Biblical Foundations for Baptist Churches: A Contemporary Ecclesiology

By: John Hammett

After much studies and experience, John Hammett write’s Biblical Foundations for Baptist Churches, an in depth treatment of biblical ecclesiology (study of the church).  Hammett makes clear from the start that he is writing from a historical Baptist perspective seeking to argue many of the biblical tenants of Baptist church government and structure, though at times he shows inconsistency between the scriptures and many modern Baptist practices in the church.  Hammett is a professor of systematic theology at the Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and served as a pastor and missionary.  His Baptist teaching and pastoral background as well as his strong devotion to being faithful to the scriptures make him well equipped to write this book.

Summary

Baptist Foundations starts with an introduction where Hammett explains why he wrote the book and what makes it different.  He make clear that this book is not pragmatic but rather theological in that it focuses on what the church is and what God intends for every aspect of it.  After this, Hammett splits the book into five parts with a handful of chapters in each part.  In part one; What is the Church? he goes through the basics of the what the “the church” (ekklesia) seems to mean in the scriptures and he examines the various images also used of the church.  Hammett gives info about the way the church over the course of history has viewed itself, giving the marks of the true church.  The final chapter in part one lays out the way the church is an organized assembly, that is primarily local, living and growing, gospel centered, and spirit empowered.

In Part two; Who is the Church? Hammett addressing two main things.  He first argues that the NT views the church as a gathering of regenerate church members.  He makes clear that, “the church must be composed of believers only” (81).  In this he give four biblical arguments for why we should agree with that statement.  His argument is that the universal church is comprised of only believers, the NT calls for church discipline as the means of preserving church membership, the NT assumes that the church is composed of believers only, and finally, the book of Acts recounts only believers as those who are “gathered in” (Acts 2:41, 47, 4:4, 11:21) with believers left out.  Hammett then explains what happened that led churches to abandon this biblical reality and how churches can get it right.

Part three; How is the Church Governed? tackles the issue of church government.  He argues that the church should be composed of a plurality of elders who are in charge of leading the congregation and a group of deacons who are servants of the church but do not directly take part in leadership as the elders.  He then goes through each form of church government that is used today from the Roman Catholic model to the historical Baptist model.  He argues for the traditional Baptist view that each church should be autonomous under the leadership of Christ with cooperation between congregations but without denominational management.

In Part four; What does the church do? Hammett argues for five ministries of the church and then addresses baptism and the lord’s supper.  He uses Acts 2:42-47 and examines the five things that the church does in that text.  They are devoted to teaching, fellowship, worship, service, and evangelism.  All of these activities must be taking place in a healthy church.  Hammett also examines how different churches in our day take part in these activities.  He then moves on in this part to the ordinances of the church; baptism and the Lord’s Supper.  He begins by looking at the sacramental system as a whole, making clear that these do not bring us greater justification, but are a means of grace where we commemorate the blessings of God that we have been given through Christ.  The first ordinance discussed in baptism.  He states that “baptism is the ‘outward sign’ appointed to Scripture by which we make faith visible.  It is the ‘supreme occasion’ for confessing faith in the gospel” (266-267).  He argues that baptism is only for those who can be reasonably evaluated as having a genuine conversion.  This means that infants are not to be baptized, and even young children who make a profession of faith but who may not fully understand the gospel should not be baptized until a later date.  Baptism is to be done by emersion by the local church.  Hammett ends this part with an evaluation of the Lord’s Supper which he calls the ordinance of renewal.  He sees it as being much like the renewing of a wedding vow (278) and it proclaims the gospel in its very essence.  The Catholic idea that each time the Lord’s Supper is taken, Jesus is crucified is inconsistent with the scriptures, and this ordinance is for believers only.

The final section of the book, Where is the Church Going? Looks at the different movements in the American church and then he examines the state of the church oversees.  The first chapter of this section looks at several different directions that the church is taking.  Hammett  first evaluates seeker churches such as Rich Warren’s church and says that the heart of these churches are often positive, but there is a danger of neglecting discipleship and the building up of the body.  He also looks at megachurches and church with multiple campuses, addressing the challenges and the negative aspects that can be associated with them.  Next, he moves onto the postmodern and emergent church movement, having more of a negative perspective of them.  The final chapter addresses the future of the global church, giving some background of missions and the amazing ways we have overcome setbacks and distractions.  Hammett view in this chapter was optimistic and urgent.  The conclusion consisted of a short call for churches to commit themselves to be faithful in all areas.

Critical Evaluation

The main goal of the book, to gives a fully biblical explanation of ecclesiology was accomplished.  Though Hammett wrote from a traditional Baptist perspective, he did not argue anything merely based on Baptist traditions or organizations, but used the scriptures as his supreme authority and guide.  Each section of the book thoroughly addressed the issues that are most important in the church.  These strengths and many others support Hammett’s book.  He was also right in spending extra time and effort arguing for the Baptist tenants that have been largely forgotten such as regenerate church membership, the priesthood of all believers, and congregationalism under elder leadership.  Through many Baptist churches do not go by this perspective, any Baptist minister reading this book would have a hard time disagreeing with the conclusions that were made because they were thoroughly backed up biblically and historically.

This leads to another strength in the book, and that is its dependence on Baptist history.  Hammett argues that even through the scriptures are our authority, understanding how the church in the past has looked at particular issues will protect us from inserting our own cultural perspective on the biblical text.  This is a balanced perspective that is not often argued so well in similar books.  Hammett is completely right in his use of history to help us understand the biblical teachings of ecclesiology while as the same time, not placing too much weight on it.  Another example of him using history to help the reader understand the biblical text and why the church is the way it is comes in chapter three.  Here he explains how “business in American life affected churches in the twentieth century” (71). He points out the way the single pastor model at least partly came from the CEO model of the modern day.

Hammett does an amazing job in part four talking about the ministry of the church to teach by taking present day churches and presenting the methods they use to teach.  By explaining the way Capitol Hill Baptist Church does Sunday school classes through levels called “The Life Development Institute”, and the way other churches have different teaching perspectives, the reader can know what the church is called to do and how to carry it out practically.  The way Hammett did this helped him accomplish his propose of explaining contemporary ecclesiology to strengthen the church.

Hammett’s exegetical research and knowledge was evident throughout the book.  For example, even through many take for granted a proper understanding of the Greek word for church (ekklesia), Hammett goes in-depth into the NT usage and nuances that are present in the biblical text.  The way he split up the word into the way it is used (31) is extremely helpful to the reader, no matter their theological education level.  He made it simple, yet in-depth so that the reader is able to know when reading the Bible, how the biblical author could be using the word church.  In the same section, Hammett also give the images of the church, one again using his exegetical ability in an amazing way.  He makes the information accessible, clear, yet detailed.  There are no examples of him using any biblical text for his only motives, but stays faithful to the author’s intention in every instance.

The book’s evaluation of seeker sensitive churches throughout the book is very gracious but also quite probing.  For example, he states, “Paul’s statement about becoming “all things to all men” (1 Cor. 9:22) was not given as instruction for Christian worship but as a model for Christian living” as a response to seeker sensitive churches formatting there services primarily for unbelievers.  Hammett does not make the mistake of simply bashing these churches, but he rightly gives some guidelines and some minor corrections that need to be considered before orienting a church to be consumed with getting more people inside.

Hammett does a great job correcting unwise practices in the church and giving practical solutions to these problems.  For example, when looking at baptism, he points out that “rebaptism” are unusually high in our day, and many of these baptisms take place in Baptist churches because young people are baptized before they have been regenerated.  He points out that Baptist churches are often doing a similar thing as the Catholics are doing by baptizing children before they are regenerate.  He give the practical solution of waiting until a professing Christian child is older where they can be evaluated before being affirmed.  Hammett’s assessment is right-on and helpful in light of the negative effect that this mistake has been having.  He is also not overly critical or harsh, but is rather strategically gracious in his assessment giving biblical solutions that work.

There was one major problem in the book in one specific place.  Hammett, as he was discussing Elders, did not disagree with the idea of women teaching men in Sunday school classes and other areas of church life.  He states, “The propriety of women serving in such roles is debatable and deepens… what seems clear is the prohibition of women serving as elders” (171).  Sadly, Hammett fails to look at 1 Timothy 2:12 where Paul says, I do not permit a woman to teach or exercise authority over men in the church”.  Though he is right that Paul is limiting the office of elder to men, he fails to see, or at least make clear, that the reason for this is that Elders have a teaching and authority role which has implications for women teaching in a Sunday School class.

Conclusion

Despite my one major disagreement, Biblical Foundations for Baptist Churches was well written and biblically sound. I would recommend the book to any Christians, even if they do not identify as Baptist.  I am fully persuaded this if every Baptist pastor sat down and read this book, the world would look much different within ten years because of it.  His call for biblically faithful churches is needed so that the church can go fourth in its mission of glorifying God in all areas.

Book Review by Jonathan Ahlgren
You can buy the book here.

Also see Baptist Foundations: Church Government for an Anti-Institutional Age and other books also by John Hammett