Friday, March 23, 2012

The Problem of Protestant Ecclesiology

I have read with interest and instruction some of the online writings of Daniel B. Wallace of Dallas Theological Seminary (even though I’m not a big fan of DTS). From elders to alcohol to head coverings, his writings have been first rate and challenging. So I was excited to see his entry into the blog world. One of his first posts is The Problem of Protestant Ecclesiology. For my Baptist readers, your first thought may be “Yes!” Certainly we have problems with Protestant ecclesiology. But be not deceived, as best I can tell, he lumps everyone who is not Catholic or Orthodox into this Protestant category – and Protestant problem.

The greatest immediate difficulty I have with the piece is the question “What is Protestant ecclesiology?” Most probably know that ecclesiology is the theological study concerning to the nature, structure and functions of a church. But there is not one monolithic Protestant ecclesiology. It varies from church to church and denomination to denomination. Wallace, who says, “I am unashamedly a Protestant” appears to greatly prefer Orthodox and Catholic ecclesiology. The blog post is challenging and offers a critique of “Protestant ecclesiology” that should be carefully considered. What can we glean from it to sharpen our thinking on ecclesiology? What are the bones we need to spit out? I find much on which to agree with Wallace. But I also find several lines of disagreement. In my response, I contrast Baptist ecclesiology with both Catholic/Orthodox ecclesiology and Protestant ecclesiology, though some Protestants have a congregational polity similar to that of many Baptists.

Lack of unity. “we can be more sensitive to...fellowship beyond our local church” “It doesn’t matter what Orthodox church or monastery I visit, I get the same...” Too often we glory in our lack of unity, taking pride in our stand for the truth. We should stand for the truth – and unity as well. No, we should not pretend. Our unity must be in spirit and in truth. Yes, “unity in falsehood is no unity at all.” But let us examine ourselves deeply and sincerely, to know whether our divisions that exist are solidly grounded in the truth as it is in God’s word rather than our opinions, preferences, misconceptions, petty jealousies, and self-interest. Congregational ecclesiology, autonomous governance, and independence should be followed, but void of the “me and my church” mentality so current in our age. Let love, fellowship and interdependence between the churches be seen. Before e-mail, Facebook, instant messages and smart phones, catch the vision of the band of brothers & sisters in Christ scattered across the Roman Empire who knew about one another, cared about one another, and who traveled & communicated in their limited ways in such a way that all men knew they were HIS disciples. Shame on us to withdraw into the coziness and familiarity of our local assemblies and never peer out to see our brothers and sisters.

Lack of history. “Church history for all too many evangelicals does not start until Luther pounded that impressive parchment on the Schlosskirche door.” Of necessity, the children of the Protestant Reformation have embraced a universal church idea for their identity and found their history in the post-Reformation. The greater body of Baptists has joined the Protestants in this, abandoning any thoughts of ancestors before the Reformation. “we dare not neglect the last twenty centuries unless we think that the Spirit has been sleeping all that time” I agree with Wallace and the Catholics that the Holy Spirit was not asleep from the first century till the Protestant Reformation, though I deny that either the Catholic Church or Orthodox Church are the church of the New Testament. They arrive too late and hardly resemble the kind of churches portrayed in the New Testament. If the Spirit was not asleep and Catholicism is not New Testament Christianity, to whom shall we look for ancestry, identity, history and tradition? Those bold dissenters who stood their ground and walked not in their ways. But weren’t there heretics and deceivers among them? Yes, but no less among Catholicism. Both must be judged in what we know of them by the Word of God. Many early “heretics” are judged by the words of their detractors rather than their own. And all “church fathers” claimed by Catholicism and Orthodoxy do not necessarily belong to them. Some of these “fathers” lived before Catholicism and Orthodoxy existed as distinct denominations.

Lack of accountability. “we can be more sensitive to the need for doctrinal and ethical accountability” Doctrinal and ethical accountability is sorely lacking, but why must we look for it in Roman Catholic (or Greek Orthodox) hierarchy? Can we not mend our ways, right our wrongs, and return to the doctrinal and ethical accountability of biblical times, which knows no ecclesiological structure in the nature and form of Catholicism. The Bible aside, why should we look to hierarchal structures, or claim their superiority in providing doctrinal and ethical accountability? What is more doctrinally diverse, biblically unsound, and unethical than Roman Catholicism? No doubt there is a somewhat consistent sound sent forth from Rome. However, has it not changed from century to century? From place to place? Mine the depths of the hearts of its people. Will we not find that the doctrines of individual members diverge by race, geography, social status, and other factors? American Catholic politicians are at once an example of both diversity of belief and lack of accountability. And need we mention recent priest sex scandals to completely blast the mirage of ethical accountability? Further, shall we not find some of the most biblically liberal denominations among the Protestants who govern through hierarchal means? If a local church goes astray, their influence will end not far beyond the church doors. When the top of an hierarchal denominational dam breaks, it carries most of its contents down the stream with it.

Lack of ecclesiology and lack of humility. “evangelical scholars have noted that the problem with Protestant ecclesiology is that there is no Protestant ecclesiology.” Here I don’t agree word for word, but the sad fact is that for too many, ecclesiology has been relegated to the theological corner, a minor matter that should be stored away lest it be found disagreeable. The replies to Wallace’s post suggest a number of Protestants, Baptists, and/or non-denominationals may be looking for “something more” and ready to gravitate toward the comfort of Orthodoxy or Catholicism. Regular perusal of Baptist discussions on the internet has awakened me to just how disconnected we Baptists have become from our moorings. Once Baptists and their ecclesiology seemed almost inseparable. No more. Coupled with this lack of knowledge is the lack of humility concerning it. “be more sensitive about the deficiencies in our own ecclesiology” We need a real sense of humility. Let us not be proud purveyors of knowledge God has revealed. While knowing there are deficiencies in the ecclesiological systems of others, let us be mindful of the inelegant deficiencies in our own. Do we understand what our ecclesiology is? Do you put it into practice? Alan Knox has well said, “A person’s professed ecclesiology is often different from that person’s actual ecclesiology. The best way to determine what someone actually believes about the church is to observe how they live as part of the church.”

What I disagree with most are the elevation of liturgy, the lust for hierarchy, and recognition of Catholicism & Orthodoxy as The Church, coupled with looking to their traditions for history, identity, faith, and practice. Some of these have already been addressed, so I will not cover the same ground again. “embrace some of the liturgy that has been used for centuries” Where is the “liturgy” of the Bible that looks like the liturgy of the Greek Orthodox Church? That case must be made before Bible-believers blindly follow and embrace it. To “get the same message, the same liturgy, the same sense of the ‘holy other’” may sound wonderful. Oh, that our churches did not have the confusion Wallace describes! Truly you don’t know what you’ll get when you show up at a church with “Baptist” on the door – clear and fundamental truth from the word of God or a freak show from the imaginations of men? We need to meditate on and apply Paul’s injunction – the same in all the churches. But getting the “same liturgy” and “same message” from church to church is not a virtue unless it is the same as the Bible’s liturgy and message!

Nearing his conclusion, Wallace writes, “The ideal church can’t exist.” Any assembly of sinful creatures will not be ideal. But far too many churches have no goal, no sights set to reach for an ideal church – even if they even think there is such a thing! The “ideal church” is the church relationships, nature, functions, faith, and practice of the churches of the New Testament. Sure, the New Testament churches were not literally pristine, because they were composed of redeemed sinful creatures too. But in the midst of it all there is an ideal picture of truth presented in God’s revelation. Our daily goal should be to be more and more like the churches of the New Testament. (Then we might be more “the same”.)

Wallace’s solutions fall into three categories: (1) be more sensitive about the deficiencies in our own ecclesiology; recognize that the two other branches of Christendom have done a better job in this area; (2) be more sensitive to the need for doctrinal and ethical accountability, fellowship beyond our local church, and ministry with others whose essentials but not necessarily particulars don’t line up with ours. (3) begin to listen again to the voice of the Spirit speaking through church fathers and embrace some of the liturgy that has been used for centuries.

My suggestions are: (1) be more sensitive to the deficiencies in our ecclesiology, and look to the word of God and the Spirit of God for illumination. Read what others have written. Charles Spurgeon once said, “It seems odd, that certain men who talk so much of what the Holy Spirit reveals to themselves, should think so little of what he has revealed to others.” All truth is God’s truth, so learn it where you find it. But don’t model your ecclesiology after “other branches of Christendom” whose ecclesiology is not modeled after New Testament ecclesiology. Search the scriptures whether these things are so. (2) be more sensitive to the need for doctrinal and ethical accountability, fellowship beyond our local church, and ministry with others. Look for New Testament models of doctrinal and ethical accountability. Add to your doctrine of church autonomy the New Testament examples of relational interdependence and fellowship between churches. Discard the “us four and no more” mentality to embrace God’s larger work that He is doing. Study and discern at what point and why the New Testament Christians divided. Ecclesiologically, embrace no more than God embraces, and reject none He receives. (3) begin to listen again to the voice of the Spirit speaking through church fathers. But find out who are “the church fathers.” And subject all they say to the mirror of God’s word. Paul and the Bereans would expect no less.

No, we should not neglect the last twenty centuries, or despise all that went before us – lest we imply that the Spirit was sleeping all that time. But, “it must all be subject to biblical authority.” I am compelled to reject some of Dan Wallace’s thesis because I do not see the biblical authority behind it.

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