Book Review: Edification and Beauty by Dr. James Renihan

This week I finished a book that I truly enjoyed written by Dr. James Renihan entitled Edification and Beauty: The Practical Ecclesiology of the English Particular Baptists, 1675-1705, and this book is also a part of the Studies in Baptist History and Thought series.  I had an opportunity to meet Dr. Renihan and a small portion of his family in December, and so I was excited and interested to read this book (which also happens to be his dissertation, but it’s still very readable).

In a nutshell, this book is a history book, but a very intriguing history book about Particular Baptist history in England through the late 17th and into the very early 18th centuries. It is divided into six chapters (with plenty of subtitles….which I love) all expounding on the formation of the Particular Baptist churches (including the adoption of the 2nd London Baptist Confession of 1689), church government, the officers of the church, the practice of the regulative principle of worship, and the formation, necessity, and activities of church associations.

Now, I say this book is more intriguing than you would expect because Dr. Renihan spent countless hours examining old church records, minutes from church meetings, and lots of other primary sources that we wouldn’t even think exist today. Some specific topics that I found particularly interesting were

  • the demographic breakdowns of various congregations
  • how churches formed (especially in less populated areas)
  • the question and outworking of who holds the authority and exercises the power within the church
  • the role of “gifted brethren”
  • the outworking of “the communion of saints” among the churches
  • and all of the actual examples of how these Christians handled problems within their churches.

And after reading, you can’t help but be left with the deep impression that these Baptists were extremely serious about what they believed and equally as diligent to practice their faith very carefully. Faithful precision was of the utmost importance.

In terms of reviewing this book, if I had to capture my thoughts with a verse from Scripture, I would use Ecclesiastes 1:9-11, which says:

What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done,
and there is nothing new under the sun.
Is there a thing of which it is said,
“See, this is new”?
It has been already
in the ages before us.
There is no remembrance of former things,
nor will there be any remembrance
of later things yet to be
among those who come after.

 

And this passage comes to my mind because I think that books like this can help us. It’s important to remember the past, and it’s even more important to learn from the past, especially Church history. And I know that there is a plethora of books out about the Reformation and the history of various Protestant denominations, but as Reformed Baptists, we should make sure that we’re learning our own history too so that we can continue to grow in wisdom, understanding, and Christian maturity as knowledgeable Reformed Baptists.

Now I confess that this is my first time reading anything about Baptist history, but I enjoyed it and want to read more. It reminded me of my own upbringing in a Baptist church, and although my church wasn’t Reformed, they practiced many things that I read about in Dr. Renihan’s book (i.e. the yearly review of church history and being active members in the local Baptist Church association). In particular, I remember when I came to faith as a child (around age 6), and most members (including my pastor) did not believe that children could truly come to saving faith in Christ. But my mother made me get up near the end of the service and go to my pastor to tell him that I believed the gospel. My pastor stopped before he gave the benediction to actually question me on the gospel and what I believed in front of the congregation. He was surprised and satisfied with my responses, and then he told the congregation that unless there was an objection from anyone, he was putting me forward to be a candidate for baptism. Thankfully, there were no objections, but they made me take foundation classes for a while before my baptism. And when I participated in the Lord’s Supper the Sunday of my baptism, I had to stand beside the table to receive “the right hand of fellowship” from every member of the church. Later, when church meetings were convened, I stupidly thought that I could run around and play with all my friends outside, but my mother made sure that I knew that as a member, it was expected that I would be in the church meeting and paying attention, although everyone else my age was outside playing. In fact, as the youngest believer in my church, everyone had a hand in “rearing” me and making sure that I was not thinking and behaving like the other children (my actual peers) in the church because I had made a confession of faith, and my whole life was changed and dedicated in service to the Lord and my church.

My church took membership very seriously, and even from childhood, they made sure that I was involved (i.e. serving as an usher, cleaning before and after services, serving in the choir, teaching Sunday School, helping with Vacation Bible School, helping with fellowship meals, and much more) and they made sure that I knew that I had to be involved because I was an actual member of the church. I believe this is one of the lasting impressions I have from this book: the need and duty of every member of the church to be actively dedicated and involved in the edification and sustainment of the church. And I am grateful that this tradition and practice was passed down in such a way that I was able to see it modeled faithfully in my church as a child.

Shortly after starting this book, I figured that it was a good idea to read The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment so that I would learn to be content and patient with the providence of God in my life currently, and that was a good decision. But I can honestly say that this book does not exalt Particular Baptists or their practical ecclesiology over and above other denominations in any way. It just gives you a brief window into Particular Baptist church life in the late 1600s, nothing more and nothing less. The picture that you see looks amazing and promising at times, and at other times, it’s difficult and disheartening because even with all of the hard work put into it, things don’t always end the way we want them to. Nevertheless, it is the Lord who is building His Church, and this book shows you His faithfulness in that work among the Particular Baptists. I heartily recommend this one!

Outgrowing the Church?

As mentioned in the previous blog(s), we are called and commanded to love the fellow members of our local church. You may now agree that God calls all Christians to join (i.e. to be committed to) a local church and that God calls you to love the family of God in your local church. However, I would like to raise the following questions: Do you really believe that you need the local members of your church? Or, do you feel as if you have “out-grown” your local church? These are not simple questions to answer, but they must be asked if we seriously want to love the members of our local church. The reality is that we all need the local church not just in an abstract way; we need the local church because we need each other.

Dealing With the Drama

Each one of us is a deeply flawed individual who lives in a fallen world and interacts with sinful individuals on a daily basis in our various vocations. Because of this, we have developed a plethora of sinful habits, along with emotional and spiritual baggage from our circumstances (before and after our conversion). When we join a local church, we are entering into a relationship with other deeply flawed individuals with a different set of sinful habits, and it is probable that some of them will probably push your pet peeves. As Ian Hamilton said recently, “Some individuals are quirky around the edges, and some individuals may be quirky at the center.” Although we are united to Christ, our sinfulness doesn’t just afflict us; it also afflicts fellow Christians. This is why many believers see parallels between marriage and church membership. The hardships we experience within both kinds of relationships are associated with our fallenness.

This is a reality that virtually all Christians encounter in every age (including the apostolic age), and yet we are called and commanded to love one another. Furthermore, the Apostle John tells us that this love is what should distinguish us from the unbelieving world (cf. John 13:35). Dear Christian, do you keep the members of your local church at arm’s length because you don’t want to deal with their issues and drama? Do you stay on the margins of church life because you hate the drama? While no one wants to deal with perpetual drama within the church, we should be honest with ourselves. In some way or fashion, we are all broken and dysfunctional people, and the truth is that we are blind to most of our dysfunctional issues! We are all a part of the drama that we hate within local churches. Furthermore, it is the height of folly to believe that you can see your full dysfunction clear enough without the assistance of your local church. Even the Apostle Paul states that he is not mature enough to “outgrow” the church. Consider his words in Romans:

First I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you because your faith is proclaimed in all the world. For God is my witness, whom I serve with my spirit in the gospel of His Son, that without ceasing I mention you always in my prayers, asking that somehow by God’s will I may now at last succeed in coming to you. For I long to see you that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you – that is, that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine. Romans 1:8-12

It makes perfect sense that Paul would want to visit the church in Rome and strengthen them through his spiritual gifts. However, Paul clarifies by saying that what he genuinely wants is to be “mutually encouraged by each other’s faith”. Paul is longing to visit this church so that he could be encouraged by their faith. This demonstrates that the local church was never designed to have “super-Christians” who are always giving and “normal Christians” who are always receiving. The reason why is because there is no such thing as a “super-Christian”. Even the mightiest believer will wither and die apart from God’s grace, which is often experienced through the local church.

Spiritual Gifts

Another basic reason why you need the members of your local church is because the gifts of the local church are necessary for your edification. In other words, God has distributed His gifts within the church in such a way that the members may have the same need for one another (cf. 1 Corinthians 12:25). Oftentimes, when we think of spiritual gifts, we only think of the public or “flashy” gifts, such as preaching, teaching, evangelism, musical gifts, etc. However, based on scripture, many of the spiritual gifts are much more ordinary, such as service, exhortation, giving, mercy, administration/leadership, etc (cf. Romans 12:4-8). These are the non-controversial gifts that are given to the church, and they form the backbone of many local churches. These are the gifts that Christians no longer exercise or benefit from when they choose to neglect their local church. Consider the words of Paul in 1 Corinthians:

There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but the same God works all of them in all men. Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good. 1 Corinthians 12:4-7

If you are united to Christ, you have received spiritual gifts for the purpose of serving to build up your local church (“the common good”). We have different gifts with different levels of ability for different objectives. However, the bottom line is that the local church needs the gifts that you bring to her, and you need the gifts of fellow members of your local church. Christians are not to be merely consumers of goods and services, but every member of a church is a distributor and laborer for the common good. Therefore, we need each other.

LBCF of 1677/1689 – Chapter Twenty-Six, Of the Church

1. The catholic or universal church, which (with respect to the internal work of the Spirit and truth of grace) may be called invisible, consists of the whole number of the elect, that have been, are, or shall be gathered into one, under Christ, the head thereof; and is the spouse, the body, the fulness of him that filleth all in all.
( Hebrews 12:23; Colossians 1:18; Ephesians 1:10, 22, 23; Ephesians 5:23, 27, 32 )

2. All persons throughout the world, professing the faith of the gospel, and obedience unto God by Christ according unto it, not destroying their own profession by any errors everting the foundation, or unholiness of conversation, are and may be called visible saints; and of such ought all particular congregations to be constituted.
( 1 Corinthians 1:2; Acts 11:26; Romans 1:7; Ephesians 1:20-22 )

3. The purest churches under heaven are subject to mixture and error; and some have so degenerated as to become no churches of Christ, but synagogues of Satan; nevertheless Christ always hath had, and ever shall have a kingdom in this world, to the end thereof, of such as believe in him, and make profession of his name.
( 1 Corinthians 5; Revelation 2; Revelation 3; Revelation 18:2; 2 Thessalonians 2:11, 12; Matthew 16:18; Psalms 72:17; Psalm 102:28; Revelation 12:17 )

4. The Lord Jesus Christ is the Head of the church, in whom, by the appointment of the Father, all power for the calling, institution, order or government of the church, is invested in a supreme and sovereign manner; neither can the Pope of Rome in any sense be head thereof, but is that antichrist, that man of sin, and son of perdition, that exalteth himself in the church against Christ, and all that is called God; whom the Lord shall destroy with the brightness of his coming.
( Colossians 1:18; Matthew 28:18-20; Ephesians 4:11, 12; 2 Thessalonians 2:2-9 )

5. In the execution of this power wherewith he is so intrusted, the Lord Jesus calleth out of the world unto himself, through the ministry of his word, by his Spirit, those that are given unto him by his Father, that they may walk before him in all the ways of obedience, which he prescribeth to them in his word. Those thus called, he commandeth to walk together in particular societies, or churches, for their mutual edification, and the due performance of that public worship, which he requireth of them in the world.
( John 10:16; John 12:32; Matthew 28:20; Matthew 18:15-20 )

6. The members of these churches are saints by calling, visibly manifesting and evidencing (in and by their profession and walking) their obedience unto that call of Christ; and do willingly consent to walk together, according to the appointment of Christ; giving up themselves to the Lord, and one to another, by the will of God, in professed subjection to the ordinances of the Gospel.
( Romans. 1:7; 1 Corinthians 1:2; Acts 2:41, 42; Acts 5:13, 14; 2 Corinthians 9:13 )

7. To each of these churches thus gathered, according to his mind declared in his word, he hath given all that power and authority, which is in any way needful for their carrying on that order in worship and discipline, which he hath instituted for them to observe; with commands and rules for the due and right exerting, and executing of that power.
( Matthew 18:17, 18; 1 Corinthians 5:4, 5; 1 Corinthians 5:13; 2 Corinthians 2:6-8 )

8. A particular church, gathered and completely organized according to the mind of Christ, consists of officers and members; and the officers appointed by Christ to be chosen and set apart by the church (so called and gathered), for the peculiar administration of ordinances, and execution of power or duty, which he intrusts them with, or calls them to, to be continued to the end of the world, are bishops or elders, and deacons.
( Acts 20:17, 28; Philippians 1:1 )

9. The way appointed by Christ for the calling of any person, fitted and gifted by the Holy Spirit, unto the office of bishop or elder in a church, is, that he be chosen thereunto by the common suffrage of the church itself; and solemnly set apart by fasting and prayer, with imposition of hands of the eldership of the church, if there be any before constituted therein; and of a deacon that he be chosen by the like suffrage, and set apart by prayer, and the like imposition of hands.
( Acts 14:23; 1 Timothy 4:14; Acts 6:3, 5, 6 )

10. The work of pastors being constantly to attend the service of Christ, in his churches, in the ministry of the word and prayer, with watching for their souls, as they that must give an account to Him; it is incumbent on the churches to whom they minister, not only to give them all due respect, but also to communicate to them of all their good things according to their ability, so as they may have a comfortable supply, without being themselves entangled in secular affairs; and may also be capable of exercising hospitality towards others; and this is required by the law of nature, and by the express order of our Lord Jesus, who hath ordained that they that preach the Gospel should live of the Gospel.
( Acts 6:4; Hebrews 13:17; 1 Timothy 5:17, 18; Galatians 6:6, 7; 2 Timothy 2:4; 1 Timothy 3:2; 1 Corinthians 9:6-14 )

11. Although it be incumbent on the bishops or pastors of the churches, to be instant in preaching the word, by way of office, yet the work of preaching the word is not so peculiarly confined to them but that others also gifted and fitted by the Holy Spirit for it, and approved and called by the church, may and ought to perform it.
( Acts 11:19-21; 1 Peter 4:10, 11 )

12. As all believers are bound to join themselves to particular churches, when and where they have opportunity so to do; so all that are admitted unto the privileges of a church, are also under the censures and government thereof, according to the rule of Christ.
( 1 Thessalonians 5:14; 2 Thessalonians 3:6, 14, 15 )

13. No church members, upon any offence taken by them, having performed their duty required of them towards the person they are offended at, ought to disturb any church-order, or absent themselves from the assemblies of the church, or administration of any ordinances, upon the account of such offence at any of their fellow members, but to wait upon Christ, in the further proceeding of the church.
( Matthew 18:15-17; Ephesians 4:2, 3 )

14. As each church, and all the members of it, are bound to pray continually for the good and prosperity of all the churches of Christ, in all places, and upon all occasions to further every one within the bounds of their places and callings, in the exercise of their gifts and graces, so the churches, when planted by the providence of God, so as they may enjoy opportunity and advantage for it, ought to hold communion among themselves, for their peace, increase of love, and mutual edification.
( Ephesians 6:18; Psalms 122:6; Romans 16:1, 2; 3 John 8-10 )

15. In cases of difficulties or differences, either in point of doctrine or administration, wherein either the churches in general are concerned, or any one church, in their peace, union, and edification; or any member or members of any church are injured, in or by any proceedings in censures not agreeable to truth and order: it is according to the mind of Christ, that many churches holding communion together, do, by their messengers, meet to consider, and give their advice in or about that matter in difference, to be reported to all the churches concerned; howbeit these messengers assembled, are not intrusted with any church-power properly so called; or with any jurisdiction over the churches themselves, to exercise any censures either over any churches or persons; or to impose their determination on the churches or officers.
( Acts 15:2, 4, 6, 22, 23, 25; 2 Corinthians 1:24; 1 John 4:1 )