Thursday, June 12, 2008

Restoring Integrity in Baptist Churches: a Review

Restoring Integrity in Baptist Churches. Thomas White, Jason G. Duesing, Malcolm B. Yarnell III, Editors. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2008. pb. 272 pages. $18.99

According to Southern Seminary president Albert Mohler, this " a book urgently needed and well timed." Ten Southern Baptist Ph.D.'s and one Ph.D. candidate (Daniel Akin, David Allen, Emir Caner, Mark Dever, Jason Duesing, John Hammett, Jason Lee, Stan Norman, Thomas White, Greg Wills, Malcolm Yarnell) take on modern challenges to Baptist theology and ecclesiology in the areas of regenerate church membership (2 chapters), baptism (4 chapters), the Lord's Supper (2 chapters), church discipline (2 chapters), and the priesthood of believers (1 chapter). All of these I conceived as problems 25 years ago as a young preacher, and tried to address them to some extent in the small church I pastored and the small periodical I edited. I am pleased to see these issues taken up by men of credentials and influence.

In the introduction Thomas White lays out the challenges facing local Baptist congregations and the Baptist doctrine of the church in the five areas named above. Then John Hammett and Mark Dever expound regenerate church membership. Hammett deals with the biblical foundation of regenerate church membership, its demise in the early church and its recent decline among Baptists. He considers regenerate church membership a "Baptist mark" of the church (p. 21), but believes "...regenerate church membership...dramatically declined in Baptist life in the twentieth century and is in desperate need of recovery today." (p. 23) Two examples of the problem are (1) attendance to membership ratio -- about 37% on Sunday mornings -- and (2) moral problems as common among Baptist church members as non-church members. Mark Dever defines a church and church membership, and associates membership with love commitment. His story of squirrels in a church building vividly and humorously illustrates the truth and absurdity of the problem of "absentee membership". Both Hammett and Dever connect regenerate church membership with believer's baptism and church discipline, subjects stressed later in the book. They also offer solutions for restoring a regenerate and meaningful church membership.

One of the most objectionable "solutions", in my opinion, is requiring that a professor pass new membership classes prior to baptism and church membership. This area reveals an area in which Baptists need to meditate deeply in connection with restoring integrity. Can we decry New Testament practice while "restoring integrity" in Baptist churches? This solution makes New Testament practice (immediate baptism) violate New Testament principle (regenerate church membership). Hammett even takes the example of the early church (2nd century) over that of the New Testament church, and, further, dismisses immediate baptisms with an interpretation that (followed to its end) could be used to dismiss baptisms altogether. While seeking to restore integrity, Baptists NEED to examine the discrepancy of (seemingly) arbitrarily choosing or rejecting New Testament practice as it suits us. Do we even have any system here? Why do we follow one example and reject another? If we don't know, it is no surprise we are in a deficit needing to restore integrity. I hope this is an area of research serious and studious minds will soon engage.

Chapter 3 begins the study of baptism with Daniel Akin's "The Meaning of Baptism." In an unique presentation, Akin exposes seven implications of the meaning of baptism from Romans 5:12-6:14. If he approaches correct doctrine on the meaning of baptism, it raises serious questions about delaying baptism. Should we delay testifying our death to sin, our identity with Christ and His resurrection life, our future resurrection and the daily mortification of the flesh? Discussing Romans 6:8-10, Akin touches on the relationship of baptism and eternal security (a recent hot topic in the SBC). But he does not grapple with the implications of that relationship. David Allen follows with "Dipped for Dead", on the mode of baptism. About now some Baptist may say, "I've heard all this before." Hang on. This is important. In the dipper's denomination in America in the 21st century a number is clamoring for laxity on the mode, and many English Baptists have long since adopted open membership. No doubt Allen correctly states "(t)he time is ripe to revisit the theology of baptism." (p. 82) Allen examines linguistic, biblical, historical, archaeological, and theological evidence. The weight of his arguments should crush any hope of defending sprinkling or pouring as the mode of baptism. Thomas White follows by addressing 6 categories related to valid baptism -- subject, mode, meaning, place, administrator, and formula. The first three and last find general agreement among most Baptists, with the 4th and 5th often seen as connected to the Landmark controversy among Southern Baptists. 'Place' deals with baptism as a church ordinance. 'Administrator' inspects who, if anyone in particular, is authorized to perform baptism. While differing in theory with the Landmark view of church authority and administrator, White's explanations on pp. 117-118 make unlikely much variation in practice. His definition of the essentials of a church (being/esse) allows room for a pedobaptist body to be one. But his ideas on baptism make it unlikely that he could accept an immersion from a pedobaptist church. Jason Lee concludes the baptism section exploring baptism and covenant ecclesiology. He examines the historical practice of believers covenanting together to be a church body, and examines the relationship of baptism and the church covenant (as well as connecting covenant and regenerate church membership).

The next chapter is exactly what the title suggests, "A Baptist's Theology of the Lord's Supper." Thomas White does an excellent job of providing an overview of the Lord's Supper and encouraging its meaningful celebration. He addresses thanksgiving, remembrance, community, anticipation, elements, meaning, recipients, administrator, and frequency. With a few changes this chapter could make a good independent overview of the Lord's Supper. Curiously, White advises grape juice as the element because wine "has been the subject of strenuous debate and such debates need not occupy the mind during the celebration of the Supper (p. 143)" -- evidently never conceiving that grape juice is the other side of the debate and that it might also "occupy the mind during the celebration". Emir Caner deals mainly with the participants of communion, connecting it with church discipline (which prepares well for the following two chapters). Even though they don't carry the baggage of some other/older terms, I find it unfortunate that Caner prominently uses three uncommon expressions -- laissez-faire, cracked and locked -- to refer to certain views on the participants of communion. Perhaps these will catch on some day. But not today.

Greg Wills' "Southern Baptists and Church Discipline" reminds us the book is written by Southern Baptists, for Southern Baptists. Wills inspects the shift that made church discipline implausible for Southern Baptists -- they "...based church practices on their apparent effectiveness...redefined Baptist identity...and...modified the church's mission..." (p. 185). Wills believes that together these three changes undermined the effective practice of church discipline. This chapter serves as strong condemnation of the direction of many Southern Baptists. But let us who are not Southern Baptist not "pile-on". Let us rather reflect on how far we have also walked down this same path. It is not peculiarly a Southern Baptist problem. Stan Norman urges the reestablishment of proper church discipline. Both Wills and Norman cite the growth of individual autonomy as a foe of church discipline (which relates well to Chapter 11). Norman examines the biblical foundation of church discipline, church discipline in Baptist thought, the occasion, purpose, decline, relationship to covenant, and practical procedures. Considering the procedures, Norman inexplicably seems to change "tell it to the church" to "tell it to the leaders of the church." (p. 215) He notes well a problem most modern Baptists have seen far too often -- disciplinary action seldom recognized by sister churches. He also candidly addresses two pragmatic fears related to church discipline -- the loss of revenue and the fear of lawsuits.

Malcolm Yarnell calls on Baptists to reclaim of the biblical doctrine of the priesthood of the believers for local Baptist churches. An untutored look at the subjects might leave one wondering why Yarnell's subject is "out there" all alone -- that is, not interconnected with the other four subjects. But it truly is an integral part, which a reading of "Restoring Integrity" will make plain. Yarnell inspects the biblical witness and Christian history on the subject, and draws conclusions of what the theology of the royal priesthood does and does not mean. There is a key difference between "the priesthood of the believer" versus "the priesthood of believers". Two important facts from Yarnell's research are that Christ's priesthood is primary and unique, and that the royal priesthood is plural and thus communal or congregational in nature.

Jason Duesing wraps up with "Maintaining the Integrity of the Church for Future Churches." He believes indifference to ecclesiology and the doctrine of the believer's church is a major obstacle in the way of preserving biblical principles. He further confirms a restoration of the believer's church (including regenerate church membership, believer's baptism and church discipline) as a vehicle for preserving the essentials of the Christian faith.

Restoring Integrity in Baptist Churches is well-written, well-edited and well-published. The authors are well-versed in the Bible and church history. I was glad to see the wonderful return to footnotes (often endnotes are used in scholarly tomes). A complete index would be helpful and perhaps could be added to future printings. These are not just miscellaneous essays by random authors. Rather these are intertwined issues addressed by authors committed to restoring integrity in Baptist churches. The book addresses necessary elements of restoring integrity. This book is not an end, but a beginning. May it begin a dialogue between those who share the burden. The focus of this book is events, problems and solutions of the Southern Baptist Convention. But most Baptists (in America at least) are not far behind. A few are ahead. I believe this book will speak to you even if you are not affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention.

Some of you may find Restoring Integrity too liberal. Some of you may find it too conservative. But find it! Buy it. Read it.

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