on 4 September 2012
Mark Dever is Baptist, not Anglican, but this is a curates egg of a book.
I am a Dever fan and over the past few years have found him and his 9 Marks (...) organisation tremendously helpful. He has helped me to sharpen up my ecclesiology and to think more carefully through such subjects as church membership and discipline. The church I pastor is historically Baptist, so I also have that direct connection with Dever.
In The Church Dever seeks to set out a clear doctrine of the church, and as such this is a very useful book. I shall certainly be recommending it when I teach ecclesiology in our leadership training program. In three sections Dever explores what the Bible says about the church; what the church has believed about the church; and how this should all fit together in the local congregation. It is all good stuff, and zips along nicely, giving plenty of material while not getting too bogged down in detail.
Dever has a real passion for the church, as all Christians should. He has devoted his life to serving a local congregation and his love for the body of Christ shines through. I am with him all the way on this. As the first sentence of the first chapter puts it, "The church is the body of people called by God's grace through faith in Christ to glorify him together by serving him in his world." Amen!
So, so far so good.
Where I found The Church less satisfying is that it reads very much like a detailed membership course for people looking to join Dever's church. It could do with being more engaging and lyric, while no less factual. Also, almost inevitably, Dever comes to the conclusion that the ideal expression of the local church is the type of church that he leads! I think we all do this - if we didn't, presumably we would join a church with a different ecclesiology - so I don't blame Dever for it; but it becomes irritating at those points where his arguments are not so strong as he tries to contend. This is especially the case with his defense of Congregationalism.
Dever argues for `elder led' rather that `elder ruled' congregations (despite the fact that I should think his word is pretty much law at Capitol Hill Baptist) but highlights the flaw in his model when he writes, "On matters that are important and clear, the elders and congregation should normally agree; and when they do not, the authority of the congregation is final." The problem with this, of course, is who gets to define `important and clear'? I think it is very hard to argue from the New Testament that local congregations were the ones who determined doctrine. Instead, local elders, under apostolic authority, have responsibility to guard the truth and guard the flock.
In the churches I am most familiar with I think the congregational aspect of ecclesiology has often been underplayed - largely as a swing against the terrible abuses of Congregationalism that many of an earlier generation experienced in Baptist churches. At the church I lead we have been working to rectify this, placing increased emphasis upon membership and members meetings; in the role of the whole congregation in exercising church discipline and recognizing new members; and so on. However, rather than Dever's pure congregationalism I would argue for a blend of Congregationalism and Presbyterianism - a congregation which exercises its proper responsibilities, led by a team of elders who have recognized spiritual authority, who in turn choose to submit to an external presbytery (or, in our case, `apostolic' ministry).
But of course, I would say that, wouldn't I.