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Ecclesiology (from Greek ἐκκλησίᾱ, ekklēsiā, "congregation, church"; and -λογία, -logia) is the study of the theological understanding of the Christian church. Specific areas of concern include the church's role in salvation, its origin, its relationship to the historical Christ, its discipline, its destiny, and its leadership. Ecclesiology is, therefore, the study of the church as a thing in, and of, itself.

Different ecclesiologies give shape to very different institutions. Thus, in addition to describing a broad discipline of theology, ecclesiology may be used in the specific sense of a particular church or denomination’s character, self-described or otherwise. This is the sense of the word in such phrases as Roman Catholic ecclesiology, Lutheran ecclesiology, and ecumenical ecclesiology.



Ecclesiology comes from the Greek ἐκκλησία (ekklesia), which entered Latin as ecclesia. In the Greco-Roman world, the word was used to refer to a lawful assembly, or a called legislative body. As early as Pythagoras, the word took on the additional meaning of a community with shared beliefs.[1] This is the meaning taken in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures (the Septuagint), and later adopted by the Christian community to refer to the assembly of believers.[2]

Issues addressed by ecclesiology

Ecclesiology asks the questions:

  • Who is the Church? Is it a visible or earthly corporation -- a "church" in the sense of a specific denomination or institution, for instance? Or is it the body of all believing Christians (see invisible church) regardless of their denominational differences and disunity? What is the relationship between living Christians and departed Christians (the "cloud of witnesses") -- do they (those on Earth and those in Heaven) constitute together the Church?
  • Must one join a church? That is, what is the role of corporate worship in the spiritual lives of believers? Is it in fact necessary? Can salvation be found outside of formal membership in a given faith community, and what constitutes "membership?" (Baptism? Formal acceptance of a creed? Regular participation?)
  • What is the authority of the Christian church? Who gets to interpret the doctrines of the Church? Is the organizational structure itself, either in a single corporate body, or generally within the range of formal church structures, an independent vehicle of revelation or of God's grace? Or is the Church's authority instead dependent on and derivative of a separate and prior divine revelation external to the organization, with individual institutions being "the Church" only to the extent that they teach this message? For example, is the Bible a written part of a wider revelation entrusted to the Church as faith community, and therefore to be interpreted within that context? Or is the Bible the revelation itself, and the Church is to be defined as a group of people who claim adherence to it?
  • What does the Church do? What are the sacraments, divine ordinances, and liturgies, in the context of the Church, and are they part of the Church's mission to preach the Gospel? What is the comparative emphasis and relationship between worship service, spiritual formation, and mission, and is the Church's role to create disciples of Christ or some other function? Is the Eucharist the defining element of the rest of the sacramental system and the Church itself, or is it secondary to the act of preaching? Is the Church to be understood as the vehicle for salvation, or the salvific presence in the world, or as a community of those already "saved?"
  • How should the Church be governed? What was the mission and authority of the Apostles, and is this handed down through the sacraments today? What are the proper methods of choosing clergy such as bishops and priests, and what is their role within the context of the Church? Is an ordained clergy necessary? * Who are the leaders of a church? Must there be a policy-making board of "leaders" within a church and what are the qualifications for this position, and by what process do these members become official, ordained "leaders"? Must leaders and clergy be "ordained," and is this possible only by those who have been ordained by others?

Roman Catholic ecclesiology

Roman Catholic ecclesiology holds that the church is a "visible, historic institution, with historical continuity with the apostolic church".[3]

Magisterial Reformation ecclesiology

Martin Luther argued that because the Catholic church had "lost sight of the doctrine of grace", it had "lost its claim to be considered as the authenthic Christian church."; this argument was open to the counter-criticism from Catholics that he was thus guilty of schism and a Donatist position, and in both cases therefore opposing central teachings of Augustine of Hippo.[4] Yet Luther, at least as late as 1519, argued against denominationalism and schism, and the Augsburg Confession of 1530 can be interpreted (e.g. by McGrath 1998) as conciliatory [5] (others, e.g. Rasmussen and Thomassen 2007 argue convincingly with evidence that Augsburg was not conciliatory but clearly impossible for the Roman Catholic Church to accept [6]). "Luther's early views on the nature of the church reflect his emphasis on the Word of God: the Word of God goes forth conquering, and wherever it conquers and gains true obedience to God is the church"[7]: "Now, anywhere you hear of see such a word preached, believed, confessed, and acted upon, do not doubt that the true ecclesia sancta catholica, a 'holy Christian people' must be there...."[8] "Luther's understanding of the church is thus functional, rather than historical: what legitimates a church or its office-bearers is not historical continuity with the apostolic church, but theological continuity." [9]

John Calvin is among those working, primarily after Martin Luther, in the second generation of Reformers, to develop a more systematic doctrine of the church (i.e. ecclesiology) in the face of the emerging reality of a split with the Catholic church, with the failure of the ecumenical Colloquy of Regensburg in 1541, and the Council of Trent's condemnation in 1545 of "the leading ideas of Protestantism".[10] Thus, Calvin's ecclesiology is progressively more systematic. The second edition of Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion in 1539 holds that "the marks of the true church [are] that the Word of God should be preached, and that the sacraments be rightly administered".[11] Later, Calvin developed the theory of the fourfold office of pastor, doctor (or teacher), elder, and deacon, possibly owing to the colleagueship with Martin Bucer and his own experience of leadership in church communities.[12] Calvin also discusses the visible church and the invisible church; the visible church is the community of Christian believers; the invisible church is the fellowship of saints and the company of the elect; both must be honoured; "there is only one church, a single entity with Jesus Christ as its head" (McGrath); the visible church will include the good and the evil, a teaching found in the patristic tradition of Augustine and rooted in the divine teaching, recorded in the Gospel according to Matthew, of the Parable of the Tares(Mt 13:24-31); thus, Calvin held that it is "not the quality of its members, but the presence of the authorised means of grace, [that] constitutes a true church" (McGrath).[13] Calvin was concerned to avoid further fragmentation, i.e. splits among the Evangelical churches: "I am saying that we should not desert a church on account of some minor disagreement, if it upholds sound doctrine over the essentials of piety, and maintains the use of the sacraments established by the Lord."[14]

Radical Reformation ecclesiology

Radical Reformation ecclesiology holds that "the true church [is] in heaven, and no institution of any kind on earth merit[s] the name 'church of God.'"[15]

See also


Beliefs that define the church

Rituals that define the church

Topics in church government


  1. ^ Diogenes Laertius, 8.41 (available online, retrieved 22 May 2008).
  2. ^ F. Bauer, W. Danker, A Greek English Lexicon of the New Testament and other Early Christian Literature, third ed., (Chicago:University of Chicago Press, 2000), ἐκκλησία.
  3. ^ McGrath, Alistair. 1998. Historical Theology, An Introduction to the History of Christian Thought. Blackwell Publishers: Oxford. p.200.
  4. ^ McGrath, op.cit. p. 200.
  5. ^ McGrath, op.cit. p.201
  6. ^ Rasmussen, Tarald, and Thomassen, Einar. 2007. Kristendomen: en historisk introduktion. Artos and Norma Bokförlag. p.294
  7. ^ McGrath. op.cit. p. 202.
  8. ^ Luther, M. 1539. On the Councils and the Church. In, D. Martin Luthers Werke: Kritische Gesamtausgabe. vol. 50. Weimar: Böhlau (1914). 628.29-630.2.
  9. ^ McGrath. op.cit. p.202.
  10. ^ McGrath. op.cit. pp. 200-7.
  11. ^ McGrath. op.cit. p.205.
  12. ^ McGrath. op.cit. pp. 205-6.
  13. ^ McGrath. op.cit. p. 206.
  14. ^ Calvin, John. Institutes, IV.i.9-10. In, Joannis Calvini: Opera Selecta. Vol. 5. Ed., P. Barth and W. Niesel. Munich: Kaiser Verlag, 1936. 13.24-16.31. Citation and information from McGrath. op.cit., pp. 205-7.
  15. ^ McGrath, op.cit. p. 200.

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