Evangelical ecclesiology (2)

Posted on January 13, 2008

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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).

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