Tuesday, November 17, 2009

White, Duesing, and Yarnell, eds. Restoring Integrity in Baptist Churches - A book review

White, Thomas, Jason G. Duesing, and Malcom B. Yarnell III, eds. Restoring Integrity in Baptist Churches. Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2008. 183 pp. $ 8.04.

Though, not directly touted as such, this volume is a collection of papers presented at the second annual Baptist Distinctive Conference at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in September of 2006. In the context of restoring integrity in Baptist churches, this volume offers papers on the topics of church membership by John Hammett and Mark Dever; on the topic of baptism by Daniel Akin, David Allen, Thomas White, and Jason Lee; on the topic of the Lord’s supper by Thomas White and Emir Caner; on the topic of Church Discipline by Gregory Wills and R. Stanton Norman; and on the topic of the priesthood of believers by Malcolm Yarnell III.


In the introduction to this volume, co-editor White proposes that “the presentations in this book seek to confront these challenges and how a church can maintain proper ecclesiology while remaining relevant to culture” (18). The challenges he is referring to are five: extreme individualism, theological denigration, emergence of megachurches, consumer driven culture, and the seeker sensitive movement. He also adds that the ordering of the chapters is thematic, but not in order of importance.

The first two chapters focus on regenerate church membership. Hammett looks “at the Biblical rational for regenerate church membership,” then he traces “its rise and fall in Baptist life” and argues “for its centrality in Biblical ecclesiology.” Finally he suggests “ways that it may be recovered in Baptist churches today” (22). Dever, writing on the same topic, approaches the discussion with a theologically driven, yet pragmatically applied directive on how to regain meaningful church membership.

The next four chapters focus on baptism. Akin begins this section by defining baptism from a theological point of view with an exegesis of Rom 6:1-14. His chapter is followed by historical, lexical, and Biblical analysis of the necessity of immersion, wherein Allen reminds us that “baptism symbolizes cleansing, but is far more than cleansing. To substitute sprinkling or pouring for immersion focuses on the cleansing only; it lacks the symbolism of the method of cleansing that is the cross of Christ” (105). White’s chapter follows; in it he brings “six overlapping categories” into the discussion: subject, mode, meaning, place, administrator, and formula. This section is concluded by Lee’s attempt at connecting baptism and covenant historically, but not theologically.

The next section focuses on the Lord Supper. White presents a theological study on the topic and offers a good resource to all the issues one must consider and all the positions that are present in Christendom. Caner presents a historical overview which culminates in a useful analysis of five views on the supper: laissez-faire, open, cracked, closed, and locked communions. Both authors do a good job at defining their terminology in an area of theology where terminology is used with very little consistency.

This is naturally followed by two chapters on church discipline. Wills leads the reader through the Baptist development and decline of this doctrine, introducing him to the efficiency movement and the revolution of individual freedom. Norman trails Wills’ chapter with a theological and historical treatise on how to reestablish proper church discipline. A very much needed chapter on the priesthood of believers follows. In it, Yarnell reminds us of the plurality of the term “believers” in this doctrine and that we do still have a mediator: Jesus Christ himself. Duesing concludes the volume by identifying its purpose as a tool to combat ecclesiological indifference and pleas with his readers to combat this indifference “for the sake of future churches” (251).

Critical Evaluation

One really cannot critically evaluate all eleven essays in such a short review, therefore an attempt will be made to evaluate the volume as a whole and at times some specific issues will be raised regarding specific authors or topics. As is usually the case with a volume of this type, one finds some repetition of ideas and concepts and even some differing opinions on specific topics. For example, both Hammett’s habitual appeal for pre-baptismal new members’ classes and Hammett’s and Dever’s plea for waiting on baptism, seem to be contradicted by the opening paragraph of Akin’s chapter on baptism. A few differences aside, this book, overall, offers a very cohesive view of what the authors see as necessary to restore integrity in Baptist churches. The reader cannot leave, after having read this volume, without being convinced at least to evaluate the concepts of regenerate membership, baptism, the Lord’s supper, and church discipline and how they are applied in one’s church. Also, one will leave this volume, hopefully, with a renewed understanding of the essence and importance of a proper understanding of the priesthood of believers.

When it comes to the structure and purpose of the book, a few adjustments might be suggested. First, while White offers five characteristics in his introduction, it is telling that as he expounds them, he only expounds the first four (membership, baptism, Lord’s supper, and church discipline), ignoring the priesthood of the believer. Throughout the volume there seems to be much cohesion and flow within the first ten chapters. This is probably due to the fact that Hammett’s chapter touches all the topics that follow as he introduces an ecclesiology of regenerate church membership. Unfortunately, the last chapter by Yarnell, which is very important to the discussion, almost feels isolated. Due to its importance on the topic, it might have helped the discussion if this chapter had been at the beginning of the volume, settling the issue before continuing with the rest of the work. Second, again in the introduction, White spends much time describing five challenges to Baptist ecclesiology and leads the reader to understand that these chapters were written specifically to “confront these challenges.” That direct confrontation is found lacking in many of the chapters; the chapters do deal with issues that can be used to confront those challenges, but the loop is not well closed.

As for specific comments on specific chapters, I will only mention some here. While appreciating the intent, I cannot but have some disagreements with Dever in his chapter on regaining meaningful church membership. Dever is obviously a proponent of a very institutional church, which places great emphasis on structure. Why do I say this? From the first page of this chapter, emphasis is placed on attendance of members. For Dever, members who do not “attend church”[1] are in sin because they do not follow Heb 10:25. One wonders if he would consider the majority of members who attend but do not encourage one another also as being in sin according to Heb 10:25. In his bare outline of membership, Dever does slightly soften his stance by allowing “a few, particular exceptions” to his regular attendance rule, unfortunately he does not specify what these exceptions are. He also places much weight on pastors and their role in the institutional structure. Why do I say that? He ends his chapter with twelve steps to regain meaningful membership, which he suggests as a “twelve-step recovery plan for pastors to regain church membership” (57). Why for pastors? Would it not make more sense, if the “local church is entrusted with the responsibility of defining church membership” (50), for these twelve steps to be a plan for the church? There is much that can be gleaned from Dever’s chapter, but one who does not approach the body of Christ in such an institutional manner will be frustrated by his language and some of his concepts.

While the six categories offered by White are necessary for a complete discussion on baptism and while his foresight in seeing the need for a discussion of the definition of true church in this discussion is much appreciated, White presents several weak arguments in the chapter on baptism. His argument for baptism as an initiatory ordinance into the local church is only tangentially connected to the great commission and overall weak. His insistence that “baptism must be associated with the local church” (113) is found in the midst of a variety of “should” statements and is not supported scripturally. Finally, his personal opinion that baptism should be performed by a pastor or staff member does not do justice to the great commission. Having said all of that, White’s humility in presenting his personal opinion is much appreciated and his balanced presentation of counterarguments in his chapter on the Lord's supper is noble.


Whether the editors meant restoring honesty, or unity, or soundness to Baptist churches when they used the term integrity in the title, this volume successfully initiates all three of these processes by directing the reader’s thoughts to some important topics in ecclesiology and therefore lives out its purpose to combat indifference on the topic.

[1] While defining a church as “not a building” (47), Dever still uses the terminology of attending church. I just wonder what he would say to the words of John Gill who accused those “who call going to a place of public worship, going to church” of “great impropriety” (John Gill, A Complete Body of Doctrinal and Practical Divinity, new ed., vol. 2 (London: Bradbury and Evans, 1839), 559).

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