Book Review: Manual of Church Order, by John L. Dagg
John L. Dagg, Manual of Church Order. Reprint; Gano Books, 1990. 312 pages.
With a title like Manual of Church Order, the little book by Baptist John L. Dagg (1794-1884) has little hope of becoming an international bestseller. I usually associate the term “manual” with an irksome Saturday morning project (e.g., Electrical Wiring Manual). What’s more, “church order,” that is, ecclesiology, probably occupies a small, neglected corner of the minds of many church leaders. So neither “manual” nor “church order” sound all that exciting.
Yet Dagg’s 150-year-old Manual remains in print. This tells us something about the book’s clarity and importance.
Dagg recognizes that too many Christians ignore the sufficiency of Scripture in ecclesiology. For this reason, “We must return to the feet of our divine Master, and again receive his instructions. Let us, in the spirit of obedient disciples, inquire for the good old paths, that we may walk therein” (11). Those words from Jeremiah 6:16 ring true in our own day as well. We turn now to the basic outline and a few highlights.
OUTLINE AND HIGHLIGHTS
Not surprisingly, Dagg begins with a discussion of baptism. Dagg the pastor-theologian takes aim at objections from both Quakers and paedobaptists with finely tuned theological and exegetical arguments. Baptism “figuratively represents the burial and resurrection of Christ, on which the believer relies for salvation” (17). Thus immersion is the proper mode. Dagg provides extensive lexical proofs in favor of immersion, and summarizes, “[Precisely] what the word baptize signifies, is what we are bound to do in obeying the command which enjoins baptism” (67). Repentance and faith are necessary for baptism; thus it is believers alone who receive it, and not their children. Furthermore, baptism by immersion serves as the public profession of conversion. It “is the appointed ceremony of profession” of repentance and faith (72). Dagg’s extended discussion of baptism is a “necessary preliminary to the subsequent discussions on church order” (73). In other words, all the distinctive characteristics of Baptist ecclesiology hinge on this understanding of baptism, and this assertion colors all that follows.
Dagg defines the local church as “an assembly of believers in Christ, organized into a body, according to the Holy Scriptures, for the worship and service of God” (74). The assembly is made up of truly converted persons (79); it is organized (80); and each assembly is independent of every other one (83). The assumption throughout is that “we are under obligation to regulate the church order of the present time in conformity to ancient usage” (84). Dagg stands on the sufficiency of Scripture for ecclesiology.
The idea of the universal church receives extended discussion through Dagg’s Baptist lenses (100-143). All believers “do not meet in one assembly on earth, [yet] they belong to the assembly above, and are on their way to join it” (118). Local church membership is appropriate because believers thereby reflect their spiritual membership in the universal church (121).
Dagg thoroughly argues against infant membership, infant baptism, and infant communion (144-202). He carefully considers many arguments put forward by paedobaptists in his day, many of which continue into our day (see, e.g., Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 632-634; and Michael Horton, The Christian Faith, 794-798). Next he writes about communion, arguing that it is “commemorative,” and that the meal works as a “token of receiving spiritual sustenance from Christ crucified” (210). Baptism is “a pre-requisite to communion at the Lord’s table” (211). Thus, in Dagg’s view, any unbaptized person (including those “baptized” as infants) must not be admitted. Though seemingly unnecessary to modern readers, Dagg includes a denial that foot-washing is an ordinance (226-231).
The final chapters of Dagg’s work continue to address ecclesiological issues from a Baptist angle. Public worship in Dagg’s formulation sounds akin to the Reformed practice of the regulative principle (cf. 238). Yet, in light of the practices of Seventh Day Baptists (234), he must also address the proper day for Christian worship. And though he addresses the Christian ministry with ideas similar to other Protestants, he again stamps his discussion with the congregationalism that is characteristic of Baptists, noting that ministers “have no authority from Christ to combine themselves into an ecclesiastical judicatory to exercise power in any manner” (243). Dagg seems to assume the rightness of a plurality of elders in each local congregation, though this assertion is not abundantly clear (263-266). Church discipline earns a brief yet poignant discussion, concluded by this sobering statement: “It has been remarked, that when discipline leaves a church, Christ goes with it” (274).
The book concludes with a chapter on miscellaneous topics, which includes some helpful thoughts on fellowship between churches, as well as an excellent word of exhortation to Baptists to promote the Baptist understanding of church order (300). Finally, this published version of Dagg’s Manual includes a fascinating autobiography that is both informative and encouraging.
READ THIS BOOK
Here is my straightforward recommendation: pastors should read this book. However, I will say that a close, detailed reading from cover to cover may not be required. For example, not every detail will seem pertinent to some of the more recent ecclesiological discussions. Nonetheless, his arguments and basic assertions are timeless. What’s more, I found a number of quotable sections throughout. For example: the Christian faith “was not designed for concealment. From its very nature, it cannot be hid. It inclines every one who possesses it, [sic] to do good to all mankind, and to make known the gospel by which all mankind are to be blessed” (121).
Another approach to the book would be to flip through it in one sitting to get a feel for the basic outline, using it afterward as a go-to resource. I guess that would make it a true “manual.” But in service to the eternally significant work of the local church, this kind of manual is far more interesting and edifying than any Saturday morning project.