Those Who Must Give An Account - Critical Review

Those Who Must Give Account. Edited by John S. Hammett & Benjamin L. Merkle. Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2012. 239 pages. Reviewed by Charles McCallum.

 

            Those Who Must Give Account, edited by John S. Hammett and Benjamin L. Merkle, focuses on developing a healthy definition of church membership and a healthy understanding on the significance of church discipline.  Their goal in developing Those Who Must Give Account is that as a result, there “will be churches that are closer to the goal of being radiant churches, without spot or wrinkle or blemish, churches that will bring glory to God” (4). Both editors currently teach at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, have studied church polity extensively and are considered leaders in their field.  Hammett is also the author of Biblical Foundations for Baptist Churches, which is the standard for studying contemporary ecclesiology in the Baptist realm.  Merkle has written several books on leaders in the church, elders and overseers.

            The purpose of this book is to give church leaders, “guidance on how they should receive and minister to those for whom they will have to give an account” (1). The title of the book is based on Hebrews 13:17 where church leaders are to give an account.  As the book develops, it focuses on the importance of church membership as a boundary for a leader’s responsibility and inevitably as a form of accountability to the member.  Church discipline is set in place as a measure of defining that accountability in the hope of restoration and repentance.  As a starting place, the book begins with defining the church’s identity addressing church membership, church discipline, and the nature of the church.  The next two sections of Those Who Must Give Account focus on church membership and church discipline.  Each section is split into three smaller divisions that develop the biblical basis for membership and discipline, provide a historical analysis, and provide practical issues for each.  As a conclusion, Those Who Must Give Account develops the missiological implications for church membership and church discipline and utilizes a pastoral reflection in the final chapter.

            Those Who Must Give Account is intentionally structured, flows well, and is full of information that will make it a go to resource on a number of issues.  As a part of the introduction, Hammett addresses the nature of the church and looks at it through the perspective of a culture that is individualistic and suffering from “the strong desire to be inclusive” which can “weaken the type of ‘robust boundaries’ necessary for integrity in membership and courage in church discipline (9).  Hammett argues, “church membership and church discipline are far from secondary or optional aspects of the church’s life.  Rather, they are inherent in the nature of the church, and a sound understanding of the nature of the church must ground our view of church membership and discipline” (2). Hammett considers the goal of the introduction to “argue that church membership and church discipline are inherent in the nature of the church and that the nature of the church in turn must shape our understanding of church membership and church discipline” (10).  The introduction looks at the church as the people of God, the Body of Christ, and the Temple of the Holy Spirit.  Hammett also emphasizes the idea that the church is a family.  From the standpoint of Scripture Hammett quotes Robert Banks as saying, “so numerous are these, and so frequently do they appear, that the comparison of the Christian community with a ‘family’ must be regarded as the most significant metaphorical usage of all” (25).

            The next section addresses the importance of church membership as vital to the health of the local church.  Church membership is: needed to ensure biblical accountability; needed to ensure biblical discipline; and necessary to ensure the biblical use of our gifts.  Merkle defines church membership as a covenant between the individual and the church.  The church must affirm that the prospective member is regenerate, has made a credible profession of faith, and committed to meeting regularly with the new church family.  The church family in return must be committed to shepherding the new member.  Nathan Finn continues the topic of church membership by laying out a historical account.  Finn also places an emphasis on believer’s baptism.  To finish the section on church membership, Mark Dever writes about the practical issues of church membership.  Dever writes about the definition of the church, requirements and obligations of membership, and how a church takes in new members.  In essence, one must remember, “the Bible presents the Christian life as a life not lived in isolation but lived out with other Christians” (83). Dever continues, “The Christian gospel necessarily includes a message about sin that is convicting, but the Christian gospel is also to be illustrated by lives of love that are compelling” (92). Finally, Dever advises that one should have a positive understanding and experience of membership before church discipline should be developed.

            Thomas Schreiner opens the section on church discipline and defines it for church members as designed to “restore them to the fellowship of the redeemed community” (106). He also discusses the process building up to church discipline and instructs church leaders to follow the Biblical process.  This process “protects as far as possible the privacy of the person charged with sin” (112). Ultimately the goal of church discipline should be salvific with the goal being to bring the one in sin back into community with the believers and to rebuild what has been disrupted in someone’s life by sin.  Schreiner reminds the reader that once someone repents of sin, the church should “gladly readmit the repentant one into membership” (121). It is also important for pastors to remember that “true discipline comes from a humble heart, and the motive of discipline is the salvation of the one who strayed” (127). Gregory Wills provides the historical analysis of church discipline.  He affirms that the “lengthy disciplinary process developed by the early church reflected the church’s commitment to obey the commands of Christ and His apostles concerning morality and procedures for straying believers” (137). The section on church discipline closes with an analysis of the practical issues of church discipline by Andrew Davis.  Davis warns, “every church is infected with the plague of indwelling sin in its regenerate members, and every church underestimates the severity of this plague” (159). Davis attempts to cultivate a paradigm for unhealthy churches to follow to realign themselves with a biblical understanding of Christian fellowship.  Davis uses Scripture to present what a pastor will need to maintain a healthy, structured church and includes a section on remembering the pastor’s dependency on God’s wisdom and grace.  There is a great section that is too lengthy to be included here on pages 167-68 where Davis provides a recommendation for pastors beginning the program of reformation.

          The final section of Those Who Must Give Account begins with a chapter on the missional implications of church membership by Bruce Ashford and Danny Akin.  This chapter does a great job to “(1) address the missional nature of the church; (2) discuss the relationship between church membership and discipline and the concept of a missional church; and (3) offer four ways in which membership and discipline enhance the missional nature of God’s church” (189). Ashford and Akin provide a great picture of the church being a window to God on page 197.  Because of the church providing a window to God, Ashford and Akin consider an undistorted and unobstructed view of God as essential.  The church therefore must emphasize regenerate membership and loving discipline.  Having meaningful membership means that church members can and will provide an explanation of the Gospel and how that has changed their lives.  Pastors must remember, “the spiritual life of the church is from God and for God.  Regenerate church membership testifies that it is from God, and church discipline helps shape the church to live for God.” (197) In the final chapter of the book, Andrew Davis references 1 Corinthians 3:12-15 and encourages the reader reminding them, “every pastor begins his ministry building on a foundation already laid” (206). Davis discusses the nature of pastoral accountability and finds value in: the identity of the flock, the physical condition of the flock, and the spiritual condition of the flock.  He emphasizes the importance of a pastor’s faith and closes with a section on the immeasurable grace of God.

          Overall, the unique elements of this book are that it focuses on finding a healthy understanding of church membership that will bring the body of believers into a healthy understanding of the Gospel and an acceptance of the idea of church discipline.  Also, the book is primarily focused from the Baptist perspective, having several elite Southern Baptist theologians as contributors to the book.  Some may critique the book limiting its scope to a Southern Baptist perspective, but Those Who Must Give Account is successful at its intended purpose.  Also, some may critique the book for a limited focus on case studies, but the skeleton of the concepts of church membership and church discipline are formulated.

            Those Who Must Give Account is a very useful book that should be an essential for the intended audience.  Though some pastors may seem hesitant to respond positively towards implementing the paradigms set forth by Merkle and Hammett, it would not be wise or healthy to ignore their advise.  Every pastor should read this book and evaluate their ministry.  There will certainly be moments of conviction that will expose areas of weakness.  Fortunately this book provides a method that can help to strengthen the pastor’s ministry.  There are several areas that the book provided clarity and allowed for self-improvement.  One particular area where this is relevant is the debate over using serving opportunities in the church as an evangelistic tool.  Merkle questions, “why should the church let someone have authority (in any capacity) if he refuses to submit himself to the church’s authority?” (45). He uses the example of someone who has the gift of teaching and determines that unless the person is willing to submit himself to the “watch care of the church, his gifts will go unused” (45). In regard to pastoral accountability, Those Who Must Give Account revealed that it is “vital for a pastor to go back again and again to justification by faith alone when considering the judgment day and the assessment of our faithfulness in ministry.  Not one of us will be saved by our works as pastors.  Not one of us will present to Christ a perfect ministry” (215). Though we feel that we must be perfect and fix every problem, sometimes that will not happen.  The book reminds the reader that “a certain number of passages imply a limit to our accountability for the souls of others” (215). In order to minimize loss on judgment day, pastors are to remain faithful in their ministry.  This book is highly recommended for pastors at any point in their ministry.  It also proves to be a useful tool for the lay leader and congregation to provide insight into the significance of church membership and discipline.  Pastors must remember that he “will have to account for on the day of judgment” and that responsibility is weighty (3). It will be beneficial to read this book and move forward with a better understanding of the definition of church membership and discipline; inevitably making a pastor’s ministry more healthy.