Blog editor Jake Pratt recently interviewed Jonathan Leeman about his new book Baptist Foundations, co-edited with Mark Dever.
JP: Discuss your general academic background. What might a reader want to know about you, your research interests and expertise?
JL: After doing his undergraduate work at Duke University, Mark did masters degrees at both Gordon Conwell and The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, followed by a Ph.D. at Cambridge University in ecclesiastical history on Richard Sibbes. I attended the University of Rochester for my undergraduate, the London School of Economics and SBTS for masters degrees, and then the University of Wales for a Ph.D. in systematic theology, specializing in political theology. Both of us have written a number of books on the church, and though I have carved out some of my own pathways of research, my overall view of the church is very much indebted to Mark. He has been a friend since 1996 and my pastor for much of that time. Today it’s a privilege to serve with him as an elder in the same church in Washington, DC.
JP: Briefly define for the lay reader what the term “polity’ means?
JL: The word means government or a politically organized unity that has a government. In the context of conversations about the church, it refers to the form of church government. So we might speak of a church as having a congregational, or presbyterian, or episcopalian polity.
JP: What do you mean when you refer to the present age as “anti-institutional”?
JL: It means people today SAY they don’t like institutions because they prioritize relationships instead. But what they really MEAN (without realizing it) is that they don’t like a traditional set of institutions and prefer an alternative set instead–an alternative set that they define.
An institution is nothing more than an identity- a behavior-shaping rule structure. It’s a set of moral evaluations applied to a relationship that mark out how every party acts, and that give further shape to the identity of every participant. Think of the handshake. It’s an institution. The social convention of the handshake depends upon a set of moral evaluations about appropriate behavior between two strangers or acquaintances when greeting one another. Of course if I refuse to shake someone’s hand, I’m making another kind of moral claim about that person. In an era where we claim to disdain all moral evaluation and authority, we also disdain institutions. The thing is, moral evaluations, institutions, and even authority are “inescapable concepts.” You cannot NOT act according to some set of moral evaluations and authoritative guidelines.
Further, any time a group of people wants to say they are a “group” in any sense whatever, they have to adopt some set of rules or evaluations for defining what the group is, what its purpose is, and who the members are. To be a group as opposed to a bunch of individuals is to be institutionalized. In that sense, even those most so-called anti-institutional advocates of an organic or loosely-affiliated or casually-connected church adopt some institutional structure. The real question is, who defines the rules that define your “church”? Someone does.
JP: How does this book differ from other academic books on the topic? What gap does it fill?
JL: We hope that is will provide a basic textbook on Baptist polity for the average pastor, seminary student, or church leader. Yes, you can sit down and read it straight through. Or you can treat it a bit like a reference book that you consult when you have need to study up on one particular topic. There have been a few Baptist ecclesiologies (doctrine of the church) written in the last few decades. But I’m not aware of any books devoted to just Baptist polity (doctrine of church government) like this. Of course, that may be my own ignorance!
JP: In what ways, if any, is the book interdisciplinary? That is, does it attempt intentionally to reach across the often compartmentalized disciplines of biblical and theological studies? Is there any sense in which you would call it biblical-theological?
JL: Sure! In fact, every chapter attempts to move from biblical to theological and historical to pastoral. So not only did we work to make sure every author bridged the biblical and theological, we also wanted everyone to provide pastoral instruction–doctrine applied. And I think the authors did a great job!
JP: Other than the fact that all the chapters in the book discuss some aspect of Baptist polity, is there a central thesis which brings cohesion to the book?
JL: Well, let’s say there is a central assumption: that you must start with the Bible when it comes to organizing and governing our churches. For a number of reasons, many church leaders today assume that the Bible says little to nothing on these topics. And every one of the authors would agree that some matters of church life should be determined by wisdom according to context. But everyone would also say that the Bible says quite a bit about how we organize ourselves in churches. So let’s start there!
JP: Outside of your own chapters, is there one chapter in the book that has emerged as a favorite and why?
JL: I’ve heard Mark say several times that his favorite chapter is Michael Haykin’s on the history of congregationalism. The reason is, it introduced him to a number of early French congregationalists like Jean Morely with whom we were not familiar. For myself, it’s difficult to say which chapter is a favorite because each treats an important and biblical topic. So is the topic of ordinances or elders your “favorite”? Membership or discipline? I will say, I was simultaneously writing my own volume on congregationalism while editing this book, so I found Steve and Kirk Wellum’s chapter on congregationalism very helpful.
JP: How do you envision this book being used in the academy and in the church?
JL: I hope it’s used as a basic training manual for seminarians and rising church leaders. Look, there are other things for you to learn about if you want to lead a church. But you MUST understand these polity basics. They provide a basic grammar for understanding how churches work. Plus, I argue in the chapter “Why Polity?” that we need a better understanding of the significance of polity for Christian discipleship.
JP: Is there anything you would have liked to address about Baptist Polity that was not said in this book?
JL: Well, we did not address the phenomenon of multi-site and multi-services “churches.” Should we have included a chapter on that topic? Maybe. I’m not sure.
About the Editors:
Mark Dever is senior pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church, president of 9Marks, and occasional adjunct professor at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
Jonathan Leeman is editorial director of 9Marks, occasional lecturer at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, and adjunct professor at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
Download sample chapter here.
Read a short excerpt from Baptist Foundations here.