Polity: Biblical Arguments on How to Conduct Church Life. Mark E. Dever, Ed. Washington, DC: Center for Church Reform, 2001. 586pp hardback, 3 indices [Person, Subject, Scripture]
Reviewed by Thomas J. Nettles
Recovery of a doctrine of biblical truthfulness gives hope that the Lord may visit us with a revival of loving submission to biblical authority. In such a revival, individuals would pursue mortification of sin by purging "every stain of flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God" (2 Cor 7:1). They would find joy in renewed prayerfulness, a disciplined commitment to personal Bible study, intentional gospel witness to friends, family and neighbors, and in the fellowship of the church. Churches would express this in a renewed seriousness about the Bible's construction of church life. The nature of church membership, the selection and character of church officers, the proper execution of church discipline, and the warranted content of church worship each have their own war zones in contemporary church life. A deep-flowing stream of pragmatism has eroded its way into Baptist life from the mid-twentieth century to the present. A true renewal of biblical authority, however, should dam the stream and investigate its tributaries. Spiritually sane observations will cause us to forego our penchant for unexamined success and subdue our exuberance about rising statistics for the sake of a biblically informed, doctrinally sound commitment to the purity of the "household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and support of the truth" (1 Tim 3:15).
Who will help us learn to read the Bible again on these important issues? Our Baptist forefathers worked carefully to define church life in accordance with a "thus saith the Lord." They had suffered under the repression of those who added human tradition to the clear teaching of Scripture. State-churchism, infant baptism, hierarchical ecclesiasticism, undisciplined congregations, and elitism had conspired to render churches around them only faintly reminiscent of the New Testament church. Building an ecclesiology from the ground up using Scripture alone turned into a great scandal, particularly when it involved rejecting infant baptism. They were determined, however, against all contrary powers to establish churches by God's instructions. Some of their most potent, well-reasoned, fire-tempered treatments of biblical ecclesiology they put in print for the sake of sister churches and to explain themselves to their antagonists. These same documents can help us read Scripture on the church with a freshness we have not experienced in a few decades.
The good news about this, is that many of the most important of these "biblical arguments on how to conduct church life" (the subtitle of this book) are now available in one place--our book under review, Polity. Mark Dever and the Center for Church Reform have done for us what we need. Documents from 1697 to 1874, ten in all, are in this one book. Among the documents are some shorter treatises and some entire books. The shortest, A Short Treatise Concerning a True and Orderly Gospel Church by Benjamin Griffith of the Philadelphia Baptist Association, covers 17 pages of text. The longest, Church Polity or the Kingdom of Christ by J. L. Reynolds, includes 107 pages of text.
Three introductory treatises provide an invigorating and informative perspective from which to view the primary documents. The editor, Mark Dever, gives pastoral admonition based on 1 Timothy 3:1 in "The Noble Task: The Pastor as Preacher and Practitioner of the Marks of the Church." Dever gives an analysis of Baptists in the nineteenth century using the eyes of English Baptists F. A. Cox and J. Hoby. After establishing the Reformation context of pastoral theology, he provides a helpful synopsis of theologically driven changes in preaching, and a challenging analysis of administering the ordinances in the context of a disciplined congregation. Greg Wills discusses 18th and 19th century Baptist views of the authority and spiritual equality of the congregation, church membership, baptism, the Lord's supper, church discipline, confessions of faith (5 pages worth), and church officers. The reader will find these summaries helpful as a virtual abstract of Baptist ecclesiology. Wills then provides brief biographical treatments and synopses pertinent to each document included. Wills also includes a helpful survey of points in which some disagreement between the documents exists on certain points.
For the third introductory essay, entitled Church Discipline: The Missing Mark, from R. Albert Mohler, Jr., Polity republishes an article that appeared in The Compromised Church, edited by John Armstrong and published by Crossway books in 1998. Mohler, President of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, contends that "without a recovery of functional church discipline--firmly established upon the principles revealed in the Bible--the church will continue its slide into moral dissolution and relativism" (43). Mohler carefully integrates contemporary cultural analysis as it relates to the church's witness, historical precedent, and biblical and theological commentary. After giving a distressing picture of the growth of permissiveness in our culture and its coincidence with the failure of nerve on the part of churches to practice discipline, he established the biblical principles of holiness for God's people and the biblical warrant for church discipline. Then follow discussions of the biblical pattern of discipline and the power of the keys given to the church. Moving from principle to precise cases of application, Mohler pinpoints three areas Scripture warrants as worthy of church action: fidelity of doctrine, purity of life, and unity of fellowship. His discussion of the pattern, built on Matthew 18, could be expanded and nuanced slightly. Mohler does not make the distinction between public offenses and private offenses (including personal offenses) that are sometimes made in manuals on discipline. Some discipline issues involve such flagrant and notorious offenses that private confrontation is a moot point (e.g. 1 Corinthians 5).
The largest section of the book includes the ten manuals on discipline and church order. Authors of the "Historical Reprints" are Benjamin Keach, Benjamin Griffith, the Charleston Association, Samuel Jones (that makes three straight that come from the Charleston Association), W. B. Johnson, Joseph S. Baker, J. L. Reynolds, P. H. Mell, Eleazer Savage, and William Williams. A fair summary of the subject matter involved is impossible. Large areas predictably overlap in discussions of the basic form of the church, its officers, its ordinances, its composition and the means by which its purity should be maintained. The affirmation one receives on the clarity of Scripture on these points and the astringent conviction of biblical authority in all these matters provides a healthy purgative for ecclesiastical bowels bloated by feverish capitulation to cleverly-devised but fleshly-generated programs. Just as striking and cleansing, however, are the individual words of wisdom that sparkle from the experience and unique gifts of each writer. Joseph S. Baker's exposition on how to get at the bottom of rumors (270-2) could provide a truly wonderful remedy for a plague on many church fellowships. Enlightening discussions of elders, deacons (W. B. Johnson thinks that having deacons serve the Lord's Supper is an offense to the real character of their office), receiving members, dismissing members, associations, preaching, and a surprising array of other elements of life in the local church appear in every document.
I sincerely recommend that each pastor purchase several copies of this book and immediately create a study group in the church to go through the entire volume in a comparative/synthetic manner. The goal should be that the entire membership will study the book in a two year period by creating from the initial group study leaders for other groups that will meet simultaneously. From this a consensus will emerge that will institute means for church reformation. The preface expressed the hope that "The volume is to be a treasury for researchers and for pastors, for professors and for church leaders" (ix). It is that and more.
Through the courtesy of the Center for Church Reform, Polity is in the Founders Ministries online library.