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Gregg Allison, professor of Christian theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and an elder at Sojourn Church in Louisville, has penned the volume on the doctrine of the church in the Foundations of Evangelical Theology series: Sojourners and Strangers: The Doctrine of the Church (Crossway).

In a recent interview with Credo Magazine he was asked about some of the challenges of writing a contemporary ecclesiology:

One of the key challenges was writing an ecclesiology for an audience that is broadly evangelical and thus holds to divergent positions on ecclesiological matters such as continuity and discontinuity between the Old Testament and New Testament and the old covenant people of God and the new covenant people of God, the normative or descriptive nature of the book of Acts, when the church began and who are its members, the relationship of the church to Israel and the kingdom of God, the nature and recipients of baptism, the nature and recipients of the Lord’s Supper, how the church should be governed (e.g., episcopalian, presbyterian, congregational with one pastor and a board of deacons, congregational with a plurality of elders), and the like.

In my opinion, a generic evangelical ecclesiology cannot be written. Thus, I chose to write a broadly baptistic ecclesiology (reflecting my theological persuasion and my membership in several baptistic churches over the course of my life) that (I hope) fairly presents other ecclesiologies and interacts with them in a respectful and irenic fashion.

At the same time, my ecclesiology develops in some directions that are not typically baptistic (though not without historical precedents and contemporary examples) like opening with a discussion of biblical covenants and identifying the church as the new covenant people of God, a significant emphasis on church discipline, a view of the Lord’s Supper that is both memorial and a type of spiritual presence (with strong warrant from 1 Cor. 10:14-2), a plurality of elders, the diaconate consisting of both deacons and deaconesses (this latter point is affirmed within a complementarian framework), and advocacy of a particular multisite church structure.

The second challenge was making my way through a large body of contemporary literature on the church, the vast majority of which is pragmatic in nature and thus focuses on the ministries of the church without ever considering what the church is. But I had made a decision early on in my writing that I would start my ecclesiology with a consideration of the nature of the church—its attributes (see point 4 below)—then move to the ministries of the church, because I was convinced that those ministries must flow from the church’s identity, and not visa versa. Thus, while learning a good deal from this contemporary literature on how to do church, I was not particularly helped in constructing my ecclesiology.

A third challenge was the tenor of most contemporary ecclesiologies: almost universally, they underscore the problematic nature of constructing a doctrine of the church. Whether they focus on the dreadful state of the contemporary church (e.g., its consumerist mindset), or accentuate the multiplicity of ecclesiologies (to emphasize the difficult task ahead), or underscore the divisions separating churches due to their different stances on homosexuality and/or gender, most contemporary formulations of the doctrine approach ecclesiology as a problem with which to wrestle. Such a negative orientation weighed quite heavily on me as I sought to write my book.

You can read the whole interview here. David Mathis also had a 15-minute audio conversation with Dr. Allison for the “Theology Refresh” podcast.

You can also read the table of contents and the 30+ page introduction online for free (as PDF) or below:

Other books in the Foundations of Evangelical Theology series, edited by John Feinberg:

John Feinberg, No One Like Him: The Doctrine of God

Graham Cole, He Who Gives Life: The Doctrine of the Holy Spirit

David Clark, To Know and Love God: Method of Theology

Bruce Demarest, The Cross and Salvation: The Doctrine of Salvation

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3 thoughts on “Three Challenges in Writing a Contemporary Theology of the Church”

  1. I would think, regarding the first challenge, that the cause of the divergent nature of the evangelical audience is not primarily theological, but experiential. This is to say that our reading of scripture for ecclesiological understanding is more often informed by our experiences.

    Most people who lack theological education perceive the differences in churches based on the way they do things rather than on why they do things the way they do things. For some it is a means of comfort that things are done the way they have always been done. For others, it is a matter of escaping the painful way things have always been done in favor of some other way.

    For many who are theologically trained, their ecclesiological development is a matter of reading scripture to justify what they already think is the right way. This is typically determined the same way that it is for those who are not theologically trained.

    Most ecclesiological practices are not specified or clarified in scripture. There is much room for diversity in practice. A few things, like baptism (credo- versus paedo-), have theological concerns where only one answer is possible but multiple answers are commonly accepted as generally orthodox. So the way these things are practiced are likewise acceptable as orthodox.

    Therefore, I think it would be far clearer either to write different volumes for different ecclesiological traditions (which perhaps he has done to some degree) or limit volumes to different ecclesiological subcategories where differences are spelled out and the arguments for and against different orthodox understandings treated fairly so that the various supporting hermeneutics can be contrasted and the bottom-line principles brought out: what Dr. Allison refers to as the “identity” or “nature” of the church from which the “ministries [of the church] must flow… and not vice versa.”

  2. Bruce Russell says:

    The biggest question in the Christian life: what is discipleship?

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Justin Taylor, PhD

Justin Taylor is executive vice president of book publishing and book publisher for Crossway and blogs at Between Two Worlds. You can follow him on Twitter.

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