Although I am a committed Anglican now, I have the blessing & curse to be a part of a very different sort of church setting on Sunday evenings. I’ve never been a house church kind of person, but I do recognize the powerful value of small groups in Christian growth and spiritual formation. So that and the intimate friendship and diversity of perspectives brought together have made for quite the marvelous blessing. The curse of it I say primarily tongue-in-cheek, solely because of the inevitable conflict and debate that arises when you put eight or more people in the same room with different theological perspectives. To be fair, most of us there are on the same page as Evangelical Christians, but as the self-identified token catholic among them (first unofficially, but now officially as an Anglican), I’ve been at odds with certain folks from time to time.
It has been a good healthy challenge for all of us, prompting deeper examination of our theological outlooks and forcing dialogue between people who normally wouldn’t ever cross paths. Sometimes patience runs thin, but the peace of the Holy Spirit has prevailed for the past 3½ years, thanks be to God. That being said, I feel these challenges have led me to an interesting hypothesis: church division is primarily due to differences in ecclesiology (the doctrine of the Church).
Yes, many denominations (in particular the vast majority of Protestants) have been formed around particular confessions – sets of doctrinal statements confessed to be the true gospel, the most accurate orthodoxy of all. But underneath that is an ecclesiological drive to purify the Church. Baptists need to separate from Prebyterians because Baptism should be for mature believers only – entry into the Church is dependent upon a personal confession of faith. Protestants need to separate from Catholics because they want the Church to be ruled by the Bible rather than Bishops. Anglicans need to separate from Roman Catholics because the Church needs to be organized by Bishops, not by the Pope alone. Indeed, plenty of other doctrinal issues are brought up along the way – especially matters concerning salvation – but there always seems to be an ecclesiological divergence necessitating the split, and making reconciliation or toleration impossible.
So I’m going to keep this hypothesis in the back of my mind for the next few months as I continue to read, study, and learn from God’s Word and Church. Maybe I’m oversimplifying the picture, or maybe I’m making too much of one piece of the problem. We’ll see.
In the meantime, this sort of concern is why, in Theologia Communitatis, I decided last year to begin my theological treatise with ecclesiology. Oftentimes it’s relegated towards the back of systematic theological texts, following Soteriology (doctrine of salvation) as its application. And although I don’t disagree with the idea of the Church being the application (or dare I say, the vehicle of salvation – Christ being the source of course), I think it’s more importance to highlight the Church’s identity as the central issue of our identity, and the very subject of Christianity in this world.
I have heard some people say that the first sign of a bad catechism is when they start with humans instead of God. I see the concern behind that sort of statement, and the value of beginning systematic theology with identifying the God in whom we believe. I have no desire to diminish those excellent aims. But what I intend to emphasize in my own writings is the idea that it’s only through the Church that we can come to a full and complete knowledge of God, and therefore we must define the Church before we can describe God and His works. The problem is that this is all cyclical – we need the Church to lead us to God, but we need to know who God is to understand what the Church is… in the end you just have to pick a place to start and go with it. And since, in my opinion, the doctrine of the Church is the primary cause of division among Christians, it needs to be tackled head-on immediately.
First, the short answer: The Church is a community. The word in the Bible, εκκλεσια (ekklesia) means gathering, congregation, or community. It appears in the New Testament as the word for the Church, the body of believers in Christ, etc. It appears in the Old Testament as the “assembly” or “congregation” of Israel. Although it specifically may have often referred to delegated leaders of the various tribes and families of the Israelite kingdom, it represented the entire kingdom – all of God’s covenant people.
The long answer, then, is four-fold: we need to
- identify this community through the course of human history from Adam & Eve to the present day,
- describe characteristics of what the Church is like today,
- work out what the authority structure is within the Church (generally introduced here),
- and elaborate how the Church is built and how it functions, and details like that.
If you click on Theologia Communitatis at the top of this page, you’ll see that these four points are the top-level outline points for my entire ecclesiology, uncreatively entitled “Community of God.”