The Challenge of Ecclesiology: Some Advice for Seminarians

It is almost a truism among thinking Christians today that the doctrine of the church, known among theologians as “ecclesiology,” has fallen on hard times.  When I was a student at a reasonably well-known conservative Reformed seminary it seemed that students would much rather argue about apologetics or eschatology or predestination than the doctrine of the church.  And though that situation has changed somewhat in the intervening years as many in our culture sense the loss of community, and some in the church have sought out theological responses to it, an ecclesiological crisis remains.

Interestingly, this eclipse of ecclesiology is common to both the liberal-leaning mainline churches and the more conservative evangelical churches.  We are going to explore both some of the reasons for this decline in various church circles, and some ways that we can recover and strengthen a vibrant doctrine of the church.  This should, I would think, be a matter of existential concern for seminary students such as yourselves.  After all, many of you are planning to become ministers or other church workers.  Some of you may sense a call to the mission field, and the job of the missionary is ultimately to plant and strengthen the church.  So, ecclesiology matters.

We are going to look first at the situation in mainline church circles, and then at the situation among Evangelicals.  Reasons for the decline of ecclesiology in many mainline churches are not difficult to discern.  Much of this can ultimately be traced to the fact that many in these churches bought wholesale into the optimistic Enlightenment notion of the autonomous individual human being.  People are basically pretty good, it is thought, and any tendency toward dysfunctional behavior (i.e., what used to be called “sin”) is attributed to the environment.  Moreover, these human beings are not answerable to any authority, such as Holy Scripture, higher than themselves.  Needless to say, this quickly resulted in the erosion of the Scriptural basis and confessional moorings for church life.

Since human beings are basically OK, the great need is not salvation in the life to come (whatever that may be), but the amelioration of social ills in this present life and the maximizing of individual freedom in every sphere of life, whether or not expressions of that freedom conflict with biblical morality.  Historically the church had sought to maintain biblical moral standards for its members, but now there is widespread disagreement as to what even constitutes moral or immoral behavior—hence the current front-page controversies among mainline Presbyterians, Lutherans, Methodists, and Episcopalians over homosexuality.

Further erosion of the traditional foundations for church life has resulted from the trendy religious pluralism so common even in church circles today.  If people are basically good and there is no such thing as divine wrath against sinners, then they don’t need Jesus to save them from the penalty of sin.  On this way of thinking, Jesus is certainly not the only way to God. Thus it makes little sense to view the church as the mystical “body of Christ” and the covenant community of those united by faith and baptism with Him.  Certainly Cyprian’s dictum, extra ecclesiam nulla salus (no salvation outside the church), as echoed in Westminster Confession of Faith 25:2 makes little sense either.

As we know, ideas have consequences, and the consequences of these ideas have been particularly deadly.  With the loss of biblical truth and the confessional explication of that truth, all that was left was power (i.e., church polity), and increasingly disputes had to be settled on the arid basis of technical rules of church law rather than the great and abiding principles of the faith.  Some other reason for the church’s existence had to be found, and many found it in social action.

The ecclesiological crisis in the mainline churches is illustrated by an incident at a major university divinity school some years back.  Near the end of the semester in a “Theology of the Church” course, a perplexed student asked a noted feminist theologian, “Given what you’ve said during this semester, why do we need the church?”  After pondering the question for a moment, the theologian replied, “Well, the church has resources that we need in the struggle against racism, sexism, and homophobia.”  But there is more to the story—apparently none of the theologians at the school really wanted to teach the ecclesiology course, and so it was passed along to each in turn as a sort of distraction from what were deemed the more important tasks of theology.  You can imagine the impact that such thinking has had on many students preparing for ministry!  And that has been the story across a wide range of denominations, as money, property, and resources originally given by sincere Christians for the support of their beloved Bible-believing churches have been diverted to very different purposes.   The late Presbyterian theologian John Leith made quite a few enemies a number of years back when he insistently pointed out this breach of faith in his 1997 book Crisis in the Church.

All of this has inspired neither confidence in nor a love for the church in mainline circles, and massive membership hemorrhaging has been the inevitable result.  Studies show that some of these departures have gone in the direction of more conservative churches, but many more have moved from mainline churches to a thoroughly secular “none of the above.”  This should not surprise us—if the major task of the church is deemed to be advancing the feminist agenda or environmental activism, it makes more sense to become active in the National Organization of Women or the Sierra Club than to waste one’s time in church.

So, we might summarize the problem thus:  The loss of the Scriptural basis and confessional moorings for the church has left some denominations and congregations rudderless in the face of the winds of prevailing culture, and that religious pluralism has undercut classic notions of the church as the sphere of salvation.  The result of all this has been cynicism and massive loss of membership.   Now, I’m not saying this to gloat in some unseemly display of conservative triumphalism; in fact, I grieve over this situation, for I myself have deep roots in the mainline.  But we need to be realistic in our assessment of the situation.  And lest we conservatives become too smug, there are problems closer to home as well.

While the broader situation is somewhat better in evangelical churches, there is an ecclesiological crisis there as well.  To be sure, many American Evangelicals have retained a high view of the Bible’s authority, and of the saving uniqueness of Jesus Christ.  For that we must give thanks!  But the news is not all good, for various factors have conspired to undercut a vibrant doctrine of the church.  A major problem here is that many American Evangelicals have bought into aspects of the broader culture that corrode a biblical doctrine of the church.

Much of this has to do with the reflexive individualism and voluntarism of North American culture generally.  Our national consciousness was historically shaped by the frontier experience and by the keen desire to be free from the external constraint of king and Pope.  Individual rights are of paramount importance.  We begin our thinking with individual rights rather than our responsibilities to the community, an impulse given a great boost by the Enlightenment.  All this is no great secret, and was extensively explored by sociologist Robert Bellah and his colleagues in their book Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (1985).

If the individual is paramount, then the church will inevitably be viewed as a “voluntary society,” as the sum total of individuals who have chosen to identify with it.  For many, the “church” is simply the aggregate of those who have voluntarily decided to accept Jesus as their personal Savior.  All this stands in some tension with the prevailing New Testament images of the church as the “body of Christ,” the “family of God,” the “new Israel,” and the “people of God”—themes that emphasize the corporate body and the way that people becomes Christians by being united with a glorious corporate reality greater than themselves.

This individualism also informs the way many Evangelicals view the grace of God and process of salvation.  It is thought that we come to God directly as individuals, and that the ministry of the church with its means of grace is perhaps helpful for some but not really necessary.  Of paramount importance is the individual’s conversion experience, and for many the ongoing life of faith and the Christian nurture through Word and sacrament that take place in the church fade into insignificance.

It is not difficult to see how these ways of thinking have undermined the rich ecclesiology affirmed by earlier generations.  Although many more examples could be cited, let’s briefly examine the impact on the church’s worship and organization.  If the individual is supreme, then the worship of the church will almost inevitably be judged in terms of what the individual gets out of it.  Rather than a profound corporate act of doxology to the triune God and Lord of all creation, worship now becomes a pragmatic and contextual exercise designed to evoke certain responses from us.

Likewise, if the church is but a voluntary society of those who share similar experiences or concerns, then there is nothing particularly sacrosanct about the structure and work of the church.  And so the trend has been to offload many of the traditional functions of the church onto so-called “parachurch” organizations.  In the evangelical world, the tasks of evangelism, missions, relief, and Christian education on the primary, secondary, collegiate, and seminary levels have been largely outsourced to these other organizations.  Thus, American Evangelicalism has been better known for its “para-ecclesiology” (views of parachurch ministry) than for its ecclesiology.  Little wonder, then, that many are uncertain about the nature, purpose and mission of the church!

While it is true that not all churches calling themselves “evangelical” have fallen headlong into these patterns, and some Reformed groups have been rather resistant to them, I would like to suggest four areas where we can draw on the best of our Reformed and Evangelical heritage in order to strengthen our understanding of the church.

First, we must work to recover a healthy Reformational sense of the church as “catholic” or universal.  The church of Jesus Christ is not just the local congregation or a particular denomination.  It is a glorious “body of Christ” that unites believers from all places on earth and throughout all time.  This view of the church comes to pointed expression in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, where the Apostle tells us that Christ has been “made the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all” (Ephesians 1:22-23, RSV).  Such a recognition of the true catholicity of the church serves as an antidote to clannishness and to the natural tendency to identify the “church” with a particular culture or group’s way of doing things.  This insight is exceedingly helpful in churches that tend toward the traditional in worship and organization.  In some Reformed churches, the inertia of traditionalism is strong indeed.  We often do things a certain way because that’s the way they’ve always been done . . . since dirt was young.  Perhaps that is why we like to sing those lines in the “Gloria Patri”: “As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end, Amen.”  But the catholicity of the church reminds us that there are other options, and that is tremendously liberating.

Second, we must recognize anew the importance of the means of grace.  In Scripture we see that God works among his people through appointed means—the preaching of the Word of God, the administration of the sacraments, the ministry of prayer and praise, and so forth.  This truth helps us to keep both our congregational lives and our personal spiritual walks on track.   Here we recognize that the primary task of the church is to minister in God’s appointed ways to His people.  Here we also recognize that we as individual Christians are to find our spiritual food at the banquet table of the church rather than at the spiritual fast-food vendors of religious television or worse.

Third, we must strengthen our appreciation of the church’s act of corporate worship in service to God.  What a solemn and yet splendid and joyous privilege it is to come into the presence of a holy and righteous God in worship!  As we come to realize that the character of our worship must be shaped by the object of that worship (namely God Himself), we have the antidote to all those persistent temptations to trivialize worship by making worship about us instead.   The purpose and goal of worship is not to provide us with a positive experience (although that often happens).  The purpose of worship is not to evangelize (though we rejoice when sinners come to faith in the context of a worship service).  Rather, the purpose of worship is to “glorify God and to enjoy Him forever.”

Finally, we must enhance our understanding of the mission to which the church is called.  Particularly in times like today when the church is rightly concerned about its own integrity, there is the temptation to turn inward and to lose sight of the church’s mission.  When Jesus prepared to leave his disciples, he gave them a task to accomplish: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20, RSV).

How can you as seminary student take the doctrine of the church seriously?  Well, here are some suggestions:

First, be seriously involved in a local congregation.  Remember to be charitable and keep in mind that no congregation is perfect.  Our ecclesiology, no matter how well considered, is only an abstraction without ongoing involvement in the church.

Second, take your studies seriously, especially your church history and systematics courses.  If you love the church, you will want to learn her history and her system of belief.  The current lack of interest in church history and systematics that so many display is evidence of an ecclesiological problem.

Third, take the catholicity and connectionalism of the church seriously.  If you are under care or licensed to preach, attend your presbytery’s meetings.  Become familiar with the work of the agencies of the church.  Be aware of what is going on in sister denominations.

And finally, strive for balance.  A friend in ministry likes to say that if the devil can’t make us heretics, he tries to make us weird, and such quirkiness generally manifests itself as a lack of balance.  When Presbyterian ministers are ordained, they vow to uphold the peace, the purity, and the prosperity of the church.  Without balance these three can stand in tension with each other.  For example, for those who value the peace of the church above all, any effort to preserve purity is divisive.  Some are so focused on purity that they forget about peace.  The church today desperately needs as leaders balanced and centered individuals who have a clear sense of what is important and vital, and who passionately love the church.

William B. Evans is a minister in the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church and serves as the Younts Prof. of Bible and Religion at Erskine College in Due West, South Carolina, where he teaches courses in theology, American religion, and religion and culture. This article first appeared on his blog, The Ecclesial Calvinist.