Ecclesiology: A Guide for the Perplexed

The following was presented as a lecture for the “Faith Seeking Understanding” course of the Partnership for Theological Education in Edinburgh on Tuesday.

Ecclesiology, or the study of the church, is perhaps one of the most difficult and elusive areas of theology, despite the fact that its content seems so empirically obvious.  With soteriology, the doctrine of salvation, we are dealing with things that happen largely invisibly within us, and in some vague future judgment.  With eschatology, the doctrine of “the last things,” we are dealing with things entirely future, and largely hidden from our perception.  But the object of ecclesiology, “the church,” is right in front of us, all around us, right?  We see numerous churches as part of our normal experience, and “the church” can simply be described as the totality of these, the whole body of those who call on the name of the Lord—right?

This apparently simple description, however, becomes more complicated when we try to relate the rather messy empirical reality of churches as we find them to the rather exalted language that Scripture often uses in speaking of the Church.  And indeed, given the importance of the church, Scripture is remarkably elusive in how it speaks of this fundamental Christian reality, resorting almost entirely to a rich array of metaphors which seem to bear little obvious relation to one another.  I borrow the following catalogue from Herman Bavinck:

the church is the body of Christ, the bride of Christ, the sheepfold of Christ who gives his life for the sheep and is known by them, the building, the temple, the house of God, built up out of living stones on Christ as the cornerstone, and on the foundation of apostles and prophets, the people, the possession, the Israel of God.  The members of the church are called branches of the vine, living stones, the elect, the called, believers, beloved, brothers and sisters, children of God and so forth. (Reformed Dogmatics IV.298)  

What are we to make of all this?  We might seek to gain some illumination from the Old Testament, seeing, as Christian theology has frequently done, the church as the New Israel, the continuation or rather fulfillment of the people that God called out of Egypt, and who worshipped him in the centuries before Christ.  But the discontinuities between the church and Israel seem to loom as large as the continuities: Israel was at the same time a political state, whereas the church makes no such pretensions, but lives amidst, though distinct from, the political states of the world, even when such states confess Christ; Israel had at the center of her identity one geographical location, whereas the church is called to be spread over all the world; Israel had detailed and specific laws governing her worship and religious identity, whereas the church does not.  These discontinuities mean that although important to helping us construct a doctrine of the church, the Old Testament will hardly relieve our difficulties in that task.   Read More