In Pure Church, eleven pastors or workers in ‘Grace Baptist’ churches or organisations set out their position on church order. Its chapters display a strong unity and put forward a cohesive vision for the life and polity of the local congregation. Those familiar with publications from 9Marks Ministries will recognise a heavy reliance on Jonathan Leeman and Mark Dever, albeit translated for a British readership.
A biblical case is presented for a defined membership roll, consisting of converted Christians who have received believer’s baptism, which is described as ‘the front door to the house of God’ (p.62). The Lord’s Supper is seen as a privilege of membership, and a means of grace – although the relevant chapter takes a less conventional approach, focusing on the place of feasting in the Bible. It is also surprising to find approving citation of Peter Leithart, a vocal advocate of paedocommunion, in a book on Baptist ecclesiology!
The discipleship and informal teaching of all believers is recommended as a prominent feature of a church’s shared life. The chapter on corrective discipline is particularly instructive, covering the biblical criteria, process and purposes. On church leadership, the advantages of a plural eldership are emphasised, and there is helpful clarity on the function and purpose of deacons.
The weakest chapters are probably those on independency and gospel unity. They advocate congregational rather than elder-led church government, but fail to make a strong argument for freedom from denominational ties. There is an acceptance of formal associations with organisational structures like committees, geographical groupings and centralised administration. For many Reformed Baptists, this will look like ‘Presbyterianism-lite’, crossing the red line of conceding congregational autonomy.
While Pure Church sets out a consistent platform, it doesn’t always succeed in linking it to the wider Reformed theology of God’s being, glory, saving purposes, covenant and worship. This may be a consequence of the authors offering their own newly-drafted ten-point statement of ecclesiological beliefs, rather than adopting an existing and fuller confession of faith. If many ‘Grace Baptist’ churches are at risk of drifting from their doctrinal moorings, it is puzzling that the book gives little attention to the 1689 London Baptist Confession and 1966 Baptist Affirmation of Faith.
But overall, it is refreshing to see a bold and confident proclamation of beliefs and practices on this subject in a day when such distinctives are often downplayed. In fact such an endeavour should be encouraged from all quarters of evangelicalism.
Pure Church is recommended reading for those who wish to gain an understanding of the Baptist position, and a valuable starting point for anyone seeking reform in church life in this direction. It should be hoped that it will lead them to explore further and develop a deeper understanding of the historical and confessional underpinnings.
There is an unusually high number of typographical errors which would merit correction if the book were to be reprinted.