Book Review, Ecclesiology

“The Church: The Gospel Made Visible” by Mark Dever

In The Church, Dever’s premise is that “wrong ecclesial teaching and practices obscure the gospel while right ecclesial teaching and practices clarify it” (Loc 103). Furthermore, Dever argues that the Bible is sufficient for life and doctrine, including practical ecclesiology through clear commands or reasoning from biblical principles (Loc 191). For example, the practices of church membership, congregationalism, and plurality of elders are not merely based on traditionalism or pragmatism; they are based on biblical teaching. Dever puts it this way:

God created the church, and God the author has authority. In his Word he tells us what a church is and some important things about how a church is to function.

Location 365, Kindle copy

Ecclesiology, when practiced correctly—i.e., biblically—in church leadership, membership, and structure reflects God’s own glory (Jn. 13:35; Eph. 3:10-11).

Summary

Part 1: What Does the Bible Say?

Part 1 is a primer on the doctrine of the church. In chapter 1, regarding the nature of the church, Dever demonstrates how “God’s eternal plan has always been to display his glory…through a corporate body” (Loc 415). Dever argues for the nature of the church based on OT roots, usages of ekklesia, and the images of the church in the NT.

Chapter 2 focuses on four attributes of the church: unity, holiness, catholicity, and apostolicity based on the Nicene-Constantinople Creed in 381. Chapter 3 discusses the two marks of a church: right preaching and right administration of the ordinances. Dever, modeling a biblical theology approach, traces through Scripture how God creates people and brings life through his Word (Gen 1:30; Ezek 37; Jn 1:14; Rom 10:17; etc.). Then he argues that the framework of right preaching is biblical theology, and its center is the gospel. Finally, the two visible signs of Jesus’ presence with his people are baptism and the Lord’s Supper, which Jesus ordained both by example and by command (Loc 833).

In chapter 4, the chapter on membership, Dever’s premise is that

The lives of Christians together display visibly the gospel they proclaim audibly.

Kindle Location 1127

It discusses the responsibilities and duties of membership and of the congregation as a whole.

In chapter 5, Polity, Dever argues from Scripture regarding key topics for church structure: congregationalism, leadership, officers (distinction between the function of a deacon and of an elder), plurality of elders, the senior pastor (Loc 1440), and elder led vs. elder rule. This chapter ends with helpful suggestions for church partnership despite polity disagreements. Chapter 6 focuses on the discipline of the church. Dever points out the Scripture’s teaching from the OT (Loc 1566), NT rationale for discipline, and the two key passages: Matthew 18 and 1 Corinthians 5.

In chapter 7, Dever summarizes the purposes of the church: worship, edification, and evangelism. Dever brings out the centrality of the Word in worship, the components of worship that God has set in place (regulative principle), and the assembling together. Edification and evangelism are the church’s horizontal purpose as means of grace for both the believers and the lost community. The most important aspect of the church’s purpose is the glory of God (Loc 1780-81). Chapter 8 concludes Part 1 with a discussion on the hope of the church. The distinction between the church as a whole and the individual church member provides a key principle on the relationship between the church and social justice. While individual members are to show compassion, the church has a specific and unique mission to preach and display the gospel (Loc 1879-80). Thus, “the church is called to herald no vision of a this-world utopia” (Loc 1943), but the church is God’s plan and purpose until the fellowship of Eden will be restored.

Part 2: What Has the Church Believed?

Part 2 analyzes what the church believed about the church historically. The nature of the church has been debated throughout church history. Is it visible or invisible? Local or universal? Militant or triumphant? True or false? Organizational (denominational) or organic? Chapter 10 deals with the history of ordinances in the church, including the practice of foot-washing, the subjects of baptism, and the meaning of the Lord’s Supper. Finally, chapter 11 is on the history of organization, particularly about membership, polity, and discipline.

Part 3: How Does It All Fit Together?

Part 3 develops the practical applications of the doctrine of the church. In each chapter, Dever narrows the application. He starts with application for a protestant church (ch. 12), and ends with the practice for a Baptist church (ch. 15). The doctrinal teaching in Part 1 (and Part 2) reinforces the suggested applications regarding the centrality of preaching, the use of ordinances to display the gospel, single gathering of a congregation, inter-church associations, elder-led congregationalism, and the need for Baptist churches.

Analysis

The Church, though it has an academic flavor, is written, not primarily to the academy, but to the church. The biblical theology of Part 1 and historical theology of Part 2 serve as the foundation for practical structure and convictions that are meant to be implemented in today’s churches. Three highlights and one minor quibble deserve further comment.

Three Highlights

The first highlight is that The Church biblically demonstrates how theology leads to practice and how practice is based on right theology. Understanding the nature of the church and its purposes affects how the church is shaped. This extends to polity, leadership, worship, and even the controversial topic of social justice (see ch. 8).

Second, one would appreciate the simplicity and replicability of the biblical commands for the church. God’s design for the church is not complex. It’s simple enough that it is transferable from generation to generation and from culture to culture.

Third, Dever’s sensitivity to church history strengthens one’s understanding of the church. The value of history is at least twofold. One, it helps today’s church trace a certain structure or practice. Two, it explains the differences among churches the share the same gospel, but differ in practices. Understanding history helps us avoid majoring on the minors or minoring on the majors.

One Minor Quibble

Lastly, the minor quibble, is that the chapter titles—or some of them—seem artificial. Chapter 2, for example, is on the “attributes” of the church, but there is little to no explanation of how “attributes” are distinct from “nature of the church,” as discussed in chapter 1. Furthermore, the four attributes of the church—one, holy, universal, and apostolic—though clearly taught biblically, seem to be better suited in the historical theology section (Part 2) since they are categories representing the fourth-century church’s biblical understanding of the church. The “marks of the church” in chapter 3 are best suited for Part 2 as well, representing the reformers’ biblical understanding of what distinguishes the true church from a false church.

Conclusion

The Church challenges the church concerning the importance of ecclesiology. What the church is determines what the church does. What the church is and does is no trivial matter because Christ loves the church (Eph 5:25; Acts 20:28), and the church makes the love of Christ and the glory of God visible (Eph 2:19-22; 3:20-21). The church is Christ’s body and God’s temple. Thus, as Dever demonstrates, the ultimate motivation and goal of the church is the glory of God.

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