Smooth Places in Turbulent Waters

Perhaps the 21st Century will be when evangelicalism develops an ecclesiology. Perhaps, I say, because the prospects right now are nothing but turbulent waters. Denominations are shrinking noticeably; more and more churches are going rogue. Some are calling for reviving the 1st Century’s house churches and others are non-denominational and mostly disconnected from one another. But everyone’s talking about how to “do” church . The irony in all this is that in disconnecting from the great tradition, which is an ecclesial tradition, churches are depriving themselves of the resources of reflection for “doing” church. The missional voice is one that may be the future of a genuine evangelical ecclesiology.

As I said before, what we need is a good textbook that is theologically conversant so that missional can be given a good solid intellectual context. That book  is by Graham Hill, a professor at Morling College in Sydney, and his book is called Salt, Light, and a City: Introducing Missional Ecclesiology. If you want to know the theological conversation, and if you are tried (as I am) of everybody and her brother shooting up missional rockets that will solve our problems, then this book will slow it all down to a genuine conversation with the major theologians and issues. Last time we looked at the Catholic voices in the missional/ecclesial conversation; today we look at the Eastern voices.

No voice is more clearly ecclesial than the Eastern voice. Like it or not, Eastern Orthodoxy is a robust ecclesiology. Graham Hill sketches the views of Thomas Hopko, Vigen Guroian, and John Zizioulas. There are distinct notes in each voice, but the Eastern voice is clear: at the heart of God’s plan in this world is the church, and that church is in communion with the Trinity who shares communion with the church, and that church’s focal point of communion — vertically and horizontally — is Eucharist. So a missional ecclesiology drawn from Eastern sources will be Trinitarian, fellowship/communion-shaped, and Eucharistic. Relationality marks the Eastern voice, and for Zizioulas truth is communion — Trinitarian being is communion so all true being is communion and all truth therefore is communion — and it occurs in Eucharist. Hierarchy, at some level, also appears in church ministry theology. That hierarchy is transformed by relationally and eucharist and history, etc, but it is still quite hierarchical.

What does missional look like if it is shaped by Eastern Orthodoxy’s ecclesiology? What happens to missional if the following eight theses shape missional?

The above summary is more shaped by Zizioulas than Hopko or Guroian (whose got an Anabaptist approach to Eastern ecclesiology and whose major concern is ecclesial ethics, or the ecclesia as an ethic through its liturgy and creed), so I will focus on Hopko. Here are his major theses:

1. The church is the fullness of God — here he ties Christ, who is the fulness, to the church. Spirit creates it all. I saw a good amount of pneumatology in Hill’s summary of the Eastern voice.
2. The church is salvation and life — “offer” and “being” are not neatly distinguished. Salvation is through Christ, who is manifest in the eucharistic Body of Christ.
3. The church is the “mystical presence of the Kingdom of God on earth.” Here Hopko connects kingdom and church more closely than most.

4. The church is the world transfigured and the new creation. One habit of much of church thought is the radical distinction between church and world, while Hopko wants to contend the church is the true world. Guroian will say that the church doesn’t try to change the world nor is it here for the world but is instead to be the true world. That is, they are to be kingdom ecclesia.
5. The church is a eucharistic and sacramental community: one, holy, catholic and apostolic.
6. The church is a community of co-suffering love. Participation in the passion of Christ.
7. The church is both trinitarian in nature and a theoandric [God/man] mystery. Here the church is not expected to be perfect.
8. The church is an object of faith. Christians believe in the church as the place of God’s grace in this world, and again church and Christ are not radically distinguished.

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  • Travis Greene


    Can you say more about Guroian’s “Anabaptist” approach to EO ecclesiology? Because that sounds awesome. Sometimes I say I’m Free-stern Orthodox.

  • John I.

    I don’t see house churches adn nondemonination churches as necessarily divorcing themselves from the “great ecclesial tradition”. I see them divorcing themselves from the weak and currently ineffective tradition handed down by their existing denominations. The house churches, etc., may function without reference to the “great ecclesial tradition”, but that is because they never received that tradition from their former denominations. The house churches are not opposed to the great tradition, just unaware of it–because they have been failed in this respect by their former ecclesial tradition. They are game to start reconstructing tradition on the basis of the Bible, because that is what the early church did. Yes, they could end up repeating many of the same mistakes, but only if they reject all learning about ecclesial traditions–and that I do not see. Especially in the Emergent movement, there is experimentation with facts of the various traditions, without being hidebound to the whole enchilada of any one tradition.


  • I’d like to contrast this approach with that of Jon Zens in his most recent post –

    Is church to be found in a place? Or, as Zens argues, is it free from connection with place? I agree with John I (2) about house churches facing the possibility of remaking some old mistakes. But at least those in the house churches are trying to think through what it means to be the church.

    Where do we go from here? And how can we rightly follow Jesus and obey his teaching? Surely we need to start with the simple things – it’s not about where or how we meet, it’s about whether we love the Father, one another, our neighbours, and our enemies. Does it need to be more complicated than that? What does such a simple approach miss (if anything)?

  • mark

    I’m by no means a theologian, and am actually struggling with how to view my pretestant church’s eucharist practice, but isn’t the eucharist a symbol of the communal focus and not the focal point itself? In other words, it seems Jesus said when you are meeting as the church do this, and not do this to have an ecclesia. In still other words, the focus in on King Jesus, and the breaking of bread the remider to keep the focus at all times (and not just during weekly or monthly services). Maybe I’m just burned out by a soterian communion table, but more likely just way off.

  • Luke Tallon

    I should have sent you a review copy of Zizioulas, The Eucharistic Communion and the World (T&T Clark). It is a beautiful account of the relationship between the Eucharist and our ecclesial life in the world. I think that the connection he develops there between the risen and ascended Lord Jesus, the church, mission and ethics would make Zizioulas a great conversation partner for a lot of folks that read this blog. Now, I can only recommend the book to you (NB: his Lectures in Christian Dogmatics is much more accessible than Being as Communion or Communion & Otherness and would also be an excellent place to begin one’s engagement with Zizioulas).
    All the best!

  • scotmcknight

    Thanks Luke. I will take a look at those titles by Zizioulas. Keep me in mind.