In studying ecclesiology, it has quickly become one of my favorite areas of theology. This isn’t to say that other aspects of doctrine or theology are not equally captivating to me, but rather, that one’s ecclesiological position will directly reflect from their understanding of true orthodoxy and orthopraxy.
If you are part of the Base Ecclesial Communities in Latin America, your church practice will reflect the need for social justice and liberation from tyrannical leadership (or even more simply, political/social structures that are maligned to Christian practice). Christ has provided freedom from all forms of bondage, desiring that the church would live without oppression, persecution, and so forth. In other words, freedom from such things qualifies the recognition of God’s kingdom being established on Earth. Thus, the gospel is another sociologically adept, politically motivated tool for the reconstruction of society.
If you hold to Feminist Ecclesiology, you would desire that churches be without any patriarchal leadership. In other words, men will not be primary in the hierarchical structure of the church’s leaders. Not only this, but God the Father is seen as “Mother” or even “Lover” rather than the conventionally understood “Father” as recorded in scripture. The Spirit is gender neutral, reflecting the Greek (ignoring the qualifying articles given in any syntactical outline). Some would even hold so far as to remove themselves to a monastic-like society, until the global church recognizes the inferiority with which women have been treated in ecclesiastical institutions.
If you reside in an African Independent Church, you would assume freedom from the effects of sin, rather than after the eschaton when Christ reigns, and sin and death are no more. There would be little difference from the “man of god” and the shaman, as they often utilize the same methodology to deliver one from whatever ails them. While you may find some “men of god” who differentiate from the shaman for intensive purposes, the Word of God is often neglected in favor of zealous, spiritual fervor, where biblical counseling has no place, nor biblical application. Instead, deliverance is the key theme and mission of the church; Christ died to free you from the bondage of sickness, disease, poverty, and the like, in this life.
If you are aligned to Roman Catholic Ecclesiology, practitioners would hold that the hierarchical leadership (i.e. Pope, bishops, priests, deacons, etc.) is the sole way for the church to express itself (at least pre-Vatican II; Vatican II brought about some slight changes to this notion, however, it still considers Protestants and others to be outside of the true church, though still considering them brothers). The church in Rome is the highest authority, and the authoritarian levels beyond this extend through various Arch Dieses’ representing, and falling under the authority, of the Roman church. The layman may serve, but cannot obtain any office in the church unless he is ordained and has completed the sacraments. The church holds the “keys” to the Christendom, and it is the necessary establishment for salvation.
While these are all broad, succinct representations of some ecclesiological movements, one can easily see how drastically different these systems are used to proselytize dogma in how the church is to practice its religion. We must also note that these 4 ecclesiological systems are not remotely close to encapsulating the entirety of ecclesiological systems. Other notable ecclesiological systems to be discussed would be Protestant (and especially the sub-delineations within Protestantism), Eastern-Orthodox, and so forth.
What is even more interesting in this though, is how within the sub-context of these ecclesiological systems, there is a wide array of views and practices. In the same township, two churches belonging to the Southern Baptist Convention can look drastically different from one another. One may be Egalitarian, while the other is Complementarian; one may have Congregational Rule, while the other is Elder led; one may hold to Covenantal Theology, while the other holds to Dispensational Theology; one may be Calvinist, the other Arminian.
The question to ask would seem to be whether or not denominations really mean all that much any more, and whether they are fading into a point where each local church looks quite different from their mainline, denominational counterparts. Another question to be asked would simply be what is God’s design for the global and local church? Surely, it would seem evidently true that local churches would have freedom in church practice presupposing that their cultural standards don’t overrun biblical truth. Yet it also seems self-evident that the global church should have a fixed, scriptural definition of ecclesiology.
This is by and large, what the ecumenical councils of our current age are seeking to address – but call me a skeptic; I just don’t see that happening fully. In a lot of major ways, not all church practices are true to Orthodoxy, or even biblical orthopraxy. Furthermore, not all of these views can be correct in various aspects that play in majorly to their ecclesiological system (i.e. – take into account Christology, Pneumatology, Theology Proper, Hamartiology, Eschatology, etc.). These doctrines, and more so dogmatism over doctrine, have separated the global church and left any commonality in the unity and bond of the Spirit, out of the equation.
Yet having dogmatism in a properly rooted biblical ecclesiology is completely necessary simply for the reason that the church represents Christ. If we have an ill-defined ecclesiology (presupposed upon an ill-conceived hermeneutic of scripture), we will malign the reputation of Christ. In other words, an improper ecclesiology will not bring glory to our Triune-God simply because the church has not developed and purified her concept of God in a manner befitting his holiness.
This is specifically why I am skeptical that any amount of ecumenical councils will be able to define a proper, global ecclesiology. For this reason, it renders all other aspects, such as a global Missiology, fraught with problematic theology, seeing as the aforementioned doctrines are so closely interrelated. The widespread variance of hermeneutics, while being generally recognized as secondary issues, can easily move toward incredibly problematic, core doctrinal issues. Hence, why ecclesiology is fast-becoming my favorite theological discourse of study.