Evangelical ecclesiology

Posted on January 13, 2008

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Andy has asked in a comment on the previous post about a lack of ecclesiology in Evangelical theology. This bears some reflection. Historically, one of the decisive early decisions that made Evangelicalism a distinctive movement was a refusal to let ecclesiological differences divide it. For some (Whitefield, e.g.), this meant ecclesiology was totally unimportant; for others it remained really very important, but they would work across the boundaries nevertheless (John Wesley agonised over whether he could ordain preachers for the American mission, despite not being in episcopal orders; he eventually decided to take this step, horrifying his brother Charles–who left some manuscript verses about the decision, including the lines: ‘The pious Mantle o’er his Dotage spread, / With silent tears his shameful Fall deplore, / And let him sink, forgot, among the dead / And mention his unhappy name no more’–fairly vitriolic things to say about your own brother!)
This has been a continual tension in British Evangelicalism: when Bible Society was founded, it nearly fell apart because some Baptists wanted to insist that baptizo be translated ‘immerse’ in all its publications. Around the same time, the rise of the Brethren movement linked Scriptural faith to particular ecclesiological stances, notably separation. More recently, the debate between Lloyd-Jones and Stott over whether Evangelicals should come out of the historical denominations still reverberates. (Although the folk-memories often enough bear little resemblance to what actually went on in October 1966, judging by the historical reports that are available.)

The decision to put ecclesiological matters to one side in order to concentrate on shared missional commitments has, regularly, drifted into a suggestion that ecclesiological matters are not important (see my essay in the Cambridge Companion to Evangelical Theology for some instances); but it need not. Evangelicalism is not, however, a denomination, marked by a shared ecclesiological position. I suspect that most developed Baptist ecclesiologies are, as it happens, Evangelical, and a few years back Tim Bradshaw could develop a specifically Evangelical Anglican ecclesiology in The Olive Branch, but in both cases the denomimnational qualifiers are rather decisive.

On this basis, I suspect that there isn’t such a thing as ‘evangelical ecclesiology’, but this does not necessarily mean that many or most Evangelicals are not ecclesiologically interested or concerned.

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