How practical is studying the doctrine of the church (ecclesiology)? Is it a waste time and only for seminarians?
Mark Dever thinks it’s critical when he writes,
“It is the most visible part of Christian theology, and it is vitally connected with every other part. A distorted church usually coincides with a distorted gospel.”
Ecclesiology is simply the study of what the Bible teaches on the church. Many would argue that the doctrine of ecclesiology is the most practical doctrine for Christians today. How a group of believers view the church is visibly seen in the church service, government, membership process, baptism, Lord’s Supper, and more.
Here are just 3 reasons why the study of ecclesiology is important:
1. The Church Is Made of Believers. The first practical implication of ecclesiology is seen in how we define the church. If the church is seen as simply a building, then this will promote an individualistic idea of Christianity where Christians occasionally gather in a building to do something. If the church is viewed as a social group, then the gospel can be easily lost when focus is put on social activities and social causes. If the church is seen as controlled, governed by, and instituted by the state, (as is seen in many European countries) then as the state moves away from biblical truth so will the church. Not to mention that the state leaders, often made up of unbelievers, will be making decisions in the church.
However, if the definition of a church is biblically based the local church will seek to function according to God’s plan. In the majority of cases, the term “church” in the Bible refers to the local assembly of all those that profess faith and allegiance to Jesus Christ as Lord. This is why Paul often refers to “the church in Thessalonica” (1 Thess 1:1) or “the church of God in Corinth” (1 Cor 1:2; 2 Cor 1:1). Seven different churches are mentioned in Revelation (Rev 1-3), and Paul mentions the churches plural in Galatia (Gal 1:2). A few references in Scripture can also be found that mention the universal church as a whole, the church which is made up of all true believers throughout the age from Pentecost to the Rapture (Matt 16:18; 1 Cor 10:32; Eph 1:22; 5:23-32; Col 1:18, 24). Therefore, it is best to define the church as the New Covenant community of God existing between the Day of Pentecost through the Rapture of the Church prior to the Lord.
2. The Church Is Not Israel. How we view the relationship between the church and Israel also has huge implications. Biblically, the church is seen as distinct from Israel, but holding a close historical and redemptive relationship with each other (Gen 12:2-3; Eph 2:15; 3:6; Rom 11:12). However, if a group of Christians believe that the church has taken the place of or “superseded” Israel this can have consequences. One consequence, although not a necessary one, is that of anti-Semitism. Historically some professing Christian groups have sought to persecute the Jews, thinking that God was finished with them and that they should be punished for their reluctance to convert to Christianity. This was the view held by Martin Luther later in his life and would spread throughout the Lutheran state church in Germany. This nationwide belief would manifest itself in the killing of millions of Jews during the Holocaust of World War II. Also, if we hold a view that the church has replaced Israel, this can lead to an unbiblical end times scenario where much of prophecy is ignored or annulled. That would affect how one studies and interprets the Bible.
3. The Church Has a Specific Purpose. Another important doctrine in ecclesiology that has very practical implications is what we think about the purpose of the church. If Christians think the purpose of the church is to bring in the kingdom or to advance the kingdom already present, then much focus will be on promoting social justice and “building a city and nation for Christ.” However, if the purpose of the church aligns which Scripture, then it will see itself as the means of glorifying God into eternity (Eph 3:21). The means which the church glorifies God are: (1) By proclaiming the truth of God’s Word building up the church in the faith (Eph 4:13-16; Col 1:28; 1 Tim 3:15), (2) By instruction and teaching of the Word (2 Tim 2:2; 3:16-17), (3) By fellowship (Acts 2:47; 1 John 1:3), (4) By keeping the ordinances (Luke 22:19 – “do this in remembrance of me”; Acts 2:38-42), and finally (5) By advancing and communicating the gospel to the entire world (Matthew 28:19; Acts 1:8; 2:42). These are all very practical purposes that can be visibly seen in the church services each Sunday.