A primary consideration when thinking about ecclesiology is to understand that one is speaking about a group of people that are relationally and functionally different from those of the world. Therefore, from a most basic standpoint the world can be divided into two distinct groups: the church, and the not-church.[i] This distinction, along with discussions regarding what it means to be the church, has been considered and remarked upon by some of the greatest theological minds of history making this small essay essentially as invisible as the stars at noontime. Further, to present what might be thought of as a complete doctrinal stance on the church and its various facets is to undertake a discussion significantly longer than the assigned length, so only briefest of overviews will be attempted. Therefore, this limited discussion will only consider the doctrine of the Ecclesiology in relation to form and function.
Regarding form such concepts as assembly, body, community, and polity may arise. In the arena of function typical words that arise are benevolence, edification, and evangelism (as the church relates to mankind); and, those ideas one associates with praise, worship, and glorification (as the church interacts with God). To these deliberations one may also include more esoteric thoughts such as the earthy verses heavenly establishment, the visible local church as opposed to the invisible universal assembly, and the various names by which the church as an organization may be known or the names associated with the individual that make up the church. What follows will entail a brief sketch of regarding the form of church, and then a reflection of the function of the church.
First, regarding the form of the church, a thesis statement may be expressed thus; the universal body of Christ expressed locally as a community of believers conforming themselves to the pattern as set forth in the Scriptures. The first portion of this statement – the universal body of Christ – is recognized as transcending both time and place. Any person added to the church by God from ages past to ages future residing in any place that a soul may be found is to be considered as part of church in its catholic nature. Cyril of Jerusalem noted that “the church is called ‘catholic’” because it branches into the whole world, from one end to another.[ii] Yet part of the nature of the church is found in its paradoxes: it is one body but marked by real division, it is holy and yet marked by sin, it is catholic yet the wholeness is not always “preached or embodied by its members.”[iii] The body motif, as it relates to the church, is expounded by Paul in both Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 12, may be applied to both a universal and local consideration of the church.
Although some feel that to remain germane “within a new day, age, and time”[iv] the church must change, that change can never be reflective of mankind’s desire to reshape his surroundings. When change of any institution comprised of mankind is directed by mankind, no matter how lofty the motives, what is “good” is ultimately driven by individual desire and hubris. The only authoritative guide for those that whole-heartedly desire to do the will of God in the Christian dispensation is the New Testament; the cry of sola scruptura arising from the Reformation remains as applicable as it did 300 years ago. The New Hampshire Baptist Confession (1833) remarks that the visible Church of Christ, as a congregation of baptized believers, observes “the ordinances of Christ; governed by his laws, and exercising the gifts, rights, and privileges invested in them by his Word; that its only scriptural officers are bishops, or pastors, and deacons (art. XIII).”[v]
The form of the church can be seen as a community of believers in both an immediate and extended sense for mutual worldly support (Acts 2:42-47; 1 Cor. 16:1-2; 2 Cor. 8:1-2; Gal. 6:10; Phil. 4:16). The form of the church is also described as a body of which Christ is the head and having a common Spirit (Rom. 12:4-8; 1 Cor. 12:1-27; Eph. 4:4-6). Along with community and body, the motif of family – as expressed using terms such as brother, brethren, our Father, and beloved children – is a frequent point of reference for the inspired writers. The visible community of believers in any area are to be present in such a way as to allow access by the unbeliever. The visible community is not closed or hidden, and any meeting of the Saints is to be open to all persons so they may be convicted of their sin and exalted as an equal child of God (1 Cor. 14:24-25; Jam. 2:2-4).
Second, the function of the church may be set forth as advancing the Kingdom of God by the conversion of new disciples and the encouragement of established members for the express purpose of glorifying the Lord. Oden observes that the doctrine of the church may be summed up by “the fact that God does not evidence holiness by separating himself from sin, but by engaging it and transforming it.”[vi] This insightful understanding of the church’s function rightly encompasses the engagement of those outside the church with the Word. As Paul indicates, how can someone believe unless they hear, and how can they hear without someone speaking out regarding the gospel (Rom. 10:14)?
This basic proclamation of the “manifold wisdom of God” (Eph. 3:10) is achieved by the church performing the function of evangelism on both an individual and corporate level. The individual level may be seen in the actions of Phillip in Acts 8 as he preaches in the city of Samaria and to the Ethiopian Eunuch. The corporate level of evangelical engagement is seen specifically in the Philippian’s support, and in the support of Thessalonica and Berea, for Paul in his missionary work (2 Cor. 8:1-4; Phil. 4:15-16). This evangelistic nature of the church is summed up in the instructions given by Jesus: go, make, baptize, and teach (Matt. 28:18-20). The hardest part of universal evangelism is the truth that extension of the gospel call includes not only those that are lost in their sin, but also to those that are “deliberately and proudly the enemies of God.”[vii]
Concurrent with the evangelical function is the work of benevolence. This arm of the function of the church has long been noted as a critical method of outreach. From the OT prophets reminding Israel of their social responsibility for those with little or no goods, to the church of the NT being reminded to remember the poor in not only thought but also deed (Lev. 23:22; Isa. 58:7; Gal. 6:10; Jam. 1:27; et al.). Through the centuries the call to benevolence has been brightly exemplified by both the individual, religious societies, and the institutional church. The need to extend the helping hand has remained part of the deep currents that run through the spirit of the Christianity, mirroring that divine Hand that was extended to all mankind, even while mankind was wallowing in sin (John 3:16; Rom. 5:8; Gal. 2:20; Eph. 5:2).
Under the function of the church one must also consider edification as a primary activity (Rom. 14:19; 1 Cor. 14:3-5, 12, 26; Eph. 4:16; et al.). Edification is a broad enough term to include everything that in some fashion might “enlighten, educate, and improve the several members”[viii] that comprise the body of the church. As such, those activities that serve to promote the general good of the congregation may find authority under this instruction unless condemned elsewhere in the Scriptures. For example, a common fellowship meal for the church community may be engaged (Acts 2:46), but a common meal that descends into a drunken party is not (1 Cor. 11:21-22; Eph. 5:18-20). Also, there are the two specific ordinances of the church – baptism and the Eucharist – that also gives the church a common thread of spirituality and promotes the enlightenment of its members. The church grows stronger when involved in similar activities and goals, and the individual members grow in Christianity where love and community are reinforced.
Ferguson notes that the unity residing in the church requires a degree of cohesion and allegiance, and even when differences arise there remains a commitment to the community in the sense that the church is “’one people,’ who share a loyalty to the same principles and to one another.”[ix] The form and function of the church is designed in such a way as to promote the ideas of community and unity among its members. This community and unity is expressed interpersonally when the praxis of the church is manifested in love and consideration among its members, working together as a family and body to achieve our common goals for the glory of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The community and unity is also expressed in the kerygma of the church, a message that is illustrated and garnered from the pages of Scripture as the apostles and early disciples recounted the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ, and the blessings that have arisen from such a great sacrifice.
[i] Jack Cottrell, The Faith Once for All: Bible Doctrine for Today (United States of America: College Press Publishing Company, 2002), 400.
[ii] Alister E. McGrath, ed., The Christian Theology Reader, 4th ed. (Malden: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011), 411.
[iii] Michael Kinnamon, “Ecumenical Ecclesiology: One Church of Christ for the Sake of the World,” Journal Of Ecumenical Studies 44, no. 3 (2009), ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed May 8, 2017), 346.
[iv] Joseph Williams, “The New Ecclesiology and the Post-Modern Age,” Review & Expositor 107, no. 1 (Winter 2010), ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed May 8, 2017), 35.
[v] Gordon R. Lewis and Bruce A. Demarest, Integrative Theology: Three Volumes in One (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 3:257.
[vi] Thomas Oden, Classic Christianity: A Systematic Theology (New York: Harper Collins, 1992), 729.
[vii] Sarah Hinlicky Wilson, “Soundings in Enemy-love Ecclesiology,” Pro Ecclesia 23, no. 3, ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed May 8, 2017), 256.
[viii] Robert Milligan, The Scheme of Redemption (1868; repr., Nashville: Gospel Advocate, 2001), 523.
[ix] Everett Ferguson, The Church of Christ: A Biblical Ecclesiology for Today (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1996), 407.