What does ecclesiology mean? What does it include and what does it not include? Why should I (or you) care?
In the simplest of terms, ecclesiology is the study of the church.
But, if you are like me, this definition is not satisfactory. First, what does “church” mean? And second, what exactly does it mean to “study” the church? The way a person answers these two questions will direct what the outcome of their ecclesiology will be.
For example, if you peruse any dictionary (or do an online search), you’ll find many different definitions of the word church. Some of the definitions will be related to one another, and some of the definitions will be drastically different. The definition and designation used for the word “church” will certainly affect the outcome of any ecclesiology.
(I plan to write another post defining “church” soon. Since it will be a blog post, the definition will not be complete, but it will help my readers understand the direction of my own ecclesiology.)
Similarly, there are many ways to “study” the church. All studies begin with a set of sources, and the limitations or boundaries set around those sources will also affect the outcome of any ecclesiology. An ecclesiology that is built on the 66 books of the Old Testament and New Testament (Protestant canon) will look differently than one that is also formed from apochryphal or later Christian writings. Similarly, an ecclesiology that begins with the writings of the middle ages or the reformation will likewise be different than the others.
To add another “kink” in the ecclesiological plan, we should also recognize that even authors who use the same sources may end up with different ecclesiologies because of their interpretative presuppositions. (All of us bring presuppositions to any sources that we use in any study, including a study of the church.)
Finally, there is one other point that I need to make about ecclesiology. A person’s professed ecclesiology is often different from that person’s actual eccesiology. The best way to determine what someone actually believes about the church is to observe how they live as part of the church.
So, what about my own personal ecclesiology? Well, to begin, I believe that “church” (in Scripture) refers to a group of people (assembly, gathering). Specifically, the uses of “church” that I’m interested in refer to gatherings of God’s people (saints, believers, disciples, etc.).
Thus, my ecclesiology – a study of the church – would be a study of gatherings or groups of God’s people. Since I believe the church is people, then I also believe that a study of the church would be a study of the relationships between those people.
So, my ecclesiology would include a study of the relationships between God and his people, the relationships among God’s people, and the relationships between God’s people and those who are not God’s people.
Notice that this is delineation is different that what you would find in most ecclesiologies. Most jump right to functions, leadership, and activities. However, I believe that these can only be understood within the realm of relationships.
Also, the 66 books of the Old Testament and New Testament (primarily the New Testament) – the Protestant canon – form the sources for my ecclesiology. Other writings can be helpful in understanding how others interpreted the Scriptures, but I do not think they should be used as the primary sources. (By the way, this would include writings of philosophy, sociology, culture, etc. These can be helpful, but should not be the primary sources.)
I’ll write more about this later, but I thought this would be a good introduction to what I mean when I use the term “ecclesiology.”