Biblical Foundations for Baptist Churches: A Contemporary Ecclesiology stands in what is one of the greatest gaps in Baptist theology and ministry life. Baptist ecclesiology is almost an oxymoron as of recent decades. Having served on staff at Baptist churches, planted a Baptist church, and graduated from two Baptist theological institutions, I can personally testify that ecclesiology is one of the most under-emphasized, under-taught, and most misunderstood branches of theology among Baptists. John Hammett affirms my personal experience with these words in his introduction. Hammet writes,
“Few Baptists have a rationale for why they are Baptist, or even what it means to be Baptist; and many Baptist churches are hardly recognizable as Baptist churches in any historic sense…It [the doctrine of the church] has been largely lost over the past century and is worth recovering” (12).
This book is a survey of the doctrine of the church. Hammett’s plan of attack is a five-part path through five broad questions – “(1) What is the Church?, (2) Who is the Church?, (3) How Is the Church Governed?, (4) What Does the Church Do?, and (5) Where Is the Church Going?” Each section concludes with relevant study questions and a list of books for further study, making this a helpful resource for small group discussion, class discussion, or further research.
While I cannot summarize all the distinctions of Hammett’s ecclesiology for Baptists, I will comment on what Hammett identifies as the most central – regenerate church membership. Baptists are not Baptist only as a rejection of infant baptism, rather Baptists became Baptists because of an unwavering commitment to the purity of the local church which must consist of born-again Christians. The emergence of infant baptism made the church a mixed church of both regenerate and non-regenerate people. Believer’s baptism, however, emphasizes the absolute necessity of regenerate church membership. You must be a genuine Christian to be baptized, and thus you must be a genuine Christian to join the church. As Hammett argues, however, many Baptist churches of the modern era have abandoned these convictions.
In a society that prizes consumerism, individualism, and absolute tolerance, the church has sought to widen the front door in their efforts to see numerical growth. The result is meaningless membership. Hammett helpfully references statistics that showcase this reality. As of 2016 Southern Baptist churches boasted of over fifteen million members, but only five million people in average weekly attendance (117). Hammett also notes that previous generations of Baptists were very careful to Baptize and admit children into their membership. Since membership was reserved for the regenerate, great care was taken when discussing salvation and baptism with children. Prior to 1966, Southern Baptists did not even keep statistics on the number of preschoolers baptized, but over the next twenty-three years, preschooler baptism numbers tripled (120). This is not representative of a spiritual awakening of preschoolers but rather a widening of the front door of the church to include as many people as possible with little discretion or discipleship. In addition to a widening front door, churches sought to close the back door, meaning a total abandonment of the Biblical practice of church discipline. Hammett writes,
“At the present, chronically absent church members whose lives give no evidence of regeneration are ignored by most churches (124).”
Hammett suggests a return to church covenants, pastoral care in admitting members, required membership classes prior to baptism, and a re-establishing of redemptive church discipline (136). Hammett wisely concludes the section with a couple example covenants for reference. He goes on to makes a case for congregationalism against other forms of polity. Most Baptists would offer a hardy amen to the Biblical pattern of congregationalism, yet Hammett quickly turns us back again to the necessity of meaningful membership if congregationalism is going to be a feasible system of church polity. He writes,
“I think recovery of regenerate church membership is the most urgent priority for Baptist churches today… Not only would it make possible a responsible practice of congregationalism, it would be a huge step toward the church becoming the radiant bride of Christ that is its destiny (185).
Elsewhere Hammett remarks,
“Many members view their commitment to their church much as they view their commitment to shopping at Walmart. They may enjoy the goods and services offered, but they are not remotely interested in working with fellow shoppers to govern the store (172).”
If this is the normative attitude about church commitment and church membership, congregationalism falls apart as many Baptists who will read this book have seen and experienced firsthand.
One of the greatest strengths of Hammett’s work is his grasp on the current landscape of North American evangelicalism and especially Southern Baptist church life. Scattered throughout the book are references to very real problems, temptations, and trends that are happening today followed by relevant words of wisdom. There are many moments where Hammett speaks like a prophet in the wilderness of an ecclesiologically barren land. He knows the shortcomings, the corruptions, and the gaps and offers correction, conviction, and encouragement appropriately and pastorally. Hammett’s work carries a pastoral tone throughout and is written in readable language that engages the reader. I read this book over a five day period while on a beach vacation and did not find the reading laborious, but rather quick flowing from one topic to the next.
I do wish that Hammett would have included clearer and more careful exposition of important texts. At times, he seems to assume the reader’s familiarity with exegetical arguments. While I agree with most of Hammett’s conclusions, he sometimes spends a disproportionate amount of time on the historical and the practical outworking of his ecclesiological positions rather than the Scriptural foundations.
Though Hammett’s work is not exhaustive in answering his five questions posed, the book does adequately introduce and summarize the key issues. This book would be a perfect primer to anyone beginning their study of ecclesiology from a Baptist perspective. In fact, I would argue that any person seeking to pastor or plant a church should make it a priority to read a comprehensive Biblical ecclesiology such as this.
By His Grace & For His Glory,
Pastor Brandon Langley
St. Rose Community Church