Ecclesiology: What is It? Why is It Important?

By Franklin Billerbeck

How we view, think about, and understand the Church is referred to as ecclesiology. While this may seem like an abstract area best left to academic theologians in seminaries, it is not. It is an area of vital concern to every Christian.

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Whether or not you have thought about it much, you have an understanding of the Church, an ecclesiology, even if only by default. Indeed, you must deal with the Church: Christ founded it and spoke of it and it has been a big part of history for almost 2,000 years. How you understand the Church, however, is influenced in no small part by how you answer the basic question: who is Jesus Christ?

If Jesus Christ is merely one of many prophets, then Church is less important because there are always other prophets and ways of relating to God. In this view, Christianity is only one of many possible religious choices. Moreover, all (or at least most) religions have some truth. Therefore it is simply a question of choosing which you prefer. No religion is really superior to another religion except that it may be a better religion for you. Such a view destroys missionary activity and means we can’t claim one religion is true and another is false (likewise it may become very difficult to claim one moral view is right while a different moral view is wrong). In this view either the various religions are all valid throughout all time or they are given in a series of revelations as humanity needs them—one revelation follows after another. Thus while original Christianity was good in its day, it is today replaced by something more appropriate to our situation. While this view is held by many in America today it is not the view of the undivided Church and it is not compatible with traditional Christianity.

On the other hand, if Jesus is who He said He was, God Incarnate, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, who came once to give the fullness of God’s revelation, then we have a very different picture; for Jesus founded the Church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. To misunderstand the Church would lead to a misunderstanding of our very relationship with God as Jesus intended that relationship.

Unless ye eat my flesh and drink my blood ye have no live in you, says our Lord. But this is possible only within the Church, and Scripture is very clear: there is one Church, one Lord, one faith, and one baptism. How then do we account for the literally thousands of so called churches? Three basic responses come to mind.

The first is to say we can’t account for the differences. In essence this is nihilism (that is, we don’t know and we can’t know). Such a view is not agreeable with Jesus being Who He claimed He was. If Jesus is God and He founded one Church which is necessary for our salvation, would He leave us in a setting where we could not locate this Church? Had He done so, His painful death on the Cross would have been largely in vain. Moreover, His promise that the Holy Spirit will lead and guide us into all truth would be nothing more than a bad joke. If Christ’s promise that the Holy Spirit will lead us to all truth is a false promise, then why should we trust any of His other promises? If this is how God so loved the world, then we are in deep trouble! Indeed, such a perspective calls into question our very understanding of God’s nature (loving) and whether or not Jesus Christ is God.

A second approach is best described as minimalism. This view tries to account for the various churches by claiming that there is a minimum necessary to be the Church and that wherever that minimum is present there is the Church. Because this minimum may be present in any number of denominations, and it is this minimum which makes the Church one, there is one Church, with one minimum faith, in a variety of denominations.

Of course the problem with minimalism is deciding what the minimum is! Forgetting for a moment the question of who is the judge of what minimum is needed, we find a wide variety of possible minimums.

One the one end of minimalism is an understanding that those who do good in Christ’s name are the Church. This view allows a wide variety of beliefs about Christ and about doctrine. In fact, you could reject most of the Bible but still believe (in some vague way) in Christ and be considered part of the Church. Such a view could make part of the Church such different groups as David Koresh, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Episcopalians, Holy Rollers, Baptists, Roman Catholics, and even Arians (who denied the Divinity of Christ and were anathematized by ecumenical council!) and Moslems!

Slightly less broad, but still minimalistic, is to require some set of beliefs, e.g. that Christ is God and Man and that the Bible is God’s Word. Depending on how much is included in this minimum of requirements, it may or may not narrow the field of churches. Yet it is exactly this minimalism that underlies all of Protestant Christianity! Some churches, for example, have a very short list of minimums (e.g. Methodists, Fundamentalist, &c.: [believe in Christ and be saved]) while others have a highly developed statement of beliefs (e.g., Lutherans and their Augsburg Confession).

The understanding of Church with the largest minimum is probably the Anglican notion of the branch theory. In this view, those churches holding the faith of the undivided church and maintaining apostolic succession are fully Church, i.e. Roman Catholic, Anglican, and Orthodox. Like all other varieties of minimalism, the branch theory suffers from the problem that there is no authoritative determination of what the minimum is. Roman Catholic, Anglican, and Orthodox disagree about what the faith is (e.g., papal infallibility, filioque, &c.) and they disagree about what the undivided Church believed.

Besides this problem of deciding what the minimum set of beliefs are, minimalism suffers from three other problems: it results in contradictory and mutually exclusive beliefs, there is no authoritative judge to decide the minimum of beliefs, and it is contrary to the Bible.

Minimalism, clearly the dominant American understanding of the Church, results in accepting a variety of beliefs which are contradictory and mutually exclusive. Once you have the minimum, then a variety of additions are all accepted—you may believe in papal infallibility or you may not, you may believe Communion is the Body and Blood of Christ or you may not, you may accept apostolic succession or you may not, you may accept sola scriptura and biblical inerrancy or you may not, &c. Because many of these beliefs contradict one another and are mutually exclusive (you can’t both believe in papal infallibility and reject papal infallibility, and you can’t both believe the Bible is without any error and believe the Bible may have some errors), the only option is to say that beyond the minimum of beliefs, whatever additional beliefs you choose to hold are not essential—believe whatever you like. In other words, beyond the minimum there is no absolute, identifiable Truth. Thus, for example, whether or not Communion is the Body and Blood of Christ or whether the pope is infallible is, arguably, irrelevant and, at least from looking at the Christian landscape, can’t be determined with certainty.

Such a view is not satisfying and leads to disunity in the faith. Therefore in such a view the Church would logically be seen as by heresies distressed, for to view her as the pure and spotless bride of Christ is inconsistent with the reality of her many, divergent, and contradictory beliefs and practices. Yet this is the understanding of probably most American Christians! As President Truman once is reputed to have said: We are all on the same train, going to the same place. We are just in different coaches. In other words, what you believe is really not very important. Thus, when you hear people say they will go to whatever church feels right, they are really minimalists. When you hear people say, Oh, the churches are really all the same, they are minimalists. When you see people change from Roman Catholic to Lutheran or from Lutheran to Methodist, unless they really have changed their theology, they are minimalist. One cannot change from being Episcopalian to Presbyterian, Methodist, or Roman Catholic without undergoing serious and profound theological change unless, deep down, they are a minimalist or are ignorant or unwilling or unable to study. For the millions of people like this there is some certain minimum (about which they have probably thought little) and beyond that they will pick and choose what they like.

Of course in minimalism there is really no authoritative judge to decide what the minimum of belief is. Many would respond that you just need to accept the Bible. However, two people can accept the Bible (even as God’s Word) and mean very different things by that—God’s Word once and for all time or one of God’s Words which will be replaced when we become ready for more. Moreover, there is no authoritative way to interpret the Bible. Thus when Article 6 of the Articles of Religion says Episcopalians can’t be required to believe something that can’t be proven by Holy Scripture, the problem is to whom does the proof need to be given and by what standard will that proof be judged?

Thus, in minimalism, because there is no authoritative judge determining what is minimum, each individual must decide for him or herself what the minimum is. The end result of such individualism is, of course, confusion. The result is a cafeteria approach to Christianity—take what you like, leave what you don’t and please don’t disturb anybody else’s choices. The logical result is that the faith of the individual, not the faith of the Church, become primary. Thus the individual person, parish, or diocese can retreat to isolationism, largely ignoring the rest of the Church.

Many conservative Anglicans and Episcopalians are exactly like this. The Church as a whole is not primary. What is important is themselves and/or their congregation. Thus as long as their diocese or parish does not bless same sex marriages they will not be too upset—even if their neighboring diocese or parish does bless same sex marriages. In such a view, a person or an individual parish can simply go on holding to what they have always done and the national church can do whatever—it does not impact on the individual or the local parish. Such a view and practice is and must be at its very foundation minimalistic. Given the response of many so called ESA dioceses, parishes, and individuals, it seems fair to say that they accept minimalism and hence view the Church primarily as individual or congregational (a very unbiblical view) rather than as a larger organism. Ultimately for these people faith is divorced from a larger setting and is determined by the individual—with the resulting diversity of beliefs and practices—a tower of Babel!

Such an individualistic view means that ultimate authority in the Church rests only with the individual. The Church as a whole has no binding authority. Thus an individual can claim, for example, to be a good Roman Catholic but can also choose to reject the dogma of papal infallibility or call God Mother, Daughter, Spirit. In a word, the sheep are scattered, each to fend for him or herself. Of course, at an institutional level, the view of the church becomes focused, not on the Lordship of Jesus Christ and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, but on individualistic beliefs and theories. Control of the church as institution is viewed in human terms and the most powerful group of individuals gains control.

While this individualistic result of minimalism is the basic understanding of the Church held, I believe, by many conservative Episcopalians, it is also the basic understanding of the Church held by many so called liberals. For the liberals the minimum may be different than for the conservative, but it is ultimately the individual who decides what Christianity is. While the conservative may accept certain minimal standards of belief, conduct and judgment for determining the faith, it is an individual decision. For the liberal there is simply a different personal choice regarding what the minimum is and, like for the conservative, it is on a personal or individual authority that he accepts alternative standards for determining belief and conduct. Because they accept different standards, the liberal and the conservative are in conflict. But at their core, they share a certain common understanding of the Church, namely, minimalism and its resulting individualism.

Because there is no authoritative way to decide what the necessary minimum is, we are left with basically the same problem as we had with nihilism. We have no way to locate the Church or account for the denominations. Granted, each denomination has its own answer (e.g. just believe in Jesus, be baptized [some would require that be with water in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit while others would not]) but which is right? Perhaps safest route is to choose the church with the most.

But this only leads to the problem that minimalism is unbiblical. Christ’s promise to send the Holy Spirit who will lead and guide us into all Truth is suddenly brought into question. Christ’s revelation once delivered in its fullness is suddenly not clear because various groups (all under the Holy Spirit?) have different ideas what minimum is required. Given that the Spirit will not lie, do we take only as minimum that basic truth upon which all denominations can agree? If so, what is it? They are mutually exclusive—for example, Jesus Christ is true God and true Man or Jesus Christ is true God but not true man. Moreover, minimalism fails to account for the explicit warnings in Scripture to beware of false prophets which will lead us astray and of the devil roaming about like a lion seeking to devour the sheep.

Scripture points out that Christ is the Head of the Church and Christ is Truth Himself (John 12:6). Truth is not a confession of certain beliefs but rather Truth is God, and we know Truth only through relation with Truth. Christ called us to a full relationship. Christ did not merely call us to believe certain things. Relationship can never be captured in its fullness by a listing of beliefs—a listing of beliefs about marriage is not and cannot be, for example, the same thing as marriage. To understand Church primarily as a set of beliefs about God is to fundamentally misunderstand the Church. Church is a community of humanity united with God. Thus minimalism starts its basic understanding of Church on a false premise. It is only because of the Church’s relationship with God that she can proclaim doctrine to defend the faith. This is different from proclaiming doctrine to define fully what the faith is—the faith, in a way like marriage, is ultimately a mystery beyond our understanding and ability to define. Try, for example, to define marriage so completely that the definition gets at and includes every aspect of a marriage relationship. Thus when the Church is viewed as primarily as doctrine, instead of relationship with God, human logic becomes more important than God’s mystery and we start playing theology. The Church’s doctrine is not and cannot be a total delineation of the faith. Rather it is a partial defense of the already existing reality of the Church’s relationship with God.

The third response to the various denominations is perhaps best described by the term wholeness. In this view, the Church is that which has the whole relationship with Jesus Christ. This whole relationship is ultimately beyond our definition. It is a mystery which we understand only through a cloudy glass. Hence there is no actual definition of what Church is, rather there are simply comparisons to get at as much of the meaning as we can understand.

Jesus called us to intimate relationship with Himself and Scripture refers to the Church as the Body of Christ. Where there is unity with Christ there is the Church. The Church, because she is Christ’s body, can never be separated from Christ. One is united with Christ by being part of His body—the Church is communal in nature, not individualistic. The Church is a living relationship with Christ where each member of the body is interacting and interdependent with the other parts of the body. If one part is ill, it impacts on the other parts—see I Cor. 12:26.

In the Church God indwells with humanity so that humanity might become god. We are, in the Church, made whole, complete, and perfect. We are a new creation. Taken as a whole, the Body is united with Christ and because Christ is holy, pure and spotless, so also is the Church. Her individual members are on the path of holiness and salvation is a process; therefore individuals will have to struggle against sin, but hell will not prevail against them—they will be united with Christ and made pure, holy, and spotless. Hence the Church is the pure and spotless bride of Christ and not primarily a body by heresies distressed.

This Church is identifiable in earthly time and space because she possesses one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and shares the one Communion—the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. Because Christ cannot be divided there can be no division in His Body the Church. Neither can there be different and contradictory doctrines. Christ would not lie to the Church and the Holy Spirit leads us to all Truth. Thus in the Church one finds unity in faith—a unity preserved by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. The Church is infallible because the Holy Spirit who dwells in the Church is infallible. An individual member of the Church, however, is not infallible.

One can identify and point to the Church where one finds the same fullness of the faith and practice of the apostles—the wholeness of relationship with Jesus Christ. The faith and practice of the Church, her relationship with Jesus Christ, simply do not change.

Ultimately it is up to God to make someone a member of His Body. Hence there are probably people not associated with the external aspects of Church who will be saved, that is, they will be united, made part of, Christ’s Body. Hence we can say that outside the Church there is no salvation. Similarly there are those who go through all the motions of Church but will not be saved. It is not for us to decide who is and who is not part of Christ’s body.

We cannot say someone is saved (going to go to heaven), but we can say someone holds the fullness of the faith and practice of the apostles. That someone is, of course, Orthodox. There are others who do not hold the fullness of the faith, and therefore they are not Orthodox. This fullness of faith includes not only dogma but faith and practice. When one holds the fullness of faith and practice then one shares the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ in the Mystery of Communion.

Those who do not hold the faith are more or less distant from the Church as that Church is seen and locatable in this world. The divisions of the denominations are the result of their leaving the fullness of the faith—a leaving ultimately caused by evil. We are warned of this in Holy Scripture.

Indeed, our Lord Jesus Christ founded the one Church. It is this one Church which preserves, by the grace of the Holy Spirit, the Faith once delivered to the saints. There is and can only be one True Faith—that revealed to the Church by the Lord Jesus. Jesus warns us about false faiths and warns us to be faithful to the True Faith received from Him and passed on in its fullness by the apostles whether in word or in writing. Because of her unity with Jesus Christ and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit the Church rejects false teaching and embraces the Truth

The Church, therefore, is and can only be fully united and in agreement about what the faith is. Doctrinal unity in the faith is a necessary aspect, a sine qua non, of Church. Those who do not hold the fullness of the faith are simply not viewed as Church—though the Church does not pass judgment upon their salvation. Where questions arise (e.g. iconoclasm, Arianism, &c.) it is the one Church, acting conciliarly under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, which is led to the Truth. Hence a decision of an ecumenical council is not considered true until the Church accepts it.

The Nicene Creed, proclaimed by ecumenical council and accepted by the Church, describes the Church as one, holy, catholic, and apostolic. Her faith and practice come from the Lord and His apostles. Part of this faith is the Church’s understanding of what it means to share Communion—the Body and Blood of Her Lord. Receiving Communion is unity with Christ—a unity more intimate than even monogamous sexual unity shared between man and wife. To be united with Christ is, of course, to accept and be united with the fullness of His Revelation—to accept the faith once delivered to the saints and to reject false teaching. Therefore, only when there is this agreement on the faith, can we share Holy Communion. Sharing Communion is ultimate unity with Christ and unity with all the members of His Body. For this reason the Church does not admit to Communion those who do not share the faith—she denies communion to heretics. This is part of the faith and practice of the undivided Church, and it is not open for debate. The same councils that proclaimed the Nicene/ Constantinopolitan Creed excommunicated heretics who rejected the faith expressed therein (e.g. Second Ecumenical Council, Canon 1). The Body and Blood of Christ is shed for the life of the world but is given only to those who are united with the Church. By not giving Communion to heretics the Church preserves the fullness and unity of the faith and makes abundantly clear what that faith is. She also preserves the health of the body and saves the heretic from doing something that is dangerous for his/her soul. Holy Communion is fire that burns the unworthy. In Communion we are fully united with God. Remember that no one has seen God and lived—here we receive God! St. Paul warns us that those who eat and drink but do not discern the Body and Blood bring judgement and even death upon themselves (I Corinthians).

Where the bishop is there is the Church because the bishop teaches the fullness of the apostolic faith (or he is not a bishop) and celebrates the Eucharist. Because of her unity in faith and hence her unity in Eucharist, the Church is and can only be united—she is utterly indivisible! Schism is separation from the Church; a leaving, a moving away from the faith and hence the eucharistic union of the identifiable community which is the Church. Schism is never a division within the Church. When receiving Communion one is fully united with the entire Body of Christ, both on earth and in heaven; hence one is united with, for example, the present Patriarchs of Moscow, Antioch, and Constantinople and also with Sts. Peter, Paul, Basil, Patrick, Katherine, and, of course, the Virgin Mary. The true unity of the Church, therefore, is found in her receiving and sharing in the one Body of Jesus Christ.

Because sharing Communion requires sharing the same faith, it is not possible to be an Orthodox Christian and share Communion with non-Orthodox. This does not mean we do not love the non-Orthodox, that we don’t have things in common with them, or that we think we are better than they are (after all, they might be saved and we might not be—that is up to God). However, for Orthodox, to share Communion with non-Orthodox would be a rejection of their Orthodox faith—the fullness of the revelation is an all or nothing proposition. Reject the Church’s understanding of Eucharist and sharing Communion, and you reject the Church!

While ecclesiology may seem foreign and abstract, it impacts upon how we live our Christian life. Our understanding of the Church is grounded in our understanding of who Jesus Christ is. While there are three basic ways to view the Church, the first two, nihilism and minimalism are filled with problems and are in error. While the Church is ultimately a mystery beyond our understanding, the only Orthodox approach to understanding her is to approach her as wholeness, that is, the whole and complete revelation of God which calls us into union with Him who is forever and ever, the Alpha and the Omega.

(Source: http://www.oodegr.com/english/ekklisia/ecclesiology1.htm)

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