Evangelical ecclesiology (2)

Andy and Michael have raised an interesting issue in comments on this post. Andy had claimed that ‘evangelicalism has a weak ecclesiology’; Michael countered with ‘evangelicalism has a low ecclesiology’. I actually disagree with both, as will become clear.

Let me first make a distinction: a ‘low ecclesiology’ might mean a ‘low-church ecclesiology’, i.e., an eccelsiological position that tends to Presbyterian or Congregationalist polity, or it might mean a ‘low evaluation of ecclesiology’, i.e., an ecclesiological position that, whatever its account of ecclesiology, held the matter to be relatively unimportant in the scheme of theology. I take it from his post that Michael meant the latter, but the two must be distinguished: I, and many others, would identify with the ‘high chapel’ tradition which is low in the first sense but emphatically not in the second. (I’ve quoted Smyth elsewhere: ‘Is not the visible church of the New Testament with all the ordinances thereof the chief and principal part of the Gospel?’–is there, anywhere, a higher ecclesiology in the second sense?)

Now, what of the ecclesiology of Evangelicalism? Is it either ‘weak,’ or ‘low’ in the second sense? I contend that there are enough counter-examples to render either conclusion untenable. The Wesley brothers held a high ecclesiology in both senses of the word, as my previous post indicated; Edwards’ ecclesiology was low-church, but strongly held (he lost his ministry because he refused to compromise on questions of church membership and qualifications for communion). Whitefield, in complete contrast, did have a weak or low ecclesiology.

In the nineteenth century, many of the more radical Evangelicals had strongly-held, if low-church, ecclesiologies. Edward Irving and John Nelson Darby are obvious examples; Thomas Chalmers split the Kirk over questions of ecclesiology in 1843, which is hardly the action of someone careless of ecclesiological questions! Across the Atlantic, the anti-missions movement points to an astonishingly strong Baptist ecclesiology. I also think Spurgeon held to a strong ecclesiology, but recognise that this is more contentious…

In the twentieth century, Lloyd-Jones’ somewhat ill-tempered and unclear strictures in 1966 at least implied that he felt that ecclesiological questions were important; the Restorationist strand of the (British) charismatic movement was strongly committed to its distinctive ecclesiological positions. Today, look at something like 9Marks: there is an intense focus on certain ecclesiological positions, including accounts of the proper offices of the church and qualifications for ministry, as essential to the gospel. It happens that I disagree with at least some of the positions they urge on both points; their ecclesiology cannot be dismissed as ‘low’ or ‘weak’, however.

Of course, Whitefield too has his heirs, particularly in Britain amongst Anglican Evangelicals, but not exclusively. In the wider Evangelical world, The London Missionary Society forbade its missionaries from teaching on ecclesiological matters; the origins of the Salvationist repudiation of sacraments lies in a desire on Booth’s part to focus on gospel, rather than structures; and so on.

So, I do not think that ‘Evangelicalism’ has either a weak or a low ecclesiology; I would be prepared to accept that Anglican Evangelicals, after the Tracts for the Times, have found it impossible to hold to a strong ecclesiology, and that others have sometimes followed the same course; but there is no uniformity visible in the history that I know (mainly, British, I own). Evangelicalism as a whole has no distinctive or common ecclesiology (just as ‘Arminianism’ as a whole has no ecclesiology).


  1. Andy Goodliff
    Jan 13, 2008

    Steve, thanks for this, to follow up, and again I’m probably fumbling a little in the dark and hoping you might shed some light, but what is driving the ecclesiology in each of these circumstances – for example, is it evangelical theological commitments or is it baptist theological commitments – perhaps they can’t be separated; can you be baptist without being evangelical, or should all evangelicals be baptist? I guess related to this is from what point do we start doing theology from – scripture (evangelical) or from a more ecclesial place (e.g. baptist). Is there a danger in evangelical theology that we can come to scripture outside of the church? Often that is how I see evangelical theology being done.

  2. Steve H
    Jan 13, 2008

    Hi Andy, two comments:
    First, and this is more obvious in Scotland and Wales than England, ‘Evangelicalism’ means more than ‘Bible-believing’. Our Highlands and Islands have plenty of churches that are probably more ‘orthodox’ than the one I go to, but lack the missional intent that has always been a defining point of Evangelicalism (in Bebbington’s terms, ‘conversionist’ and ‘activist’ as well as ‘Biblicist’) (Side note: I suspect one of the problems I will find with Warner’s book when it arrives will be a lack of appreciation of this dynamic…)
    There have always been those in Evangelical history who have said ‘the Bible teaches this about ecclesiology; to be properly Evangelical you must follow.’ They generally do not focus on particular structures (9Marks are an exception here), but on other things–forbidding women a role in ministry the most common (and to me utterly incomprehensible on exegetical grounds) one. (Others that can be found are separation; baptism; and church discipline)
    Second, the answer to your question ‘what is driving…’ is surely complex; I bring a whole set of convictions, experiences, assumptions, … to my reading of Scripture, and I’m guided in that reading by choosing to rely on certain commentators and reference works. I also take with deep seriousness the fact that in ordination I vowed to uphold certain commitments. If I am honest, at any given moment, my ecclesiology–more so than any other part of my theology, perhaps–is something of a confused mishmash of all these colliding influences.

    There is certainly a rhetorical style in evangelical theology that pretends to nuda scriptura as a principle (even Barth was not immune–see the opening para. of my Listening to the Past). Poor popular Evangelical theology sometimes does seem to assume that the tradition can be ignored; there is much more that (like the Barth story) chooses to hide its indebtedness to the tradition behind a rhetorical style designed to make a point.
    The test is perhaps simple: are the conciliar Trinitarian and Christological decisions acknowledged and assumed? If so, the theology is ecclesial at some level; if not, there is a problem…

  3. michael
    Jan 13, 2008

    Thanks Steve.

    I guess I have heard the ‘weak ecclesiology’ put forward before to evangelicals and I think it needs challenging. The ability of evangelicals to unite accross denominational boundaries (hey – I am even MARRIED to a Baptist!) suggests that ecclesiology is simply less important – if by that we mean the usual denominational markers, I guess. Some kind of ecclesiology is necessary for orthodoxy of course!
    But when these denominational markers are beefed up, we strike trouble: I think in almost all of your examples of evangelicals emphasising ‘ecclesiology’ it was regrettable and/or embarassing. (What was Lloyd-Jones talking about? What are the 9 Marks guys talking about?) A call for renewed emphasis on ecclesiology usually means (for us Anglicans) a return to ecclesiastical haberdashery and fawning over bishops, which doesn’t look very evangelical to me. Perhaps it is easier for Baptists!

  4. Mike Bird
    Jan 14, 2008

    I often find myself confronted by those who say that “The problem with evangelicals is that they don’t have an ecclesiology”. To which my tongue in cheek reply is always: “The problem with evangelicals is that they don’t have your ecclesiology!” I tend to think that evangelicals have, rightly I would say, subordinated ecclesiology to understanding of the content and implication of the gospel. As a baptist I can heartily say that the church is foremost made up of the gospelized and only secondarily of the baptized!

  5. Steve H
    Jan 14, 2008

    Thanks, Michael.

    I suspect, as I hinted, that it is not so much ‘easier for Baptists’ as ‘harder for Anglicans’. In any tradition that does not have a ‘return to Rome’ wing (crudely put), one may cheerfully emphasise ecclesiology. As to whether respecting Bishops is ‘evangelical’ or not, Charles Wesley certainly thought it was! I suspect the answer lies in the extent to which you believe that ‘[i]t is evident to all men diligently reading H. Scripture that from the time of the apostles there have been these three orders of ministry in Christ’s church…’

    I would concur that my list was not necessarily a happy one, although it is perhaps too soon to dismiss 9Marks as a failure, and I tend to think that the stand of Chalmers and the other Fathers of the Free Church in 1843 was right and appropriate–and when reunion of sorts came two generations later, their stand changed the practices of the Kirk decisively.


  6. Steve H
    Jan 14, 2008

    Mike, welcome…

    I’m afraid I just disagree. I think there have been plenty of evangelicals with a very strong ecclesiology, who do not ‘subordinate’ it to very much at all. You or I might think they are wrong, but they are a part of Evangelical history and cannot be written out.

    Come to think of it, your current boss is another name for the list–Andy has always had a very strong respect for the ordinances of the church in my experience. (He once took me to task for talking of ‘leading’ communion instead of ‘celebrating’…)


  7. michael
    Jan 14, 2008

    As an aside, I met Andrew McGowan for the first time last week and he mentioned both of you gentleman in praiseworthy terms.

    Just thought you’d both like to know!

    Anglican evangelicals will always have to be pragmatic about church polity because they just have to recognise that their church polity is not given in the NT! But, I have to say, it is a pragmatism I enjoy. In fact, it is this pragmatism that I think IS given in the NT…

  8. Joseph
    Jul 7, 2008

    Hello to you all,

    I am a theology student in the Church of the Nazarene. I came across your blog whilst searching for anything on ‘evangelical ecclesiology’. This is an intriguing subject, and one of which I will be working on for the next few years (PhD thesis – John Wesley’s Ecclesiology: A Critical Approach). The idea spawned out of a couple of recent publications: Evangelical Ecclesiology: Reality or Illusion?, and, The Community of the Word: Toward an Evangelical Ecclesiology.

    After a bit of preliminary reading, I have to say that I agree with this blog author. ‘Evangelicalicalism as a whole has no distinctive or common ecclesiology.’ However, what I am proposing in my forthcoming thesis is that John Wesley held evangelicalism and ecclesiology in communion, as opposed to what has been said about George Whitefield, who believed ecclesiology was, ‘totally unimportant’.

    Thanks again for the topic and links to ideas.


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