The word church refers to the visible community in which Christians come together for worship, prayer, communal sharing, instruction, reflection, and mission. Most Christian bodies, but not all, see this visible community as imperfectly representing on earth an invisible communion of saints called together by God in Jesus Christ. The church can thus be viewed as one social institution among many, but also as a shared form of life shaped by profound theological self-understandings. Seen institutionally, the church has subsisted in a variety of communal forms and structures of governance throughout a long and very complex history. Understood theologically, the church has been the object of many varying images, descriptions, terminologies, and conceptualities interwoven with the circumstances of that history. The systematic study of the church in all these interacting dimensions constitutes the field of ecclesiology. This realm of inquiry relates constructively to most of the other principal themes of Christian thought, among them the doctrine of God, Christology, soteriology, theological anthropology, and theological ethics.
Church in the New Testament
The English word church translates the New Testament (NT) Greek ekklesia (assembly), the commonest equivalent for the Hebrew qahal (assembly, gathering, or congregation) in the Septuagint or Greek translation of the Jewish Scriptures, the Bible of the NT writers. It is possible that ekklesia was used of early church gatherings to distinguish them from the Jewish synagogues (Greek synagoge, translating the Hebrew term edah [assembly, or gathering] as virtually synonymous with qahal) to which many early Christians still belonged. The term ekklesia in this sense is found among the earliest Christian writings: see for example the phrase ekklesia tou theou (assembly of God) in 1 Thessalonians 2:14.
The NT provides myriad images of this ekklesia. Several stand out: "people of God," "body of Christ," "communion of faith, hope, and love," "creation of the spirit," and "new Israel." Another image, the "kingdom (or rule) of God," central to the preaching of Jesus, becomes understood as the eschatological fulfillment of the church's life.
Whether Jesus of Nazareth intended (or could indeed have envisioned) anything like the "church" that in fact followed on his words and work has been a topic of continuing debate. The definitive factor in inaugurating this new community of faith seems not to have been Jesus' intention as such but rather the experience of the living presence of the risen Messiah, an experience variously described by the Gospel writers and by Paul. Jesus' life, death, and resurrection, as interpreted by his followers, gave rise to the movement that rather quickly became the NT ekklesia. But how, and by what stages, this band of believers evolved so as to become the church, with all the latter's institutional and doctrinal complexity and eventual multiplicity, is a matter of much controversy.
What can be said with certainty is fairly meager. By the middle of the first century Paul was freely using the term body of Christ and other theologically significant expressions to refer to the community of believers. The traditional account of "birthday of the Church" on the Day of Pentecost, as described in Acts 2, may certainly contain historical elements. But it came, in its present form, from a much later tradition. The same later tradition also gave us what is sometimes described as the first universal council (Acts 15), an event during which Paul's mission to Gentiles was affirmed, along with minimum conditions for their admission to the new community. It is this event that launched the community's transition from being one of many Jewish sects to being a self-standing body, yet one still without obvious signs of becoming what it did in fact become, a "church" for the Roman Empire as a whole.
Geographical Dispersion, Episcopacy, and the Formation of the Canon
Evidence exists within the NT for the early emergence of a variety of geographically dispersed centers of Christian activity—Damascus, Antioch, Alexandria, and others—whose ecclesiological self-understandings evidently varied. Many of these places are linked by being recipients of Paul's letters, in which they are urged to see themselves as members of "one body in Christ." But a connected ecclesial community across the Empire did not begin to be a reality until diocesan bishops—for example, Irenaeus (c. 130–203) and Cyprian (c. 205–258)—considered as successors to the apostles, took up their tasks of indicting heretical communities (Gnostics, Montanists, Novatians, Marcionites), regulating a common doctrinal patrimony, and taking steps toward defining a single canon of Scripture. By the late second century, nearly the whole of what became the NT was authoritative in the church for practical purposes. Yet the first known list of canonical writings corresponding to the present NT was made by Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria (296–373), in 367. Wholly uniform agreement on the content of the canon was achieved still later.
It has become increasingly clear to modern scholars that this canon-forming process may have excluded more writings than it allowed in. Expressions of the faith existed that were deemed inconsistent with the apostolic tradition handed down in the major dioceses. Some scholars argue that writings approved for inclusion in the canon of Scripture tended to be those that affirmed Jesus Christ, one way or another, as God, leaving aside communities more inclined to see Jesus as only a Gnostic or prophetic teacher.
In sum, by the fourth century the church was beginning to take on a determinate form as to structures of leadership, canonical sources, and the outlines of doctrine. Even so, different ecclesiological tendencies were evident. In Tertullian (c. 160–225) one finds what would today be termed a thoroughly sectarian ecclesiology. In the work of Eusebius of Caesarea (c. 264–340) one finds an ecclesiology suitable for the then new relationship between church and Empire.
It is plain that the Christian community's emerging structure rested substantially upon the theory and practice of episcopacy, from the time when the bishop was, in effect, pastor of the local congregation (the so-called Ignatian pattern) to the period of multicongregational dioceses. The ecclesiological significance of episcopacy had already been clearly expressed in the letters of Cyprian (200–258), third-century bishop of Carthage, who held that the bishop was necessary to the very being (esse ) of the church, not merely to its well-being (bene esse ): "The church is in the bishop, and the bishop in the church." Bishops were successors to the apostles. But Cyprian also proclaimed the essential equality of bishops, resisting the already growing power of the bishop of Rome. A century later Eusebius, in support of this emphasis on continuity, made lists of the bishops who had served in several key dioceses.
Constantine and Creeds
By the early fourth century the church was well positioned to take advantage of the emperor Constantine's (c. 274–337) unexpected move in 312 or 313 ce granting toleration and many other legal favors to the church within the Empire. Constantine's personal "conversion," as described by Lactantius (c. 260–340) and Eusebius, was not itself ecclesiologically important. But the new and growing relation of the church to the Roman state was, leading as it did to complex and portentous developments. In 380, for example, the emperor Theodosius (346–395) did what Constantine had not: he made Christianity the only licit religion of the Empire. Roman emperors had previously claimed the title pontifex maximus; that is, chief priest of the state-sanctioned pagan cults. It was natural that once they had become Christian, they should claim similar power in the church, not as priests, but as protectors, enforcers, and legitimators. Constantine's calling of the Council of Nicaea and his enforcement of its decrees was a case in point. Above all, the emperors wished to maintain a voice in appointments to high church office.
Still, there had not as yet emerged any authoritative ecclesiology, any doctrinal definition of the church's nature as such. "The church" was not yet what was later called a theological locus, a topic of doctrinal reflection. Cyprian's creed (c. 250) named the church not as an object of belief in itself but only as the community "through" which members believe in the forgiveness of sins and eternal life. The earliest versions of the Nicene and Apostles' Creeds made no mention of the "holy catholic church" as such. That reference was added in the Constantinopolitan supplement of 381 to the Creed of the Council of Nicaea of 325, and the church was now to be not only "believed" as a reliable witness to the truth but also "believed in"—a significant further step: "We believe in one holy, catholic and apostolic church.…" With these words there emerged for the first time what came to be called the four "marks" of the church, later prominent in Catholic attempts to counter Orthodox and Protestant claims.
Augustine of Hippo
A full theological reflection on the church's nature was to come only in the work of Augustine of Hippo (354–430). This bishop and saint believed deeply in the Catholic Church as a visible, worldwide institution continuous with the church of the apostles. The word catholic was henceforth no longer just an adjectival "mark" of the church in the Creed. Now it was part of a proper name: the Catholic Church. Augustine could now say that he believed in the gospel only on the authority of this church, whose character and historical role the saint adumbrated at several points in his writings, notably those arguing (against the Donatists) that ordination, baptism, absolution, and other acts of the church are not dependent on the moral character of the one who administers them but rather on the church's objective being and authority as expressed in these acts. Here was an anticipation of the Council of Trent's declaration that, in the sacraments, grace is conferred ex opere operato (by the act performed).
Augustine contributed further to Catholic ecclesiology by locating the church significantly in his world-historical drama The City of God. The true membership of that city, he taught, consists of God's chosen and predestined ones and is in principle invisible. The Church on earth visibly represents the heavenly City, although not all church members are actually citizens of the holy commonwealth, for not all belong to the company of the elect. The earthly church, notwithstanding its representative function, is therefore a corpus permixtum, a mixed body of the elect and the nonelect, and likewise of sinners and saints. Elect persons may belong in either of the latter categories. The earthly church's sacraments are nevertheless necessary for salvation. In principle, Augustine agreed with Origen (c. 185–c. 254), Cyprian, and the very similar language of the Athanasian Creed, extra ecclesiam nulla salus (no salvation [occurs] outside the church).
The character of the Catholic Church, early and late, is inseparable from the history of the papacy. According to tradition Peter was the first pope, but the whole early history of the papal institution, and with it the roots of the power and preferment of the See of Rome in relation to other dioceses, is shrouded in obscurity and controversy. By the close of the second century, however, if not earlier, the bishop of Rome had achieved a significant degree of primacy over other bishops. Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons, writing near the year 200, approvingly relates the story of this primacy, holding the See of Rome to have been founded by Peter and Paul, followed by other bishops in an unbroken line to his own day. Even so, at this time and for some centuries afterward, sees such as Jerusalem, Alexandria, and Antioch remain important centers of power and influence.
Political events from the fourth century onward offered opportunities for strengthening the papal institution. This, in turn, accentuated the relative administrative autonomy of the church, as well as its hierarchical character. Constantine's removal of his imperial administration from Rome to Constantinople gave the bishop of Rome added scope for independent action, as did the shift, in 404 ce, of the official imperial residence remaining in the West from Rome to Ravenna. Leo I "the Great" (440–461) took notable advantage of these circumstances to strengthen the Petrine office.
Other developments of ecclesiological importance occurred not long afterward. Among other things, the establishment of monastic and other orders, beginning with the Benedictine order about 528 or 529, protected by papal favor and rapidly proliferating across Europe, added a new and vital dimension to Catholic ecclesiology. Meanwhile, the popes continued their efforts to define and maintain ecclesiastical independence in the civil realm. The reigns of two popes in particular illustrate this point. With Gregory I "the Great" (590–604) the papacy began to take over many of the functions previously lodged in the state. Four hundred years later, Gregory VII (1073–1085), codified his conception of papal power in twenty-seven affirmations—not all of them new, but none before made explicit in this manner. This pope is especially remembered for his encounter with the Holy Roman Emperor, Henry IV, over the authority of secular princes to create bishops, the so-called investiture controversy. Henry made a symbolic submission to the pope but won a tactical political victory. Tensions over this and related church–state issues continued for centuries to shape the Western Church's character and self-understanding.
The Eastern Churches
No such centralized and politicized ecclesiology emerged in the East. Circumstances did not demand them. Constantinople's patriarch ruled in the shadow of the emperor and the power of the civil authorities. Furthermore, it appeared that the genius of the Eastern Church was not for wrestling with the contingencies of human events but for reflecting on humanity's relationships with divinity. The ecclesiology of the East was far more tied to the liturgy and to a conception by which the church became a doorway to theosis, humanity's spiritual pilgrimage toward unity with God. While the church of the West up to the time of the Reformation maintained its administrative, liturgical, and theological unity, the Eastern Church expanded the variety of its expressions and relationships, each "autocephalous" body representing a different political history and set of cultural traits. "Oriental" Orthodox churches were already well established in Egypt, Syria, Armenia, India, and elsewhere. As early as the fourth or fifth century an Eastern Christianity, with a Latin culture, existed in what is now Romania. By the seventh century Eastern Christianity was spreading into the Slavic territories of Eastern Europe, giving rise to the Bulgarian and other Orthodox churches. By the tenth century orthodoxy was spreading into Russia, where it eventually became the largest of the Orthodox bodies.
As this expansion proceeded, tensions between the Eastern and Western branches of the Church were growing more marked. Specific differences—liturgical, canonical, theological—played their part. Among these, but hardly alone, was the theological question raised by the addition in the West of the word filioque (and the Son) to the clause in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed having to do with the "procession" of the Holy Spirit. Such tensions were exacerbated by ecclesio-political pressures, including the presence of unruly crusaders from the West in the eastern territories and competition for ecclesiastical control over southern Italy and Sicily.
Matters came to a head over the claim of Pope Leo IX to supremacy by the See of Peter over the entire Catholic Church, a supremacy the pope deemed incompatible with the autonomy of territorial churches in the East. Despite the desire of the emperor to maintain the religious unity of his realm, successive attempts to negotiate these disputes went nowhere.
In 1054 a papal sentence of excommunication of the patriarch and his followers was followed by an act of excommunication in return. Events were to prove that this was not a final breach. Negotiations went on for nearly four hundred years, to be ended finally by the conquest of Constantinople by the Ottoman Turks in 1453.
Thus was established a separation that has continued to the present day, perpetuating two broad ecclesiological cultures in East and West, with much in common but marked differences owing to historical and cultural experience. The overriding characteristic of the Eastern churches has consistently been their maintenance of continuity with the ecclesiastical forms and teachings of the Church Fathers and of the first seven ecumenical councils, from Nicaea (325) to Second Nicaea (787). These churches, apart from their diaspora communities in the West, including the Americas, have over the years been relatively little influenced by Western cultural phenomena such as the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Enlightenment. This isolation has begun to be overcome by these churches' participation in the modern ecumenical movement.
The Rise of Protestantism
It would be simplistic to claim that significant ecclesiological development in the West halted from the time of the great popes to the coming of the Reformation. Medieval theologians refer from time to time to this subject. But it is only with the Protestant reformers that ecclesiology again became a foreground issue in the church, with markedly varied outcomes in different parts of Europe.
Martin Luther (1483–1546)
Early in his career, Luther sought to reform, but not divide, the church of the West. He regarded the division his activities in fact brought about as temporary, pending correction of certain abusive practices in the parent body. Therefore, he did not set out to formulate an alternative ecclesiological position. But Luther soon found himself at the heart of a movement of German princes, merchants, bishops, and priests, all with reasons for wishing to be free of Roman authority. Theological discovery coincided with practical political and economic interests. In 1520 Luther attacked the papal institution in a series of tracts denouncing the alleged superiority and privileges of the clergy over the laity, the pope's claim to have exclusive authority to interpret Scripture, and the claim that only the pope could call a council of the church. Papal doctrine, he said, held the church in a kind of Babylonian captivity, especially where the sacraments were concerned. Luther maintained that in pressing these views he and his followers were simply reasserting historic Christianity as it had been before its corruption by Rome.
Excommunication by the pope followed in 1520, and an imperial ban came in 1521. Faced with the challenge of reconstituting a church for Germany independent of papal authority, Luther turned first to Augustine's distinction between the church as a visible gathering, on the one hand, and an invisible company of those predestined for salvation from before the world's beginning on the other. For Luther, as for Augustine, the visible church contained a mixture of the elect and the nonelect. Yet, being the nominalist that he was, Luther rejected the seeming metaphysical realism of Augustine's notion of the church of the elect. He preferred to see this notion rather as a critical principle for judging the fidelity of all historical expressions of the church. Specific types of ecclesiastical structure and governance were to him adiaphora, matters of indifference, so long as the Word was rightly preached and the Eucharist and baptism rightly administered, implying communion with the true Body of Christ. Luther later added to these primary signs several secondary ones: the power of the keys, ministry, public prayer, and Christian life shaped by the cross.
One infers that this reformer would in principle have preferred a church consisting of congregations of committed believers. Yet, for the sake of consistency and order, he held to the principle of the territorial church to which all inhabitants were admitted by baptism. Moreover, with the old ecclesiastical structure dissolving, Luther gave the lay princes of these territories reason to disregard the episcopal and papal courts. The princes, in turn, were not slow to exercise administrative authority over the parish clergy. Hence the system of German Landeskirchen, or territorial churches that has persisted to the present day. In the outcome, some Landes, especially in the south, remained Catholic, while others in various ways embraced the Reformation, following in each case the religious allegiance of the prince in question.
John Calvin (1509–1564)
A generation later, John Calvin found himself in an analogous but yet significantly different situation. He was summoned to the independent city-state of Geneva as a theological mentor in that community's effort to become a self-standing Christian community on Reformation principles. Calvin was therefore preoccupied with the organization of a community that gathered at one moment as church and at another as civic commonwealth. Calvin's ecclesiology and his statecraft therefore interpenetrate. The state was to uphold pure doctrine and the Church's temporal interests. Yet church and state were not to be confused or to interfere with one another.
While he extended, even radicalized, Augustine's notion of predestination, Calvin did not see the visible and invisible churches as two different realms, but rather as two ways of speaking about the one church. For Calvin the church existed where the gospel was properly preached and the sacraments administered according to God's Word. But Calvin was unwilling to lay upon others the specific ecclesiological and political provisions that Geneva had found suitable for regulating its own Christian life. The Calvinist or "Reformed" ecclesiology is therefore open to being expressed in many different outward forms. This is what happened as versions of Calvinism spread across Europe, to North America, and to other parts of the globe.
The "left wing" of the Reformation
Within Europe, the church structures built on the work of Luther and Calvin remained territorial—intended, that is, to embrace the corpus permixtum represented by whole populations. But the European continent also saw a proliferation of separatist, "free church," or "believers' church" ecclesiologies. The "radical reformers" behind these movements—Anabaptists, Mennonites, Hutterites, and many others—in effect collapsed the classical distinction between the visible, imperfect church on earth and the invisible church of the true saints, making the demand for visible conformity with Christ's teachings a central tenet of the earthly Christian community. This meant a separation from the territorially conceived Lutheran and Reformed bodies, a rejection of infant baptism, and a policy of withdrawal from the affairs of the state and the practices of warfare and judicial violence. The radical reformers saw precedents for their vision in the life of groups in the early church. Bodies with comparable ecclesiological convictions have continued to exist through the centuries to the present day.
Ecclesiological developments in Britain
The ecclesial expressions that emerged in Britain under the influence of Lutheran, Calvinist, and "free church" conceptions were shaped by the particular histories of those islands in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
In England, King Henry VIII proclaimed himself "supreme head on earth of the English church," replacing the pope in this role and thereby launching the history of Anglicanism. This body retained the episcopal form of church governance and the claim to apostolic succession, yet it entertained a variety of theological self-understandings from "protestant" or "evangelical" to "catholic" in tendency. Simultaneously, Roman Catholicism continued through changing fortunes in Britain. The rise of "Anglo-Catholicism" in nineteenth-century Anglicanism brought a part of that communion close to Catholicism in virtually every respect but formal allegiance to the pope. Indeed, the rise of this position in Anglicanism may have been responsible for the rise in English of the term Roman Catholic Church, as opposed to merely Catholic Church, in order to distinguish the latter from its Anglican counterpart.
Meanwhile, a Congregational ecclesiology grew, by a lengthy process, out of sixteenth-century "Puritan" attempts to purify the Church of England. Many leaders of this effort had been in contact with Protestants in centers such as Basel, Strasbourg, and other cities of the Rhine Valley. Some of the former hoped to replace the episcopal governance of the English church with an essentially Presbyterian system. Failing this, some of this opinion joined separatist, or independent, groups of various kinds. Congregationalism as a distinct body was the product of a coalition of these impulses joined in support of the Cromwellian revolution of the seventeenth century and developed institutionally in the wake of that revolution's collapse.
Congregationalists practiced the autonomy of the local congregation within a loosely overarching church structure. The emphasis on decision making by the local gathering was generally shared by the various sorts of English nonconformists; Congregationalism thus came to represent the more conservative wing of nonconformity, while on the left arose such groups as the Society of Friends, the Levellers, the Diggers, and the apocalyptically oriented Fifth Monarchy Men.
A fully Presbyterian ecclesiology, though favored by many sixteenth-century English Puritans, was to become dominant only in Scotland, as articulated in John Knox's First Book of Discipline (1561), and achieving its classical shape under an act of 1690 establishing the Church of Scotland as it was to remain for generations in that nation. This polity was characterized by the rule of "presbyteries" (regional governing bodies composed of ministers and elders), held to the principle of "parity" of clergy—recognizing no higher order of ministry in the church than that of presbyter or elder—and to governance by a hierarchy of church "courts" from the "session" of a local congregation to the General Assembly.
The character of Scottish Presbyterian anti-episcopal sentiment was shaped by centuries of highly intricate political conflict between Scotland and England in the course of which episcopacy became associated with rule by the English sovereign. Scottish Presbyterians made common cause with the English Parliamentary Party against King Charles I and with the Puritans of the Cromwellian period, helping to embody their theological and ecclesiological principles in the Westminster Confession of Faith (1646).
Transitions beyond Europe: the "denomination"
Virtually all of the European churches—Roman Catholic, classical Protestant, and free church alike—leapt across the Atlantic to North America, and then, at a later date, to mission fields across the globe. Colonial America saw several instances of territorial domination and formal establishment of religious bodies, such as Anglicanism in Virginia and Congregational Puritanism in Massachusetts. But Christian bodies that had previously been territorially established in conception and practice eventually found themselves living alongside many others in the same districts, cities, and towns. This, combined with various understandings of the "separation of church and state," the disappearance of ecclesiastical establishments, and nineteenth-century immigration from the European continent gave birth to a new notion, that of the "denomination." It was now impossible to consider all the inhabitants of a territory to be church members by baptism. Denominations were now competing with one another in open markets as alternative ecclesial possibilities.
Sometimes, of course, certain denominations became numerically dominant in their regions—Baptists or Methodists in the American South, Lutherans in the upper Midwest—leading them to function like European territorial churches. In other cases, they were forced to function as if they were independent or separatist bodies whether or not their original ecclesiologies would have supported such a notion. Even Roman Catholicism came to be looked upon as one "denomination" among others in many parts of America and the rest of the world.
From the notion of "denomination" as an American adaptation of ecclesiastical bodies born elsewhere, it was an easy step to forms of the church, having little or no continuity with European origins, arising to meet local or freshly identified needs. A significant example, among others, would be the emergence of the "black church" in America, going back as far as the seventeenth century to what has been called the "invisible institution" among the transplanted African slaves—a "clearing of freedom" in a world of oppression. After emancipation, the black churches became "denominations" in their own right, with the vitally important social role of being "a nation within a nation," forming a new paradigm of what it meant to be a church.
Likewise, missionary efforts transplanting churches from Europe and the New World to other parts of the globe, beginning with Spanish colonization enterprises in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and being undertaken in earnest, if differently, by American and European Protestants in the later nineteenth century, generated ecclesiastical polities resembling the former ones but with histories of their own. The rise of nineteenth- and twentieth-century American evangelicalism, which gave much impetus to these missionary efforts, produced a new, effectively postdenominational consciousness that paid little attention to ecclesiological matters but in fact represented an ecclesiology in which most of the older categories and barriers simply disappeared. In their place arose a broad evangelical culture in which one could, as it were, reach a direct, institutionally unmediated relationship to God in Jesus Christ. Revivalist enthusiasm for spreading the gospel cut across all ecclesiastical lines and exported this spirit to other parts of the world.
The twentieth century was marked by a new self-consciousness about the importance of ecclesiological issues and the means of pursuing them. It began to be seen that these issues have to do with the visible form of the presentation of the Christian message to the world. The impact of ecclesiastical divisions on this presentation began to be felt particularly by nineteenth-century Protestants in the mission fields, where historical reasons for such divisions meant little and the divisions themselves came to be seen as scandalous.
The rise of the ecumenical movement
Such realizations began to resonate in the sending churches of Europe and North America, coming to expression particularly in World Missionary Conference at Edinburgh in 1910 and in the founding of the Life and Work movement (Stockholm, 1925) and the Faith and Order movement (Lausanne, 1927). Further decades of consultation led to the founding of the World Council of Churches (WCC) in Amsterdam in 1948. All this brought about profound changes in ecclesiological attitudes, despite the fact that the WCC never professed to be a churchly body in itself and always made clear that membership in it did not involve any compromise of a church's ecclesiological convictions. A wide range of ecclesiastical bodies joined, including most mainstream Protestant churches in Europe, North America, and the former mission fields, as well as most of the Orthodox communions of the East. Many evangelical groups and the Roman Catholic Church remained formally outside. But Rome has for years been officially represented on the WCC's Commission on Faith and Order, devoted to church unity matters.
Meanwhile, the Second Vatican Council of the Roman Catholic Church, meeting from 1963 to 1965, not only dealt profoundly and innovatively with ecclesiological issues but also became an event of great ecclesiological importance by demonstrating the significance of the conciliar strand in the structure and governance of that body.
The council's "Dogmatic Constitution on the Church," Lumen Gentium, opens with the affirmation that "the church, in Christ, is in the nature of sacrament—a sign and instrument that is—of communion with God and of unity among all men." This church is both the mystical body of Christ and also a visible community. These are not two realities but one, in which a divine and a human element come together, much as do the divine and human natures of Jesus Christ. This church "constituted and organized as a society in the present world, subsists in the Catholic Church, which is governed by the successor of Peter and by the bishops in communion with him. Nevertheless, many elements of sanctification and of truth are found outside its visible confines."
At the same time this church is heir to the whole biblical tradition concerning the "people of God," from God's covenant with Israel to the new people of God inaugurated by Christ. This messianic people, although it does not include all human beings, is the "most sure seed of unity, hope and salvation for the whole human race."
Liberation theology and the "base communities"
The rise of "liberation theology," largely a product of Latin American Catholicism but also represented by Protestant writers, has been in many ways a product of the Second Vatican Council's "people of God" ecclesiology. The most important ecclesiological product of this movement has been a "reinvention" of the church in the form of ecclesial "base communities."
Most such communities began as neighborhood gatherings designed to respond to the absence of enough priests to offer the sacraments in the parish churches. In these settings, lay leadership sought to connect the gospel with the practical needs and aspirations of the people. There emerged a view of the church as sacramental and communal as opposed to juridical and hierarchical, an ecclesiology with political implications of a new kind, as recognized by the 1968 Medellín, Colombia, conference of Latin American Catholic bishops, and restated by the 1979 Puebla, Mexico, bishops' gathering as a "preferential option for the poor."
Meanwhile, the ecclesio-genetic notion of the base communities has been borrowed by other groups in other parts of the world. Among the most prominent are gatherings of women determined to "reinvent the church" in their own way. These groups vary widely in style and thought, but are united in the perception that the entire patriarchally dominated development of the church's self-understanding has been fundamentally distorted by a systematic exclusion of women's voices and contributions.
End-of-century ecumenism: ecclesiology and ethics
The impact of liberation themes on ecumenism had the effect, from roughly the 1970s onward, of affirming the intimate connection of ecclesiology with social ethics. Explorers of the meaning of this connection added human-science perspectives to ecumenical insights to portray a church that expressed its being, its esse, as an alternative moral community in the world. Here was a vision of the church as disciplined moral community, as opposed to churches largely assimilated to the values of the cultures around them. This vision in turn raised the question whether churches separated by differences with regard to ministry and sacraments might find a kind of moral communion with one another, or at least discover a moral dimension in their search for sacramental communion.
At the Dawn of the Twenty-First Century
The twenty-first century has begun with considerable convergence in the formal, classical arenas of ecclesiological thinking. The work of the WCC's Commission on Faith and Order, called by some "the most comprehensive theological forum in Christendom," has continued, together with a wide range of bilateral dialogues among the different communions. The WCC document The Nature and Purpose of the Church: A Stage on the Way to a Common Statement (1998) comes closest to articulating the "state of the question" in twenty-first-century ecumenical discussions of ecclesiology. There exists a broad convergence in biblical and theological terms about the church's nature and purpose. But seemingly intractable differences remain as to how these insights should shape visible institutional structures and strategies. The discussion of these issues continues, as does work on ecclesiology-and-ethics matters, where common agendas are hard to reach.
Meanwhile, the primary institutional context for ecumenical thinking, the WCC, is coming under increasing ideological and financial pressures. The Orthodox churches are pressing the council for greater recognition of their traditional claims. Other member churches are distracted by internal issues, notably conflict over conservative versus liberal visions and the roles of openly homosexual persons in the leadership of the church.
It is not clear that the twentieth-century achievements of ecumenism and conciliarism can be preserved. At the very least, the whole configuration of organized interchurch relationships is in a process of change. At this writing, it cannot be known how these questions will be resolved. Profound changes are taking place in the world that are bound to have an impact on the global shape of the ekklesia. The diminishing influence of traditional churches in Europe and North America contrasts with the rising profile of evangelical movements there and across the globe. The shift of major centers of Christian population toward the southern hemisphere brings traditional ecclesiologies under the pressure of new cultural assumptions.
Churches are questioning the justice, and the consequences, of their traditional alliances with Western power centers. Overcoming violence worldwide has become a priority issue. And finally, the possibility of new, more positive relationships with other world faiths over issues concerning humanity in general opens directions for inquiry and action whose consequences cannot be foreseen.
Christian Social Movements; Ministry; Missions, article on Christian Missions; Monasticism, article on Christian Monasticism; Nuns, article on Christian Nuns and Sisters; Priesthood, article on Christian Priesthood.
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Lewis S. Mudge (2005)