I am convinced that one of the greatest theological deficits in American evangelicalism is ecclesiological. Ecclesiology is the study (ology) of the church (ecclesia). The very concept of church is God’s idea. God inspired apostles who wrote inspired texts to instruct local churches in matters of life together. Pastors are God’s idea. Deacons are God’s idea. The weekly assembly of Christians who take the Lord’s supper together is God’s idea. The New Testament is full of letters to the churches about the church. Ecclesiology, however, among other doctrines is uniquely susceptible to distortion and neglect especially among Christians who grew up in a cultural Christianity. Here are three pervasive influences that impact every individual’s understanding of the local church.
1.) We Are Influenced by Our Experiences in the Church
Whether you like it or not, you bring a lot of baggage to the doctrine of the church. You bring baggage because you have real personal experiences in local churches or with church people. Some of those experiences are bad. Some are good. Some are neutral. Whatever the case, you do not arrive to this discussion of ecclesiology with a blank slate. You come to this discussion already having experienced some version of what somebody called church. What you know about the office of “pastor” is deeply influenced by the pastors you have experienced. You may have watched them on T.V. or you may have had them over to your house, but your understanding of pastoral ministry has been shaped by your experience with pastors long before you ever gave yourself to any study of the pastoral epistles.
I was recently having a conversation with a long-time pastor of a Baptist church. I suggested the possibility of his church embracing elder leadership in his church. He said that he would be uncomfortable with that terminology and that his church would never go for it. It is interesting, however, that the word “pastor” does not occur even once in the English Standard Version of the Bible. The dominate terms for the office we call pastor are the terms “elder” and “overseer.” So why would this pastor and his congregation be so comfortable with one word that doesn’t occur in their English bibles, but not with other words for the same office that actually dominate the texts of Scripture? Experience and tradition often carry more authority than we realize. If its possible that our tradition influences the word we use for the pastoral office, isn’t it possible that we have let our experience and tradition overly influence how that office functions as well?
2.) We Are Influenced by the Culture Around Us
While our experiences shape our thinking, those individual experiences were guided and shaped by even broader movements. Cultural influence can be a difficult thing to recognize because we are so immersed in it. We are like fish so immersed in the waters of our culture that we don’t know we are wet. Church in every nation and generation will be impacted by the ever-encroaching influence of culture. Why is the Catholic church known as the Roman Catholic church? Why does the Catholic Church exist within a hierarchical structure with the Pope at the top? The Catholic Church was created and influenced by the Roman Empire, and thus its very structure was a familiar one to imperial Rome. But what about American evangelicalism? We are so immersed in ideals like consumerism, individualism, and capitalism, that we fail to recognize when we usher in these ideals into the fabric of church life. Church in every generation and nation will have cultural expression, but when the church and her mission gets redefined by cultural norms that contradict the biblical norms, we have a problem. Contextualization is dangerous when we embrace anti-biblical ideas and practices in order to draw people to the Bible’s message.
3.) We Are Influenced by the Sin Within Us
The most dominant negative influence in our lives is the sin within us. We cannot make any progress in the study of the church without first recognizing that its our own sin nature that creates the need for deep and careful study. Sin is not just the proclivity to do wrong things. Sin is the disposition which believes wrong things. More specifically, sin is the tendency to trust our own wisdom instead of God’s Word. Paul summarizes sin as the proclivity to suppress the truth (Rom 1:18). The people of Israel were repeatedly described as doing what was right in their own eyes (Judges 17:6). The proverbs teach, “The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but a wise man listens to advice” (Prov 12:15). This is what sin does. Man’s wisdom is elevated over God’s wisdom, and because we are infected with a sin nature, this can happen without us even knowing its happening. In fact, our tendency is to trust our own wisdom even when we have seemingly good intentions.
A lot of the worst ecclesiological practices that contradict God’s good design for the church actually came from Christians who wanted to reach more people for Christ. They sacrificed God’s commands and instructions, in order to accomplish God’s mission. Like Abraham sleeping with Hagar to accomplish God’s promises, Church leaders everywhere have gotten in bed with the culture in an effort to produce more children of the promise. Under the cover of good intentions, sin leads us to make up our own strategies for accomplishing God’s mission. But God desires our dependence and obedience more than he needs our ingenuity.
Every Christian, and especially ever aspiring pastor or church planter, needs to give themselves to the study of ecclesiology. The Christian life is a life by God’s design that is profoundly interconnected with the local church. Without understanding God’s plan for the local church, you will not understand God’s plan for the Christian life and mission. We will not understand these things intuitively and we will not maintain right perspectives passively. We must regularly put our beliefs, traditions, and practices on the table before the Lord and sift them through the teachings of Scripture.