PET I: What Is the Church?

Problems in Ecclesiology Today I: What Is the Church?

Defining the church: yesterday, today, and tomorrow

How do we define the Christian church? The prospect of summarizing the community of God’s people in a concise statement is daunting, even without the particular problems facing the church today. The church is more divided today than ever before. The ecumenical project that marked the 20th century is largely absent, now only a memory that lives on in certain isolated pockets of the contemporary church. On top of the historical developments, our culture today is more suspicious of precise definitions than ever before. More and more, theological definitions are seen as antiquated and rigid, lifeless and irrelevant. Certainly, like all theological statements, a definition of the church is bound to come up short and most likely fail altogether. Nevertheless, we need ways of communicating the identity of the church—both for others and for ourselves. We are witnessing the arrival of an age in which people are both resistant to a definition of the church and seemingly incapable even of attaining one due to the ever-increasing fragmentation of the global Christian community.

In this complex age, we need ways of capturing the complex and multifaceted existence of the church without abandoning its unified identity in Jesus Christ. We need ways of expressing the particularities without losing the universals. But we also need ways of communicating the trunk without chopping off the branches; we need to hone in on the root identity of the ecclesial community without positing an idealized form of the church that has no actual relation to the concrete communities in our midst. In other words, we need ways of articulating the esse of the church without falling into essentialism. Throughout the history of the church, we have done this in a variety of different ways—including narratives, creedal formulations, and theological propositions.

In this introduction to my series on “Problems in Ecclesiology Today,” I begin by quoting important statements about the being and life of the church, from the pages of Holy Scripture to modern catechisms. These quotes are by no means exhaustive, but they provide a broad sampling of views on the Christian church. Many modern views are missing and will be added as time permits. This list currently also lacks the views of the mystics, which is an important voice that ought not be excluded. If you would like to contribute to this list, I would be more than happy to augment the present list of quotes.

In the coming weeks, I will present brief opinions on issues facing the church today. But in order to assess the present we need to remember our past. These quotes provide small snapshots of the history of the church—or at least the history of the doctrine of the church. By looking to the past, we can more adequately assess the present as we orient ourselves toward the future. An examination such as this naturally raises the question: How will future generations define the Christian community? While we, of course, cannot say with any certainty how people will look back upon this current age, we should at least seek to embody more faithfully the community of faith to which God has called us. May these quotes remind us of our common identity, our rich heritage, and the faithfulness of God throughout the ages.


Gospel according to Matthew:
Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matt. 28:16-20)

Gospel according to Luke:
When Jesus had called the Twelve together, he gave them power and authority to drive out all demons and to cure diseases, and he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal the sick. He told them: “Take nothing for the journey—no staff, no bag, no bread, no money, no extra shirt. Whatever house you enter, stay there until you leave that town. If people do not welcome you, shake the dust off your feet when you leave their town, as a testimony against them.” So they set out and went from village to village, proclaiming the good news and healing people everywhere. … Then he said to them all: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it. What good is it for you to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit your very self?” (Lk. 9:1-6, 23-25)

Gospel according to John:
“I have revealed you to those whom you gave me out of the world. They were yours; you gave them to me and they have obeyed your word. Now they know that everything you have given me comes from you. For I gave them the words you gave me and they accepted them. They knew with certainty that I came from you, and they believed that you sent me. I pray for them. I am not praying for the world, but for those you have given me, for they are yours. All I have is yours, and all you have is mine. And glory has come to me through them. I will remain in the world no longer, but they are still in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them by the power of your name, the name you gave me, so that they may be one as we are one. While I was with them, I protected them and kept them safe by that name you gave me. None has been lost except the one doomed to destruction so that Scripture would be fulfilled. I am coming to you now, but I say these things while I am still in the world, so that they may have the full measure of my joy within them. I have given them your word and the world has hated them, for they are not of the world any more than I am of the world. My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of it. Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world. For them I sanctify myself, that they too may be truly sanctified.” (Jn. 17:6-19)

Acts of the Apostles:
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved. (Acts 2:42-47)

Epistle to the Ephesians:

So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together in the Spirit into a dwelling place for God. (Eph. 2:19-22)

There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all. (Eph. 4:4-5)

But every Lord’s day gather yourselves together, and break bread, and give thanksgiving after having confessed your transgressions, that your sacrifice may be pure. But let no one who is at odds with his fellow come together with you, until they be reconciled, that your sacrifice may not be profaned. For this is that which was spoken by the Lord: “In every place and time offer to me a pure sacrifice; for I am a great King, says the Lord, and my name is wonderful among the nations.” (Chap. XIV)

Clement of Rome, Epistle to the Corinthians:
The Apostles for our sakes received the gospel from the Lord Jesus Christ; Jesus Christ was sent from God. Christ then is from God, and the Apostles from Christ. Both therefore came in due order from the will of God. Having therefore received his instructions and being fully assured through the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, they went forth with confidence in the word of God and with full assurance of the Holy Spirit, preaching the gospel that the Kingdom of God was about to come. (¶xlii)

Irenaeus, Against Heresies:
Since therefore there are so many proofs, there is now no need to seek among others the truth which we can easily obtain from the Church. For the Apostles have lodged all that there is of the truth with her, as with a rich bank, holding back nothing. And so anyone that wishes can draw from her the draught of life. This is the gateway of life; all the rest are thieves and robbers. (III.iv.1)

Cyprian, On the Unity of the Catholic Church:
The episcopate is one; the individual members have each a part, and the parts make up the whole. The Church is a unity; yet by her fruitful increase she is extended far and wide to form a plurality; even as the sun has many rays, but one light; and a tree many boughs but one trunk … So also the Church, flooded with the light of the Lord, extends her rays over all the globe: yet it is one light which is diffused everywhere and the unity of the body is not broken up. … The spouse of Christ cannot be made an adulteress; she is undefiled and chaste. She knows but one home, and guards with virtuous chastity the sanctity of one chamber. She it is who preserves us for God, who enrolls into the Kingdom the sons she has borne. … He cannot have God for his father who has not the Church for his mother. (§5-6)

Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed:
We believe in one holy Catholic and Apostolic Church.

Cyril of Jerusalem, The Catechetical Lectures:
[The Church] is called Catholic then because it extends over all the world, from one end of the earth to the other; and because it teaches universally and completely one and all the doctrines which ought to come to men’s knowledge, concerning things both visible and invisible, heavenly and earthly; and because it brings into subjection to godliness the whole race of mankind, governors and governed, learned and unlearned; and because it universally treats and heals the whole class of sins, which are committed by soul or body, and possesses in itself every form of virtue which is named, both in deeds and words, and in every kind of spiritual gifts. (XVIII.23)

Martin Luther, The Larger Catechism:
I believe that there is upon earth a little holy group and congregation of pure saints, under one head, even Christ, called together by the Holy Ghost in one faith, one mind, and understanding, with manifold gifts, yet agreeing in love, without sects or schisms. I am also a part and member of the same a sharer and joint owner of all the goods it possesses, brought to it and incorporated into it by the Holy Ghost by having heard and continuing to hear the Word of God, which is the beginning of entering it. For formerly, before we had attained to this, we were altogether of the devil, knowing nothing of God and of Christ. Thus, until the last day, the Holy Ghost abides with the holy congregation or Christendom, by means of which He fetches us to Christ and which He employs to teach and preach to us the Word, whereby He works and promotes sanctification, causing it [this community] daily to grow and become strong in the faith and its fruits which He produces. (II.¶53)

Augsburg Confession (1530):
Also they teach that one holy Church is to continue forever. The Church is the congregation of saints, in which the Gospel is rightly taught and the Sacraments are rightly administered. And to the true unity of the Church it is enough to agree concerning the doctrine of the Gospel and the administration of the Sacraments. Nor is it necessary that human traditions, that is, rites or ceremonies, instituted by men, should be everywhere alike. As Paul says: One faith, one Baptism, one God and Father of all, etc. Eph. 4:5, 6. (Article VII)

John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion:
Wherever we see the Word of God purely preached and heard, and the sacraments administered according to Christ’s institution, there, it is not to be doubted, a church of God exists (cf. Eph. 2:20). (4.1.9)

Menno Simons, Concerning the Church:
In the first place, it should be taken into consideration, that the community of God, or the church of Christ, is an assembly of the pious, and a community of the saints, as is represented by the Nicene symbol; who, from the beginning have firmly trusted and believed in the promised seed of the woman, which is the promised Prophet, Messiah, Shilo, King, Prince, Emmanuel and Christ; who accept his word in sincerity of heart; follow his example, are led by his Spirit, and who trust in his promise in the Scriptures (Deut. 18:18; Gen. 49:10; Jer. 23:5; 33:15; Isaiah 7:14). Such are now, generally called Christians or the church of Christ, because they are born of Christ's word by means of faith, by his Spirit, and are flesh of his flesh and bone of his bone, as the children of Jacob, on account of their natural birth, were called the house of Israel (Rom. 9:7, 9). … In the second place, it should be observed that the church of the pious is from the beginning; yet, it had not always the same ordinance; nor was it always called by one name in the Scriptures. … In the third place, it should be observed that the Christian church is of God, as Paul says, “For both he that sanctifieth, and they who are sanctified, are all of one” (Heb. 2:11). For as Christ Jesus, who is the true Savior, is of God, nay, God’s only begotten and firstborn Son, so also are all those who, in sincerity of heart, believe his word, and are actuated by his Spirit.

Heidelberg Catechism (1562):
What believest thou concerning the “holy catholic church” of Christ? That the Son of God from the beginning to the end of the world, gathers, defends, and preserves to himself by his Spirit and word, out of the whole human race, a church chosen to everlasting life, agreeing in true faith; and that I am and forever shall remain, a living member thereof. What do you understand by “the communion of saints”? First, that all and every one, who believes, being members of Christ, are in common, partakers of him, and of all his riches and gifts; secondly, that every one must know it to be his duty, readily and cheerfully to employ his gifts, for the advantage and salvation of other members. (QQ. 54-55)

The Thirty-Nine Articles (1563):
The visible Church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men, in which the pure Word of God is preached, and the Sacraments be duly ministered according to Christ’s ordinance, in all those things that of necessity are requisite to the same. (XIX)

Belgic Confession (1619):
We believe and confess one single catholic or universal church—a holy congregation and gathering of true Christian believers, awaiting their entire salvation in Jesus Christ being washed by his blood, and sanctified and sealed by the Holy Spirit. This church has existed from the beginning of the world and will last until the end, as appears from the fact that Christ is eternal King who cannot be without subjects. And this holy church is preserved by God against the rage of the whole world, even though for a time it may appear very small in the eyes of men—as though it were snuffed out. For example, during the very dangerous time of Ahab the Lord preserved for himself seven thousand men who did not bend their knees to Baal (1 Kgs. 19:18). And so this holy church is not confined, bound, or limited to a certain place or certain persons. But it is spread and dispersed throughout the entire world, though still joined and united in heart and will, in one and the same Spirit, by the power of faith. (Article 27)

Dordrecht Confession of Faith (1632):
We believe in, and confess a visible church of God, namely, those who, as has been said before, truly repent and believe, and are rightly baptized; who are one with God in heaven, and rightly incorporated into the communion of the saints here on earth. These we confess to be the chosen generation, the royal priesthood, the holy nation, who are declared to be the bride and wife of Christ, yea, children and heirs of everlasting life, a tent, tabernacle, and habitation of God in the Spirit, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, of which Jesus Christ Himself is declared to be the cornerstone (upon which His church is built). This church of the living God, which He has acquired, purchased, and redeemed with His own precious blood; with which, according to His promise, He will be and remain always, even unto the end of the world, for consolation and protection, yea, will dwell and walk among them, and preserve them, so that no floods or tempests, nay, not even the gates of hell, shall move or prevail against them-this church, we say, may be known by their Scriptural faith, doctrine, love, and godly conversation, as, also, by the fruitful observance, practice, and maintenance of the true ordinances of Christ, which He so highly enjoined upon His disciples. (Article VIII)

Westminster Standards: The Larger Catechism (1647):
The visible church is a society made up of all such as in all ages and places of the world do profess the truth religion, and of their children. … The visible church has the privilege of being under God's special care and government; of being protected and preserved in all ages, not withstanding the opposition of all enemies; and of enjoying the communion of saints, the ordinary means of salvation, and offers of grace by Christ to all the members of it in the ministry of the gospel, testifying, that whosoever believes in him shall be saved, and excluding none that will come unto him. … The invisible church is the whole number of the elect, that have been, are, or shall be gathered into one under Christ the head. … The members of the invisible church by Christ enjoy union and communion with him in grace and glory. (QQ. 62-65)

The Baptist Confession of Faith of 1689:
The catholic or universal church, which (with respect to the internal work of the Spirit and truth of grace) may be called invisible, consists of the whole number of the elect, that have been, are, or shall be gathered into one, under Christ, the head thereof; and is the spouse, the body, the fulness of him that fills all in all (Heb. 12:23; Col. 1:18; Eph. 1:10, 22, 23, 5:23, 27, 32). (26.1)

In the execution of this power wherewith he is so intrusted, the Lord Jesus calls out of the world unto himself, through the ministry of his word, by his Spirit, those that are given unto him by his Father (John 10:16; John 12:32), that they may walk before him in all the ways of obedience, which he prescribes to them in his word (Matt. 28:20). Those thus called, he commands to walk together in particular societies, or churches, for their mutual edification, and the due performance of that public worship, which he requires of them in the world (Matt. 18:15-20). (26.5)

Friedrich Schleiermacher, The Christian Faith:
That a Church is nothing but a communion or association relating to religion or piety, is beyond all doubt for us Evangelical (Protestant) Christians, since we regard it as equivalent to degeneration in a Church when it begins to occupy itself with other matters as well, whether the affairs of science or of outward organization; just as we also always oppose any attempt on the part of the leaders of State or of science, as such, to order the affairs of religion. (§3.1)

Barmen Declaration (1934):
The Christian Church is the community of brethren in which, in Word and sacrament, through the Holy Spirit, Jesus Christ acts in the present as Lord. With both its faith and its obedience, with both its message and its order, it has to testify in the midst of the sinful world, as the Church of pardoned sinners, that it belongs to him alone and lives and may live by his comfort and under his direction alone, in expectation of his appearing. We reject the false doctrine that the Church could have permission to hand over the form of its message and of its order to whatever it itself might wish or to the vicissitudes of the prevailing ideological and political convictions of the day. (Article 3)

Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology:
The Spiritual Community is the community of faith and love, participating in the transcendent unity of unambiguous life. The participation is fragmentary because of the finitude of life, and it is not without tensions because of the polarity of individualization and participation, which is never absent from any finite being. The Spiritual Community as the dynamic essence of the churches makes them existing communities of faith and love in which the ambiguities of religion are not eliminated but are conquered in principle. The phrase “in principle” does not mean in abstracto but means … the power of beginning, which remains the controlling power in a whole process. In this sense the Spiritual Presence, the New Being, and the Spiritual Community are principles. The ambiguities of the religious life are conquered in principle in the churches’ life; their self-destructive force is broken. … The ambiguities of religion in the churches are conquered by unambiguous life in so far as they embody the New Being. But this “in so far” warns us against identifying the churches with the unambiguous life of the transcendent union. Where the church is, there is a point at which the ambiguities of religion are recognized and rejected but not removed. (172-73)

Catechism of the Catholic Church (1994):
“The one mediator, Christ, established and ever sustains here on earth his holy Church, the community of faith, hope, and charity, as a visible organization through which he communicates truth and grace to all men.” The Church is at the same time: a “society structured with hierarchical organs and the mystical body of Christ; the visible society and the spiritual community; the earthly Church and the Church endowed with heavenly riches.” These dimensions together constitute “one complex reality which comes together from a human and a divine element”: “The Church is essentially both human and divine, visible but endowed with invisible realities, zealous in action and dedicated to contemplation, present in the world, but as a pilgrim, so constituted that in her the human is directed toward and subordinated to the divine, the visible to the invisible, action to contemplation, and this present world to that city yet to come, the object of our quest.” (¶771)

Mennonite Confession of Faith (1995):
We believe that the church is the assembly of those who have accepted God's offer of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. The church is the new community of disciples sent into the world to proclaim the reign of God and to provide a foretaste of the church's glorious hope. The church is the new society established and sustained by the Holy Spirit. The church, the body of Christ, is called to become ever more like Jesus Christ, its head, in its worship, ministry, witness, mutual love and care, and the ordering of its common life. We acknowledge the church as the society of believers from many nations, anointed for witness by the Holy Spirit. … The church is the assembly of those who voluntarily commit themselves to follow Christ in life and to be accountable to one another and to God, while recognizing that the church is imperfect and thus in constant need of repentance. The church's identity as God's people of faith is sustained and renewed as members gather regularly for worship. … The church is the household, or family, of God. … We believe that the church as the body of Christ is the visible manifestation of Jesus Christ. The church is called to live and minister as Christ lived and ministered in the world. As many members belong to one body, so all believers have been baptized in one Spirit into the one body of Christ. … The church exists as a community of believers in the local congregation, as a community of congregations, and as the worldwide community of faith. (Article 9)

Study Catechism PCUSA (1998):
The church is the company of all faithful people who have given their lives to Jesus Christ, as he has given and gives himself to them. Since Christ cannot be separated from his people, the church is holy because he is holy, and universal (or “catholic”) in significance because he is universal in significance. Despite all its remaining imperfections here and now, the church is called to become ever more holy and catholic, for that is what it already is in Christ.


a. steward said…
Whew...thanks for these great quotes, David. It always comes up that when someone in Domani's Advanced Writing class wants to write a paper on some issue regarding the church that I ask them to define it. We are often puzzled, and tend to say, in the end, about what Calvin says: sacraments and preaching. We always wish for that to grow into much more richness and variation, but putting guidelines on how that is to take place and what form it will take is difficult, being concerned as we are with Schleirmacher to make sure that the church remains faithful to it's calling - proclaiming grace - and is not captivated by some other calling. I look forward to the series!