The Anti-Ecclesial Rhetoric of Emerging Church Movements

One of the things I have grown weary of in the last decade or so, is anti-ecclesial rhetoric. What I mean by this is the pitting of the ‘church’ over against Jesus, or ‘the established church’ over against more ‘organic’ models of Christianity (e.g. house churches, and the like). I suppose we all from time to time look for something or someone to blame our problems on, and the Christian church has become something of a punching bag, even for a goodly number of devout Christians. Sometimes this is because they have joined the ‘I’m spiritual, not religious’ movement, or the ‘I love Jesus, but the church…. not so much’ band wagon. Some of this frankly is caused by a profound misunderstanding of the word church/ ekklesia. Perhaps then, it would be wise to start this post with some basic definitions.

The church is the corporate people of God assembled for worship, fellowship, and service. It is not a building, it is not an institution, it is not an organization. Any church that is even moderately successful certainly needs a regular place to meet, needs some organization, needs some structure, but the ekklesia as defined in the NT is not these things. I would stress the church needs structure, needs buildings, needs organization, but it should not be identified with them. It is precisely when the buildings, structures, and organizations or institutions of the church become overly-sacralized that they become difficult if not impossible to change. That’s what I call Christians developing an ‘edifice’ complex.

The word ekklesia, often translated ‘church’ actual means ‘assembly’. One person is not the church. A group of unassembled Christian friends is not the church. No, there is an element of assembling for worship, fellowship, service that makes a group of people a church. You need to be having church to be a church.

It is certainly true that in my lifetime brand name denominational loyalty has declined in Protestantism (less so in Catholic or Orthodox circles). Some of this is caused by the weak ecclesiology of Protestant theology to begin with. By this I mean that Protestants tend to emphasize one’s individual walk with Christ, individual piety, individual commitment, and so on, at the expense of the group identity and unity. And when you throw in a hyper-active sensitivity about this or that view of truth or orthodoxy, it is no wonder that it seems that Protestants are better at fulfilling the Genesis commandment to be fruitful and multiple (by church splits) than at fulfilling the Great Commission. Put another way, when you stress your vision of Truth with a capital T, rather than the need for unity (with a little ‘u’), dividing and sub-dividing is inevitable it seems. There are literally hundreds of Protestant denominations…and frankly this is an all too modern phenomenon. Denominationalism did not exist in say the fourth century A.D. It is a decidedly Protestant development, or subplot.

Thus, when one gets to the emerging church folks, and you hear a lot of their anti-ecclesial rhetoric, it has a long precedent in Protestantism, whether it is Luther railing against the Pope, or Calvin complaining about the situation in Switzerland, or Wesley struggling with the Anglican Church, or the Free Methodists splitting off from the Methodist Episcopal Church or various Baptist groups splitting and multiplying prodigiously. And in all of this, few have stopped to ask—Is all this disputatiousness a good witness to the world? Put another way—Why should the world listen to any church group when we can’t even agree among ourselves, as we speak with forked tongues?

Don’t get me wrong, I am thankful for renewal movements of God’s Spirit wherever they come from. We need them. What we don’t need is the church eating it’s own young or old. What we don’t need is any part of the church claiming to be ‘the one true church apostolic and universal’ at the expense of other parts of the body of Christ. What we don’t need is the oh so familiar attempt to blame the structures for the problems of the church, when, after all it is the people of God who set up, maintain, and run those structures. They are not, inherently, the real problem. As Pogo once said ‘I have seen the enemy, the enemy is me.’ We need to look in the mirror. What we also really don’t need is one part of the Christian church having the hubris to think it has a stranglehold on the truth. This in the end simply reflects arrogance and ignorance, and an unwillingness to learn from others who are not part of our particular portion of Christ’s body.

One more thing. With the anti-ecclesial rhetoric has also come some anti-intellectual, and even anti-educational and anti-seminary rhetoric. Correct me if I am wrong but in a Dark Age where the culture and the church in general is becoming more and more Biblically illiterate what we surely don’t need is less training in the Bible. What we don’t need is a dumbing down of Christian college and seminary core curriculum in Bible, Church History, Theology. What we don’t need is less emphasis on learning the actual languages that the Bible was written in, and learning the historical, literary, rhetorical context in which it was given.

Nor do we need the arrogance and foolishness that says ‘I can learn all that on my own, thank you very much. I don’t need formal training by experts.’ Really? Would you go to a dentist who said— ‘I’ve got no degrees and no formal training and I’ve never extracted a tooth, but lets start with you.’? I think you get my drift. Ministers (clergy and lay), need as much training by experts as possible in the core Christian curricula. They just do. Because if the leaders are not the resident experts for their people, then we are dealing with leaders who simply pool their ignorance with that of their people. And that only furthers the darkness of the Dark Age into which we have been descending.

It is my hope that when the Emerging Church stops Emerging from wherever it has been previously hidden and starts merging with other groups of Christians who are willing to partner with them, that it will be realized that it was after all unprofitable and unhelpful to sass your Mother, to repudiate the womb from which you emerged, by which I mean the ekklesia, the body of Christ, the people of God, which will always need structures and organizations. Think on these things.

  • Ben Witherington

    Nice try Arthur, no cigar. It’s your job, if you’re part of the Emerging movement to come up with a better ecclesiology. One that is actually Biblical, by which I mean pays attention to what the NT says about: 1) accountability to the world-wide church of God; 2) leadership structures involving overseers, deacons, and elders; and 3) commitment to not just ministry but mission as well, including both the spiritual and the social Gospel.



  • Joshua Toepper

    Thanks for this Dr. Witherington. As one who could easily be mistaken for an emergent/ing Christian (in dress, age, and cultural class), i want to affirm that there are the youth among us who still seek to submit ourselves to the mother church. I do not think St. Cyprian was kidding when he said “if the church is not your mother, God is not your father.” To be frank, the ecclesiology of the emergent/ing movement is dry and boring. It speaks very little of our treasured past and reeks of modernity (which, ironically, has been defended as refuting modernity on this thread). On another note, I miss eating lunch with you, JD and the rest of the Worship Design team….

  • Gabriel Finochio

    Professor Witherington,

    Thank you for your thoughts and concerns on the issue of the Emerging Church. I greatly enjoyed reading the essay, and while I am, like Peter and John, untrained in the school of the scholars and a poor plebian, I did find the whole of what you said to be quite good.

    I do think, however, that there are two problems with the content in the blog. Firstly, while the use of the term “anti-ecclesial” is used in this essay to caricature and denounce the rhetoric of the Emerging Church, the word itself, ironically, is a form of rhetoric; and one that has the misfortune of being quite vulgar and pedantic in its own derivation. It’s really just a poor and in-articulate classification. To say that the Emerging Church is “anti-ecclesial” simply because it defines its ecclesiology outside of the traditional rubric is the same as labeling a Fascist as “anti-political” merely because he chooses to practice his politics in the form of a benevolent dictatorship. The Emerging Church still regards itself as a church and part of the Church, and I do not believe that it is in the best interests of the debate (however right the right side is) to relegate the rhetoric of the Emerging folks as being “anti-Church.” Using the “anti-ecclesia” rhetoric cheapens the value of what the term may actually mean in the face of a movement that truly is “anti-ecclesial”, such as Islam.

    Secondly, I believe that the definition used in the essay for the Church is also problematic. For example, the essay defines the Church as “the corporate people of God assembled together for worship, fellowship, and service.” The problem with this description is that it is quite seriously narrow; and it is not narrow because it is too precise, but rather because it is too nebulous. I would not contest that the Church is less than the definition which the blog provides, but I would ardently suggest that it is also much more than the blog provides. The whole trouble is that if we stop our definition from growing past its primal root, it really becomes quite difficult to argue against the Emerging Church. In short, the problem with being vague in defining what we mean by the “Church” is that we will not be able to be precise in defending it. The definition in the essay is not false; it is simply not the whole truth. And because it is not the whole truth, it lacks the authority to really inveigh against the thing that is false. The truth is that the Church can also be an institution governed by a hierarchy of leadership, and sustained by the implementation of sacraments. And It can also be represented symbolically by a building where Its saints gather together. And It can also be seen as a network of local churches sharing the same doctrine and practices.

    I wholeheartedly agree with you that aspects of the Emerging Church movement must be countered and refuted as heretical; but I emphatically believe that the most effective way to do that is to understand what is orthodox.

  • Ben Witherington

    Hi Gabriel: Thanks for this thoughtful response. Two points: 1) by anti-ecclesial I simply mean an unBiblical ecclesiology, not that Emerging folks don’t have some sort of ecclesiology, and 2) the definition of church I am offering is the one that come from close scrutiny of how the term ekklesia is and is not used in the NT. It is not used of as building for example, nor of an organization. For me the norm for our use of terms is what the Bible says, not some broader use of terms, however common. Blessings BW3

  • Jeremy S. Crenshaw

    Whoo hoo! As I have moved from Pentecostalism, although still Pentecostal, to Anglicanism, I have thought on this issue many times. Of course, I also understand why, for instance, even Anglicans are distancing themselves from the Episcopal Church USA and Canterbury. I am vehemently against division, but sometimes it becomes necessary when the other has left the faith. Great post though!!!