How do you decide how important a theological issue is? Does the mode of baptism warrant as much attention as the incarnation? Few would say so. But how do we know?
That’s the question Gregg Allison addresses at the beginning of his excellent book Strangers and Sojourners: The Doctrine of the Church, which I’ll be reviewing in full sometime soon. And although he argues that the doctrine of the church may not rate up there with things like the incarnation and the atonement, he still thinks it qualifies as a central theological issue. (Of course, since he just wrote an almost 500-page book on the subject, that really shouldn’t surprise us too much.)
The Doctrine of the Church and the Gospel
The thing I liked best about Allison’s response was his starting point: the gospel. According to Allison, the doctrine of the church is importance because the church is a vital part of the gospel.
As he explains:
If we were to engage in ‘theological triage’ so as to rank Christian doctrines in their order of importance, a strong case could be made for assigning the highest rankings to the doctrine of God and the doctrine of Scripture. Another categorization reckons ‘the three gigantic doctrines of atonement, incarnation, and Trinity’ as the most important because these and these alone are the ‘three great mysteries at the very heart of Christianity.’ Few, if any, would elevate ecclesiology to this first tier of doctrines….
And then he draws on the work of John Webster to explain that the church matters specifically because of its relationship to the gospel:
John Webster grounds the necessary character of the church in the gospel, explaining that ‘the existence of a new social order is a necessary implicate of the gospel of Jesus Christ’; hence the life of the Christian community is internal to the logic of the gospel [and not] simply accessory and accidental’. (John Webster, “On Evangelical Ecclesiology,” Ecclesiology 1/1 (2004): 9).
In other words, we can’t understand the gospel properly unless we understand that the good news is about more than my individual salvation, as important as that might be. The good news of the gospel includes within it the amazing fact that God is creating an entire people through whom he will manifest his glory forever. So if we fast forward to the end of the story, what do we see as the culmination of the good news in the book of Revelation? God dwelling with his people. Good news indeed.
The Doctrine of the Church and God
Allison quotes from another of Webster’s works to argue that the doctrine of the church is not only central to the gospel, but that we can’t even understand who God is without understanding the people he has called into being.
The revealed secret of God not only concerns the unfathomable majesty of God himself; it also concerns that human society which the triune God elects, sustains and perfects ‘to the praise of his glorious grace’ (Eph. 1.5). From this there emerge two fundamental principles for an evangelical ecclesiology. First, there can be no doctrine of God without a doctrine of the church, for according to the Christian confession God is the one who manifests who he is in the economy of his saving work in which he assembles a people for himself. Second there can be no doctrine of the church which is not wholly referred to the doctrine of God, in whose being and action alone the church has its being and action. (John Webster, Word and Church: Essays in Church Dogmatics (T&T Clark, 2001), p. 195).
4 More Reasons for the Importance of the Church
As if the gospel and the very nature of God weren’t important enough, Allison goes on to add even more reasons for the significance of the church.
1. God’s Planned People
The church is not an afterthought in God’s eternal plan, something he tacked on when he realized that his original plan had failed in the garden. From all eternity, God knew that he would established his redeemed community in Christ. And if the church was part of God’s plan from all eternity, it’s probably worth paying attention to.
2. Christ and the Church
At the end of the ages, when the Father exalts the Son above all power and authority, he will give him “to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all” (Eph. 1:22-23). That’s a pretty amazing statement because it means that God has decided in his eternal plan that the church will be a necessary part of the Son’s exaltation forever. I’m sure he didn’t have to do it that way, but he did. Christ and his body forever. That’s the plan.
3. The Church and the Revelation of God
God also decided to reveal himself through the church. I’m sure he has really good reasons for this, though I look at myself an my fellow believers on Sunday morning and wonder why he chose to use goofy, broken people like us to manifest his awesome glory. But he did. And he does (Eph. 3:10).
4. The Prophesied Role of the Church
Allison’s last reason for emphasizing the importance of the church are the amazing prophecies that we find in the Bible regarding the church. According to Jesus, he’s going to build a church that even the gates of hell can’t prevail against (Mt. 16:18). Elsewhere Jesus ranks the promise that his people would take the gospel to all nations right alongside his death and resurrection (Lk 24:44-49). And, of course, these promises continue in the Acts narrative as we see the church taking on its prophesied role in the eternal plan of God.
So What Should We Conclude?
Sounds rather important to me. And, of course, Allison agrees:
In conclusion, ecclesiology may not be a doctrine of highest importance like theology proper and bibliology, but it is nevertheless of great importance, for this simple reason: the church of Jesus Christ itself is a necessary reality. This fact propels the Christian doctrine devoted tot he study of the church to a high level of prominence.
It’s entirely possible to quibble with Allison’s suggestion that theology proper and bibliology are the quintessential “highest” doctrines. But it’s hard to disagree with the conclusion that the church stands as one of the most important areas of theological reflection. God and his people. That’s what this story has been about from the very beginning.