Dever, Mark, and Jonathan Leeman, eds. Baptist Foundations: Church Government for an Anti-Institutional Age. United States: B&H Publishing Group, 2015. 397 pp. $44.99
We live in an era of ever-evolving Baptist churches: CEO pastors, traditional deacon-pastor systems, elders leading, elders ruling, bishop-like preachers, churches that require a fully attended vote to buy more toilet paper for the bathroom, not-churches-that-just-meet-at-a-coffeehouse-and-do-life-man, and on and on the list goes. For this reason and many more, Baptist Foundations: Church Government for an Anti-Institutional Age is a welcome addition to the current debate on church government. Editors Mark Dever and Jonathan Leeman have contributed to and compiled an intellectual and pastoral tour de force for ecclesiology. Driven by a trust in Scripture as an all-sufficient guide, the authors argue for a thoroughly Baptist form of church government. This, they contend, as the Biblical model of church governance strengthens Christians, preserves the gospel from one generation to the next, and best displays the order Christ commands for his church.
Contributors to this volume give extended Biblical-theological, as well as historical-theological treatments to congregationalism, the ordinances (Baptism and the Lord’s Supper), church membership and discipline (the greatly forgotten practice of Baptist tradition), elders and deacons, and how it is the church itself functions within itself (unity) and with other churches (Evangelical ecumenism). This book does not attempt to rewrite history or manipulate texts. Rather, Baptist Foundations at every turn attempts to show the Biblical evidence for congregationalism, with a healthy dose of disagreement towards those traditions with eschew congregational emphases and/or downplay the priesthood of all believers in the life of the church. Whereas many like treatments would focus on the priesthood of all believers, however, this volume asks the question: To whom does authority belong and how is it to be exercises. As Mark writes in the preface, “Polity is about authority.” Responsible stewardship of this authority in a Biblical (and therefore Baptist) polity will lead to the greatest flourishing for God’s people as well as those who encounter them.
Benefit for Pastoral Ministry
There are many droll tomes on ecclesiology that could put even a sugar-filled toddler to sleep. This is not one of them. Though thoroughly theological and intellectually rigorous, this book is also pastorally sensitive and deeply practical at every turn. A mere theologian could not write this book— only pastors, drawing from deep wells of experience and wisdom. In particular, the discussions on “The What and How of Church Membership” (ch. 9) and Practical Issues in Elder Ministry (ch. 15) will prove helpful for any who read them, even those who may ultimately disagree with the author’s overarching ecclesiological conclusions. Likewise, any Baptist who has felt a bit blindsided by their high-church tradition brethren will be well equipped by this volume to faithfully teach the truth of congregational polity.
If it is true that the church is the primary community where Christians are nourished by Word and ordinance (which the authors prefer to ‘sacrament’), then every congregational pastor can benefit from a good, long look at what God’s Word teaches about the church. There is much to be learned from the Scriptures, from the illumination of the Spirit in church history, and the practical wisdom of the pastors and theologians who contributed to this volume. If this book is missing anything, it is an extended discussion on how to pastor faithfully in a church that is not quite where they ought to be in terms of church government. Nonetheless, the authors do not heap on shame and call for a coup d’etat until churches comply to this high ecclesiological standard; instead, they set high expectations for churches and pastors to strive toward, while all the while modeling the servant-hearted shepherd-like character required of overseers. On that note, this would also be an excellent book for any church seeking to restructure, re-write their bylaws, or re-examine their teachings as they pertain to polity.
Essential — Recommended — Helpful — Pass It By
Many good books on Baptist ecclesiology have been written in recent years. Many of them are worth reading, especially those that are more specific than this volume. Baptist Foundations, however, is now the essential text that compiles the foundational beliefs of Baptist polity into a single book. Buy it now, and move it to the top of your to-read stack.