There is no shortage of books on the market about the church. The shelves are lined with books about preaching, worship, social justice, leadership, and, of course, being missional. Every one of them focused on one or more tasks of the church.
But Gregg Allison argues that the conversation is missing something very important. Before we spend so much time talking about what the church should be doing, maybe we should reflect more on what the church is. And that’s precisely what he sets out to do in Sojourners and Strangers: The Doctrine of the Church (Crossway, 2012), an outstanding contribution to Crossway’s Foundations of Evangelical Theology series. If you’re looking for a good resource for understanding the nature of the church and its role in the world, this is one to check out.
Allison begins by identifying himself and his church background, well aware that these necessarily shape how he understands ecclesiology. And since Allison teaches theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, it shouldn’t come as any great surprise that his approach to ecclesiology is largely conservative (though his take on spiritual gifts and multisite churches might surprise some), Baptist, and what many would call “low church” (congregational and less sacramental). This necessarily shapes the way that Allison presents his view of the church and makes it exceptionally useful for understanding a Baptist ecclesiology. At the same time, though, Allison’s largely charitable summaries of other perspectives allows the book to be useful for a broader audience as well.
Allison divides the book into seven parts: (1) Foundational Issues; (2) The Biblical Vision – Characteristics of the Church; (3) The Biblical Vision Actualized – The Growth of the Church; (4) The Government of the Church; (5) The Ordinances of the Church; (6) The Ministries of the Church; and (7) Conclusion. But you can view the book more simply as unfolding in two main sections: (a) explaining what the church is and (b) explaining how that view of the church impacts everything else we think about the church.
So Allison devotes most of the first four chapters to understanding the nature of the church, which he defines in the introduction like this:
“The church is the people of God who have been saved through repentance and faith in Jesus Christ and have been incorporated into his body through baptism with the Holy Spirit.” (p. 29)
Allison then explains that he will be unpacking that definition around seven essential attributes of the church. Rather than try to summarize them myself, stick with me through this longish quote, which does an excellent job summarizing what Allison wants to accomplish with the book.
The first three are characteristics regarding the origin and orientation of the church: it is (1) doxological, or oriented to the glory of God; (2) logocentric, or centered on the incarnate Word of God, Jesus Christ, and the inspired Word of God, Scripture; and (3) pneumadynamic, or created, gathered, gifted, and empowered by the Holy Spirit. The final four are characteristics regarding the gathering and sending of the church: it is (4) covenantal, or gathered as members in new covenant relationship with God and in covenantal relationship with each other; (5) confessional, or united by both personal confession of faith in Christ and common confession of the Christian faith; (6) missional, or identified as the body of divinely called and divinely sent ministers to proclaim the gospel and advance the kingdom of God; and (7) spatio-temporal/eschatological, or assembled as a historical reality (located in time and space) and possessing a certain hope and clear destiny while it lives the strangeness of ecclesial existence in the here-and-now. (pp. 31-32)
Thus the church is an absolutely unique entity in the world, constituted by its particular relationship to the triune God and given a specific mission in the world, a mission that flows from its unique identity.
Chapters 2-4 unpack both Allison’s definition and these seven essential attributes further. At first glance, chapter 2 seems oddly placed with its extended discussion of the covenantal nature of the church and its argument that the church is a New Testament reality that began at Pentecost. But Allison sees this as a fundamental issue that needs to be addressed before diving into the seven attributes. The extent to which the church is continuous/discontinuous with Israel and the Old Testament shapes much of what you will say about the church. So Allison addresses that issue first, and then moves on to deal with each attribute in turn.
The remaining chapters address specific aspects of the church, dealing with each from the context established by Allison’s understanding of the church’s nature.
The strongest aspect of the book is Allison’s commitment to move from the nature of the church to the church’s functions. Given evangelicalism’s pragmatic bent, we’re often content to ignore deeper questions and focus only on surface issues. Allison’s consistent emphasis on the nature of the church is a helpful corrective.
I also appreciated Allison’s careful explanation of his methodology. Allison clearly identified three key questions that will shape any ecclesiology: continuity vs. discontinuity (i.e. how the NT relates to the OT), prescription vs. description (i.e. how should we understand what the Bible says about how the church functioned in the NT), and functional vs. ontological (i.e. how the nature of the church relates to its function). Too often, authors writing on the church allow those issues to remain behind the scenes, coloring their argument in ways that are difficult to discern. Allison does a nice job identifying them and clearly explaining both where he lands and how that impacts his ecclesiology.
Finally, Allison does a nice job with the various controversial issues you have to tackle in a book like this: spiritual gifts, sacraments, governance, etc. As much as possible, he summarizes the various positions clearly and fairly before explaining where he lands and why. Those coming from other ecclesial traditions will probably be unhappy with his conclusions, but I think they will generally feel like they’ve been treated well.
The book’s greatest weakness is a consequence of its breadth. By covering most of the major topics relevant to understanding the church, Allison has to move through his material fairly quickly, leading to a brevity that can be a little frustrating at times. But the only alternative would be to make an almost 500-page book even longer, something I’m sure the publisher was keen to avoid! To help with this, it would have been nice to see a list of resources for further study on each of the major issues.
People from other perspectives will surely find things to critique in how Allison handles specific issues (esp. women in ministry, church governance, and the sacraments). The limited space available to address these issues means that Allison’s arguments, though fair, are more summative than convincing. In other words, if you already hold to infant baptism or an egalitarian approach to women in ministry, it’s unlikely that you’re suddenly going to be convinced that credobaptism and complementarianism are the way to go. His summaries of each position are very useful, but, if you’re hoping for more developed arguments in these areas, you’re likely to be disappointed.
Finally, there were a few issues that I was disappointed not to see developed further in the book. Given the many ways that technology is shaping the modern church, I would have liked to see more discussion on that. Allison does address multisite churches (arguing in favor), but he says almost nothing about online churches, simply dismissing the idea that “avatars worshipping together in the virtual world of Second Life” could be a legitimate church. Regardless of whether I agree, that seems like a growing area of concern that needs more extended treatment.
I was also startled not to see more on the issue of race in the church. Even in the section on church unity, Allison says nothing about racial divisions in the church and how we should understand/approach them. In our increasingly diverse world, that seems like a topic that is too important to neglect.
In the end, Allison has produced a valuable book that would be a tremendous resource for anyone seeking to understand ecclesiology in general or a conservative, Baptist ecclesiology in particular. Allison writes clearly, engages other perspectives fairly, and presents a compelling case that the church is a fundamentally important topic that all Christians should reflect on carefully and often. I strongly recommend it as an excellent addition to your library.