Edification and Beauty

This book by James M. Renihan has arrested me for the past few weeks. It was riveting to hear how my Particular Baptist brothers, with a “primitivist urge to fulfill the dictates of Scripture”, “ransacked the pages of the Bible in order to establish their deeds with a heavenly authority.” (58)

I find myself largely at home with the Particular Baptists of the late 17th century, who themselves admired their Puritan brothers. Their ecclesiological retrieval is inspiring.

The book is a running commentary and synthesis of primary sources. Renihan ended each chapter with cogent summaries without rhetorical flourish.

Chapter 1

  • The Independents were a minority at the Westminster Assembly. The Particular Baptists had affinity and some common understanding with them. “Rejecting the nation-oriented definition of the church common to both the Episcopalian and Presbyterian parties, the Independents argued for an understanding of ecclesiology centered primarily on the local assembly.” (10)
  • “There was a deep respect for the tender consciences exhibited by others.” (14)
  • Particular Baptists loved their Puritan brothers, and wanted to locate themselves in the stream of orthodoxy. The 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith sought to incorporate text from existing confessions.
    • “The Baptists were concerned to demonstrate that all that their doctrinal convictions had been, from the very start, orthodox and in most ways identical with the convictions of the Puritans around them. In both their general Confessions, the Baptists purposefully used existing documents in order to demonstrate their concurrence with much of their current theological thinking. In the quote above, they argue that the doctrines expressed in both Baptist Confessions are the same, abut they have chosen to base the newer Confession upon the more recently and widely available documents of the Westminster and Savoy. In doing this, they were declaring with some vigor their own desire to be played in the broad stream of English Reformed Confessional Christianity.” (20)
  • “Confessional subscription was considered to be a serious matter among many churches. It was ‘column owning and ratifying’, a commitment to a definitive theological system.” (29)

Chapter 2

  • “While they may have come to very different conclusions on the nature of baptism and its relationship to church membership, they never less considered the Independent and Presbyterian churches to be true churches, and part of the universal church.” (39-40)
  • Ecclesiology was serious: “Christ the ascended mediator has received all power from his Father, and expresses that power in the calling, instituting, ordering and governing of the church.” (42)
  • Benjamin Keach gives a positive definition of a genuine church: “A Church of Christ, according to the Gospel-Institution, is a Congregation of Godly Christians, who as a Stated-Assembly (being first baptized upon the Profession of Faith) do by mutual agreement and consent give themselves up to the Lord, and one to another, according to the Will of God; and do ordinarily meet together in one Place, for the Public Service and Worship of God; among whom the Word of God and Sacraments are duly administered, according to Christ’’s Institution.” (The Glory of a True Church, and its Discipline display’d” (London: n.p., 1697), 5-6 (quoted in 44)
  • “Christian assemblies were religious organizations, brought into being by the active presence of Jesus Christ.” (45)
  • “Paedobaptist assemblies, though defective, were nevertheless genuine.” (45)
  • The 1689 Confession sought to accommodate brothers of both open (minority view) and closed (majority view) membership convictions. This concerned whether to receive a paedobaptist into church membership and communion. “A careful reading of the Confession will demonstrate that baptism is never explicitly tied with church membership. This was purposefully done in order to comprehend churches of both kinds. At the London Assemblies, the majority of churches would have been closed membership, but open membership churches were present as well.” (47)
  • “The substance of each local assembly was people, men and women who had been recipients of the grace of God, who gave evidence of their conversion, and who were willing to be subject to the government of that congregation. Churches were not abstractions, but communities with defined memberships and set procedures for the administration of their government.” (48)
  • What does a group of believers do when none among them has been baptized? “Spilsbery’s retort was that the church had temporal priority over baptism, and being in existence, could appoint some of its own, though unbaptized, as proper administrators of the ordinance.” (49)
  • “Churches are made of members, and the procedure for receiving new members was very carefully defined in the Particular Baptist associations. In light of the Confessional statement that ‘the members of these churches are saints by calling’ who show evidence of their profession of faith in their lives, then churches adopted a careful means of managing the admittance of prospective members.

    “Generally, applicants who were not church members elsewhere would be ‘propounded’ or proposed to the church as a whole. They would be asked to give testimony to their Christian experience, usually before the whole church. In some cases, messengers were sent to the homes, neighborhoods, and/or employers of then applicants, inquiring into the validity of the profession of faith being made. Current members could raise objections against the candidates. If everything was in order, the individual would be received. If any objections were placed or obstacles discovered, the person’s membership could be deferred or refused.

    “In the case of transfer of membership, the circumstances were slightly different. Members from distant churches could be received upon the presentation of a letter of commendation from their home churches. When such a letter was not at hand, communication would be sent to the distant assembly in order to ascertain the status of the individual. Instances are known of admittance to transient membership pending the arrival of a letter from the home church, or if the individual was not permanently domiciled in the new location. When a church was more local, messengers could be sent to into the character of each inquirer.” (53-54)
  • “As all Believers are bound to joyn themselves to particular Churches, when and where they have opportunity so to do; So all that are admitted unto the priviledges of a Church, are also (b) under the Censures and Government thereof, according to the Rule of Christ.” (1689 LBCF 26.12)
  • “No Church-members upon any offence taken by them, having performed their Duty required of them towards the person they are offended at, ought to disturb any Church order, or absent themselves from the Assemblies of the Church, or Administration of any Ordinances, upon the account of such offence at any of their fellow-members; but to wait upon Christ, in the further proceeding of the Church.” (1689 LBCF 26.13)
  • “There seem to have been three levels of church discipline: suspension, withdrawal, and excommunication. Suspension was, according to Keach, [an] interim measure used in cases of sin requiring further investigation. Other churches used it as a temporary removal of privileges pending demonstrable repentance. Withdrawal was the punishment enacted on a ‘disorderly’ member, and involved two things. (1) A public admonition or warning, followed by a period to allow for repentance, and (2) in case the admonition was ignored, the church member restricted its fellowship with the offender, though still considered him or her as member. Excommunication was the ultimate act. It cast the guilty party out of the church, to be handed over to Satan. The excommunicated person was not to be considered a believer, but was viewed as a ‘heathen’ or ‘publican’. The churches practiced these forms of discipline regularly, but seem to have done so often with a tender spirit and genuine concern for the restoration of the offender.” (56)
  • “At the root of the identity of the church, and all of the practices associated with it was the primitivist urge to fulfill the dictates of Scripture. Innovation and novelty was unwanted and unwarranted. These churches ransacked the pages of the Bible in order to establish their deeds with a heavenly authority.” (58)
  • Church planting “was primarily done by means of evangelists. This was not an office in the church, though men involved were often elders, but rather appointed emissaries charged with the task of spreading the gospel and establishing churches. They carried with them authority from the sending churches.” (58)
  • “The well-ordered church was so central to the redemptive purposes of God that any kind of evangelistic thrust must week, as its highest goal, to establish new assemblies.” (59)
  • “The universal church was understood as the sum total of the true churches in existence in the world. It had no human authority or power center, could not be national, or incorporate political subjects of an empire, but gathered at the feet of the present ‘head’, Jesus Christ. None of the assemblies of Christians were perfect, but they nevertheless showed the characteristics of the work of God and so demonstrated to those who would notice the reality and validity of their claim to be churches. Realistically, churches had trouble, and some departed so far from the standards of orthodoxy and orthopraxy that they lost the right tot beard the title ‘church of Christ’.

    “There is a ‘one’ and ‘many’ motif present in their thinking. The one church is the true universal church with Christ as its head. The many are the local churches scattered throughout the world, consisting of truly regenerate women and men, dedicated to the service of God. They maintained catholicity in that they did not view themselves as the only true churches.” (61)

Chapter 3

  • At issue is whether the early Particular Baptist polity — affirming autonomy, independence, and self-rule — implied rule by popular democracy and not substantial effectual elder-rule.
  • Officers were “chosen and set apart by the church” (LBCF 26.8), but what did this entail?
  • From the book and sources elsewhere, it seems that elder-rule, depending on the context, can be defined differently. It is a mix of concerns of final authority, delegation, procedure, prudence, practicality, and extent of effectual rule.
    • Delegation: Does a congregation delegate authority to an elder when selecting him? Or is the elders’ authority is immediately given by Christ?
    • Consent: Elder-rule still commonly affirms the responsibility and obligation of elders to basically operate with the consent of the people. An elder may, in theory, make decisions that the congregation doesn’t agree with, but one is only is an elder when attached to a congregation consenting to his general rule.
    • Expression of consent: How much expressed consent is good and proper to require beyond “voting with one’s feet” and voluntary gathering?
    • Extent of effectual rule: Can elders, in theory, make most decisions effectually without a governing congregational vote? Even while regularly soliciting input and ensuring the general consent of the people? This question still holds even if an elder may be voted in or out by the congregation.
    • Two-branch polity: Do either the elders or the congregation have the authority to act in major decisions without the consent of the other? Can one veto the other?
    • Officiation and pronouncement: Must elders be the ones to pronounce a verdict (presumably in good conscience) reached by the congregation? At least this seems to have been the clear position of Particular Baptists.
    • Raising an issue for a vote: Do the elders have veto on what is brought to the congregation for a vote? May the congregation in theory bring a matter to a vote without the consent of the elders?
    • A key question dividing elder-rule and congregational-rule: Can new members may be added or disciplined without the explicit ruling vote of the congregation? Can the elders properly make (at least in extenuating cases) private and immediate rulings, representing the congregation yet not waiting on their express act of final authority? Or can they bring an already-made discipline decision to the gathering for pronouncement?
    • “The differences between polities tend to emerge when churches are unhealthy and not humble. A healthy and humble elder-rule church may look similar to a healthy and humble elder-led church because those elders are involving the congregation as they should. But you can feel the differences as soon as those churches move toward unhealthy.” (Andy Naselli)
  • Poh Boon Sing distinguishes between principled congregationalism and independency. In congregationalism the church, by popular vote, delegates authority to its officers. In independency, “church officers do not have their authority delegated by the church. Instead that authority is communicated from Christ immediately, and through the church… The early Particular Baptists consistently upheld the principle of ‘rule with congregational consent.’” (Quoted in 65)
  • Poh (as summarized by Renihan) argues this from 1) the close fellowship of Particular Baptists with the Independents, 2) LBCF chapter 26’s dependence on the Savoy Platform of Polity (representative of Independency) and 3) a quote taken from Isaac Watts asserting that the polity of Particular Baptists approximated that of the Independents and John Owen.
  • Renihan disagrees, and argues that Isaac Watts is arguably not a competent judge of the Particular Baptists, that he may have been only a casual observer yet uninformed on this matter. That Particular Baptists, while observing the Independents and shaped by a variety of forces, had a different view from them.
  • He outlines a few different views:
    • Hanserd Knollys: Modified Independency. Elder-rule, but limited in power.
    • Nehemiah Coxe: Congregational Consent / Rule By Elder. In this model there is “joint participation”. Elders have a “ministerial rule” but not “legislative power”. Elders receive authority “by delegation from Christ through the apostles while restricting that authority to specific spiritual issues.” (73) I am not sure if “legislative power” refers to scripture or the ability to codify local church standards.
    • Benjamin Keach: Congregationalism / Rule by a Single Elder. The elder is “not to rule without the brotherhood.” “The steward or pastor of Christ’s household, can pass no act, to receive in, or cast out &c., without the assent and consent of the church.” (quoted in 73-74)
  • Contra Poh Boon Sing, Renihan concludes, “Knollys and Coxe seem to view elder authority as derived from Christ, while Keach says that the seat of authority is in the gathered congregation.” (77)
  • John Owen: “As this whole church-power is committed unto the whole church by Christ, so all that are called unto the peculiar exercise of any part of it, by virtue of office-authority, do receive that authority from him by the only way of the communication of it,—namely, by his word and Spirit, through the ministry of the church.” (quoted in 77)
    • Quotes like this don’t seem to settle the above questions.
  • Renihan appeals to the Maze Pond church in London. It called James Warburton to be their pastor. He was to “take the churches answers and declare them.” “Though he was a pastor, he was subject to the church and acted at their order.” (82) Here it sounds like more strict congregational rule.
  • “Many of the churches had a regularly scheduled ‘monthly day’ on which business was transacted.” (84) “The church meetings were distinct from worship.” Maze Pond church met “a staggering 37 times in the first eight months of its existence.” How representative Maze Pond was of other churches?
  • Renihan’s conclusion: “In every case, even in the churches associated with the ministries of Hanserd, Knollys, and Nehemiah Coxe, it is the church that decides and acts. No evidence can be found to support the notion that the elders of the church brought [already-made] decisions to the churches for their consent. To the contrary, the elders occasionally came to the church for permission to do certain things. It is at this point that the modification of Owen’s theoretical system may be noticed. In these practices, the Particular Baptists carried a greater resemblance to the Congregationalism of Brownists than the Independency of Owen.” (86) Renihan’s sees Particular Baptist churches as fitting the model where members themselves raise issues in business meetings for consensus vote. The elders serve as officiators of congregational rule.
  • But Renihan notes that Sam Waldron argues that the 1689 Confession “asserts a form of [Independency].” So I am curious to how Waldron approaches the same evidence. Poh Boon Sing also warrants a fair hearing. “The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him.” (Proverbs 18:17)
  • From what in Waldron’s Exposition (323) does Renihan infer this?
    • “To modern ears an election connotes several things which clearly deviate from the Word of God. There is not scriptural instance in which two or more men compete with each other for votes in order to be elected to office in the church. There is no basis for the idea that election is an act of sovereign and autonomous authority or that it is the ultimate source of power in the church. Again, this idea is completely contrary to the scriptural idea. We have no biblical right to vote for whoever we please. The term ‘election’ is used only to epitomize what is meant by the Confession when it asserts that calling to an office in the church must be ‘by the common suffrage of the church itself’. No one many be appointed to any office in the church without the consent of the church itself. The elders of the church itself may not appoint a man to be an elder without the consent of the church. No supposed higher authority may do this, whether that authority is a bishop, a denomination, or a pope.

      “This is a deduction from the teaching of paragraph 7. If God has given all needful power to the local church to carry on that order he has ordained, and if this authority extends even to the excommunication of its members, and if excommunication may only be enacted by the consent of the assembled church (Matt. 18:15-17; 1 Cor. 5:1-13), then clearly no officer may be appointed without the consent of the congregation. Further confirmation of this comes from the account of the selection of deacons in Acts 6. That account shows that the authority of the church extends to the election of its officers. The statement of Acts 14:23 may also suggest this act of election. The Greek word used here originally meant to vote by stretching out the hand. Luke may have used this word to suggest ‘the common suffrage of the church’.”
  • For Waldron:
    • Fellow elders must be the ones to lay hands (in good conscience) on an elder candidate, ordaining him to office.
    • But they are not permitted to do this without the consent (“common suffrage”) of the people.
    • But this “election” by the people must not be construed as “sovereign and autonomous authority or that it is the ultimate source of power in the church.”
    • An elder cannot be ordained against the consent of the people or the existing elders.
    • Ergo, no regional bishop, presbytery, denomination, or supposed higher authority can do this. Nor may they interfere.
    • Waldron deduces this from the church’s role in excommunication of members. “If excommunication may only be enacted by the consent of the assembled church (Matt. 18:15-17; 1 Cor. 5:1-13), then clearly no officer may be appointed without the consent of the congregation.”

Chapter 4

The office of pastor is tied to a specific local church. Particular Baptists opposed “pluralism”, i.e. an elder pastoring multiple churches.

  • Unlike apostles, those of “ordinary” offices (elders and deacons) are “brought to their Office by Call of the Church.” (Coxe)
  • “Benjamin Keach argued based on this distinction that ordinary officers could not exist apart from the prior existence of a church. It is the constituted church that chooses, ordains, and installs its officers. A church without a ‘pastor or pastors ordained’ is ‘very disorderly’, and a pastor without a church is impossible. The church had priority over its officers, but was incomplete without them. Ministers could not function without the call and approbation of a specific church.” (90)
  • “Officers were essential to the bene esse [well-being] of the church.” (90)
  • “An elder cannot and ought not to extend his ministerial authority beyond the sphere of that [local] church’s call.” (93)
    • Contra Presbyterianism
  • However: “If a special circumstance were to arise, in which one church needed to call upon the elders of another church for assistance, it was free to do so, but only for a specific and clearly delimited reason.” (94)
  • “The pastoral office is circumscribed by membership in a specific local church.” (95)
  • “Such a gospell minister cannot be orderly chosen as an officer by any church unless he be orderly a member of the same.” (Meeting of the Midlands Association of Particular Baptists, June 4-6, 1656, quoted in p. 95)
  • “These Baptists considered church membership in priority over office, and could not envision an officer holding formal relations with more churches than one, since he could not be in orderly membership with more churches than one at the same time.” (95)
  • “You ought to look out from amongst you such persons that you judge competently qualified for the sacred office and to elect such persons.” (London Association, 1692, quoted in p. 98)
  • “It is the duty of everie elder as well to teach as to rule in the church whereof he is an elder.” (Abingdon Association, 1656, quoted in p. 99)

Ordination was the “pattern of installation to office.”

  • “The act of the imposition of hands consecrates the ordained to office, symbolizes the presence of the hand of God, and provokes special prayer for a fruitful ministry.” (102)
  • In a church with no elders, “visiting ministers assisted the churches” with ordination. (103)
  • “The churches were questioned concerning their willingness to proceed with the installation of the individual(s) concerned.” (103)
  • “The participating elders would place their hands on his head and shoulders… prayer would be offered, and a pronouncement made on behalf of the church indicating that the recipient was now officially installed and duly empowered to fulfill his responsibilities and function with all the rights and privileges of office.” (103)
  • “Keach asserted that these duties must be understood in the context of stewardship and servanthood.” (104)
  • “Keach argues that the New Testament demands that churches support their pastors at a level suitable to their needs and which allows them the privilege of showing hospitality and benevolence to others. But he is careful to ensure that he does not encourage anyone to be guilty of the charge of entering the ministry for the sake of personal financial gain.” (106)

The gifts of teaching and preaching are “not confined to that office” of elder.

  • “Others also gifted and fitted by the Holy Spirit for [the preaching of the word], and approved, and called by the Church, may and ought to perform it.” (LBC 26.11)
  • These “Gifted Brethren” “supplement the ministry of the elders and pastors through the use of their public gifts.” (109)
  • Potential teachers were tested “privately only at first in the church.” “This trial was a very specific activity, and as Keach stated, a private matter carried out only before the church.” (109)
    • Sounds like a preaching lab.
  • “Public ministry was a very important matter, and could not be treated lightly. Those who thought they could act on their own needed to be brought under the regulating power of the Church… Unrecognized preachers were not tolerated.” (112)
  • Some women were recognized as deaconesses. “These women were not considered to be in an office equivalent to the deacons, nor were they given status as officers in the church. They were special servants to the sick.” (116)

More to come…