evangelical ecclesiology

Mark Noll, the former Wheaton historian who is now teaching at Notre Dame, jokes that “The main difference between us and the Catholics is ecclesiology. They have one and we don’t.” There is a new book which seeks to remedy that, and I am so taken with it that I’ll be using it as a textbook in Systematic 3 (eschatology, ecclesiology, and soteriology) when class starts next month.

Here is why Brad Harper and Paul Louis Metzger’s Exploring Ecclesiology (Brazos Press) is a terrific fit for what I teach:

1. In Systematic 1 (prolegomena, God) we emphasize the communal, self-giving love of the Trinity. Harper and Metzger begin every doctrinal chapter from this foundation (they alternate chapters between theology and application).

2. Systematic 2 (humanity, sin, Jesus, and Holy Spirit) focuses on the Christian (Kuyperian) worldview. Harper and Metzger repeatedly reaffirm this perspective and inquire how this shapes a holistic ministry for a missional church.

3. The first day of Systematic 3 I explain the difference between covenant and dispensational theology and promise that this distinction will reappear in soteriology and ecclesiology. Harper and Metzger frequently explain that eschatology determines ecclesiology—that our level of optimism about the immediate future influences how we think the church should relate to culture (pessimistic dispies tend to withdraw from culture while covenant theologians typically seek to transform it).

I have been searching for a worthy evangelical ecclesiology, and am delighted that this one supplies an integrating capstone to the other subjects I teach.

I also just finished Kevin DeYoung and Ted Kluck’s Why We Love the Church (Moody), and heartily recommend it as the right antidote for the disturbing number of “I left the church to find Jesus” books. DeYoung and Kluck renewed my appreciation and love for the church, and I worshipped better today because of it.

I also note that my former student and friend of the blog Zach Bartels got a shout-out on p. 149-52. He and his church were profiled immediately after Chuck Colson, which will likely now appear on his resume. Use my blogroll to head over to Z’s blog and learn more about this “young, talented musician/pastor/scholar who could probably be somewhere else.”

I love it when Kevin rants, and I’ll end with his longest and best (p. 87-88):

“But then again, consistency is not a postmodern virtue. And nowhere is this more aptly displayed than in the barrage of criticisms leveled against the church. The church-is-lame crowd hates Constantine and notions of Christendom, but they want the church to be a patron of the arts, and run after-school programs, and bring the world together in peace and love. They bemoan the over-programmed church, but then think of a hundred complex, resource-hungry things the church should be doing. They don’t like the church because it is too hierarchical, but then hate it when it has poor leadership. They wish the church could be more diverse, but then leave to meet in a coffee shop with other well-educated thirtysomethings who are into film festivals, NPR, and carbon offsets. They want more of a family spirit, but too much family and they’ll complain that the church is ‘inbred.’ They want the church to know that its reputation with outsiders is terrible, but then are critical when the church is too concerned with appearances. They chide the church for not doing more to address social problems, but then complain when the church gets too political. They want church unity and decry all our denominations, but fail to see the irony in the fact that they have left to do their own thing because they can’t find a single church that can satisfy them. They are critical of the lack of community in the church, but then want services that allow for individualized worship experiences. They want leaders with vision, but don’t want anyone to tell them what to do or how to think. They want a church where the people really know each other and care for each other, but then they complain the church today is an isolated country club, only interested in catering to its own members. They want to be connected to history, but are sick of the same prayers and same style every week. They call for not judging ‘the spiritual path of other believers who are dedicated to pleasing God and blessing people,’ and then they blast the traditional church in the harshest, most unflattering terms.”






26 responses to “evangelical ecclesiology”

  1. Okay, I ordered the book for Sys III. I wish I could take the class again. This time maybe Iwouldn’t be called a knot-head or have chalk thrown at me.

  2. EXCELLENT quote from “Why We Love the Church.” An insightful and penetrating commentary on some ironic hypocrisy. And thanks for the promotion of “Exploring Ecclesiology”–I’ll pass the link to this blog entry onto the Brazos folks. 🙂

  3. These two men are a powerhouse writing team. I am definitely hoping they don’t stop at two. Why We’re Not Emergent is the kind of book that you wish you could memorize in order to spout back at critics of confessional/doctrinal/”traditional” Christiainity. Why We Love the Chuch is the kind of book that you want to read three times a year to remind you why you do what you do.

  4. mikewittmer


    You never were a knothead and legal counsel doesn’t allow us to throw chalk anymore, so you’d be safe.

  5. Brian McLaughlin

    Mike Wittmer is using a textbook that promotes the missional church and is endorsed by John Franke!?! Almost seems like Michigan’s global cooling is heading south – if you know what I mean.

    Your book recommendation also emphasizes the BEING of the church, which is a precedent to any organization or institution that comes from the church (it comes from the church because the church is first and foremost a people, certainly they organize themselves, but that is a secondary “mark.” A lot of people aren’t criticizing this church, they are criticizing the form the church takes sometimes).

    Good stuff!

  6. Jack H

    Mike and Chris

    Knot-heads and throwing chalk? After just teasing Bill N for his age, now I must confess that I know these practices originated way back when Joe Crawford was my systematics professor. Of course that was back in the days when erasable bond paper was cutting edge and the cold war had nothing to do with the environment.

  7. Tom Jesse

    Jack H

    I was there too. But it was Church History and Doctrine at the college level. And that shows my age!

  8. Jack H


    Okay, I’m in. My first car was a ’64 Ford Falcon with a two speed air-cooled automatic. I learned to drive before the energy crisis lowered speed limits to 55mph. When in seminary we were just being introduced to the writings of Ladd and Dispensationalism still ruled the day. Can you top that?

  9. mikewittmer


    I affirm most of what Franke affirms, but I also affirm what his group denies. There are a couple spots where I wrote “dangerous” in the margins, but I thought that the authors were aware of these dangers and remained faithful to the core of the gospel throughout.

  10. If Joe Crawford was into throwing chalk, he was in good company. Cornelius Van Til did the same…. Which proves chalk throwing is a hallmark of seminary professors that crosses theological lines. I don’t remember any of my Grace Seminary Profs ever throwing chalk, but then the Grace Brethern were historically pacifist in the anabaptist tradition…

    As to Jack’s comment regarding my age…. What goes around will come aorund. It’s all a matter of time… And Jack, I don’t know if Tom can top what you related but I can.. as in a ’52 Chevy… 😉

    More to the polint of Mike’s post: In Pilgrim’s Regress, C.S. Lewis spoke of “Mother Kirk” using the Scottish term for the Church. We in our Protestent heritage tend to shy away from speaking of the Church as our mother, but there is a truth in that conception that we, when we are honest with ourselves, can not be denied. And we don’t need to get bogged down in distingushing the Universal Church from her local manifestations to appreciate that. I have not read either of the books mentioned. Sounds like I need to keep an eye out for them the next time I visit the bookstore… In the meantime, “Hey Bubba! Carefull what you say about my mother!”


  11. Mike,

    The Kevin DeYoung rant… you like it, but it’s certainly neither helpful nor good scholarship. Perhaps it makes one feel good when reading it, but. It’s simply singing to the masses that agree with his perspective.

    While those who love the church dislike that so many ‘Why I left the church” sort of books are being written, the fact that the ‘mothers’ of our country are bleeding to death seems not to be of serious concern. The answer is to blame those who have left, those who think differently, and those who push against the status quo, and then hunker down for battle as if better preaching and better theologians will fix it all.

    Speaking honestly into culture, dealing with real issues that face everyday people, and reimagining the kingdom for our current reality seem to scare the establishment to the point of appreciating rants that do nothing to honor our Creator nor honor our ‘mother.’

  12. Jack H

    Bill N.

    I actually had the opportunity to hear Cornelius Van Til present a summertime quest lecture at GR Baptist Seminary around 1980-81. It was one of those moments you just do not want to pass on. I suppose that dates me as well.

  13. Randy,

    I think exposing the hypocrisy of those who seek to redfine the church according to their own preconceived ideas rather than according to Scripture is both helpful and honoring to God. If Christ is indeed building His church as the Spirit brings people from every tongue, tribe and nation into His kingdom, then we should have the same mind about the Church as He does–and that is only possible if we let the Scripture define the Church for us.

    Harold Camping is the extreme, but I’m afraid that the language and practice of many “Emergents” with regard to the Church may be leading many down the slippery slope….


  14. Jason,

    What slippery slope? I once thought we lived on that slope thinking we may find our way outside of God’s grace, but then I started to realize that the biblical text doesn’t speak nor live on those terms. Rather, the Christ following life is built on a place that is precarious and often seems as if it is on a slippery slope, a dangerous place that is only safe because the Spirt indwells that space.

    From one who is no longer confident in the traditional evangelical church, being daring for the kingdom of God has more advantages than holding onto forms of evangelical protestantism that have very little wisdom to offer those living in 2010.

    Grace & Peace.

  15. Randy,

    The “slippery slope” that I mentioned is in reference to Camping’s teaching that there is no “church” any longer, that God has disbanded the entity called the Church; and my point is that much of the language in emerging circles seems eerily similar to Camping and can lead to dishonoring God by dishonoring the Church–which is the Body of Christ.

    I’m sorry, but I just can’t follow the rest of your post. I don’t know what your point is; but the “Christ following life” of the Scripture is not “built on a place that is precarious…” but on the Solid Rock (cornerstone) that is Christ Himself and upon the teaching (doctrine) of the Apostles. And the Scripture is always more than wise and relevant for those of us living in the 21st Century and beyond (if our Lord tarries).

    Sure the “church” must always be “growing in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ” so that we continue to understand what the church is (who we are) and what is our purpose…but God has established His church (not man) and God has defined the church (not man); and I don’t think the emerging movement honors our Lord when it treats His Body (the church) with disdain.


  16. Brian McLaughlin

    Jason & Randy,

    Randy, I agree with Jason that I’m not sure what you are saying. However, as is often the case, I think there is a middle road between the two of you.

    It is true that some speak of denying or abandoning the church. This is troublesome and unbiblical. However, when I read many emergents and most missional folks, when they make this claim, they are not speaking of the church as the body of Christ, they are speaking of the church as institution.

    This, in my opinion, is one of the most significant things that emergent/missional is bringing to the table. Christendom and the institutional church as we know it does not necessary equal the biblical church. First of all, the biblical church is the people of God – a people redeemed by Jesus Christ. Of course it is human nature that when people gathered together they organize themselves in some way, but there doesn’t seem to be a biblical precedent for HOW to organize (evidenced by the fact that there are 3 major divisions in Christianity and the Protestant division is divided into many different practical ecclesiologies, all claiming to be biblical. This is not a new issue). Furthermore, all we have to do is look at “church” in China etc to understand that it doesn’t have to be the American institutional to be church.

    So I’m with them when they claim that “church” does not equal the American evangelical institution (which often spends millions of dollars on itself and its buildings, focuses on programs, etc, etc). This is one of the weaknesses of the rant that started this discussion. Much of the criticism about “church” these days is of the institution, and a lot that criticism is legit (but often overdone).

    What we cannot criticize, however, is the church as the people of God. God has called a people to BE church, to gather as a community, and to be on God’s mission. The Bible also says that there are certain things that are beneficial for this people to do when gathered: pray, serve, fellowship, focus on God’s Word, etc. This church – the people of God – was built by Christ and is sustained by Christ. The manner in which some of the people of God organize themselves may or may not be in line with Christ’s desires.

  17. Brian,

    I appreciate the clarity of your post and I don’t see any area where I would necessarily disagree with you. But with regard to your statement, “This is one of the most significant things that emergent/missional (personally, I would not conflate the two) is bringing to the table” I would say “yes” and “no”.

    This is a little off the subject of “the rant”, but as much as you see the “significance” of the emergent polemic against the church (as beneficial), I see the danger…as when the emergents belittle the necessity of doctrinal clarity and speak negatively about the church “as an institution” to the point of suggesting that it is only by leaving “the church” that we effectively become “the church”. To me this is dangerously close to suggesting, as Camping does, that there is no true church in the world (or, maybe just in America).

    The church is, as you say, the “people of God”. But it is the “people of God” as they are the community of the saints, citizens of the Kingdom, the children of God united by the same Spirit who has joined us, as individuals, to Christ to form His Body, the “house” or “temple” of God in the Spirit. But because of the emergents’ stance against doctrinal formulations (which is the bedrock of the building of this…well…, “building” that is the church—Christ Himself being the Cornerstone and the teaching of Christ and the Apostles being the foundation upon which this “temple” is constructed), I believe they are complicit in this “anti-church” attitude that is so prevalent in our nation.

    Again, I agree with you in principle; but I think the emerging church is contributing to the problem more than they think.


  18. Brian McLaughlin


    You make several good points. You are right, the “missional” guys, in my opinion, are a lot firmer on the church and should not be confused with some of the “emergent” guys. Some of the emergents can be dangerous, I agree. I remember being very frustrated by a lot of the anecdotal comments found in Gibbs & Bolger’s Emerging Churches. So I’m with you there…

  19. Thanks, Mike, for the pointer to Harper and Metzger’s book. Will look forward to reading it. DeYoung and Kluck’s book really rocked my boat in not a few positive directions.

  20. mikewittmer


    I hear what you’re saying, but I wouldn’t want to separate the body of Christ from the institution that is the church. Certainly the institutional church has flaws, but regardless it remains the body of Christ. Even the church in China has instituted itself in various forms, though for the most part not as developed as ours.

    Barth’s words are humbling to me when he warns us to beware “ecclesiastical docetism.” He said that we don’t really love the body of Christ unless we love this particular one, institutional warts and all.

  21. Brian McLaughlin

    Mike – I appreciate the warning, but doesn’t there have to be some separation? Afterall, there is no standard way that the people of God organizes themselves (again, as evidenced by 2,000 years of church history). This is my point about the many ecclesiologies within the larger body of Christ, is one form of organization/institution biblical while the others are not? Roman Catholics say so, but I think most of us Protestants would say that the manner in which the people of God organize themselves is a secondary consideration to the fact that it is the people of God who are one, holy, catholic, and apostolic. Therefore, isn’t it okay to experiment/critique/etc with different forms of organization as long as the body remains the body?

    The point is, there is no biblically mandated form of organization/institution. That is why so many books (including the Noll quote you mention and the quotes from Stackhouse’s book on ecclesiology, which has the subtitle “reality or illusion”) acknowledge that evangelicals have no standard form of organization because biblically there isn’t one! It is also why you say that the people of God in China organize themselves differently than we do but it doesn’t bother you.

    So the debate is sometimes (not always as mentioned above) that when some criticize the institution, they are branded as “anti-church” which isn’t true. They are merely criticizing one particular form of organization/institution. A prime example is the missional church folks criticizing Christendom institutionalization. They are not anti-church, but they are against the manner in which the Christendom church has institutionalized itself. There is a significant difference there.

    To cite another example, is there anything inherently wrong with an American community wanting to become a house church community because they don’t like the institutional form of many American churches. Is this giving up on the church (the people of God)? I don’t see how it is…

  22. mikewittmer


    We agree that the institutional church may take many forms. My only point is that the church, in whatever form it organizes itself, is still the institutional church. And as Barth rightly reminded me, we must always be extremely careful when we criticize the body of Christ. Too many of the criticisms seem to be directed at more than the form but at church itself (at least the critics are not always careful to make the distinction).

  23. Mike,
    Then the real question becomes, “What is church?”

    ~ The Chinese church has been underground for nearly a century, and it has flourished more than our evangelical churches in America. Their form has been incredibly simple. While it has functioned as organization, it has thrived as organism.

    ~ The church in India is growing thru children’s Bible clubs that help kids learn to read. It’s simple Bible clubs and not denominational structures.

    ~ Regardless of the criticisms, the ‘people of God’ and ‘body of Christ’ are not quickly associated with ‘church’ these days. I dare suspect that most emergents want to be the people of God/body of Christ. They simply found it hard to find the life of Christ within the organizations.

    ~ If we are really honest, the politics squeeze life out of the institution much of the time. Honesty, integrity, trust in the Spirit all become secondary to forms, function, ordination, and donor base.

    If we are to honor the biblical text, is it fair to say that where two or three are gathered, the Spirit is present? In this case, those leaving big churches in favor of simple churches are equally honoring of the biblical text. (and thus Kevin’s rant is also way off base)


  24. […] Wittmer recently explained (see here) why he is going to use the book, Exploring Ecclesiology: An Evangelical and Ecumenical […]

  25. That is a brilliant rant at the end, thanks for sharing. I also liked the Mark Noll joke.

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