I AM A CHURCH MEMBER – Thom S. Rainer (2013)

I remember reading a book in Seminary entitled, The Death of the Church.  Frankly, any notion of the final demise of the church runs counter to the promise 1433679736_lmade by our Lord in Matthew 16:18 namely – the gates of hell shall not prevail.”  And while the church is, in the final analysis, an indestructible organism, it does appear to be waning in America, especially among the so-called Millennial generation.  Thom S. Rainer offers thoughtful and timely advice for the church in his latest work, I Am a Church Member. 

Rainer’s work gets to the heart of the matter by reminding readers that the notion of church membership is intensely biblical: “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it” (1 Corinthians 12:27, ESV).  Six commitments undergird this biblical imperative:

1. I Will be a Functioning Church Member

2. I Will Be a Unifying Church Member

3. I Will Not Let My Church Be About My Preferences and Desires

4. I Will Pray for My Church Leaders

5. I Will Lead My Family to Be Healthy Church Members

6. I Will Treasure Church Membership as a Gift

Each commitment is grounded in Scripture and conveyed in gracious and meaningful ways.  The author challenges readers but never comes across in a legalistic or demeaning way.  He hits the biblical balance with great wisdom and skill.

I Am a Church Member is helpful for both parishioners and pastors alike.  It is a solid boost of encouragement to Christ followers in a day that is characterized by apathy and laziness.

4 stars

FOR THE CITY – Darrin Patrick and Matt Carter (2011)

0310330076_bFor the City by Darrin Patrick and Matt Carter is a book for pastors, church planters and Christ-followers who want to make a difference in their respective cities.  The heartbeat of the authors is to instill a passion for proclaiming the gospel faithfully and living the gospel in authentic, transparent, gospel-centered communities.

There is much to commend here but I especially appreciate the fiercely anti-pragmatic approach which is grounded in gospel-centered ministry.  The authors present four approaches to the city.  The first three are popular but do not reflect the burden of the New Testament.

Church IN the City

This first approach reflect churches that are merely in the city, geographically.  While they strive to get people to church to hear the gospel, there is very little interaction with the city itself.  This approach may be well-intentioned but doesn’t go far enough.

Church AGAINST the City

This approach opposes the city and carries an “us vs. them” mentality.  Examples abound here.  Frankly, these churches are an embarrassment to the evangelical world.

Church OF the City

Here is the opposite extreme.  Instead of blatantly opposing the city, the approach caters to the whims of the city and leans heavily on a postmodern ethos and as a result, loses its saltiness and gospel influence.  Some emergent churches live here.  Horrible!

Church FOR the City

The authors hold the final option as the only option for the New Testament church:  In this approach, “the church speaks the truth of the gospel and is not afraid to uphold a biblical worldview and moral standard.  Such a church proclaims the truths of Scripture with passion, clarity, and boldness.  At the same time, though, this is a church that commits itself to seeking the shalom, the flourishing, of the city.  This means seeking the shalom of the people they live in community with, living sacrificially and using their gifts, time, and money to seek the peace and prosperity of their neighbors.”

While the authors never hint at it, this author wonders out loud whether a stringent premillennialism (and I’m premillennial) has negatively influenced churches that would otherwise exist as a church FOR the city.

For the City is filled with practical help, strong admonitions, and bold challenges.  A timely work from two seasoned church planters.

3.5 stars

SOJOURNERS AND STRANGERS – Gregg Allison (2012)

1581346611_lDr. Gregg Allison leaves no stone unturned in his newest work, Sojourners and Strangers: The Doctrine of the Church.  Allison’s fine piece of work is the latest installment in the Foundations of Evangelical Theology Series, edited by John Feinberg.

Six majors themes form the skeletal structure of  Sojourners and Strangers.

Part One: Foundational Issues

Allison introduces the subject of ecclesiology and underscores his presuppositions at the outset: “I firmly maintain that the source – the sole source – and the starting point of our theology is Scripture, the Word of God.  He presents the basic idea of the church, which is “the people of God … the communion of the saints … and is composed of particular people: ‘sojourners and strangers.'”

The author presents his methodology for ecclesiology.  Realizing that one’s approach in this area has broad implications, Allison contrasts theological methods that embrace continuity and discontinuity between the testaments.  He stands somewhere in the middle of this debate by describing himself as one who embraces a moderate discontinuity, what some have described as progressive dispensationalism.  His conviction has a bearing on his view that concerns the origin of the church and the relationship between the church, Israel, and the ordinance of baptism.  This hermeneutical criteria is a helpful backdrop that serves the rest of the book well.

Part Two: The Biblical Vision – Characteristics of the Church

Here the author studies the inception of the church and her relationship to Israel and the kingdom of God.  Allison makes his position clear: “Because of the identity of the new covenant partners – God and Christ-followers – I draw the conclusion that the church began at Pentecost and did not exist prior to  that monumental event.”  While writing from a Reformed framework, the “line in the sand is drawn” by distinguishing himself from main stream Covenant theology.  The argument is straightforward: “But these faithful and obedient followers of  Jehovah, these people of God, did not  constitute the church.  Yes, God’s work of redemption began with Adam.  Yes, God’s promise to bless all human beings through a particular nation was made to Abraham.  Yes, God’s covenant with the particular people of Israel was given specific expression on Mount Sinai with Moses.  But the people of God post-Adamic covenant, post-Abrahamic covenant, and post-old/Mosaic covenant – up to the new covenant – did not constitute the church.”

Allison’s hermeutical presuppositions are refreshing to be sure because while on one had he distinguishes himself from the covenantal framework, he also distinguishes himself from classical dispensationalism, i.e. “the church stands in both continuity and discontinuity with the people of God in the past.”  Near as I can tell, he is an agreement with the essence of the proposal but forth by Peter Gentry and Stephen Wellum in their excellent work, Kingdom Through Covenant.

Additionally, the orientation of the church is established in part two by examining seven characteristics of the church.

1. The Church is Doxological – oriented to the glory of God.

2. The Church is Logocentric – focused on the Word of God.

3. The Church is Pneumadynamic – empowered by the Holy Spirit.

4. The Church is Covenantal – with God and in covenant community with one another.

5. The Church is Confessional – united by a common Christian confession or creed.

6. The Church is Missional – called to proclaim the gospel and advance the kingdom of God.

7. The Church is Spatio-Temporal/Eschatological – a historical reality with a grand future.

Allison explains each characteristic in great detail and suggests practical suggestions for abiding by the biblical model.

Part Three: The Vision Actualized – The Growth of the Church

Part three demonstrates how the vision set forth in the previous section will be fostered and protected.  This vision will be actualized by maintaining the  purity and unity of the church.  Additionally, the commitment to church discipline plays a key role.  Church discipline is defined as “an anticipatory and declarative sign of the divine eschatological judgment, meted out by Jesus Christ through the church against its sinful members and sinful situations.”  Churches who neglect or reject church discipline do great harm to its members and the testimony of God’s people.

Part Four: The Government of the Church

In this critical section, Dr. Allison unpacks the offices of the church.  First, he examines the office of apostle which is “no longer operative” in the author’s view.  He continues to explore the office of elder and deacon, noting the biblical qualifications and responsibilities of each.

The subject of church government is set forth in a clear and understandable way.  Episcopalianism, Presbyterianism, and Congregationalism are explained in their historical context. The author presents his proposal for the governance of congregational churches – a model that is elder-led and congregationally affirmed – which appears to be the biblical model.

Part Five: The Ordinances of the Church

The various views of baptism and the Lord’s supper are presented in light of church history.  Disagreements that the author has with other views are set forth with charity and graciousness.

Part Six: The Ministries of the Church

Finally, Allison overviews the various spiritual gifts, a biblical theology of worship, and various ministries that emerge in the local church context.  The church should be “for the world and against (the sinful corruption) of the world.

Summary

I cannot recommend Gregg Allison’s work highly enough.  His treatment of ecclesiology should be applauded for its depth and breath.  And it should be celebrated for its gracious approach to disputable matters.  Readers will be remiss to find a shred of compromise or capitulation; yet his gentle approach weaves throughout the fabric of the book.  Sojourners and Strangers should be required reading for every Ecclesiology class for Bible College students and Seminarians alike.  This book will not only instruct and educate; it will help stem the tide of errors and mis-steps that have so characterized the last several years of church history, especially the blunders that have come out of the emergent and seeker-sensitive church.  I would also refer readers to his excellent work, Historical Theology for a superb look at the development of Christian theology in church history.

5 stars

THE CHURCH: THE GOSPEL MADE VISIBLE – Mark Dever (2012)

Over the years, I’ve grown weary reading books that relate to ecclesiology.  Recent works that focus on the church are either driven by pragmatic presuppositions, man-centered principles, or church growth techniques that compromise the essence of the gospel, not to mention the mission of the church.  Mark Dever’s newest book, The Church: The Gospel Made Visible is a totally different kind of book.  He steers clear from the usual drivel that saturates many books devoted to ecclesiology.  Indeed, the church is should be thankful for such a work.

Part One: What Does the Bible Say?

The first section focuses on the nuts and bolts of the church.  Dever leaves no stone unturned.  The nature of the church is explored, membership is reviewed, polity is discussed, church discipline is covered, among other things.  Each section is rooted in the biblical text.  The writing is clear and compelling.  The reader walks away from the first part with a clear understanding on what Scripture says concerning the church.

Part Two: What Has the Church Believed?

Part two explains the classical distinctions between the visible and invisible church and the local and universal church.  The author includes a helpful discussion on the rise of denominations.

Also included is an illuminating discussion on the history of ordinances.  A wide variety of traditions are surveyed.  And the various positions are presented for the Lord’s Supper as well as baptism.

Part Three: How Does it All Fit Together?

The final section discusses the marks of the church, namely – the faithful preaching of God’s Word and the faithful administration of the two ordinances.  Dever includes a helpful section on church membership.  He writes, “Churches that submerge difference of age, race, status, background, or employment give witness to the power of the gospel.”

One of the most helpful chapters is devoted to developing a biblical leadership model.  Dever’s holds to an elder led/congregationally affirmed leadership structure.  He adds, “The most coherent way to understand the New Testament’s presentation of local church polity is to recognize the role of both individual leaders and the congregation as a whole.”  He does not minimize the role of the congregation.  Dever writes, “The congregation is not in competition with the elders.  The congregation’s authority is more like an emergency brake than a steering wheel.  The congregation more normally recognizes than creates, responds rather than initiates, confirms rather than proposes.”

In the final analysis, “a right ecclesiology matters for the church’s leadership, membership, structure, culture, and even character.  Ultimately, a right ecclesiology touches on God’s glory itself … Therefore, getting the doctrine of the church right becomes a benefit to the people, as the truth about God and his world is more correctly known, taught, and modeled.”

The Church: The Gospel Made Visible should receive a wide readership and will be a tremendous tool in the hands of faithful pastors and shepherds!

4.5 stars