Thursday, November 14, 2013

Biblical Foundations for Baptist Churches: A Contemporary Ecclesiology (Review)

Biblical Foundations for Baptist Churches: A Contemporary Ecclesiology by John S. Hammett. Grand Rapids: Kregal, 2005. 353 pages. 

Biblical Foundations for Baptist Churches seeks to construct a complete ecclesiology built upon the foundation of Scripture, while also drawing extensively upon church history to “challenge and, at points, to correct contemporary [ecclesiological] assumptions” (p.16). Hammett’s goal is to set forth a biblical model of ecclesiology that honors God’s design for the church, a design that is pleasing to the “Lord of the church” (p.352). The book achieves this purpose by asking five questions: (1) What is the church?; (2) Who is the church?; (3) How is the church governed?; (4) What does the church do?; (5) Where is the church going?

The church is primarily a local assembly of believers who form the people of God, the body of Christ, and the temple of the Holy Spirit. These three images have historically been fleshed out in the classical marks of the church: “unity or oneness, holiness, catholicity, and apostolicity” (p.51); and the two Reformation marks: “pure preaching of the Word,” and “the proper administration of the sacraments” (pp.64-65). However, Hammett argues that the true mark of the church is the gospel, for “It underlies, shapes, and frames the church’s unity, holiness, catholicity, and apostolicity; it is the message preached and presented in the sacraments” (p.66). The church, then, is loosely defined as God’s organized, purposeful assembly, empowered by the Holy Spirit, centered on the gospel, whose primary purpose is to “please God” (p.67).

Baptists have historically held that the church can only include regenerate, baptized believers (Part 2); a position that has strong biblical precedent as well as practical benefits. These practical concerns are essential to part three. Since the church is comprised of regenerate believers, each congregation can therefore be governed by congregational rule: “In this model, the congregation exercises the ultimate human authority in the church, under Christ’s divine authority” (p.123).

In discussing what the church does (Part 4), Hammett suggests five ministries that should be found in every church: teaching, fellowship, worship, service, and evangelism. These ministries are mandated by God and distinguish the church from parachurch organizations (p.256). In addition, every church should faithfully administer baptism and the Lord’s Supper, the two ordinances of the church.

Finally, part five raises questions concerning where the church is headed. These questions are not primarily eschatological, but rather ask how the church should respond to major cultural changes and to the growing trend of mega, emerging, and seeker sensitive churches. Of course the church will continue to expand around the globe in the coming decades, to which the church is reminded of its eschatological hope—the effective evangelization of all people groups that ushers in the return of Christ (p. 347; cf. Matt. 24:14).

Doctrinal Analysis
The Doctrine of the Holy Spirit
The Holy Spirit has a prominent role regarding the images of the church, especially in relation to the church as the people of God and as the temple of the Holy Spirit. With regards to the church as the people of God, Hammett writes: “It is the indwelling of the Holy Spirit that makes this people different than the Old Testament people of God. He [the Spirit] is the discontinuity; his coming makes the church the new creation of God” (p. 33). The church is also the temple of the Holy Spirit; meaning that God indwells or inhabits his church primarily through the Holy Spirit (p.44).

Elsewhere, the Holy Spirit is crucial to the discussion of “Who is the church?” The Spirit is the agent that causes regeneration, allowing people to be transformed “into relationship with God” and thus rightly placed in the body of Christ, the church (p .47). In turn, the indwelling of the Spirit in every believer informs the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers, which plays an important role in the practice of congregational government. “Early Baptists had a robust confidence in the power and competence of the church to govern its own affairs; that confidence was linked to the empowering presence of the Spirit in the church” (p.75).

Further, the Holy Spirit empowers the ministries of the church. The Spirit, which is the Spirit of truth (John 16:13), empowers the teaching ministry of the church by enabling believers to communicate and receive the truth of God’s Word (p.225). It enables the ministry of fellowship, for without the Spirit’s help, “diverse members” could not rightly experience fellowship (p.225). The Holy Spirit is also critical to the ministry of worship. True worship, Hammett suggests, is “Spirit-empowered” and “Christ-focused” (p.239).

The Spirit’s influence, then, is everywhere in the life of the church. It empowers the right worship of God and Christ, thus affecting the doctrines of ecclesiology, God and Christology. In its indwelling nature, the Spirit is the primary force in regenerating the human heart; and is therefore essential to the doctrine of soteriology. Without question, Hammett demonstrates why the church should rightly be called “the temple of the Holy Spirit” (p.43).

The Doctrine of God
The first image of the church is that of the people of God, “a chosen people…a people belonging to God” (p.32; cf. 1 Peter 2:9-10). “Eleven times the church is called ‘the church of God.’ God called it and God relates to it; the church is shaped in every way by its relationship to God” (p.34). The practical implications of the doctrine of God have important ramifications upon the character and purpose of the church.

With regards to character, the church should reflect God’s communicable attributes to the degree that it is possible. The foremost of these are God’s holiness and love. Since God is holy, “the people of God must be holy” and are called to be holy (p.34). God is also love, and therefore God’s people should exude love, first for God, and then for others (Matt. 22:37-39). God’s people are also commanded to love one another seventeen times in the New Testament. Thus, Hammett is right to conclude that the people of God “must be characterized by love” (p.35).

As for the purpose of the church, Hammett consistently argues that the main function of the church is to please God. After all, the church is God’s assembly (p.67). Since God is a God of order, his church is likewise expected to be an orderly assembly that gathers under his design, for his purpose, under the power of his Spirit. One of the chief purposes of the church is worship; namely the church gathers to worship God by declaring “the praises of the one who called them out of darkness and into his wonderful light” (p.238; cf. 1 Peter 2:9-10).

The Doctrine of Christology
Christology is another prominent theme, most evident in the image of the church as the body of Christ. This image affects the life of the church in two important ways. First, it informs how believers relate to one another. Since believers are united in Christ’s body, the church should exude unity and mutual care and love for one another (p. 40). Second, as the body of Christ, believers submit to the authority of Christ as he is the head of the body (p.41).

This second aspect of the body of Christ has important implications in the case for congregational government. While other forms of church government locate authority over the local church in a bishop or presbytery, congregationalism allows the church to exercise authority first and foremost under the divine Lordship of Christ. Hammett says it best when he says: “Congregationalism preserves the congregation’s direct responsibility to submit to Christ’s headship” (p.149).

The Doctrine of Soteriology
The doctrine of soteriology primarily informs the central question: Who is the church? The short answer is regenerate believers in Christ; or as Hammett says, “They are the ones who believe in Christ and are bound to one another by the Holy Spirit” (p.83). Thus, the church is comprised of regenerate baptized believers only. This doctrine strongly influences ecclesiology, for it informs how to administer communion and baptism, how the church is governed, and the right to practice church discipline (pp. 81-107).

One point that seems to be missing from this discussion is what defines a regenerate believer, particularly in regards to the role of repentance unto salvation. Further discussion on this point would have been helpful.

Do I trust that God grows his church?
A recurring theme in the book is the tension between church growth models and remaining faithful to God’s design and purpose for his church. Hammett argues that success is measured by more than numerical growth; in some contexts, the growth will be primarily spiritual. The bottom line is to recall that the church’s goal “is to live the life God has given it” (p.73). As I shepherd the local church I want to trust that God will grow the church, and that my role is to lead the church to remain faithful to God’s design and purpose.

How will I ensure regenerate church membership?
Chapter five was one of the most helpful chapters in the book, as Hammett demonstrated the importance of guarding regenerate church membership. This impressed upon me the importance of establishing a formal membership process and guidelines for church discipline in any church that I am fortunate enough to lead.

How will I decide the proper age for baptism and profession of faith?
It is startling to discover the percentage of baptisms in the Southern Baptist Convention that constitute rebaptisms. This suggests that many churches baptize young children “without clear assurance that they” are in fact baptizing true believers (p.112). Conversely, in other parts of the world, where “no one would think of asking for baptism prior to the age of fourteen,” rebaptism is hardly an issue (p.112). As a pastor, I must develop a process of confirming the credibility of one’s profession of faith, regardless of age.

What is the best model of church government?
Prior to reading this book I believed that elder rule was the best option for church government. However, Hammett’s defense of congregationalism, combined with his critique of elder rule—especially his view that elder rule reinforces consumerism—has changed my mind (p.211). The last few pages of chapter eight provide a framework for a healthy and well balanced church government that includes a plurality of leaders combined with a “congregation that is able and willing to govern itself” (p.211).

Can women serve as deacons in the church?
The final question raised is that of the office of deaconess. Hammett gives a fair treatment to the relevant passages, to which he concludes:“There is little clear support for the office of deaconess” (p.201). Still, I agree with Hammett that so long as the office of deacon involves service rather than teaching or ruling, women can serve in such a role (p.203). 

The primary insight gleaned is the definition of a successful church. Hammett says a “successful church is a faithful church” (p.352). A church that is faithful to God’s Word, to his gospel, and to his design is a faithful church. In an age when church growth is a measuring stick for success, Hammett convincingly argues that while growth is desirable, it is not the primary focus of the church. “In the end, the one we seek to please in our churches must not be the seekers, nor the postmoderns, nor the traditionalists, nor the members, but the Lord of the church, and we please him by honoring his design for the church” (p.352). To that end, my goal as a pastor will be to lead the church to be faithful to God’s design and purpose with the understanding that such faithfulness will result in “God-given growth” (p.72).

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