Wednesday, March 29, 2023

Pure Church: Recovering God's plan for local churches

Edited by: David Skull, Andrew King & Jim Sayers
Grace Publications, 2022, 283pp

I've been using this book as a tool for discussing church membership with someone who is not from a Baptist background. Meeting up to discuss a chapter or two at a time has helped to clarify the biblical teaching on the church that we seek to put into practice as a fellowship. The aim of this work is to sketch out a biblical vision of church life from a Grace Baptist perspective. The premise here is that God has a plan for how local churches should function and that he has revealed that plan in Holy Scripture. Of course, there are true gospel churches other than of the Grace Baptist variety. That is acknowledged in the first chapter, on The Visible Church. The visible church is the manifestation on earth of the universal church of Jesus Christ to which all genuine believers belong, irrespective of the denominational label. But the visible church is only made manifest when a local congregation holds to and holds forth the message of the gospel. 

That is the place to start when it comes to the biblical doctrine of the church. Not in finding snazzy new ways of 'doing church for the 21st century', but by having a sound grasp of the gospel of salvation that calls the church into being. These are the truths of 'first importance' defined by the apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 15 and helpfully outlined by Jim Sayers in the first chapter. Issues such as church membership and the proper subjects of baptism are second order doctrines. They may not be essential for salvation, but they are certainly not unimportant when it comes to recovering a biblical understanding of church life. 

Evangelicals have sometimes justified serving in theologically mixed denominations on the grounds that having unconverted members in the churches makes them a 'good pool to fish from'. Convinced Baptists believe that according to the New Testament local churches are gatherings of converted and baptised people where the Lord's Supper is celebrated. These matters are helpfully discussed in chapters two to five, on Conversion, Baptism, Membership and The Lord's Supper. 

On the Day of Pentecost Peter urged his hearers, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit." (Acts 2:38). Luke then tells us, "So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls." (Acts 2:41). That repentant and baptised people were added to the Jerusalem church strongly suggests a properly defined church membership made up of converted individuals. We should also bear in mind that it was possible for someone to be removed from the membership of a local church should they stray into serious error, or fall into open sin. The fact that they could be put out implies that they were formally received into the church in the first place. 

We live in highly individualistic times in which the consumer is king or queen. That may be well and good when it comes to choosing our favourite breakfast cereal, but such an attitude can be disastrous when it comes to following Jesus. The Lord has not simply saved a bunch of random individuals. He is gathering people together into his body, the church. If we may continue with Luke's description of the rapidly congregation at Jerusalem, "And they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers." (Acts 2:42). Discipleship and discipline are two sides of the same coin when it comes to how local churches seek to form converts into fruitful followers of Jesus. See chapters six and seven. 

Discipleship is an essential element of the Great Commission, Matthew 28:19-20. It involves both formal teaching by pastors and teachers in the church and also members caring for each other and encouraging one another in the life of faith. Church discipline acts as a corrective when church members stray. Its purpose is to safeguard the purity of the church and to restore the straying member to faithful Christian discipleship. The Lord Jesus has given his local churches the keys of the kingdom that they may admit to their number those who have made a credible profession of faith and remove from their number those whose credibility as believers is in doubt. Attention is drawn to Matthew 18:15-20 and 1 Corinthians 5. 

Chapters eight and nine deal with the Independent governance of the church and church leadership. Baptists believe that each local church is independent under the lordship of Christ and subject to the authority of Scripture. The church members' meeting is the key decision making body of the church. Leaders are appointed by church members and may be removed by them if necessary. The biblical pattern for church leadership is one of a team of elders who share in the oversight of the flock, one or more of whom may be called to 'labour in the word and teaching' (1 Timothy 5:17) on a full time basis. The qualities required of overseers are detailed in 1 Timothy 3:1-7. Deacons are appointed to meet the practical needs of the church in line with Acts 6:1-7 and 1 Timothy 3:8-13.  

For all the right and proper emphasis on the importance of local churches comprised of baptised believers, the value of inter-church fellowship is also underlined in the final chapter on Gospel Unity. Churches with a shared confession of faith such as the Second London Baptist Confession, 1689 may wish to form formal associations. Confessional Grace Baptist Churches can enjoy fellowship with churches from other Evangelical and Reformed groupings. This may involve meeting together for times of ministry and prayer, or supporting shared activities like youth work. 

Despite the title, the writers of Pure Church do not claim that Grace Baptist Churches have reached a state of ecclesiological perfection and purity. Far from it. But they do hold that it is for the good of individual believers and churches when God's plan for the local church is followed. The various authors of this book have strongly Reformed Baptist convictions, but they do not lapse into sectarian polemic against those who belong to other church groupings. The stance taken is sometimes more 'Strict Baptist' on church membership and the Lord's Supper than all Grace Baptists would be willing to countenance. Surprisingly perhaps, the teaching of the Second London Baptist Confession on matters covered here isn't cited by the authors, which is something of an omission. That said, the work offers a lively and compelling vision of church life such as may be discovered in the pages of the New Testament. 

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