Foundations: No.76 Spring 2019

Book Reviews

Pure Church

David Skull, Andrew King, Jim Sayers (Editors), Grace Publications Trust, 2018, 256pp, £8.99

Have Grace Baptist Churches had their day?” is the first sentence of the preface. The book is written by some reformed Baptist pastors from the UK who got together and wrote “The ERGO Statement – Encouraging the Recovery of Gospel Order”. This statement was eventually renamed the TitusOneFive Statement, and this is how the book begins. It is a concise, three-page summary of church order that forms the structure of the book. It reaffirms the connection between conversion, baptism, church membership and the Lord’s Supper. Ten statements are explored and defended in the ten chapters, each written by a different pastor:

We want this book to be a beginning of a wider conversation in the UK and beyond. We intend to publish a series of smaller spin-off books under the brand #TitusOneFive, exploring areas that we have had to cover rather briefly here.

In the introduction John Benton commends the endeavour to pursue good ecclesiology; it is not a matter of bolting on a new ideas to the old existing structure, but “the church needs to be rethought in a joined-up way, so that the whole organisation and organic life of the church works for building up God’s people to his glory” (8).

1. The visible church

The local church is defined as “organised gatherings of Christians” who are “united by a statement of faith”, “shaped by the ministry of the word” and “aided by the gospel signs of baptism and communion”. With wider evangelicalism losing touch with the authoritative rule of the doctrines of Scripture, this first section needs to be continually affirmed. But it is in the second section that differences will immerge between conservative evangelicals: “If infant baptism and believer’s baptism are treated as equally valid in one church, baptism becomes a sign with many and conflicted meanings” (22)’ “If communion is separated from baptism, it likewise loses its corporate identity as a sign of belonging to the local church, and becomes much more a sign of the invisible church than the disciplined local church” (22); “So are Grace Baptist churches being unnecessarily divisive and separatist because we believe that baptism as a believer is the sign that brings a Christian into the membership of the visible church, and that the Lord’s Supper is an expression of belonging to that local church? We don’t think so” (24).

2. Conversion

The Christian is defined as “someone who has been genuinely converted by God”. We read that “our understanding of biblical conversion affects almost every aspect of local church life” (46).

3. Baptism

Baptism is defined as both “a local church’s act” and “a converted person’s act”. Additionally, it is “the act which commences a converted person’s membership of a local church”. The argument for baptism as being the responsibility of the local church is built on the linkage between Matthew 16, 18 and 28; the keys of the kingdom are given to the church. Consistent with baptism as a converted person’s act the author states “I do not consider the baptism of infants to be baptism” (51). Conversion is the prerequisite for baptism; membership is initiated by baptism (65). 

4. Membership

Membership requirements include the candidate “agreeing to the church’s statement of faith and values”, the church affirming them based on the “explanation of their conversion and the gospel” and that the candidate “has been baptised as a believer”.

5. The Lord’s Supper

The Lord’s Supper is defined in four statements: It is “a local church’s act”, “a converted, baptised person’s act”, “Christ’s ongoing means of binding the members of a local church together” and “for baptised members of local churches”.  At the Supper we should be “communing with Christ and each other” and “commemorating Christ’s death” – both affirmed, along with the twin responses of “receiving Christ’s benefits” and “renewing commitment to Christ”. Helpfully, this chapter builds its case from both the Old and New Testaments. For example, in the OT “the gift of food from the King also acknowledges that one is subject to that King” (98). We are also challenged that a Christian who regularly attends, but is not a member of the local church should not be included in the Supper. “For many, such a stance seems harsh” yet “the Supper is not a private devotion but a communal meal… To participate regularly without real commitment to a local church shows a disregard for Christ’s people which Paul warns against” (103).

6. Discipleship

“Each local church should be characterised by a shared life of discipleship… to grow in holiness… and in witness”. All members are to be equipped to serve by participation in the formal and informal life of the church – “it takes a church to grow every disciple” (118). An over-reliance on preaching or on formal church activities will hinder a balanced process of discipleship.

7. Discipline

Church discipline is defined as the “removal from church membership and withholding of the Lord’s Supper” and is necessary when a member’s “life or doctrine renders their profession of faith in Christ incredible”. The process involves “much pastoral care” and has the aim of bringing the offender “back to repentance and faith, and… church membership”. Wisely, the emphasis is not on developing a list of sins, but on a clear gospel framework – the sin must be outward, serious and unrepented of. The idea of “suspension” (being refused the Supper but retaining membership) before “discipline” (loss of membership) is rejected as without biblical support.

8. Independency

The independence of the local church is defined: “each local church has final authority” over its membership, leadership and its doctrinal and moral standards. This is an excellent chapter in which the author argues, “that congregationalism is in fact more fundamental to the government of the local church than even the existence of elders in each church” (151). In each of the three areas mentioned above he shows how the NT teaches this both negatively and, by implication, positively too. For example, “the church has the final authority of putting people out of church membership through church discipline. An implication of this will be that the church also must have final responsibility for admitting people into membership” (152). And, in regard to the balance of authority between elders and members, he writes, “mutually accountable authorities are wise in this fallen world” (162).

9. Leadership

The leadership of the church should be by a plurality of godly elders; godly deacons should serve the church.

10. Gospel Unity

Local churches should “foster good relationships with all other gospel-preaching churches within their locality”. We are to avoid “ecumenism which compromises the gospel” and the opposite danger of “hyper-critical isolationism” (191).

Andrew King summarises the book in a final chapter: “This collective ‘box set’ of ten interlocking aspects of church life are those practised by Grace Baptist churches… Many other churches hold to much of what this book has laid out. We hope what we have written has been generous and respectful yet has also helpfully explained our position” (216).

My assessment of the book is that it has accomplished its aims very well; it is a clear reaffirmation of Grace Baptist church order. It seeks to defend the position from a careful interpretation of Scripture. It is not polemical, rather it is characterised by thoughtfulness and hope: “the local church… is to be a growing display of heaven on earth”. The authors have collaborated well, each chapter emphasising biblical exposition, helpful illustration and practical application.

Evangelicalism needs books like this that encourage us to think more carefully about the nature of the church, that are doctrinally rooted, and challenge the prevailing culture of individualism and consumerism. The carefully-worded statement of church order also helps us to avoid fuzzy thinking and a compromising ambiguity. We can be thankful for the authors’ hard work and collaborative effort.

Taking the role of the critic:

1. I would challenge some of the authors to be more careful in making the distinction between what the Scriptures explicitly teach and what we may take as implications. For example, regarding membership, clearly the NT teaches the necessity of belonging to a local church, but it does not explicitly teach “formal” membership that involves affirming every aspect of a church’s doctrine, rules and values. This sort of membership is a wise deduction from Scripture but it should be not to be held on a par with the explicit Scriptural command to be baptised, for example. It may therefore be wiser to view formal membership as a next step after baptism.

2. As a Baptist, I fully agree that baptism is only valid when it is “a converted person’s act”, and that only those who are baptised can become members of the local church, but I believe we should be more accommodating to believers who are paedobaptist and who meet with us regularly and desire to partake of the Lord’s Supper. It may not be logical to permit this in the light of Baptist church order, but is it not wise to permit it because it is rooted in a higher gospel principle? Union with Christ transcends baptismal divides.

3. Formal statements of belief (such as the TitusOneFive Statement) should be careful not to absolutise normal practice so that exceptions are excluded. I have in mind here the statement regarding baptism “by immersing”. I fully agree this is the best and normal practice of the NT, but I think that there may be legitimate exceptions in cases of infirmity where effusion would show wise compassion.

4. Regarding gospel unity and partnership, maybe more thought could be given (in the spin-off books) to the responsibility of the local church not only to co-operate in world evangelism but also in support of theological training of pastors and the support of seminaries.

Nathan Pomeroy
Pastor, Arnold Road Evangelical Church, Nottingham

 

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