Tuesday, November 15, 2011
Poh Boon Sing on "The Reformed Baptist Dilemma"
I just ran across Pastor Poh Boon Sing's article, The Reformed Baptist Dilemma, on the "Gospel Highway" magazine website.
The "dilemma" which Pastor Poh identifies among Reformed Baptist is a lack of clarity and unity in the area of ecclesiology. My own views on church government have been influenced by Poh's writings, especially his Keys of the Kingdom. Here is the introduction to "The Reformed Baptist Dilemma" article:
The revival of interest in Reformed teaching since the early 1960s has brought about the recovery of many important biblical doctrines. Some of these are the sovereignty of God, the sole authority of Scripture in all matters of faith and practice, salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ, the centrality and uniqueness of the local church, and the primacy of preaching. These doctrines have either been neglected or distorted among evangelicals at large. Nevertheless, these were the truths mightily owned by God in the past and loved by earlier generations of Christians.
The re-emphasis of these doctrines has brought a new lease of life for the older Calvinistic churches, and has led to the founding of newer fellowships. Numerically speaking, Presbyterians and Baptists have benefited most from this recovery of Reformed teaching. Most of the latter have not hesitated to be known as "Reformed Baptists", holding to the 1689 Particular Baptist Confession of Faith as the doctrinal basis of their churches. Reformed Baptists may claim justly that they are true heirs of the Reformation of the 16th century and the lineal descendants of the Particular Baptists of the I7th century Puritan era. After all, lineage in terms of belief is what matters, and not ecclesiastical pedigree or historical succession.
Amidst apparent growth and unity among the Reformed Baptists there have arisen differences in ecclesiology (that is, the doctrine of the church). There are also differences in other doctrines. For example, in eschatology (the doctrine of the last things), there are differences about premillennialism, postmillennialism, amillennialism, or dispensationalism. Then there are the issues of whether the moral law is still relevant for the Christian, whether the Lord's supper and church membership should be open to all. There is also the debate as to whether Reformed Baptists arose during the 17th century or were descendants of an unbroken line of "Baptists" stemming from the Anabaptists, the Waldensians, the Donatists, and all the way from the time of the apostles. Even the title "Reformed Baptist" has been called in question.
Some of these differences are relatively minor, and should not be enough to agitate or disrupt the unity of the Reformed Baptist constituency. Other matters are of greater importance. Failure to adhere to them would lead to the church concerned being frowned upon rightly not only by other Reformed Baptists but also by the wider conservative circles of churches. It is to be noted that one can hold to too little or to too much to qualify as a "Reformed Baptist". The two boundaries are not necessarily co-extensive. Where one boundary begins and the other ends is, of course, a matter of debate.
It is probable that Reformed Baptists are generally clear about soteriology (that is, the doctrine of salvation). To a man they are Calvinists, holding to the well-known "Five Points" of Calvinism, often known as the doctrines of grace. Few would hedge as a "Four-pointer" or a "Four-and-a-half-pointer".1 Nevertheless, while being clear on soteriology, there is, unhappily, no equal clarity in the realm of ecclesiology. A general acceptance of believer's baptism and the autonomy of the local church is about all that may be said with certainty about Reformed Baptist churchmanship.
Poh proceeds to present four models for church government: prelacy, presbyterianism, independency, and congregationalism. He is an advocate for the idependency model as championed by John Owen and laid out in Owen's "The True Nature of a Gospel Church." Here is how Poh summarizes his article:
1. Reformed Baptists are today faced with the problem of not being clear on ecclesiology. Instead of recovering the church polity of the early Particular Baptists, Reformed Baptists have allowed themselves to be influenced by Presbytenanism and other factors.
2. Traditionally, Independency and Congregationalism have been confounded as one and the same entity. This is unfortunate. The two systems are quite different and their confusion has generated problems for not a few. Instead of thinking about three forms of church government, we should reckon upon four: Prelacy, Presbyterianism, Independency and Congregationalism.
3. Originally, the word "Congregational" meant that the visible church of Jesus Christ on earth is made up of congregations of called-out people. The word "Independent" was a derogatory term directed against those who embraced a Congregational church order. The purpose was to imply that the Congregationalists inclined to anarchy in their churches. In time a difference meaning occurred between the two words, so that "Congregational" came to mean the congregation ruling the church, while "Independent" came to indicate that the congregation is autonomous.
4. Independency arose in the separatist movements of the sixteenth century and was refined by Independents from within the ranks of Puritanism in the seventeenth century. John Owen's book, "The True Nature of a Gospel Church", was both definitive and influential for a long period.
5. The Particular Baptists practised a more consistent Independency by rejecting infant baptism and refining the principles of the system. They were in the earliest stage of their history seen to be separate from the paedobaptist Independents.
6. We need a contemporary, up-to-date, exposition of Independent principles. Until a better work is produced, the present contribution would try to meet the need of the hour. The Bible, the two confessions of the Particular Baptists, and John Owen's book, "The True Nature of a Gospel Church", will be referred to in that order of importance.