What We Believe
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The Church: An Introduction. Short Studies in Systematic Theology, by Gregg R. Allison. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2021, 181 pages, $14.99, paper.

There is a difference between what constitutes the being of the church and its well-being. What the church is in relation to God, and a church’s confession of the gospel, are essential to the church, while churches can still be churches while differing over things like the form of government or the administration of the sacraments. This introductory book focusses on the catholicity of the church in its local expression. Seeking to cut across denominational distinctives, Allison highlights what churches have in common in what he calls “mere ecclesiology,” while introducing potential differences under the heading of “more ecclesiology.” Though we must retain the vital distinction between the being and well-being of the church, it is not always possible to separate the two fully. This book is a useful primer on the doctrine of the church in the main, yet it simultaneously illustrates how underlying issues drawn from distinct denominational convictions shape our ecclesiology as a whole as well as our polity in particular. 

Allison lays the foundation for the doctrine of the church in the first two chapters, both doctrinally and biblically. Grounding the church first theologically in the Trinity, he then illustrates the nature of the church in both the Old and New Testaments. From chapter three onward, each chapter follows the pattern of “mere ecclesiology” and “more ecclesiology” (51). Topics include identifying the church around “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic” (via the Nicene Creed), church leadership, government, sacraments, ministries, and eschatology. Allison fills his pages with extensive Scripture citations, making the biblical text stand in the foreground as his readers follow his arguments.

Often the “more ecclesiology” sections present differing viewpoints without any attempt to resolve them, such as with respect to the cessation of extraordinary gifts of the Spirit and various views on the millennium. Other times, however, he does decide issues, such as whether we should baptize infants (or rather why we should not do so) or how many offices the church should have. Strangely, the author bypasses some standard ecclesiological questions, such as the visible and invisible aspects of the church. Whether he receives, rejects, or modifies such distinctions, omitting them results in an incomplete feel to the book. Readers should note as well that the author also takes deaconesses for granted among his readers (86), later arguing for them explicitly (144–46). Overall, the book establishes a biblical doctrine of the church that should resonate with most Christians.

The being and the well-being of the church, though necessarily distinct, are not easily separable. How we frame ecclesiology shapes our understanding of church government and practice in subtle ways. Several issues in this work illustrate why and how this is the case. The author is a professor at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. As such, his ecclesiology, and not merely his polity, differs to an extent from other communions, such as Presbyterians and Episcopalians. Without blunting the force of what all true churches have in common, these differences filter into one’s understanding of the nature of the church and her ordinances. For example, Allison asserts that the new covenant church, composed of Jews and Gentiles, is the “elect” people of God (29). While this point is generally correct, it can create problems with regard to practical issues like apostasy. Simon the Sorcerer in Acts 8 was admitted to the church through baptism, yet Peter later concluded that he was unconverted. Was he a church member in any sense if he was unregenerate and, presumably, not elect? This is where distinguishing the visible and invisible aspects of the church bears fruit. Jesus also refers to unfruitful branches in the vine in John 15, whom the Father will cut off, and 2 Peter 2:1 refers to some who deny “the Lord who bought them.” The church must encompass more than the elect. There is a corporate election and purchase by Christ resulting in an external union with his body, as well as an individual election and atonement of Christ that applies to true believers. Israel “according to the flesh” had “the adoption” (Rom. 9:4; Deut. 32:6), even though some of them were not his children (Deut. 32:5). Is this not equally true in the new covenant, where some bear the family name of the Triune God in their baptism while they prove later never to have been “of us” because they departed from us (1 John 2:19)? The focus of the church, both old covenant and new, is on the elect of God savingly united to Christ by the Spirit’s power. Yet there always have been those who are in the church and not of the church. A Baptist doctrine of a pure new covenant church consisting of elect believers only picks up one key idea in ecclesiology, but it cannot say all that the New Testament says about the church. There are always people under the administration of the covenant of grace through the church’s visible aspect who do not belong to its essence through its invisible aspect.

A few other issues arise in relation to Allison’s accuracy in sketching the three most common forms of church polity. His depiction of Epsicopalianism is relatively straightforward, but a few points require correction in his outline of Presbyterian and Congregational polity. While associating government by elders with Presbyterianism, Allison omits the issue of the keys of the kingdom being exercised beyond the local level, which is the primary point that distinguishes Presbyterianism from some forms of Congregationalism (99). In other words, all Presbyterian churches are governed by elders, but not all elder governed churches are Presbyterian. This results in a twin problem in his definition of Congregationalism, which he notes is marked by “autonomy” from other churches and “democracy” in government (101). While this may often be true, it was not always true historically, nor is it now. Congregationalism means that church government terminates at the local level, whether or not those churches are democratic or elder governed. English Congregationalists who participated in the Westminster Assembly, for example, were not democratic but were governed by elders. This stands in contrast to Allison’s claim that elder-ruled Congregational churches “is almost an oxymoron” (103). Moreover, Allison appears to relegate the election of officers by church members to Congregationalism alone (102). Yet this is part of what distinguishes Presbyterianism from Episcopalianism. While not encroaching on the being of the church directly, the assumptions underlying this sketch of church polity assume that the term “church” in the New Testament can refer to local congregations only, which nearly implies that the church is inherently Congregational and possibly democratic in government.

One last illustration of the difficulty of entirely disentangling “mere ecclesiology” from “more ecclesiology” relates to the sacraments. Allison states baldly, “the nature of baptism is a human act by which faith in God’s provision of salvation is expressed” (116). However, this contradicts the nature of the sacraments as the visible word of God, which definition the author relies upon earlier (106). Irrespective of whether we baptize infants and adults, or adults only, does not treating the sacrament as “a human act” contradict the nature of the sacraments by muting the divine promises standing behind them? Instead of prioritizing personal faith in God’s promises, the Scriptures stress God’s promises, which require personal faith. This point does not decide the issue over infant baptism, but it opens the door for discussing the question. It likewise highlights the Baptist position on the nature of the sacraments by reducing the essence of baptism to one’s profession of faith. Regarding baptism, Scripture states that by one Spirit we have all been baptized into one body (1 Cor. 12:13). We have been buried with Christ in baptism and raised with him by God’s power (Col. 2:12). We are joined to Christ in baptism and buried with him in baptism (Rom. 6:3-4). These texts and others like them illustrate why baptism is God’s act rather than a human act. Sacraments are the visible word of God rather than the visible word of man. In light of the fact that Allison makes sacraments a mark of the church, this difference stretches beyond polity, encroaching on ecclesiology.

Distinguishing “mere ecclesiology” from “more ecclesiology” is important and necessary. Yet this book illustrates an equally important point; we can never fully disentangle the two. How we establish the principles of the nature and ordinances of the church affects how these principles find practical expression in church government, ministry, and ordinances. Our definition of the church affects our church polity and how we administer the sacraments. Whether we understand the church as local only, or regional and ecumenical by definition, shapes our grasp of unity and catholicity. This book simultaneously shows us a model of being broad in our affections, and why secondary matters still matter.

Ryan M. McGraw is a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church serving as a  professor of systematic theology at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Greenville, South Carolina. Ordained Servant Online, October 2021.

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