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The Nature of the Church

November 10, 2014

I have never had anyone say, “Hey, let’s get coffee and talk about ecclesiology.” I’ve never been part of a church that said, “You know, we should run an ecclesiology class because a lot of people are really interested in that.” I’ve heard people wonder aloud what ecclesiology is (the study of the church) and why anyone would care.

Ecclesiology is very important. In the last two articles I’ve discussed ecclesiology. While I’ve never had anyone ask to discuss ecclesiology I’ve had a lot of people discuss it under other names – “Do you think the new membership system makes sense?” “Is our leadership system Biblical?” “I think so-and-so overstepped their bounds when they did that, don’t you?” Bad ecclesiology helps keep bad leaders in place. If you as a leader do X terribly you need only claim that the church is really about Y and so how you do X is mostly irrelevant. Alternatively, you can claim far-reaching authority that allows you to tell anyone to do basically anything and to respond to any challenge as a challenge to God Himself. One of the most visible things Christians do is church and so thinking about church should be a priority.

So what could the church do? A short list of the simpler possibilities might help clarify our thinking.

  • The church could be a teaching institution.
    1. This can be further subdivided into a teaching institution aimed at teaching outsiders (evangelism) or insiders.
  • The church could be a support network.
  • The church could be a charitable organization (this could also be tied to evangelism).
  • The church could be a temple in which worship occurs because God is especially present there (or because God has mandated that certain acts of worship occur in that space). The key here is that this explains communal worship – all Christians agree that worship is important, the question is why one would go to church to do it.

One reason I target the simpler possibilities is that when people go wrong about the church they most frequently reduce everything the church is to a single, simple axis. The simpler possibilities are also easy to trace to some sort of direct consequence or prediction. For instance, if the church is basically a teaching institution for insiders then it’s a university. In fact, church would be seminary, just done poorly and without any possibility of graduating.

If we run through the other options I’ve suggested we see similar issues. If the church is about evangelism then Sunday services aren’t particularly helpful and neither are Bible Studies. In fact, the church should mostly meet to assign people to run activities that would attract people or to engage with people in different parts of the local area. If the church is basically a support network we don’t need sermons, communion, or any actual study of the Bible. Coffee hour, however, would be critical and small groups (which might read the Bible only for uplifting thoughts) would be central. If the church is a charitable organization it’s just an NGO and there are clearly differences between a well-run NGO and a church. If the church is a temple then there’s no sense in Bible Studies (or any other small group) or any need to support one another or help outsiders.

Each of these extremes tends to attract different groups of Christians. Most of the people I know who veer towards option #1 are Reformed. Most of those who assume that #2 is what the church does are theological liberals, although they and my Anabaptist friends might also pick #3. #4 isn’t so popular amongst Protestants but it accounts for a lot of casual attendance in Catholic and Orthodox communities – get in, get the Eucharist, and you’ve done what God asked.

However, many people are smart enough to assume that any attempt to pick just one of these options is a bit silly. When I hear these sorts of simplistic mistakes being made they are often in a slightly different form: the church’s real purpose is X, but it does all these other things because they contribute to X. So, for example, the church is really about evangelism but it has a support network because outsiders will be attracted to a supportive community, it has Bible Studies because studying the Bible will make you a better evangelist, and it worships God together because this allows a supportive community, effective teaching for evangelism, and coordination of outreach. While this is better than attempting to pare away all activities deemed “non-essential” it seems to work partly backwards, trying to justify traditional church activities even when they don’t make much sense given what else you’ve claimed about the purpose of the church. I would actually find it a lot more sensible to work entirely backwards: we know what the church does, can we use that to figure out what its purpose is?

Of course, I’ve also framed this question as “what does the church do?” I do this because this is often what I’m asked, or the implicit question to which I am told the answer. The church is the thing that does X. However, I strongly suspect that the church doesn’t do, that instead the church merely is. Specifically, that the church is a community of God’s people. God’s people do things, of course, and they may arrange to do these things corporately, but the church’s purpose isn’t to do these things but merely to be a community in which God’s people work on acting like God’s people. This explains the teaching about God, the supporting of one another, the outreach towards outsiders, and the worship in community.

The first time I had to think seriously about ecclesiology was when the church I was part of decided that it would split into several locations and that one pastor would send sermons via video to the locations that he wasn’t physically located at. This decision seemed somewhat odd to me then and just plain stupid to me now, but figuring out why required asking all of these questions I have been reviewing. What was the church? If the different locations were one church was it sufficient that we were tied together by the same sermon? Didn’t that indicate that the church was mostly about teaching? If so, why couldn’t I have the sermon webcast to me at home? Or, more tellingly, if we were distributing the sermon because of its quality why couldn’t I stay home and watch or listen to sermons from some of the best preachers alive today?

Of course, as with so many things I think that the reason most people and churches adopt the models that they do is because they haven’t thought about them in depth. Something seems familiar or looks like it would streamline something and so people do it. But what we do in church and what we say the church is says something about what we think the faith is. If you ran across a supposedly-Christian church that wouldn’t talk about Jesus in church you would rapidly conclude that whatever religion was being practiced in that church it wasn’t anything like orthodox Christianity. The practice of the church would have said something about the nature of the faith. Similarly, a church that never gave to the poor would say something about the nature of that church’s faith. While these examples are easy to follow because they are extreme there are plenty of less-extreme examples as well. Each of the option I initially provided links to an idea of what the faith is about. For instance, if the church is about teaching then the faith is a body of knowledge. What we do in church comments on our faith. We should pay careful attention, then, to ecclesiology.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Ben permalink
    November 10, 2014 10:12 am


    I tend to think about Ecclesiology as being more concerned with the nature/identity/etc of the community of God’s people, and to work that out in terms of the questions that you have asked here. However it seems that some people (Protestants, even) use the word to mean the system of government used in the community.

    Another thing that I’d be interested in is how the Orthodox and/or Catholics tend to use the word “Church”. Saying that the Church says X seems to me to be about as clear as saying that the Bible says X — i.e. both of them are probably shorthand for something else, but sound very authoritative. Any kind of comparison of a doctrine of the Church between different Christian groups probably needs to unpack such phrases into something a bit more descriptive.

    BTW, my dictionary suggests that I might actually have meant Anesthesiology.

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