Emerging ecclesiology in crisis

I have been meaning for some time to respond to some comments made by Jason Clark to the effect that the emerging church lacks a coherent ecclesiology. He was commenting on a piece I wrote four years ago asking: What does the emerging church stand for?

Jason acknowledges that there have been some important ecclesial “turns”—the search for a more solid experience of church in Anglicanism, for example, or the development of “missional communities”. But he feels, nevertheless, that ecclesiology has rather lost out to mission. The emerging church movement has mapped the postmodern socio-cultural landscape in considerable detail but has not attempted to define the form of the body of Christ in this brave new world with anything like the same enthusiasm.

Jason concludes by asking whether we should not speak rather of an “Emerging Christianity”, making reference to his personal conviction that “the Church is a thing in and of itself, a commitment to particularity, presence and a way of life with others”.

I want to suggest here that the debate about an emerging ecclesiology needs to be developed in two directions—in fact, two biblical directions. I will mention the first briefly and spend a bit more time on the second, partly because it is a continuation of the argument of this post on 1 Peter.

An emerging ethnology

To begin with, the phrase “Emerging Christianity” doesn’t work for me. On the one hand, the word “Christianity” is too redolent of the modern notion of religious systems in competition with each other; on the other, there is too much Christianity that lies beyond the purview of that way of being church that we label—or used to label—”emerging”.

But I think I understand Jason’s concern to find something underlying the notion of “church”—something more fundamental, of which “church”, in various ways, is the concrete and particular social expression. My suggestion would be that what is needed is an ethnological account of “Christian” existence. We need to answer the question: What sort of people are we? Who are we—and why are we—prior to our structured, concentrated existence as “church”? How are we distinct in terms of culture, ideology, loyalty, forms of public life, etc., from other peoples?

To my mind, the main benefit to be gained from such an ethnological account is that it would align us with the larger biblical narrative of the people of God, bringing into focus a much broader set of issues relating to personal and communal existence than is usually included within an ecclesiology. In simple terms, at the ethnological level we are a people called in Abraham to be a new or alternative creation in the world—a creational microcosm. So arguably, this becomes, at a deeper level still, a matter of anthropology: what does it mean to be authentically human?

Human existence, however, is not fixed or static; it is subject to constant change. So an ethnological account of the church must be matched by a narrative-historical account, which brings us to the second direction in which I think an emerging ecclesiology needs to be taken.

Communities of eschatological transition

The story of the people of God is a story of repeated crisis and consolidation. The patriarchal families become enslaved in Egypt. They make the difficult journey of the exodus and become a settled community in the land that was promised to them. Israel becomes a kingdom, but then is humiliated by exile. The Jews return from Babylon, and the temple is rebuilt, but then they fall under Roman domination. Communities of Jesus’ followers make another difficult journey out of the ruins of second temple Judaism until they are eventually consolidated as Christendom. The cultural and religious hegemony of the Church in the West has now collapsed, and the people of God is again in crisis, wandering in the wilderness, in search of a new stasis.

An emerging ecclesiology has to take this narrative-historical dynamic into consideration. What does it mean to be the people of God at this point in the story, at this moment of crisis? Indeed, I would say that the emerging church is the church as it struggles faithfully to come to terms with the failure of the Christendom paradigm.

Here we begin to see the potency of a narrative-historical reading of the New Testament. The church as it is described in the New Testament is a concrete and particular expression of the people of God under conditions of eschatological transition. New Testament ecclesiology is a statement about the distinctive calling of these communities and about how they should exist and function in accordance with it. Let me give three examples.

1. The Jewish-Christian communities in Jerusalem and Judea were a prophetic sign to Israel that catastrophic eschatological transformation was about to take place. The outpouring of the Spirit upon them at Pentecost empowered them to develop the ministry of Jesus—and of John the Baptist before him—into a prophetic movement. It was no longer one or two outstanding charismatic individuals who warned Israel of coming judgment. A whole community had now been commissioned by YHWH to prophesy, see visions, dream dreams about the coming terrible “day of the Lord”—a day of judgment from which only those Jews who called on the name of the Lord would be saved (Acts 2:17-21).

2. In 1 Peter and Hebrews we get a glimpse of Jewish-Christian communities in the diaspora which had come to believe that YHWH had raised Jesus from the dead and given him authority to rule over the people of God. The emphasis on persecution in these Letters is not incidental to their ecclesiology. Their ecclesiology is a response to the prospect of suffering; it defines the concrete manner in which the people of the living God would eventually overcome the forces—whether Jewish or pagan—that opposed them.

3. In Romans Paul addresses largely Gentile communities which had been grafted into the rich root of the patriarchs, chosen to be a sign to the Greek-Roman world that the God of Israel would judge not only his own rebellious people but also the idolatrous and corrupt empire that straddled Europe and the Near East. They were to be living sacrifices, no longer conformed to the beliefs and values of a world that would soon pass away, through whose faithful witness—through whose very existence—the old pagan order would be overturned and the true creator God would show himself to be righteous.

In each instance, these were saved communities. They had been saved from the condemnation of the Law—whether against rebellion and apostasy, in Israel’s case, or against idolatry, immorality and injustice, in the case of the nations. But as saved communities they were a sign to the world that the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob was about to act sovereignly, through his Son whom he had raised from the dead, to bring about a profound and far-reaching realignment of the ancient world. To be a church of Jesus Christ in this concrete and particular narrative-historical sense meant to be a prophetic community of eschatological transformation.

Emerging prophetic communities of eschatological transformation

In narrative-historical terms the Western church today is not in the same position as the New Testament church; but there are some important similarities, and it seems appropriate to suppose that an emerging ecclesiology must be constructed at the intersection of a general ethnology and a re-contextualized eschatology.

Secular rationalism has pulled the carpet from under the church’s feet and we have hit the ground hard. We are again at the turn of the ages. We are again in crisis. We are again suffering the painful and bewildering birth pangs of a new mode of ecclesial existence, and we are no more clear about its eventual shape than Paul was regarding the shape of Christian Europe.

But we are not left without guidelines—or, for that matter, without a guide.

In some sense, at least, we acknowledge that the old Christendom paradigm and its reductionist modern aftermath have been judged deficient—the new will not be constructed out of the rubble of the old.

We have some critical points of narrative reference—the call of Abraham to be the beginning of a new creation in defiance of humanity’s propensity to make itself God, the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, the accountability of the church to the one who has been given the name which is above every name, and the future and final remaking of heaven and earth. It is not too difficult to plot our position within that trajectory.

The creator God still brings a people into existence out of nothing to represent an alternative way of being human in the world, but we have this responsibility at a time of crisis, when the old intellectual and cultural scaffolding has largely collapsed, when the modern church has become—even at its best—a mostly institutionalized, self-absorbed relic of a bygone age.

In the light of this an emerging ecclesiology has to ask: What sort of communities do we need to be in order to preserve our ethnological identity and vocation under the present conditions? What does it mean for churches now to be prophetic agents of eschatological transformation? In other words, we should be looking for an ecclesiology not of complacent continuity but of crisis.

Doug in CO | Mon, 09/19/2011 - 06:32 | Permalink

I think the primary practical thing that the American (I presume the rest of the West as well, but I've never experienced Christianity outside of the U.S.) church needs to reconsider is its view on martyrdom.  When the church has been most successful (the most obedient to the example of its leader) it has accepted martyrdom as a fact of life.  In fact, Christians in the early church saw martyrdom as the full expression of faithfulness to Christ.

Today, martyrdom appears to the church I'm familiar with as a tragedy.  If a Christian is martyred it seems as if something went wrong.  Someone should DO something about this!  Why didn't God help him?!

I think part of this might be due to the emphasis on Penal Substitutionary Atonement in modern theology.  I have yet to hear anyone explain why Christ had to die according to that system.  But, in other views of atonement such as Moral Transformation Christ's death (not just his invisible punishment by God while on the cross before he died) established the ultimate level of obedience as a model for his followers.  Christ wasn't asking any more of his followers than he was willing to do himself.  It's no wonder that this view of atonement was compelling to people who were being martyred, while Penal Substitutionary Atonement didn't become dominant in church doctrine for almost 1,500 years.

Though martyrdom itself is on the extreme end of the continuum, establishing a more healthy view on it will help with the views of Christian sacrifice across the board.  I think this side of Christian culture is severely atrophied.


Doug Wilkinson

Doug, I agree. I think that the call to suffering, culminating potentially in martyrdom, lies at the heart of New Testament theology. I also think it constitutes a key category for understanding Jesus’ death. However, I would also argue that within the frame of a Jewish Old Testament narrative something like penal substitutionary atonement makes good sense. I’m just not sure that it should be applied outside of that narrative context.

Thanks for the links to your other blog. I read some of the similar blogs as well. The problem that I see with your formulation is that it's a different doctrine from the Reformed school under the same name. I happen to like the trajectory you are on with some of it, but I would suggest changing the name to "Covenant Violation Substitutionary Atonement" or something similar in order to differentiate it from the standard PSA formulation. Why is this important? Because though there is some substitutionary flavor to Biblical atonement the details of the PSA position won't fit into your paradigm. Your offer to save the doctrine by tying it to the Old Testament Mosaic Covenant is generous. But, Reformed types will not be satisfied with your offer. It took until the 1500'sAD for the cultural scenario to be such that the penal argument was compelling. Working back in time it was the satisfaction of honor with Anselm. Before that is was Christus Victor in a couple of forms. The same culture that generated a compelling need for penal satisfaction in 1500AD didn't exist in the 100'sAD (or 1500'sBC). The 100AD definition of "penal" will be different, and not as compelling, as the 1500AD one. Brondos' books, specifically "Introduction to Salvation and the Cross", do a good job of describing this incompatibility.


The three books which best describe my opinion on this topic right now are your book on Romans, "Paul on the Cross" by Brondos, and "Moral Transformation" by Wallace and Rusk. In my opinion, if you were to find a way to synthesize a coherent doctrine from these three influences you'd have a very powerful presentation of atonement. I haven't seen anything in these three works that is mutually exclusive.

Interesting thoughts, Doug. My intention was never really to satisfy the Reformed types—the argument rests on very different foundations. But I did want to offer some resistance to emerging or liberal views which dismissed the Reformed doctrine out of hand. What concerns me on both sides of the debate is the careless attitude towards biblical interpretation and the extent to which people see in scripture only what they want to see. How we then assimilate and develop the biblical data is another matter.


Respect for the text (as a whole) is one of the things that makes me suspicious of PSA.  The point of Brondos' book (I highly suggest reading it if you haven't) is that you have to look at the way atonement was promised throughout scripture when trying to define such things.  So, to start with, you need to see what atonement is promised in the OT.  Then, you need to see if that story is presented in the synoptics (which it is, and it's very covenantal).  Finally, it's important that Paul is saying essentially the same thing (he might expound on details or apply it uniquely to Gentiles, but he should be teaching the same Gospel).  One of the the things you'll hear from Dispensationalists (who have a very muddled history on soteriology, though it is completely based on PSA) is that you won't find a presentation of the Gospel in the synoptics until the very end of the story ("The Gospel" only comes into the storyline once Israel has rejected her kingdom).  This is a red flag in my opinion.  I think Brondos does a good job of explaining how to reconcile all of this in a way that is honoring to the text and the covenantal promise storyline.

On the other hand, when you are talking about liberals, in as much as you are talking about the feminists who see atonement as child abuse I am 100% on board with pushing back against that.