Over at The Gospel Coalition, they did an interview with Gregg Allison over the challenges of writing a contemporary theology, specifically on the doctrine of the church (lower ‘c’ intentional). He points out that among evangelicals there are a wide variety of beliefs on how the church should function and look, which makes a contemporary theology over the issue quite a challenge. But the challenge, in my mind, undermines evangelical ecclesiology and not only makes the task of defining an evangelical church difficult, but proves it is ultimately impossible. The reason is that a contemporary theology of the church is impossible simply because we refuse to look at the ancient theology of the Church.
When Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the Whittenburg door, a lot of his grievances stemmed from the authority of the Roman Pope. This, of course, was not the first time in history that the authority given to the Roman Pope caused problems in Christendom. Prior to Luther’s call for reform (and subsequent excommunication), the Western Church had endured some of the most corrupt and violent popes in history. Even prior to the corruption, one of the driving factors in the Great Schism was the great authority the West was giving to the Roman Pope; at the time, there was a Pope of Constantinople, Jerusalem, Alexandria, Antioch, and Rome. Due to the collapse of the Roman government in the West, the Pope in Rome (or archbishop) gained quite a bit of political authority. While he was always viewed as the “first among equals” by the Church in the East, those in the West began to see him as having more authority than the popes in the East. Thus, while not the sole contributor to the Great Schism, the authority given to the Pope was a driving factor in the split, much like it was in the Reformation.
The problem with the Protestant Reformation, however, isn’t that it rejected the level of authority given to the Pope, but instead that it ultimately elevated every man to the office of the Pope. Prior to the Reformation, the Bible was often interpreted by Bishops, Cardinals, and ultimately the Pope. He held (and still holds) the power to declare an interpretation or teaching ex cathedra (“from the chair”). While this power was no more than implied prior to the First Vatican Council, it still carried quite a bit of weight; the Pope’s view of how a passage should be interpreted often influenced everyone else’s view. The Reformation didn’t remove the Pope from their hermeneutic, they simply made every man a pope. Thus, John may interpret a passage one way while Peter interprets it another and the entire time both are left to argue endlessly without having an actual way to solve their differences.
The Reformations failure to eradicate the office of the Papacy (as it was known) and instead transfer its authority to the common man is what led to thousands of denominations. Seemingly small differences became massive when mixed with the pride of a self-interpretation. It wasn’t a matter of discovering the truth, but instead it became a matter of declaring x to be true, that we are the keepers of it, and all others are wrong. It gave every layman the ability to declare his interpretation ex cathedra, to say that the Holy Spirit had revealed the interpretation to him. Any attempts to refer to Tradition or how Christians had typically interpreted the passage were (and are) put on the back-burner or outright ridiculed as Papist.
Thus, today’s evangelical church is no real doctrine of ecclesiology because there is no authority to say what a church is. First Baptist downtown and Random Road Baptist Church may be in the same city, may only be a few miles apart, and may be a part of the same convention, but the two churches are most likely divided and not truly unified. One church may be more Reformed while the other more charismatic. One may have elders while the other has deacons. One might have women on staff while the other views this as going against the Bible. The variances between the two churches are so great, so divided, that it’s hard to believe they belong to the same denomination. In short, it is impossible to write about an evangelical ecclesiology, which is exactly what Allison admits.
However, this should not be a minor point. We cannot say, “Well, you can’t really write about an evangelical ecclesiology, so I’ll write about it from my perspective; as long as we agree on the important things.” The New Testament makes the doctrine of the Church (uppercase intentional) one of the central components in its teaching. While every Christian agrees that the Incarnation and Trinity come before the Church as a doctrine, the majority of the teachings in the New Testament concern dealings with and within the Church. In fact, one could easily argue that the New Testament wasn’t writing about personal betterment or salvation, but instead was writing to the churches on how to work all of this out together. In other words, the focus of the evangelical doctrine is on the Bible first and everything else second, but the focus of the Bible (specifically the New Testament) is first on God and secondly on His Church. Such a focus was reflected in early Christian writings.
If one were to pick up the earliest of Christian writers – Sts. Clement of Rome, Ignatius, Polycarp, and Barnabas – one would quickly see the focus is on the authority of those in the Church. St. Clement, the Bishop of Rome, wrote to the Corinth church encouraging them to listen to those in authority. St. Ignatius, a disciple of the Apostle John, wrote 7 letters, 6 of them to churches (one to St. Polycarp), and in all of them he demanded they follow the authority of their bishops. St. Polycarp even recounts and talks about the authority of having a bishop.
Now, all of these men knew the apostles (Sts. Ignatius and Polycarp learned under the Apostle John while St. Clement of Rome most likely knew Peter, as well as other Apostles). They knew the men who wrote the New Testament. Yet, ingrained in all their writings is the centrality of the Church and the authority of the Church over the believer. Not the authority of one man over the Church (such as the case with the Pope) nor the authority of all men over the Church (such as the case with evangelicals), but instead the centrality of the Church as a whole. The reason for this is that God, being one yet three, called His Church to reflect who He is. Thus, the Church was established to have different persons in it, but to also be unified. That unification came through common beliefs upheld by those in the highest authority over the Church; they were to be the auxiliaries of doctrine, the protectors of all that is true. Those within the Church were free to research as well, but ultimately they had an authority to rest upon.
That a top evangelical scholar would acknowledge that it is impossible to write a doctrine of evangelical ecclesiology should be a major ref flag for evangelicals. Sadly, however, it is not because evangelicals have forgotten the importance of the Church or at least downplayed it in order to justify a schism. Instead, I would encourage evangelicals to look at the Church as the first century Church did, not as something we attend or some loose conglomeration of people with kind of similar beliefs, but as an actual unified body that binds and ties all believers together. Such a view would necessitate a drastic change in how we think and approach many of our doctrinal issues, but perhaps it is needed, perhaps it is high time we reform the Reformation. Maybe it’s not that we need a contemporary theology, but instead that we need an ancient one; we don’t need to speak in our modern world, instead we need to listen to the ancient world.