We recently had the chance to talk with Brad Harper and Paul Louis Metzger about their Brazos book, Exploring Ecclesiology: An Evangelical and Ecumenical Introduction.
Brad Harper (PhD, St. Louis University) is professor of theology at Multnomah University in Portland, Oregon. He is the college adviser for The Institute for Theology of Culture: New Wine, New Wineskins and the book review editor forCultural Encounters: A Journal for the Theology of Culture. He has also worked as a pastor and church planter.
Paul Louis Metzger (PhD, King’s College London) is professor of Christian theology and theology of culture at Multnomah Biblical Seminary and director of its Institute for the Theology of Culture: New Wine, New Wineskins. He is the editor of the journal Cultural Encounters and the author of Consuming Jesus: Beyond Race and Class Divisions in a Consumer Church.
In today’s post, Brad and Paul explain what ecclesiology is, why evangelicals should care about it, and how it affects how we experience the church.
What is ecclesiology, and why should evangelicals care about it?
Ecclesiology is the study of the nature, mission, and life of the church. Evangelicals should care about it for several reasons.
1. The church alone is the bride and body of Christ—now and for eternity. The church is the kingdom community of the triune God. As such, it is very different from other social groupings such as national, regional, or local governments; NGOs; businesses; and nuclear families. As important as these other social groupings are, they should never displace the significance of the church for the individual believer.
2. We belong to the church as God’s people. As God’s people, we are not just a worldwide community of individual believers. We are a community unified under the lordship of Jesus Christ and by a biblical structure which includes, among other things, pastoral leadership, accountability and discipline, and the Word and Sacraments.
3. The Scriptures indicate that the church is a place of God’s unique presence and activity, a place where he engages us as he does nowhere else.
4. The church is not simply a localized and contextualized community for the present. It is also Christ’s community for all eternity. The church is the concrete embodiment of Christ’s eschatological kingdom. We should be participating now in the community that will be our eternal destiny.
How can the study of ecclesiology affect how we experience the church?
Answers to this question could take up many pages, so we will just suggest a few examples: All too often, the church in North America operates by way of pragmatic impulses rather than careful reflection that would benefit sustainable practices that cultivate healthy church growth for the long haul. Careful consideration of what the Scriptures and church leaders throughout the ages and across the globe have to say about the identity, mission, and life of the church can guard against short-term fixes that hurt long-term communal gains. Moreover, the study of the nature and role of church leadership can make a huge difference in how we experience church. For example, if the Bible invests pastors or elders with significant authority in the areas of doctrinal teaching and proper moral behavior, this will tend to cultivate unity of belief and behavior in the church. If, on the other hand, the authority of the Bible as understood by church members is valued over the authority of pastoral leadership, the church has more freedom to question pastoral teaching; having said that, such an emphasis may also give way to greater openness to doctrinal and ethical error.
The study of the Sacraments is also an area which can significantly affect the way we experience church. Something as simple as coming to the conviction that the Lord’s Supper should be celebrated weekly instead of monthly or quarterly makes a significant difference in believers’ ecclesial experience. Further, if the sacraments are understood to be significant moments of the reception of grace rather than merely a time to remember Christ, this will likely affect the attitude of the believer in partaking in them. Lastly, it is important that we take to heart the significance of the table for calling sinners who are saints and saints who are sinners together to serve one another and to receive and offer forgiveness to one another as equals at the foot of the cross. Thus, in addition to confessing our sins to God, we confess our sins to one another so that we might be healed (James 5:16). Here we see the vertical as well as the horizontal significance of the table.
Next week, Brad and Paul will address what evangelicals can learn from other ecclesiologies and how ecclesiology can inform our worship and the role of women in our churches.