The Trellis and the Vine: A Review from a Reformed Baptist Perspective (Part 2 of 2)

Book Reviews, The Church

Having summarized the content of the book, this review will now offer three strengths, one weakness, and then close with some final thoughts.  In truth, much of the preceding summary has included various commendations and concerns already, but it is perhaps helpful to collate them here.

The first strength of The Trellis and the Vine is that it encourages Pastors away from unhelpful models of ministry and towards a more Biblical paradigm.  A Pastor is not a “service-providing clergyman” or a “CEO” (p. 94-8).  Marshall and Payne suggest that “trainer” is a better description (p. 99-102).  While there are inherent problems with all one word summaries of Pastoral ministry it is difficult to argue that this is a Biblical corrective.  Traditionalism and professionalism can both be the enemy of vital Christianity itself, let alone of fruitful ministry.  For encouraging men to lay aside these unhealthy patterns and embrace the personal work of gospel centered discipleship the authors are to be commended.

Second, a significant strength is the manner in which Marshall and Payne unleash the power of the pew.  Laying every aspect of ministry on the ordained leadership of a church alone is a recipe for personal burnout, evangelistic ineffectiveness, and congregational apathy.  It is also not the New Testament vision of the church.  One of the chief purposes of The Trellis and the Vine is to enable and encourage pastors to in turn equip the saints to be faithful participants in God’s unfolding plan of redemption.  Even if it starts in small ways, it is thrilling to consider what the Lord might do with a congregation which is carefully equipped, faithfully supported, and motivated by grace to take up the cause of Christ as their own.   Such a congregation might turn the world upside down.  Our bookshelves are full of testimonies that this has happened before, so why not in our day as well?

The third and final strength to be noted is the general manner in which this book reestablishes Kingdom priorities.  While few would say it out loud (at least in conservative evangelical circles), there is in most of our hearts a desire for a uniquely large and influential public ministry, characterized by dramatic mass conversions and attended with the security and accolades such success brings.  If the Lord is pleased to give such things, and if the conversions are true works of grace, then may He do it; although men may find that which they pined for brings unexpected trials.  Yet the question must be asked- what if the Lord saw fit to save just as many, and to use a man to bless as many as he would in the above scenario, but without the personal recognition and publicity?  What if we are called to pour ourselves into other individuals, to building them up and then sending them out to in turn minister to others?  What if God is calling us to work behind the scenes rather than on center stage?  Marshall and Payne would have us embrace such a calling.  They candidly state

We must be exporters of trained people instead of hoarders of trained people…The goal isn’t church growth… but gospel growth.  If we train and send new workers into new fields (both local and global) our local ministry might not grow numerically but the gospel will advance through these new ministers of the word (pp. 25-6).

The struggle with this is that it robs us of personal glory, which our flesh craves.  Trainer is not a glorious title.  The Trellis and the Vine does not call men to glamorous ministry; it calls them to do hard, time consuming, behind the scenes labor.  This is a much needed soli Deo gloria realignment, and it is perhaps the book’s signature strength.

It should be clear from what has already been written that this is a very positive review.  It does however remain to point out one weakness, although it is not at all clear that this particular shortcoming could have been avoided.  The Trellis and the Vine is a self-consciously broad book, in that it is written to be beneficial and applicable across various denominational lines and evangelical traditions.  This is a laudable pursuit, but it is not without cost.  The result is a general vagueness in regards to ecclesiology which leaves The Trellis and the Vine feeling somewhat incomplete.  One quote is particularly representative:

 Issues concerning how churches are governed often dominate local ministry.  At one level this is to be expected, because all denominations are partially defined by their distinctive understanding of church government, and it’s important for a church to be faithful to its evangelical heritage.  However, inflexible commitment to a particular polity can destroy training (pp. 23-4).

This quote raises legitimate concerns but fails to address them in a satisfactory manner.  It is indeed important that polity disputes not monopolize local churches at the expense of gospel ministry.  Such a situation is highly dysfunctional.  However, Marshall and Payne are not particularly helpful at this point.  Saying that “It’s important for a church to be faithful to its evangelical heritage,” and then to immediately qualify that statement by saying “However, inflexible commitment to a particular polity can destroy training” is extremely problematic.  The phrase “evangelical heritage” used in this context is unsettling- it has the strong aroma of sepia-toned nostalgia and seems to imply that convictions regarding polity are really more about the traditions of men than the Word of God.  The next sentence tells us that we must be “flexible” about polity or it can “destroy training.”  Even read with great charity, it is hard not to take this as a low view of ecclesiology as it relates to ministry.  This sort of counsel is likely to foster the very sort of thing the authors are trying to encourage their readers away from- clinging to unbiblical elements of the trellis for reasons of simple heritage and tradition

The real issue may be that Marshall and Payne do not go far enough.  It would be better to say that as we seek to be always more and more reformed in belief and practice to the Word of God, there will be elements of our evangelical heritage which we will have to give up.  This can be an emotionally wrenching process (and should never be precipitous), but when our heritage and our Biblical convictions collide, God’s Word must win out.  Faithfulness to an unbiblical heritage for heritage’s sake is rank traditionalism.  Furthermore, the last sentence would read better if it said “inflexible commitment to unbiblical polity can destroy training.”  If the principles of discipleship, evangelism, and training described by the authors are inseparable from faithfulness to the Great Commission, then any polity which is the enemy of these things needs to be reexamined.  It was to the church that God gave His commission, and he was not silent about the polity of that church.  God does care about His trellises also.

What is left to the reader then, is to take the principles of the book and to apply them to his own particular ministry context.  Perhaps this is the intent of the authors, to be intentionally vague on the particulars of various denominational contexts so that their readers will be forced to do the work of specifically integrating these ideas into their own local church.  Reformed Baptists, for whom issues of church polity are a key distinctive, are left with much to ponder.  It would seem that the emphasis on plurality in leadership and lay-ministry which already exists in our confessional identity would make The Trellis and the Vine a natural extension of Reformed Baptist praxis (see the Baptist Confession of Faith, Chapter 26:8, 11).  If a stronger commitment to personal discipleship and to Monday through Saturday ministry carried out by the church body could be incorporated into the current Reformed Baptist emphasis on the administration of the appointed means of grace on the Lord’s Day by the ordained officers, the fruit could be rich indeed.

Collin Marshall and Tony Payne have done the evangelical church a great service by writing The Trellis and the Vine.  Even if not all of their reasoning is convincing (it isn’t) and not all of their ideas are fully developed (they aren’t), it is difficult to imagine anyone seriously disagreeing with the central themes of their book.  Our churches are indeed a mixture of trellis and vine.  Failure to recognize this distinction can lead to significant frustration and malaise.  Furthermore, God is not silent in regards to how He would have us cultivate His vine.  He would have us stand and preach the Word; He would have us break the bread, drink the wine, and submit to the waters of the sacraments; He would have us kneel together in prayer; He would have us make personal investments into people and equip them to minister to others; He would have us speak to our friends and neighbors about the hope of the gospel.  He would have us do all these things and more, because He is busy accomplishing his plan of redemption- both locally and globally.  Perhaps the highest praise which can be given to a book is that implementing the principles it lays out will be profitable towards that end.  This praise is due to The Trellis and the Vine.   

(By: Nicolas Alford)

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