Gregg R. Allison
Wheaton: Crossway, 2021
The author of this relatively brief introduction to the church is Gregg R. Allison, professor of Christian Theology at Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. Allison is also the author of a longer, more theological treatment of the subject entitled Sojourners and Strangers: The Doctrine of the Church. I recommend the latter (471 pages) for those who want to go deeper in their study of ecclesiology, but the former (164 pages) for the majority of Christians who just want to understand the basics of ecclesiology from a biblical, theological, historical, and practical standpoint.
In this book Allison often uses the terms “mere ecclesiology” and “more ecclesiology.” When he speaks of “mere ecclesiology”, he’s using “mere” as C.S. Lewis did in his famous book Mere Christianity, i.e. the truths regarding the church of Jesus Christ that are common to all branches of Christianity. When he speaks of “more ecclesiology” he means the differences in ecclesiology of various churches – Catholic, Lutheran, Baptist, etc.
Both of these vantage points are important because Christians need a knowledge of the ecclesiology of their own church or denomination, as well as a knowledge of the ecclesiology of the greater church of Jesus Christ in its different historical and cultural forms. For me as a volunteer nursing chaplain who ministers to Christians from various church backgrounds, this dual approach (mere and more) is especially helpful.
The author develops each chapter in the same way – The Identity of the Church (mere and more), The Leadership of the Church (mere and more), The Government of the Church (mere and more), The Ordinances or Sacraments of the Church (mere and more), The Ministries of the Church (mere and more), as well as The Future of Church (mere and more).
The author’s conclusion will help you to better understand his approach:
We know the church.
From the perspective of “mere ecclesiology”, we know the common ground shared by most churches throughout history. This is the essence, or core, of the church’s identity, leadership, government, ordinances or sacraments, ministries, and future. We celebrate together these commonalities. When we visit churches other than our own, we sense deep bonds of solidarity. We perceive that we are with God’s people, the body of Christ, and the temple of the Holy Spirit. We confess together that the church is one, holy, catholic, and apostolic. We feel at home as we worship with, nurture, and reach out with our brothers and sisters. We rejoice when someone is baptized with water in the name of the triune God. And we proclaim with bread and wine (or grape juice) the very basis for our gatherings: the gospel of Jesus Christ.
From the perspective of “more ecclesiology”, we know the particular expression of the church in which we are members. Our leaders may be bishops, elders, pastors, overseers, or some combination of these officers. They may be men only or both men and women. Our servant-leaders may be deacons only or both deacons and deaconesses. Our church’s polity may be three tiered or two tiered, and our congregational members may have little authority or substantial authority in church matters. Infants may be baptized, infants and adults may be baptized, or only adults may be baptized. The quantity of water used may be sparse or significant. Our church may administer the Lord’s Supper or the Eucharist or Communion or breaking of bread. The rite’s relationship to the presence of Christ may be front and center of that celebration or not of importance. While our church believes strongly and practices its positions with conviction, it is also aware that these divergences can be stumbling blocks both to church members and to people outside the church.
Importantly, our church longs for the return of Christ, when all such divisions will be removed and will yield to unity. Then the church – ours along with other churches – will be “the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband,” the Lord Jesus Christ (Rev. 21:2).
Until that glorious day, “the Spirit and the Bride say, ‘Come.’” (Rev. 22:17.)