A Theologically-Driven Missiology (Pt. 8: Church-A Concise Exposition)
Note: This series of posts deals with the relationship between doctrine and practice in general, and between theology and missiology in particular. It argues that sound theology should provide the starting point, trajectory, and parameters for missiological practice. It seeks a “theologically-driven” missiology both for the United States and international contexts.
Missiology is inextricably intertwined with ecclesiology; one cannot be discussed properly without the other. It is probably for that reason that there are so many controversial issues at the intersection of the two disciplines. In this post, we will give a cursory overview of some of the main themes of ecclesiology. This concise biblical ecclesiology will give us a “place to stand” as the next post will speak to some significant and controversial ecclesiological issues in contemporary missiology.
Being the Church
Scripture does not give us a dictionary definition of the nature of the church. What it does instead is give us images and analogies that help us to understand the nature of the church. The church cannot be defined apart from its relationship to God, which is evident especially in the following three images.
In I Pet 2:9-10, the church is described as the people of God, which serves to remind us that we are God’s possession, and that we are a community rather than a collection of individuals. Second, Paul instructs us that we are the body of Christ. Sometimes he uses the image to refer to the church universal (Eph, Col) and sometimes to the church local (Rom, 1 Cor). This image helps us to understand that we are many members but one body (unity and diversity) and that each of us belong to the other members of the body (mutual love and interdependence). Third, we are told that the church is the temple of the Spirit. Our body is a temple of the Spirit (1 Cor 6:19); we are living stones built into a spiritual house (1 Pet 2:5). This image not only evokes the memory of Christ who “tabernacles” with us, but also the idea of relationship. We are held together by the Spirit.
As the Fathers and the Reformers reflected upon the Scriptures, they came to identify the church with certain marks. The church fathers spoke of the church as one, holy, catholic, and apostolic. We are one, in that we are indwelt by the same Spirit. We are holy, in that we seek to allow as members only those who profess faith in Christ and show visible signs of regeneration. We are catholic, in that the gospel is universally available for all people, in all places, at all times. We are apostolic, in that we hold to the same gospel proclaimed by the apostles. Moreover, the Reformers noted that the church is marked by the right preaching of the gospel, the right administration of the ordinances, and a commitment to church discipline.
These marks, however, are not exhaustive. There are many ways we can describe the church. For example, as John Hammett has pointed out, the church (1) is organized and purposeful, (2) is primarily local; (3) is by nature, living and growing; (4) is centered on the gospel; and (5) is powered by the Spirit.
Hammett also correctly and persuasively argues that the church is composed of regenerate members (1 Cor 5:11), that this is the center of Baptist ecclesiology, and is directly linked to the purposes of the church. While, on this side of eternity, we will never know for sure the state of another person’s soul, we may keep diligent watch over the church, discipling and disciplining toward the goal of faithfulness and holiness.
The way that the church functions is a direct outworking of who the church is. Scripture gives us specific guidance as to how we are to live as the church. Among these are four.
Because the church is defined by its relation to Christ, we are actually connected to one another. Our union with Christ connects not only to God but also one to another. This is evident especially in the Eucharist and in the “one another” commands. For example, we must live in harmony with one another (Rom 12:16; 15:5), forgive and bear with one another ( Col 3:13) and must not pass judgment on one another (Rom 14:1). We must admonish and encourage one another (1 Thess 5:14) care for one another (1 Cor 12:25), and comfort one another (2 Cor 13:11). Perhaps all of the many “one another” commands could be summed up in 1 Thess 5:15: “Always seek to do good to one another and to everyone.”
These commands are given to all of the members of the church. It is not just that the leaders are responsible for the church. Rather, we are all responsible to one another, and ultimately to Christ. The church is congregational (Acts 6:3; 13:2-3; 15:22). While recognizing Christ as the ultimate divine authority, we recognize the congregation as the human authority. We follow Christ as he leads the church. This is not at odds with the appointment of pastors, to whose leadership we submit, unless for doctrinal or moral reasons their leadership is rescinded.
As to leadership, Scripture teaches that the church has two offices, that of the bishop/elder/pastor and that of the deacon. The officers are chosen by the churches (Acts 14:23). The bishop/elder/pastor much be able to administrate (bishop), teach and nurture (pastor), must be mature in the faith (elder), and must meet the requirements laid out in Scripture (1 Timothy 3, Titus 1). The deacon is a servant (Acts 6:1-6) and must meet the requirements laid out in Scripture (1 Tim 3:8-13). The pastors, in particular, are to equip the saints for the work of ministry. The church’s ministries are manifold and may be summarized in five categories. Hammett points out that these five ministries may be seen together in Acts 2:42-47. Those ministries are teaching, fellowship, worship, service, and evangelism.
The Scriptures speak of churches that meet in houses (Rom 16:5) as well as house churches that were connected to one another as city churches (Acts 13:1). Further, the Scriptures speak of these churches, together, as a sort of regional church (Acts 8:1), and of the church universal (1 Cor 1:2). The universal church includes believers both living and dead, is not synonymous with any one institution, denomination, or network of churches, and is not entirely visible at any time.
It is difficult to overstate the significance of ecclesiology for Christians in general and for missiologists in particular. We must agree with Mark Dever, who writes in A Theology for the Church: “The enduring authority of Christ’s commands compels Christians to study the Bible’s teaching on the church. Present-day errors in the understanding and the practice of the church will, if they prevail, still further obscure the gospel. Christian proclamation might make the gospel audible, but Christians living together in local congregations make the gospel visible (see John 13:34-35). The church is the gospel made visible.” May we not obscure the gospel by neglecting the church.