Thursday, December 31, 2009

Pendleton. Baptist Church Manual - A book review

Pendleton, J.M. Baptist Church Manual, rev. ed. Nashville: B&H, 1966. 178 pp. $ 4.36.

A Virginia native and a great proponent of landmarkism, the late James Madison Pendleton was a prolific book and newspaper author, writing such titles as An Old Landmark Reset, a hymn book entitled The Southern Psalmist, and the very popular Baptist Church Manual, which is now in its fifteenth printing since it was first published in 1867.


The Church Manual is divided in seven chapters and five appendices. In broad strokes, it could be said that the seven chapters deal with doctrine and the appendices deal with praxis, if that would not run the risk of understating the practicality of doctrine and its discussion. Pendleton starts by spending a whole chapter on the nature of the church. While he admits a larger meaning for the term, “the redeemed in the aggregate” (5), he quickly points out that a majority of passages refer to a local assembly. He therefore defines a church as “a congregation of Christ’s baptized disciples, acknowledging him as their Head, relying on his atoning sacrifice for justification before God, and depending on the Holy Spirit for sanctification, united in the belief of the gospel, agreeing to maintain its ordinances and obey its precepts, meeting together to worship, and cooperating for the extension of Christ’s kingdom in the world” (7) He then proceeds to discuss the “moral and ceremonial” (8) qualifications of the membership of such a church. The moral requirements are repentance and faith, both of which have to precede the ceremonial requirement of baptism. Some attention is then dedicated to how a new church is constituted and how members are received and how membership is ceased.

The second chapter details the officers of the church. Said “officers are not necessary to the being of a church,” as can be seen by the absence of their mention in the definition he gives for a church, but “they are necessary to its well-being” (22). Pendleton identifies the “two officers that each church should have” as pastors and deacons (23), but also introduces two other officers, one which is “a prudential arrangement for each church to have,” namely the church clerk, and the other one being the trustees, which “are generally the legal custodians of the church property” (37).

In the third chapter entitled the “Doctrines of the Church,” Pendleton, after a short introduction, reproduces J. Newton Brown’s “A Declaration of Faith,” which is nothing less than the New Hampshire Confession of 1833 with an added church covenant and a prayer. In the introduction to this chapter, Pendleton informs the reader that the “Bible contains the revelation of God to man,” and declarations of faith “are not substitutes for the Scriptures. They are only exponents of what are conceived to be the fundamental doctrines of the word of God” (41-3).

Pendleton continues into chapter four by tackling the ordinances of a church, which he identifies as two: baptism and the Lord’s Supper. In the section on baptism, after defining baptism as “the immersion in water, by a proper administrator, of a believer in Christ, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” Pendleton like many of his epoch, spends much time reasoning that baptism has to be by immersion. He then logically continues on to the proper subject of baptism where he argues that s/he has to be a believer, and therefore not an unbeliever or an infant. While talking of infants, he does undertake to deal with the issue of the death of un-baptized infants. As for the Lord’s Supper, Pendleton sees it “chiefly and supremely” as a commemoration of the death of Christ, so much so that he states that “the death of the Lord should monopolize all the power of memory” (89). Much of the subsequent discussion is to establish that “the meeting of a church is indispensable to a scriptural observance” of the supper (90). Church membership is thus used to imply the prerequisite of baptism for the supper.

As for church government, Pendleton identifies three distinct types: Episcopacy, Presbyterianism, and congregationalism. Pendleton identifies the salient features of Episcopacy as a church government which “recognizes the right of bishops to preside over districts of country” where the “bishop is officially superior to other ministers” and of Presbyterianism as a church government which “recognizes two classes of elders –preaching elders and ruling elders” (100-1). Three are the distinctives which he attributes to congregationalism: “that the governmental powers is in the hands of the people,” “the right of a majority of members of a church to rule,” and “that the power of a church cannot be transferred or alienated” (101-2). He then proceeds to argue for congregationalism alone is the New Testament model.

The penultimate chapter addresses the disciplines of the church or “the process by which the spiritual improvement, usefulness and efficiency of a church are promoted” (117). This includes formative and corrective discipline. The later is the major focus of this chapter. As for the last chapter, Pendleton separated the duties of the church into two categories: the duties to one another and the duties to the world. The latter includes personal evangelism, Sunday School, distribution of Bibles, etc., and sustaining missions.

As for the appendices, they include practical information on the business meeting of a church, various templates for letters and forms, a brief marriage ceremony, a section on associations and councils, and a section on Baptist declarations of faith. One has to wonder, though, how many of these are original to Pendleton, since Appendix V contains postmortem dates.

Critical Evaluation

Pendleton definitely wrote this manual as a defense of Baptist ecclesiology as the New Testament model. His justifications are often scripturally based, lexically sustained, and logically reasoned. There are times, though, when the reader is left wanting a more substantial scriptural basis for what Pendleton’s ideas and is frustrated by his repeated “lack of room” argument (see 26 for example). At other times, the scriptural justification is simply not found, and I am not only talking of points where he clearly deals with “secular” issues, like the necessity of trustees, but also about points where one would expect Scripture not to be silent on the issues. Throughout, he is very much so apologetic in his approach and often uses the writings of his opponents to convincingly support his assertions.

His starting the book with a discussion on the nature of the church is very much so appreciated, for such a discussion is often lacking and always necessary when dealing with ecclesiology. One has to wonder, though, if Pendleton would have thought that a non-cooperating church was actually not a church. The same could be asked about his necessity to meet together for worship. Would a congregation that meets together primarily for edification (1 Cor 14:26) and encouragement (Heb 10:25), understanding that God has called them to worship at all times (Rom 12:12, Rev 4), not be a church?

Reading Pendleton, I found myself shocked to find much of what I see as wrong with typical Baptist ecclesiology being stipulated by a pastor and Bible scholar. Let me deal with only one issue as an example, due to lack of space (can you say tu quoque?). While claiming to be an advocate of congregationalism, which he defines as the majority rules and the minority submits (which begs the question: is this understanding of congregationalism really the New Testament model of unity, love, and dying to self?), Pendleton practically advocates ruling elders called deacons. The Pendletonian pastor has “an authority not belonging to other church-members” (27), yet his duties “are preeminently spiritual” (31) and therefore there is a need for deacons, whose duties are both spiritual and secular and who are “a connecting link between the pastor and the needy one of the church” (33). One can see how ruling deacons got their start with such a train of thought. Pendleton displays some inconsistency, for he proceeds to argue for a plethora of standing committees so that the deacons can “share with the pastor in the spiritual ministries of the church,” which is their “role that is consistent with the place of the office in the New Testament” (35). Does he mean by that, that the deacons’ secular duties, which he argues for, are unbiblical? Is any of this true, Biblical congregationalism?


I conclude that Pendleton is a must read for two reasons. First, it does provide some good Biblical and lexical information about some core Baptist beliefs. Second, it allows us to understand better the background which undergirds the current typical Baptist church model. If we are to regain a New Testament church model, it is essential that we understand where people are and why they believe what they do.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

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