Tuesday, June 09, 2015

Independent Church: Biblically Shaped and Gospel Driven, Compiled by John Stevens

Independent Church: Biblically Shaped and Gospel Driven, 
Compiled by John Stevens, FIEC/10Publishing, 2014, 349pp.

Some would suggest that the Independent view of the church is the product of ‘don’t know any better’ default, or sheer pragmatism that sits loose with biblical principles. The key conviction of the authors of this book is that Independency is rooted in Scripture and centred on the gospel as the dynamic of church life and mission. Contributors define what is meant by Independency biblically and theologically and chart the history of Independent Churches in the UK and beyond.

While it is argued that the Independent model is shaped by the clear teaching of Scripture, the writers are not dogmatic when it comes to some of the finer points of church government and organisation. Objections to Independency, such as a tendency towards isolationism are acknowledged and measures suggested to help churches avoid becoming isolated and inward looking.

A useful chapter is devoted to Independency and the State. Independents believe in the separation of church and state, but that does not entail the view that believers should withdraw from society. Rather that Christians should seek to contribute to the common good, while affording freedom and toleration to those who do not share our faith.

Independency is not a recipe for theological anarchy and confessional confusion. Bill James advocates Independents adopting a full scale confession of faith such as the Savoy Declaration or the Second London Baptist Confession to help safeguard the distinctive doctrinal stance of the local church. A more basic statement like the FIEC Basis of Belief enables Independent Evangelical Churches to enjoy fellowship together while not always in agreement on every point of doctrine.

Attention is devoted to many other important matters such as Independency and preaching, elders, support for pastors, training for ministry, the role of women and mission. Space does not permit detailed comment on each contribution. Suffice to say that while the reader may not agree with everything in this book, the material presented will help provoke thought on the renewal of Independent church life and mission in the 21st century Britain. Free from stifling denominational structures and taking a stand against doctrinal compromise, Independent Evangelical Churches are well placed with God's help to partner together to bring the good news of Jesus to lost sinners today.

A quibble or two. I'm not sure that it is necessary (or biblical) to have women serve as deacons to ensure that female believers have a visible, full and active role in church life. And as the reading of Scripture in the context of the gathered church is an aspect of the Ministry of the Word (1 Timothy 4:13), how does having women 'do the reading' square with 1 Timothy 2:12? Like tradition, trendiness isn't always right. Andy Patterson's chapter on mission was helpful in a number of ways, but majored on church planting to the extent that mission on the part of already existing churches was not given enough emphasis. If you are a smallish church in a smallish town, planting another church isn't perhaps the best way forwards. One of the major challenges of facing the FIEC is to explore ways of revitalising smaller churches in town and village situations where the populations are overwhelmingly white British, non-professional and without a ready supply of students. Often it isn't that these smaller churches are too inward looking to bother with evangelism, or that they are too moribund and inflexible to try anything new. But workers are few,  the work is hard-going, and conversions are scarce. What's to be done to develop strategies that will help churches in settings like this flourish and grow?

This work is the product of the Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches and sets out to advance its vision of the church. It can therefore sometimes come over a little 'in-housey'. Establishing pastor support and accountability is best done through the FIEC Pastors' Network, for example, rather than local fraternals. That said, the usefulness of this book should not be limited to FIEC churches. Believers from all gospel churches of whatever stripe when it comes to church polity will find resources here that will help them to be more biblically faithful, vibrantly gospel-centred and mission orientated. It will also help friends from non-Independent backgrounds to see that we are not Independent by default, but by firmly held and well-founded conviction.

* An edited copy of this review will be published in Evangelical Times

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