Saturday, January 22, 2011

Images of the Church

I've recently been reading a bit about the nature of church, and especially John Owen on the subject, and one of the things that strikes me is that Owen consistently relies on imagery to describe the church which doesn't show up much in contemporary discussion.  For Owen, the church is primarily a society.  His discussion of it revolves around the idea of a well-ordered society, and therefore around the appointment and function of officers within the church.  There is more, and every-member ministry is there in the margins, but the main imagery is drawn from the state and civil society.  By contrast, I would think that the most regularly recurring image used for the church in contemporary literature is the family.  The emphasis is therefore much more on relationship.

It is not hard to see historical causes for these differences.  Owen was writing against the backdrop of the Civil War, the Protectorate, and the Stuart Restoration (he would have loved the Glorious Revolution, but skipped it and went straight for the Glory).  All the big questions of the day were about the ordering of civil society, the roles of magistrates, the constraints placed on rulers.  And Owen was in the thick of all that.  By contrast, such questions bore us today, but family life is very much out of the category of 'taken for granted', where it was when Owen wrote.  Perhaps because, as a society, we're less secure in natural family life, the image becomes particularly powerful for us in relation to the church.

Of course, both images (and a host of others) are found in Scripture.  The idea of the church as polis is there in the background to Philippians, for example, whilst the idea of family functions very strongly in Galatians.  (Actually both images are in both letters, and are generally intertwined throughout the NT).  The question that stands out in my mind is: what do we miss when we pursue this image of the church over all others?  I can see what Owen missed when he pursued his image, but that is one of the wonders of hindsight.  I wonder whether we end up giving in to our culture's general hostility or indifference to structure, using the language of relationships to justify our neglect of the Scriptural representation of this side of church life.  And, as I look at Owen and wonder whether his one-sided use of imagery led to a damaging clericalism,  I wonder what damage our neglect will do us in the long term.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011


Some thoughts on the church which I initially expressed on FB, but which I feel need some further work...

Free Church ecclesiology is based on the development of three doctrinal presuppositions.

Firstly, the Scripture principle.  In the realm of ecclesiology, the Scripture principle is taken to imply that there is a particular model for the organisation, government, and communal life of the church given in Scripture.  This model, because it is Scriptural, is authoritative (mutatis mutandis, the church today should strive to be like the church then; some would omit the mutatis mutandis), sufficient (there is no need to look elsewhere for manuals of church order), and clear (the model is expressed simply and is easily understood).  The particular model that we see in Scripture is church government by Elders and Deacons based in a local congregation, which is organised so as to express familial care and encourage gospel growth.

Secondly, the active rule of Christ by word and Spirit.  Of course, every Christian accepts this presupposition.  However, in Free Church ecclesiology it is developed in a particular direction.  There is a tendency to reject any position of authority which is not based on the ministry of the word.  Ministers are Christ's servants (again, Christians would universally accept this), but concretely that means that their authority is not their own; it comes through their service of the word.  The authority of church leaders is the authority of the word; no exercise of authority which is not ministry of the word can be legitimate church leadership.  A further implication is what might look like democratisation to the watching world, but is in fact an affirmation of Divine Monarchy.  In other words, decisions are made by the congregation, under the guidance of the Elders, with the awareness that Christ is present and is exercising his rule.  This also counts against complex structures in the church, and Free Church polity can look chaotic from the outside (and the inside!) - but it is based on the presupposition that Christ is actually ruling, and does not surrender his throne to, or share it with, any other human being.

Thirdly, the relationship between the invisible, catholic Church and the particular, local church.  In essence, the former is thought of as manifested in the latter.  Consequently, no room is found for structures over and above the local congregation.  Such structures would either be attempting to manifest an 'interim layer' - not the catholic Church nor the local church - which would therefore be denying the identity between the one and the other; or they would be seeking to express the catholic Church visibly, which would be simple imperialism.

The more I think about it, the more these three principles and their implications boil down to one thing: Christ rules his Church, and therefore nobody else does.  Of course, every Christian accepts, at least in principle, the first clause; the second is the particular genius of the Free Churches.