A Disciples Ecclesiology: The Nature of the Church

Pulpit in Cane Ridge Meeting House
Note: This post is a continuation of my Disciples Theology series. This will be the first of two on ecclesiology.  

            Ecclesiology plays a significant role in Disciples theology. Our divisions as a tradition have often been rooted in differences in understanding about how close contemporary churches should come to the earliest forms of church. There has been a tendency in at least parts of our tradition to read the Book of Acts as providing a blue print that must be restored if the church is to be truly Christian. In the next few reflections I’d like us to think more deeply about what it means to be church. Standing at the heart of this conversation is the question of whether the church is simply a human institution or more than simply a human institution? Is polity, the way we organize ourselves a matter of indifference, or is there something inherently spiritual to the way we organize ourselves? Another element inherent in the conversation is whether the church can be separated from the institutions that embody it. That is, the church as an institution increasingly irrelevant to the life of the Christian, or is the community (with all its institutions) a space where the Holy Spirit is at work? 

            If we’re going to explore the nature of church, it might help to define some terms, including the most common Greek word used the New Testament in reference to the church. That word is ekklesia, which at its simplest means "called out ones."  In the Septuagint ekklesia is used to translate the Hebrew words edhah and qahal, both of which refer to an assembly of people, especially an "assembly of the Lord." In the New Testament, it typically refers to congregations of Christians gathered in particular places for worship (1 Cor. 11:18; 14:19), or prayer and instruction (Acts 11:26; 12:5; 1 Cor. 14:4-5, 28, 34-35). However, at times the word is used in reference to larger groups of Christians, such as the church in a city—for example, the church of the Thessalonians (1 Thess. 1:1; 2 Thess. 1:1). In the plural it is used for churches in a province such as the church of Galatia (Gal. 1:2) or Judea (Gal 1:22).  It is even used to speak of Christians living in a wider region such as such as Asia (1 Cor. 16:19; Rev. 1:4, 11). Even more broadly it can speak of the "churches of Christ" (Rom. 16:16).

            The church is a community called together by God, and joined together by the principle of covenant.  The idea of covenant is important to the way Disciples understand the church, and they (we) speak of covenant in several ways, but most especially in terms of the relationship of local, regional, and general manifestations of church.  The concept of covenant is deeply rooted in the biblical story.  God made covenants with Noah, Abraham and Sarah, and Moses.  Jeremiah spoke of a new covenant that would be written on the hearts of the people rather than in the Law.  And Jesus initiated a new covenant that is, in the words of Ronald Osborn, “given and received in a sacrament.” This sacrament was initiated in the context of the Last Supper and remembered whenever the church gathers at Table.  This covenant is a “sacred bond sealed with an oath or vow of allegiance.”  [Ronald Osborn, The Faith We Affirm: Basic Beliefs of Disciples of Christ, (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 1979), pp. 58-59].   

            The church is often spoken of in terms of its visible and invisible properties, which can be taken to mean that the church exists in two forms: local and universal. This visible church is usually encountered in local bodies, while the invisible is understood to be universal in nature. This distinction between local and universal reminds us that the church is found in local bodies, but isn’t limited to these bodies. As the British Disciple theologian William Robinson reminds us, the local church is an outcropping of the church catholic. It stands as a manifestation of the broader catholic or universal church. If Christ is head of the church, then all local churches are united together in Christ. [William Robinson, Biblical Doctrine of the Church, (St. Louis: Bethany Press, 1955), p. 124].

            The recognition that we live in a post-denominational age may help local churches become more fully catholic, and therefore better able to reflect the one church of Christ. True renewal awaits our recognition that if Christ is truly head of the church, then there can be only one church. So, how do we live into this vision, when confessional differences are still with us? If not confessional, then surely institutional differences keep us apart. The one major attempt at bringing the historic Protestant churches together as one unified body—the process known as the “Consultation on Church Union”—foundered largely on matters of polity not theology. [Keith Watkins, The American Church that Might Have Been, Pickwick, 2014].

Despite our inability to move toward full union, the principle of catholicity can encourage continued dialog among traditions. Perhaps as the conversation continues, we can better see that more unites us than divides us. To get there, however, we will need to acknowledge that all ecclesial structures, whether local, regional, national, or ecumenical, stand relative to their status in the church catholic.  Even if they remain necessary for now, they stand under the judgment of God.

On the surface the church looks like a human institution. It has officers, committees, rules, and buildings. If one looks at the church historically, one will see the development of liturgies and hierarchies. Change has always been with us. While the church is clearly human, it is not merely a human institution. It is, as William Robinson points out, both a "divine and human corporation."  Those who think of the church as either a "mere human society, or for that matter, as a merely spiritual or divine society" will be disappointed as they read Paul's writings. Paul's description of the church as the body of Christ undergirds the Christological foundations of his ecclesiology (1 Cor. 12:13-26). By starting with the premise that Jesus Christ is both fully human and fully divine, we have the foundation for conceiving of the church as both a human and a divine institution. Without faith in Jesus Christ there can be no church, for Jesus Christ stands as the head of the church (Eph. 1:22). [William Robinson, Peace in Heaven and on Earth, (Eugene, 1955), p. 17.  J├╝rgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, (New York:  Harper and Row, 1977), pp. 66-67.]

            The church was born of the Spirit at Pentecost. Or, perhaps we could say that the church was reborn at Pentecost, since the church had its origins in the fellowship of Jesus and his disciples. Jesus may not have intended to create an ecclesiastical organization, but Jesus did create a community of women and men, and it is within this community that we find the origins of the church. [Robinson, Biblical Doctrine of the Church, pp. 37-40]. At Pentecost the Holy Spirit took the small band of Jesus' followers--who had been given hope of a new future in the resurrection of Jesus—and transformed them into a significant religious movement (Acts 2). The Holy Spirit moved upon a church without courage or power, gathered in the shadows of an upper room in Jerusalem, and empowered them to proclaim the death and resurrection of Jesus. At Pentecost, God poured out the Spirit on the church causing the gathered community to break out in joyous praise, which led in turn to the proclamation of the gospel by Peter.

          While John Locke is correct at one level, the church as a human institution is “a voluntary society of men, joining themselves together of their own accord, in order to the public worshipping of God, in such a manner as they judge acceptable to him, and effectual to the salvation of their souls,” the church is a community called together by God and ruled by God. [John Locke, A Letter Concerning Toleration, Prometheus Books, 1990, p. 22]. Locke was interested in countering attempts by the state to limit religious options in England, but this voluntarism is quite present in Disciples ecclesial thought. Nonetheless, the church's confession that Christ is head of the church relativizes all church polities, whether they are democratic, representative, or hierarchical. This does not rule out church governments, but it puts them in perspective. Instead of defining the church in institutional terms, Paul used organic terms such as the body of Christ, a particularly apt metaphor when related to Christ's role as head of the church (I Cor. 12:12; Eph. 1:22-23).

            The church is much more than a gathering of individuals seeking spiritual gratification.  Rather, it is a community, a body diverse in its gifts and personality.  As a community the healthy church seeks to encourage relational bonds between members. For true community to occur, however, we need to pay attention to the reality of diversity within our midst. Diversity and unity can be both invigorating and destructive. We must watch both for individualism and uniformity.  Thus, in seeing the church as both one and many we keep the tension between diversity and unity.  

            As we contemplate the nature of the church and its unity, it is important that we acknowledge that there is unity in diversity, for the church is one body with many members.  Out of this diversity of gifts, talents, and personalities, Christ builds the church. The body of Christ may be one, but it is not uniform. William Robinson has provided an interesting definition of fellowship that spells out this idea.
This is what fellowship means, not the gathering together of a group of like-minded uninteresting people calculated to bore anyone other than themselves, but the nonexplosive interlocking of those rich differences of personality which, if left to themselves or organized on a class basis, would lead to endless strife. Here, already, is that community which is to know neither Jew nor Greek, neither bond nor free, neither male nor female. [Robinson, Biblical Doctrine of the Church, pp. 42-43.] 
This vision of unity is reflected in Jesus’ high priestly prayer (John 17), where Jesus prayed that his followers would be one, even as he and the Father were one. This unity would provide the context for the proclamation of the gospel and the ministry of the church. William Robinson echoes John's account: "Christ is in the church, as the Father is in Christ (John 17:23)." [Robinson, pp. 94-95]. Therefore, we must ask ourselves: how do we exemplify this unity in our churches?


wallace ford said…
A good survey. I will soon begin posting a series of "reflections" entitled "The Last Restorationist" and will be following some similar lines of inquiry. I especially appreciate your comments about John Locke. I had been looking for that piece you quoted, and. with your permission will include it in mine.

Watch for my announcement.
Robert Cornwall said…
Wallace, thank you for the word!

Yes, by all means, include!

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