We are familiar with the following sentiments: “I love Jesus, but I hate the church.” “I am not part of a local church because I am a member of the universal Church.” “The church is a burden to my spirituality.”
Something about these statements does not sound right. Something appears amiss. The problem is that each expression emphasizes the doctrine of salvation to the exclusion of the doctrine of the church.
We have also heard, “There is no salvation apart from or outside the church.” In this, we can appreciate the emphasis on the doctrine of the church, but we hear a muted word, if at all, about the doctrine of individual regeneration/conversion/being born again, viz. the doctrine of salvation.
There is something profoundly wrong, both theologically and practically, with putting these crucial doctrines in opposition to one another. (See EFCA Statement of Faith: Gospel, salvation, church)
Putting asunder what God has put together
Evangelicals have generally had a strong commitment to soteriology (the doctrine of salvation). This is evident in the numbers of ministries and resources that focus on evangelism. Though we are also committed to ecclesiology (the doctrine of the church), we have generally not exhibited a strong biblical awareness of the true nature of the church; we have displayed a weak commitment to it; and we have considered participation with others in the body of Christ to be optional.
While it is necessary and important to study these two doctrines separately for the sake of understanding, we cannot treat them as if there is no relationship between them. Both are grounded in the gospel of Jesus Christ and organically related to the whole of the Christian life. (See A Theology of the Church)
All who have been justified by God’s grace through faith alone in Christ alone are born again into a family, a new community, the body of Christ, the true Church. The gospel creates new life and the gospel creates the Church. These two aspects are really reflections of a similar organic reality. Spiritual birth, though it occurs individually, is into a family.
Similar to the two doctrines we are discussing, the true Church and the local church are also intimately connected but not one and the same.
The Bible speaks of the Church as the totality of all those united with Christ by faith, resulting in a new standing before God and a new relationship with one another. In this sense, Paul can say that “Christ loved the Church and gave Himself up for her” (Ephesians 5:25) and that Christ is the Savior of “the Church” (Ephesians 5:23; cf. also 1:22-23). We refer to this as the “true” Church, for it is a community ultimately known only to God, for only God can know the depths of the human heart.
The true Church ultimately finds expression in the local church, which is a visible community manifesting the true Church in the world. Here in this local network of relationships, the gospel is embodied in the world and worked out in our lives.
This community of Christians in the local church is a microcosm of the universal Church. In that sense, the local body is not simply a part of the whole, but a manifestation of the whole, encapsulating in itself its essential qualities as a community of believers redeemed by the blood of Christ. Paul can speak both of all Christians constituting the body of Christ (Ephesians 1:22-23) and of a local community as that same body (1 Corinthians 12:27).
The gospel creates the church, the church proclaims the gospel
God’s gospel is now embodied in the new community called the church. This means not only that the gospel creates the church, but also that the church proclaims the gospel. And the church proclaims the gospel not simply in what the church is called to do (cf. Article 8 of the EFCA Statement of Faith, “Christian Living”), but in what the church is. (Read the full Statement of Faith.)
The church is the centerpiece of God’s purposes for humanity. For the promise of the gospel is that God will redeem a people composed of those from every nation, tribe, people and language who will find their unity solely in their common relationship with Jesus Christ as they are united to Him by the Spirit (cf. Revelation 5:9; 7:9). And it is in the church that this people-to-come is now being made visible to the world.
In a sense, in the church the gospel message finds its initial realization. Paul in Ephesians 2:11-3:13 describes the creation of the one new humanity united in Christ as the purpose of God in all ages now revealed: “[God’s] intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according to His eternal purpose which He accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Ephesians 3:10-11; cf. Hebrews 12:18-24)
In this way, the church is the “first fruits” of what is to come. As one writer put it, “The church does communicate to the world what God plans to do, because it shows that God is beginning to do it.”1 In Christ a new age has dawned, and the church is to be an anticipatory presence of that new age and an initial signpost of its coming.
The church is not just the bearer of the message of reconciliation; the church is part of the message itself. The church’s existence as a community reconciled to God and to one another is what gives the message its credibility, for such a community is itself the manifestation of the gospel it proclaims. Jesus said as much. (See The Whole Point of the Good News.)
In speaking to the Father of His disciples in John 17, Jesus prayed, “I have given them the glory that you gave Me, that they may be one as we are one: I in them and you in Me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent Me and have loved them even as you have loved Me” (17:22-23, italics mine).
One way the gospel is to be declared to the world is through the loving unity of Christians.
The church is to be a provisional expression of that new humanity united in Christ, which God has graciously purposed to create for His own glory. So the church is missional in its very nature—who we are is an important part of our proclamation of the gospel to the world. For God’s gospel is embodied in this new community called the church.
Through the proclamation of the gospel, God creates His new community, comprised of individual Christians in a family. This is the doctrine of salvation.
This new community is not only the goal of gospel proclamation, but this community, in turn, proclaims the gospel through word and manifests the truth and reality of the gospel in life and ministry. This is the doctrine of the church.
God’s eternal goal for His redeemed people is realized in time, and some day in the future, this new community will experience fully “eternal blessedness and joy with the Lord in the new heaven and the new earth, to the praise of His glorious grace. Amen.”2
Questions for Study and Application
- What are some reasons evangelicals have generally been strong on the doctrine (and practice of) soteriology, but weak on the doctrine of ecclesiology?
- Why is it important to study these two doctrines separately? Why is it essential to understand them as part of an organic whole?
- Where do you need to grow in your theology and practice of these doctrines? What are the ways in which the church where you serve needs to grow? What are your plans to get there?
1 John Howard Yoder, The Royal Priesthood: Essays ecclesiastical and ecumenical, ed. Michael G. Cartwright (Scottdale, Pennsylvania: Herald Press, 1998), 126.
2 EFCA Statement of Faith, Article 10.
Greg Strand is EFCA director of biblical theology and credentialing, and he serves on the Board of Ministerial Standing as well as the Spiritual Heritage Committee. He and his family are members of Northfield (Minn.) EFC.