What about Baptist ecclesiology? In his book, Biblical Foundations for Baptist Churches: A Contemporary Ecclesiology John S. Hammett seeks to defend classic Baptist polity and ecclesiology in an easy-to-understand way making his case in all areas of ecclesiology. He presents his thesis in a series of things he seeks to accomplish at the beginning. First, the author wants to show that the church is God’s creation, Christ’s body, and the special instrument of the Holy Spirit in the world today (11). Secondly, he hopes to establish that understanding the doctrine of the church is especially important to contemporary North Americans, because their pragmatic approach to church life, their concern to be relevant to their culture, and their desire to see their churches grow leave them vulnerable to the danger that their churches will be shaped more by those concerns than by the design of the Lord of the church (11). Finally, he seeks to make the case that, even in our postdenominational age, there is a need for a book on the doctrine of the church from a Baptist perspective (11).
The book is then broke down into a five parts. The first part asks the question, “What is the Church.” In these chapters, the author discusses things such as the nature of the church, the marks of the church, and the essence of the church. In the chapter on the marks of the church, the author highlights two answers. The first is the creedal marks of catholicity, apostolicity, unity, and holiness as established in the early years of the Church. The second answer is given by the Reformers who suggest that the marks of the church include the preaching of God’s Word and the administering of the ordinances of the Lord’s Supper and Baptism.
In the second part, the author asks, “Who is the Church?” Here he raises the issues of regenerate church membership, a clear Baptist distinctive. Here the author argues why regenerate church membership is necessary, is biblical, and how it affects other doctrines. Take for example the issue of infant baptism. If the church is made up only of believers, then infant baptism is problematic being that the infant does not have a testimony of repentance and faith. Furthermore, paedobaptism breaks the biblical mandate that the church be made up of believers so as to protect her from false teachers. What the author argues here is a thorough, yet brief, argument for this Baptist distinctive that sets it apart from most other ecclesiological books.
The third section asks the question, “How is the church Governed?” Here the author dedicates chapters to Baptist polity and his defense of Congregationalism, the role of elders (“leaders, not Rulers,” the chapter subtitle says), and the role and office of deacons. In the chapter on Congregationalism, the author begins by presenting various polities common today including Episcopalian church government, Presbyterian church government, and finally Congregational church government. He obviously favors Congregationalism and presents his case for it primarily based on Scripture.
The fourth part asks the question, “What Does the Church Do?” Here the author raises the issues of various ministries of the church and the ordinances of the church (Baptism and the Lord’s Supper). The chapter on the ordinances goes into much detail regarding the theological, biblical, and practical issues surrounding each one. For example, on the question of the Lord’s Supper, the author discusses in some detail the question over closed (what he calls strict) communion and open communion favoring strict communion.
Finally, the author asks, “Where is the Church going?” and here he discussion current trends in the world and the challenge they bring to ecclesiology and he discussion “The Future of the Global Church” (as the chapter subtitle reads). In the chapter on current trends and challenges of ecclesiology, the author raises the problem of postmodernism as well as trends like the Seeker-Sensitive movement, and others.
This is a helpful book that offers a number of insights for the reader. One insight regards an interesting defense of Congregationalism based on church discipline. He argues that Matt. 18:15-17 clearly implies a church regulating its membership and choosing its leadership. He notes that in this text the final decision for dismissing a member is not assigned to a bishop or elders, but to the church (147). Hammett sees the same thing happening in 1 Cor. 5:9-13.
Similarly, the author offers practical reasons as a defense for Congregationalism that is real insightful. The first practical benefit is congregationalism’s ability to counter the tendency of churches to drift doctrinally and thus suffer spiritually (149-150). Secondly, Congregationalism provides for what is a practical inevitability (150). In other words, churches are congregational in nature because they can continue to exist only as the people support them. The people can always vote, with their funds and feet if in no other way (150). These two arguments are insightful and offer an additional way of making the author’s case. Its just not theologically or biblically sound, but practically beneficial.
Thirdly, the author defends “strict” communion but does so under the reminder that such a policy is impractical unless the church understands that membership involves commitment to the local body. The author’s wielding of communion and the church’s responsibility for each member and each members responsibility and commitment to the church is extremely insightful. It is a two way street.
Fourthly, the distinctions the author makes between modernity and postmodernity is helpful especially for those new to the challenges that each raise. As society continues to become more and more postmodern, such discussions (and the chart he provides) offer simple and easy-to-understand means for the reader to understand. The distinctions he offers were dead on and understanding the culture in which we live in allows us to understand the world and the people in which we are ministering too.
Finally, in general, the author presents a thorough case for Baptist polity and ecclesiology. He raises a host of issues in what seems like a small amount of space. His discussion of everything from Baptism, to the office of deacons, to Congregationalism were each insightful and were presented in a way that reflected the authors genuine attempt to honor Scripture, sound theology, and practicality.
I am left with two questions for discussion however. The first regards the question of open vs. closed communion. How to we affirm both catholicity and closed communion? This is not to question the local church’s responsibility to its own members, but still I believe it is an important question. Secondly, how would Hammett respond to Dr. James MacDonald’s bold assertion that Congregationalism is from Satan? Both men make strong cases.