“Biblical Foundations for Baptist Churches: A Contemporary Ecclesiology” – Book Review

Biographical Sketch of the Author

 John S. Hammett holds a Bachelor of Arts in History from Duke University, a Master of Divinity from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, a Doctor of Ministry from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, and a Doctor of Philosophy from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He began teaching systematic theology at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary over twenty-five years ago and is now the John L. Dagg Senior Professor of Systematic Theology. 

Over the last two decades Hammett has written and contributed articles to several books in the field of ecclesiology. He has written articles on topics such as the parachurch and church relationship, the ordinances of the church, church leadership, regenerate church membership, and more. Biblical Foundations for Baptist Churches combines all of his research from over the years to address contemporary ecclesiology, specifically for the Baptist church. He has a burden to help pastors and laity see the church as it was intended and to take steps to being what it is called to be. 

Hammett, John, S. Biblical Foundations for Baptist Churches: A Contemporary Ecclesiology. Grand Rapids: Kregel Academics, 2019. 398 pp. $25.99.

Summary of Contents

Hammett clearly communicates that he took on the project of writing this book because most Baptists do not have a solid foundation of the history of their denomination. They do not know why they are Baptist. This is his take on ecclesiology from the Baptist perspective for both the laity and the clergy that it may ignite a spark in all. 

There is a disconnect between the people of God in the Old Testament and the Christian Church today. Hammett uses the analogy of the New Testament church being conceived at the calling of Abraham with the remainder of the Old Testament being the gestation. Jesus’ earthly ministry was labor, and the church was finally born at Pentecost (28—29). Throughout the book, the church is continually referred to as the priesthood of believers (52) and a called out, organized assembly of believers who have been called together (31) with a direct connection to God through Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. 

Hammett unpacks the historical marks of the church being “one, holy, catholic[1], and apostolic church” that were penned at the Council of Constantinople in 381 (57) and he traces how those marks have changed over the past two thousand years. As the Scriptures became more available and the magisterial reformers began to call for change, they defined a real church as one that purely teaches the word and properly administers the sacraments (70—72).    

In 1611 the General Baptists began as a split from the Church of England, followed shortly by the Particular Baptists pulling away by 1638 (102—103). The catalyst to this change was their conviction of regenerate church membership and the biblical mandate for baptism of believers only. Unfortunately, when one examines the numbers and lifestyles of contemporary Baptist churches it can be deduced that while Baptists hold to regenerate church membership according to its bylaws and covenants, they do not hold so tightly to them in practice (117—118).

Regarding church polity and governance, Hammett gives a strong explanation and defense of the major forms: episcopalianism (148), presbyterianism (151), and congregationalism (155), with the latter being the historical governing body for Baptists. He explains the challenges with congregationalism are the inclusion of unregenerate members in the church, the larger church, the shift in pastoral leadership styles, and the emergence of elder-led churches (166—169).

Part three of the book continues with robust commentary on elders and deacons in the church. Hammett diligently unpacks the biblical evidence for both, including their roles, limitations, and method of appointment in the first century church. Of interesting note is his commentary on the word gynaikas in I Timothy 3:11 and whether it refers to the wives of the previously mentioned deacons or deaconesses (230—236). 

After unpacking what the church is and how it should operate, Hammett looks at the action of the church: what should it be doing and where is should be going (Parts 4 and 5 of the book). He calls the church to return to the five ministries of the church: teaching, fellowship, worship, service, and evangelism (252). 

A lot of what he calls the church to return to in some facet is affected by the importance of regenerate church membership. He pointed to the difference between biblical fellowship of the body and “Christian socializing” (265). New Testament fellowship, or koinonia, is a result of the Holy Spirit coming at Pentecost and is demonstrated in “intimate relationships believers share in the church” (265—266). That prescribed fellowship within the church affects the retention of members, commitment to the body, and the impact of the ordinances (268—271) and Hammett believes it to be a neglected aspect of the church. 

The book’s concluding chapters call for the church to remain set apart from the culture and to continue to move against the grain of society. To do so, requires adjustments to what and how we do ministry while holding to the distinctives of our faith (346). Seeing how membership numbers are declining, he calls the church to contextualize its ministry, be missional, adopt aspects of megachurch ministry that can translate, multiply sites when needed, go back to what works, and revitalize the dying churches (348—366). 

Critical Evaluation

There is no doubt that Biblical Foundations for Baptist Churches is helpful in tackling some of the cultural and contemporary questions the Baptist church is facing; however, the way those questions are answered in the book may leave pastors on both sides of ecclesiological fences disappointed, depending on their stance. 

The call of Hammett for contemporary Baptist churches to return to the marks of a healthy church is something that needs to be heard, whether it is the marks of the reformers or the nine marks of Mark Dever and his school of thought (361—363), the church needs definitive marks to define what they ought to do through the lens of Scripture. Hammett was very thorough in walking the reader through the progression of change in how the marks of the church define the healthy church and what instigated the shifts. 

One notably passionate conviction of Hammett that would likely offend some pastors and churches is his view of regenerate church membership, which I agree with. He made the comparison of the membership practices of the early Baptist churches to the ease in which we vote professed believers into membership today. I agree in the need for the church to change how we handle membership, thought I am not sure his resolution is ideal. His suggestion of deleting the membership role annually and renewing each person’s commitment with a covenant signing (127—128) sounds great in theory but challenging, to say the least, in practice. I can see implementing a blank roll rule every five or ten years, but even then, it would require years of conversation, teaching, and pastoral care to take that step and the odds are the church would lose faithful, attending, members in the process. Sometimes, I think professional theologians’ ideas of practice do not translate well to the reality of the pastors they expect to practice them.

His view on deaconesses was interesting and not what one may consider Baptistic in contemporary conversations (234). The example he gave of B.H. Carroll recognizing six deaconesses at First Baptist Church Waco was fascinating, especially considering that he went on to found Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (235). This seems to be a practice that is rather unheard of today.  

Any church that is considering implementing an elder-led governance should take careful steps and read the defenses of both sides of the conversation. I was impressed with Hammett’s thoroughness in this subject and I appreciate the explanation of his conviction that congregationalism is ideal, but a plurality of elders is not unbiblical as long as it has one lead elder (pastor).

Regarding worship, I found it interesting that Hammett seems to be a proponent of hymns only in worship and is not a fan of contemporary worship styles (280—281), though I do not think he came out and said so explicitly. He referenced and quoted Marva Dawn who said, “style is not the issue… the question is whether our worship services immerse us in God’s splendor” (278). I agree with this completely. Nevertheless, it seems to contradict the last sentence of the same paragraph when she says contemporary worship is “filled with stuff that trivializes God and forms narcissistic people” while “traditional music is quite good theologically and musically” (278).  I served at a rural, traditional church for years. My experience is that some of the hymns used were depressing and left a lot to be desired musically. While I appreciate his opinion on worship style, not all hymns “immerse us in God’s splendor.” I recognize the theological shortcomings of a lot of contemporary worship songs, and I love many of the old hymns when they are done well, but I lean toward disagreeing with what I perceive as a blanket disapproval of contemporary worship music by Hammett.

All in all, John Hammett accomplished what he set out to do. He reminds his readers of where Baptist ecclesiology began, reveals to them where the Baptist church is today, points to the intersections that took it away from where it was, and encourages Baptists by showing the steps of how to get back on course. 

[1] “catholic” being a term that refers to the general, worldwide, universal body of believers. Not to be confused with “Catholic” that refers to the faith associated with Rome, the Pope, etc. (65).

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