In one respect, debates over ecclesiology and church polity are all-important, but in another respect, pretty unimportant. Is that contradictory? No. It depends on the frame of reference. In comparing Roman Catholicism (and to a great extent Eastern Orthodoxy) to Protestant polity, the issue is all-important. That's because the Roman polity is a rule of faith in itself. Rome requires an authoritarian church to underwrite dogmas and duties that have no basis in revelation. Indeed, dogmas and duties which often contradict and contradict revelation.
But when it comes to comparing Lutheran, Anglican, Baptist, or Presbyterian polity (to take a few examples), there's nothing much at stake. At that level, what matters is not what your church polity is, but what your church polity does. What does it have to show for itself? Not polity in theory, but polity in practice. Is it fruitless or fruitful? That's really all that counts.
11:30 AM I see that yet another book on New Testament ecclesiology is about to be published. I'm all for that. Every tradition of the church needs to be tested by every new generation of Christians. Does this mean that your church, or mine, can go back to the beginning and start all over again, ab initio? Hardly. Truth always comes to us in vessels of clay. That's why, regardless of what our convictions are on "how to do church the right way" (and I have some very strong convictions, as you know), the structures themselves will always be relative. Some will scrap the institutional church completely. (I did this back in the 60s when I was part of the Jesus Movement.) Others will seek renewal within their churches. (This is my current stance on the matter.) But the tabula rasa approach is, in my view, utterly unrealistic. Christians can never build a new church from scratch, no matter how hard they try and regardless of how many times they assert that they are following "the" New Testament pattern. Right structure does not always result in proper functioning. "Simple" churches can easily turn inward, relativizing the importance of the Great Commission. Worse, they can become lifted up with pride, belittling the institutionality of the church. I'm reminded of the old German saw, "Operation glänzend gelungen. Patient leider tot." There is no reason why churches of the Reformation should not be open to the possibility of rethinking the wineskins that Jesus talked about so much. My own local church has made tremendous strides in recent years to adopt what we consider to be a more biblical form of church structure and practice. But that's not the real issue. By their fruits we will know whether a congregation is practicing the Gospel. The crisis in world missions today is not due to faulty structures alone. Rather, what lies at the root of the trouble is confusion about our priorities.
The Lord has much to say to us today. "He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches" (Rev. 2:7). Does my heart respond, "Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening"? Does your heart respond like that? We Christians ought to be setting the world on fire. Alas, it's so easy to go from fire to frost, and one of the easiest ways to do this is to pat ourselves on the back over our ecclesiology.
[Tuesday, November 25]