Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Dargan. Ecclesiology - a Book Review

Dargan, Edwin Charles. Ecclesiology: A Study of the Churches, 2nd and carefully rev. ed. Louisville: C.T. Dearing, 1905. 692 pp. Free PDF on or

Edwin Charles Dargan, professor of homiletics and ecclesiology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, spent many years before and after his time at Southern pastoring. He was a pastor in Virginia, South Carolina, and Georgia. He was also editorial secretary of the Sunday School Board, and as such was involved in deciding the advisability of issuing and in the writing of the 1925 Baptist Faith and Message. [1]


Originally prepared primarily as a text-book for Dargan's Ecclesiology classes (5), and therefore seemingly written primarily for Baptist pastors (35), Ecclesiology is Dargan's most famous volume published outside of his works concerning homiletics. It is considered by Garrett as "the second major monograph on ecclesiology by a Southern Baptist following Dagg." The volume reviewed here is the second edition, which according to Dargan was "most carefully revised, in fact almost rewritten," but not due to a change of "opinions on any essential points" (5).

Ecclesiology is divided into three parts: polity, ordinances, and work and worship. In the polity section, Dargan focuses on the NT evidence, history, and theology of church polity. Here he presents a view of a congregational church made up of regenerate believers, with two offices. In his two introductory chapters, Dargan is careful to define some ground rules and some terminology. In his chapters on church history, Dargan traces the development of church polity throughout the centuries. He concludes this part with chapters on councils, mutual relations between churches, Christian unions with other churches, and church and state relations.

In the ordinance section, Dargan, after an introduction of the topic of ordinances in general, discusses baptism and then the Lord's Supper. After an overview of the obligation of baptism, Dargan discusses the mode, the agent, the recipient, and the significance of baptism, and the problems with infant baptism. Dargan sees the act of baptism as "not spiritually efficacious in any sense, but is symbolical and declarative" (463). It is for "believers and believers only" (407). The mode must be that of single immersion and "the agent should be himself immersed, and act under authority" (390).

As for the Lord's Supper, he sees "the meaning of the ordinance [as] very clear and definite. It is distinctly and preeminently a memorial observance in regard to the great sacrifice of Christ, the atoning work of the Redeemer." He does admit that there are other subsidiary meanings, but focusing on them would be "to some extent . . . unworthy" (500). The Supper should be continually observed (491) exclusively by true believers (492). There are elements seen in the last supper, such as the use of un-leavened bread, wine, location, and the posture of the participants, which are not to be interpreted as commandments for the Lord's Supper (492). Dargan also points out that when Paul, in 1 Cor 11:27, mentions eating or drinking in an unworthy manner, this is not a reference to the state of the believer, but "in a manner out of keeping with the solemn and blessed meaning of the ordinance" (498).

In the last section on the work and worship of the church, he subdivides the church's relation to God as a charter relation, a personal relation, and an instrumental relation (540-41). Here he looks at worship, discipline, evangelism, missions, education, charity, and humanitarian work. For Dargan, "one of the most important works of the church is the edifying of itself. It owes duties to mankind and to God that it can by no means decline, but these do not require that it should be anything else than keenly alive to its own prosperity and growth" (551).

Critical Evaluation

Due to size limitations, this critique will focus on the reviewer's pet peeves and other items of special interest. This in no way constitutes an exhaustive list of positive and negative criticisms on such a massive volume.

Throughout the volume, the reader gets the impression that Dargan's main focus is on the externals of ecclesiology. For example, Dargan starts his volume with Part I - "Polity of the Churches," an entire section on polity, and while in this section he spends time discussing the meaning and usage of εκκλησια, Dargan does not devote any time developing his understanding of the essence of the church. All Dargan offers is a "Baptist" definition of the church based on church polity: the church "is a local body or society of baptized believers in Christ, where the true worship of God is observed, the word of God is preached and the ordinances of the New Testament are properly administered" (22). A similar weakness is found in his discussion of worship. Here there is no mention of passages like Rom 12:1-2 or Revelation 4, which deal with the essence of worship, but mainly a focus on the externals of the weekly service of the church. In the chapters dedicated to baptism, it also seems that Dargan again is mainly concerned with the externals, in this case it's the mode of baptism. This is evidenced in the forward placement, and in the larger number of chapters (four out of eleven) dedicated to the mode. On the other hand, the symbolism of baptism is relegated to the end of his discussion. While this possibly could be explained by the fact that some parts of the symbolism can better be illustrated and explained when the mode has been correctly ascertained, it would seem that the symbolism of baptism should be more important and therefore should be more central to the discussion.

Another general criticism is that, while in his discussion of the offices of the church Dargan begins with an admonition to be cognizant of one's own preconceptions, he seems to be plagued by his own preconceptions in several parts of his work. When looking at lists like Eph 4:11 and 1 Cor 12:28, he immediately assumes that appellations apostles, prophets, and teachers must be referring to offices (71), even if he later admits that the rest of the list in 1 Cor 12 is referring to gifts (81) and that Eph 4:11 is a list of gifts (86). Had he seen these as lists of spiritual gifts rather than lists of offices, as he finally concludes about prophets (79) and teachers (80), it would have helped his understanding and explanation of these gifts and the officers who possess these gifts. This understanding, though, is possibly present when he explains why the Baptist churches of his time were not exact replicas of the NT model (177ff). Realizing that the Spirit of God gives gifts according to His good pleasure, Dargan states that some of these gifts existed by direct divine appointment and not by the church authority. If ever in the good providence of God these gifts are again bestowed upon the churches, together with such undoubted divine credentials as to disallow every trace of fanaticism, we must accept them; but as things are, the churches have no more right now than they had then to decree and appoint these manifestations of divine grace and power (177).

Here he lumps the apostolic office with a listing of gifts he sees as no longer extant. Similarly, when discussing worship, the reader gets the impression that Dargan is entrapped in his concept of institutional worship where worship is a ritual and not a presentation of our bodies as living sacrifices, holy, acceptable to God, as our act of reasonable service.
There are a few instances where Dargan is inconsistent with his logic behind the use of terminology. Having shown that the etymology of the English word "church" comes from κυριακον, referring to the place of gathering as of the Lord's, Dargan upholds the propriety of calling the building and the congregation "the church." He readily admits that there is some ambiguity in the terminology, but here in a way dissimilar to his treatment of the terms bishop (86), communion, and Eucharist (485), he does not show the presence of mind to suggest a change of terminology. Here a change of the non-biblical terminology would have been beneficial to keep young, immature believers from misunderstanding what the term "church" in the NT refers to, therefore helping them correctly to understand the Biblical teachings on the church. As for the use of the terms bishop, communion, and Eucharist, appropriate teaching concerning the biblical meaning of the terms seems more appropriate than abandoning their usage.
As for the understanding of the meaning of εκκλησια, after a long survey of its different uses, Dargan concludes that "there is no need of the common appellations 'universal,' 'invisible,' 'visible,' 'militant,' 'triumphant,'" for "the church, in the New Testament senses of the word, is a local body of believers in Christ, and then more generally, the collective number of professing Christians, and then most generally of all, the sum total of all true believers everywhere, and in all times" (51).

Dargan's discussion on mutual relations in Baptist churches (Part I - Chapter XII) is somewhat dated, for it is not as much a treatise of the Biblical reasons why there should be cooperation (this is just briefly mentioned at the beginning of the chapter) as it is a description of the different ways Baptist churches cooperate. It has inherent historical value, but its practical value in our day and age is questionable. On the other hand, his chapter on church union with non-Baptist churches, denominations, and institutions is welcomed and something that is not as commonly found in volumes on ecclesiology. Dargan subdivides church union into four levels: doctrinal, organic, co-operative, and spiritual. With the intent to cooperate while remaining pure to one's understanding of the mandates of Scripture, Dargan considers the first two as difficult to achieve and historically lead to the centralization of power, the third one as easier, but historically unsuccessful, and the last one as not difficult. Dargan here issues an encouragement and a warning: "Baptists must love their brethren of other denominations, but must not partake in their errors" (247). May today's Baptists heed this warning!

In his discussion of the symbolism of baptism, Dargan's view of baptism as a declaration not just of repentance, but of obedience and of consecration (469f) is refreshing and should be heeded by today's Baptists. Also of interest is the fact that, while there are some allusions to baptism being the entrance into the church, there is no systematic treatment of this in the eleven chapters dedicated to baptism.

In his discussion on the supper, Dargan discusses a variety of passages that are possible allusions to the Lord's Supper (493ff). His treatment of these passages is welcomed, since these are not commonly discussed in books on ecclesiology. Unfortunately, the reader is left feeling that some of his decisions, as to whether these are genuine allusions or doubtful allusions, are arbitrary and not well supported. Dargan does note that the 1 Cor 11 passage indicates that the Lord's supper was observed as or in connection with a meal, but does so in a disapproving tone, wrongly seeing this practice, rather than the sinfulness of the Corinthians, as "virtually destroying the ordinance" (496). This explains why later on, he is in favor of a celebration connected with a "simple service of prayer and praise and reading of Scripture." He also disfavors the celebration of the Supper at the end of the morning service because often "the performance of this solemn rite is hurried through without sufficient solemnity or impressiveness" (531).

In the last part, Dargan presents a very institutionalized church. Yet, he does encourage community: "It is of the utmost importance that the members in the different walks of life should not only become acquainted with each other, but should feel a real personal interest in each other's welfare" (545). He also encourages older people to look out for other people's children (552-53). He also rightly warns that too much machinery will undoubtedly keep up a lively rattle, but it may not be a very effective working force after all. In fact the multiplication of agencies will easily interfere with real spiritual power; and merely humanitarian and social activity is sure to obscure too much the proper spiritual work of the churches (548).


Ecclesiology is a classic work in Baptist ecclesiology, and for that reason alone it is a recommended read for all serious students of the church. It is also a good resource of lists of issues to consider when studying ecclesiology, and a good summary of the historical and denominational trends in church polity, the ordinances, and the worship of the church.

[1] James Leo Garrett, Baptist Theology: A Four-Century Study, 1st ed. (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2009), 245-46, 442.

[2] Ibid., 245.

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