The doctrine of the church has fallen on hard times. For some, the word church prompts memories of hurtful experiences. For others, the idea of attending church represents a throwback to yesteryear, a return to an obsolete institution that is built on outdated traditions. For others still, the church is not only hypocritical and irrelevant but also shallow and boring.
Part of the problem is that many Christians are guilty of what might be called a decapitated ecclesiology. We have severed the body of Christ from its Head. This problem runs across the spectrum of conservative and progressive churches and is seen whenever professing Christians craft the church into their own image.
Some people view Christian growth as being best cultivated privately rather than corporately, so ecclesiology is construed along individual or maybe even tribal lines. Others prefer to articulate faithfulness to the church in terms of preserving time-honored traditions. And some are driven by finding new methods to reach more people.
The point is that we often tend to think about the church in ways that reflect our own biases. But when we do, we risk reducing our ecclesiology to experiences, ceremonies, programs, and the like. These things may be well and good, but they cannot represent what it means for the church to be the church.
We often hear that the New Testament has little to say about the church. That’s because we assume that the purpose of the church is to address our felt needs. Approached from this perspective, the doctrine of the church is truncated to matters of taste and pragmatic concerns. But the place to start in developing a doctrine of the church is not to ask, “What does the body need?” As important as that question is, we must first ask, “What does the Head want?” We cannot address the needs of the body of Christ until we understand the desires of the Head of the church. Seen in this light, the entire Bible speaks to the doctrine of the church, since the entire Bible speaks of Christ.
The root problem of a decapitated ecclesiology is a disembodied Christology. We must learn to speak of the church in relation to the person and work of Christ. When we articulate paradigms of the church without reference to Christ’s vision for the church, it exposes faulty views of both the church and Christ. The incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection, ascension, session, and return of Christ cannot be understood unless they are seen in reference to His people. Christology and ecclesiology go hand in hand.
The doctrine of the church is an exercise in applied Christology. When the disciples returned from the Mount of Olives after the ascension of Christ, their job was not to invent the church but to continue building the one established by Him. The church represents the ongoing work of the ascended Christ. Therefore, the goal of the church is to reflect the priorities of Jesus for His people. The most important responsibility of the body of Christ is to follow the Head and King of the church.