or maybe it is clear and I am just too dumb to see it—also highly probable). Anyway, I obviously got round to reading it otherwise I wouldn’t be going through all this chat, would I?

So, what do we have? Compiled by John Stevens, and published by 10 Publishing, Independent Church turns out to be part history book and part manifesto on the future of the FIEC, a movement of 500+ independent churches in the UK. In their words, the book aims to “explain the theology, history and practice of the churches that are affiliated to the FIEC”. So far, so what, you may think. Me too. I discovered, once I got into it, 16 independent (I just couldn’t help myself) essays written by 13 authors, across a wealth of evangelical practice and experience, from independent churches around the UK.

Now, I can well imagine that this is the sort of stuff that gets Mark and the team excited, but it’s just not the sort of material that gets my evangelistic primers pumped. The book starts off by reminding us of the supreme importance of ecclesiology. So far, so 9Marks (and the Bible, to be fair). We are informed that, “The ecclesiology that a church adopts may either hinder or help the proclamation of the gospel, either reinforcing the truth or undermining the truth by its structures and actions”. (p.17) OK, now they have my attention.

Then comes the cheeky little slap around the chops which really gets me going.

For instance, did you know about the untimely death of John Greenwood and Henry Barrow? I certainly didn’t. Who, you may wonder (unless you’re an historical buff and then you already know—show off)? They were two Christian men hanged in England in 1593 for the heinous crimes of (1) establishing an independent congregation and (2) insisting that churches, “be made up of only converted people, who had made a public profession of faith and lived a godly life; that elders should be appointed by the congregation; that public worship should be regulated by the scripture and not a prayer book (and that the government of the church should be in the hands of its members and not answerable to any external authority, civil or ecclesiastical”. (p.61) That couldn’t be right, could it? People martyred over boring polity type stuff? Surely not.

What I had thought would be a solid cure for my bouts of insomnia had suddenly taken a turn for the fascinating. Not only that, but it was British to the core. A book on independent churches written by British men for the 21st century. As the pastor of an independent church, I had never really given the historicity much thought, never mind attached any real gospel value to it. But, as the authors reminded me, the ecclesiology of independency serves the cause of the gospel. How so? Well, because independency is biblical of course! A church that operates biblically is, therefore, especially gifted and able to fulfil the Great Commission (or so the argument goes). “The essence of independency is therefore the Bible derived conviction that each and every church is autonomous and self-governing”. (p.20)

Independency, it turns out, was birthed in the UK through the Brethren movement and older Baptist churches. The FIEC was founded in 1922 as “an association of mutual helpfulness”. (p.27) It continues today, with over 500 churches from all ends of the evangelical spectrum, and seeks to spread the growth of gospel ministry within the UK.

The book is helpful in arguing against the critique of isolationism by arguing for interdependency (although I couldn’t help agreeing with this point, I have seen very little real evidence of it in FIEC churches of my acquaintance—monthly pastor bun fights notwithstanding). There is the discussion on the differing leadership styles within independent churches, and so there will be nothing new there for 9Marks aficionados. This is not to say it is not helpful stuff. It is.

The chapter on preaching, however, is an interesting inclusion. I’m not quite sure what the point was other than to remind us that good preaching is Bible-centred preaching. I also found some of the conclusions in this chapter to be a bit wide of the mark. For instance, the insinuation that independent churches are more prevalent among working-class areas may or may not be true (probably historically). But, what is true is that many independent churches on the edge of poor areas today almost exclusively cater for the educated middle classes, and find it hard to break in to more deprived areas. The churches (and I am not referring solely to FIEC here) that do exist in poorer areas tend to be aging and dying, certainly within Scotland and much of the North of England. Indeed, I would argue that much preaching in pulpits today, independents particularly, is cold, sterile, and logically ordered to appeal to that same mindset. (Much like the criticisms of the early independents against state sponsored churches in fact!) I read this chapter a few times and it left me scratching my head. Not that it’s not a good stand-alone read, my criticisms aside. It was just that it felt like it was shoved into the book for the sake of having a chapter about preaching in there and didn’t seem to flow as well as the other chapters.

However, there is a superb chapter on eldership that discusses everything from voting to tenure. These later, more practical chapters, is where we find all the ‘good stuff’ so to speak. I think the book is worth buying for this stuff alone. It deals with our present day (UK) reality and asks how, as independents, we are going to train and develop future leaders. It, rightly in my opinion, asserts that we have to endorse a discipleship and training culture within our local churches. That has to be our starting point as we move on into the future in terms of UK theological training. Although the chapter goes on to make good points about training, and advertises the FIEC training initiatives, there is still much to be done when it comes to training those from deprived backgrounds. Our church, for example, could only afford to send one person to a local training weekend even though we could possibly have sent up to half a dozen more. This requires more attention and thought because, if left unattended, then training will continue to be the domain of the middle, upper, and highly educated classes who can afford entry into vocational ministry.

There is so much to like about this book. I particularly appreciate how each chapter is stand-alone and therefore it can be used as a good teaching textbook. There are vital chapters on church discipline, doctrine, and the role of women. The chapter on independence and mission was particularly excellent. I will be diving into this book regularly and encouraging my church planters, in particular, to study it. I am sure my Presbyterian friends and denominational Baptists will have a few niggles with it here and there, but I definitely recommend it.

This one left me chagrined for being so negative up front about it. It’s a real jewel of a book once you dive in. It’s a winner this one, and not just for the geeks.

Buy on Amazon.co.uk

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