Mark Dever in The Church; the Gospel Made Visible has written a most helpful book addressing the topic or subject of ecclesiology. He rightly points out the importance of studying this doctrine when he states, “The church arises only from the gospel. And a distorted church usually coincides with a distorted gospel. Whether it leads to such distortions or results from them, serious departures from the Bible’s teaching about the church normally signify other, more central misunderstandings about the Christian faith.” (p. x). It is not Dever’s contention that differences in a studied and applied ecclesiology are tantamount to a difference over the Gospel proper as he acknowledges that good men with a sound and thorough understanding of saving faith have disagreed in small degrees in this area. Therefore, Dever does not necessarily argue for a particular ecclesiology as he presents his case that the subject is indeed important; however, he does reveal his hand in Part 3 of the book “How Does It All Fit Together” (chapters 12 through 15).
In reading this book I must say I did not encounter much to disagree with in regards to the effects that having a biblical ecclesiology have on the local church. I believe these effects can be broken down into the following categories the composition of the church, the ordinances of the church, the purity of the church, the governance or leadership of the church and how all of these things fit together. Therefore, this review will take on more of the form of an interaction with the book rather than a critique.
Dever makes the case that the first step in developing a biblical ecclesiology is identifying who are the folks who comprise the church. First and foremost is the understanding that the church is comprised of those who are born-again believers in the risen Christ. Thereafter, it must be understood that the church is both universal and local. As a universal body the church is “The People of God” in the New Testament and the Church Age. Furthermore, the church in its local manifestation is the gathering of Christians for the purpose of worshipping God. In understanding that the church is comprised of all believers everywhere and even throughout time one is able to accept that there are those with whom we may disagree on matters of preference who are also Christians. This is a healthy and loving attitude to have towards other believers; however taken to its extreme it can lead to ecumenicalism and on toward universalism where the local body of believers has lost the ability to discern the nature and even exclusivity of the gospel. In understanding the nature and composition of the church the believer can rightly question if the Universal Church has any authority over the local body of believers. Is it the responsibility of Universal Church to administer the ordinances, to discipline sinning members, and to choose/appoint leaders in the local congregation? Once again I agree with Dever that the answer to these questions is no, all of these responsibilities fall under the purview of the local church.
Therefore, it is the responsibility of the local church to not only administer the ordinances of the New Testament Church, but to also determine who is allowed to participate and how many are the biblical ordinances. In the case of the number of ordinances, Dever makes the point that they are two; baptism and the Lord’s Supper. I further agree with Dever that baptism in the New Testament always follows belief and is therefore an ordinance reserved for those persons who have confessed faith in Christ Jesus and therefore have repented of the sin of unbelief. It follows that if this ordinance is for believers then it must be administered by the group to which God has ordained the authority to take such action. Thus, I believe that baptism should be conducted by the local church and is best undertaken by the acknowledged leaders of the same. In the same way that baptism is for believers only, the Lord’s Table is likewise an ordinance of the church conducted in obedience to the Lord’s command and therefore participation is limited to only believers in His Name. Though there are many views on which believers may participate I am personally open to the arguments that in today’s generally poorly taught church that the Lord’s Table may be open to all believers regardless of baptismal status in so far as it is used as opportunity to shepherd them in the area of obedience to the ordinance of baptism.
In the same way I find myself in agreement with the position Dever takes on the number and application of the ordinances of the church, I find myself in agreement with him regarding the necessity to maintain the purity of the church through the application of biblical church discipline. I firmly believe that the church has the responsibility as well as the authority to confront its members in sin (Matt 18:15-20; 1 Cor 5:1-5; Titus 3:10-11). Therefore, I believe it is imperative that the church be well taught in the area of this responsibility as it applies to both the individual Christian as well as the corporate local body of believers. Furthermore, it should be the goal of exercising this authority that the one being confronted be restored to a right relationship with Christ and the local assembly. The church who does not exercise this responsibility is placing not only the one sinning but the entire body at risk of the Father’s discipline for His beloved child (Heb 12:4-11).
In the area of church governance or polity I like Dever am a Congregationalist having eschewed the forms of Episcopal and Presbyterianism. However, I differ with Dever in that I am of the conviction that the model of polity found in the New Testament is one of Elder Rule wherein the Elders (the leaders) of the local church determine the matters of faith and practice on behalf of the local assembly vice Elder Lead with Congregational Rule. In this way the church is governed (lead) by a plurality of men meeting the qualifications of 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 in order to provide a cohesive shepherding of the flock as well as a means of preventing mundane issues becoming matters of first importance endangering the peace, love and harmony of the group.
I affirm that Pastor Dever has indeed hit upon a weakness in the church militant in that we as a group tend to downplay the importance of ecclesiology and the effects it can bring about in the lives of believers. I am also convicted as I hope this short response to his book demonstrates that agreement on the core issues is a matter of first importance leaving room for disagreements in second or third tier matters.