When it comes to reviewing books on this site, I ask three questions:
- Content. Is it biblical?
- Application. Is it relevant?
- Is it helpful for our type of ministry in housing schemes?
This book comes in three distinct parts:
I. What does the Bible say? This is broken down into eight chapters which are suspiciously similar to 9 Marks of a healthy Church (in itself a great book, albeit missing prayer, mission, etc. etc.).
II. What has the church believed? This is a history lesson on the church, its ordinances and its organisation (spelled with a ‘Z’ in the book).
III. How does it all fit together? This is working out how it all comes together in Baptist polity.
I greatly appreciated this book for a number of fundamental reasons. Firstly, it is a great clarion call to church planters in any context to get to grips with what the scriptures teach us concerning the doctrine of the church. I am constantly amazed by how many church planters I meet who disregard ecclesiology and treat it almost like a harsh case of piles. They’ll deal with it if they have to, but they certainly don’t want to think about it, never mind talk about it. Dever helps us to grapple with the question in the opening chapter. Secondly, Dever is committed to the absolute inerrancy and all-sufficiency of the Bible when it comes to matters of faith and practice and, in this case, polity. It forces us to go to the Bible and justify the kind of church we want to plant. If we’re not planting churches and developing polity founded on the scriptures, what are they being founded upon? We don’t even have to agree with his conclusions to find that helpful. If I was to give one piece of advice to young men who want to get involved in church planting and, indeed, any pastoral ministry, it would be: ‘What is your doctrine of the church?’ Or, more specifically,‘What kind of church are your trying to establish?’Key questions that this book forces us to address.
I have many friends across all theological and ecclesiological persuasions, and I hear many debates on ‘expressions’ of church or ‘new ways’ of doing community. Go to almost any meeting of young, eager church planters and you will find that they are almost dribbling into their Chai Tea lattes about ‘being community in a broken world’ or whatever. The bottom line, and Dever helps us to get to it quickly, is that “God’s eternal plan has always been to display his glory not just through individuals but through a corporate body.” (p.4) In the OT, it was Israel and in the NT, is it the church of God throughout the world (that’ll raise a few eyebrows in certain eschatalogical circles, but not mine!). He describes the church as, “the koinonia or ‘fellowship’ of people who have accepted and entered into the reign of God.” (p.13). Furthermore, it is, “one, holy, universal, and apostolic as a reflection of God’s unity, holiness, immensity, eternality and truthfulness.” (p.15)
So, what should a biblical church look like? Again, Dever is clear.
“The church is generated by the right preaching of the Word. The church is distinguished and contained by the right administration of baptism and the Lord’s Supper.” (p.21)
We then get to the polity of the church, and it is at this point that I find myself uncertain, not by the idea of congregationalism, but by its practice in the real world. We have the usual texts and arguments about establishing church leadership—church officers and the like. There is a short discussion on the term ‘senior pastor’, with scant evidence to support it at best. This section may have been helped by citing some examples of what decisions the elders take and bring to the members and what decisions they leave up to the congregation. I found myself in agreement with large parts of this chapter but just uncertain as how to carry some of it out. I did find the following quote helpful, although it sounds suspiciously close to elder led rule to me.
“The congregation is not in competition with the elders. The congregation’s authority is more like an emergency brake than a steering wheel. The congregation normally recognises than creates, responds rather than initiates, confirms rather than proposes.” (p.143)
I found the same problem in the area of church discipline. In an area like ours it is such a big problem. We have practiced church discipline (successfully) in the past. At the moment in Niddrie, I have been very slow (perhaps overly so) in baptising people and bringing them into church membership. This is for a whole host of reasons. People have messed up personal lives, still living with partners, still on prescribed medication, etc. There are a whole host of reasons for caution. However, these people still profess Christ as Lord and sit under the authority of our teaching every week and, therefore, I feel we have to counsel and discipline/exhort/encourage them. The only other option is to ignore them as not being church members. It is a bit of a quandary which the elders have not yet fully resolved. Again, this chapter could have been much more helpful in offering some examples (although I appreciate the danger of that). Life isn’t (ever) black and white for us here on the scheme and I am sure we take in members that other churches would never dream of. However, I am equally sure that we treat many pastoral cases that other churches do not.
I found the rest of the book to be pretty standard fare. The debate on closed or open communion was helpful. This has been an issue at NCC and I have blogged about it previously. His conclusion, entitled, ‘Why does it matter?’ was very strong and tied together a few loose ends.
“The church is not only an institution founded by Christ; it is also His body. In it is reflected God’s own glory. How will theology, the Bible, and even God Himself be known apart from the church? What community will understand and explain God’s creation and providence to the world? How will the ravages of sin be explained, the person and work of Christ extolled, the Spirit’s saving work seen, and the return of Christ proclaimed to coming generations if not by the church?” (p.149)
This book should be read by prospective (particularly baptistic) church planters. If for no other reason than to give them some clarity on this oft neglected doctrine. Too many entering into church planting think that they will get there through the gift of evangelism. The history of Scottish housing schemes is littered with mission halls that brought people Jesus but, in too many places, did not secure that foundation by building healthy, biblical churches. Too many of our schemes are being left in the hands of para-church organisations that cannot fulfill the function of the local church in a community. Some of these organisations do great work but, as Dever so rightly reminds us:
“The parachurch neither has the same commitment to systematically proclaiming the whole counsel of God, nor does it have the mechanisms of baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and church discipline for drawing a clear, bright line that says to the world, “Here are the people of God.” (p.152)
Schemes need the church. Schemes need solid, biblical, healthy churches. Schemes need to see the gospel embodied in their midst. That embodiment is a community of God’s people engaged in gospel preaching and gospel living. This book is definitely worth a read. Buy a copy.