A Genuinely Protestant-evangelical Ecclesiology as Corrective to the Current Resourcement Movement in the North American evangelical and Reformed Churches

I just recently attended a theology conference sponsored by the Davenant Institute. The Davenant Institute is an institute that seeks to provide resources, from the classically Reformed tradition, for the renewal of the church. Attending the conference they put on here in Portland, OR reminded me once again of how important ecclesiological consideration is; and how significant it is in regard to how we think of God’s relation to people in general. It made me think about issues having to do with authority; in other words, what is the place of the church in the economy of God? Does the church serve a mediatory role between God and humanity, or is that reserved for Christ alone (I Tim. 2.5-6)? Indeed, this issue of authority, and definition of the church seem pretty important for understanding what the renewal of the church might look like. If we don’t have a proper doctrine of the church we might be renewing something that should be discarded instead; and I’m referring to our respective concepts of the church, not the church itself.

What this conference reminded me of, as well, is that there is a whole movement among younger evangelical and reformed types who are attempting to resource the past found in the Protestant development of Reformed theology in the 16th and 17th centuries, in order to renew the 21st century Protestant Reformed and evangelical churches. But something of concern, to me, is that in this resourcement there seems to be a heavy emphasis upon a very ecclesiocentric approach; something we see prevalent in the work of someone like Peter Leithart and his Reformed Catholic move. In other words, even though these folks are Protestant and Reformed, they appear to give the church more of an absolute authority when it comes to the way Scripture is not only interpreted but applied. For some this means a turn back to Rome itself, and for others a turn to a more Anglican or Anglo-Catholic approach; and for a large bulk it simply means a turn to the confessional Protestant Reformed church, and seeing the confessions and catechisms, therein, as magisterial compendia that help to not only articulate the most faithful interpretation of Scripture; but as we see in the three forms of unity, these folks see the confessional web providing an ecclesial and authoritative structure wherein a catholic identity can be founded for the Protestant mind and church. These folks, in my view, end up imbuing certain structures of the church (whether that is formal or material structures or doctrines) with divine ordinance, such that the church itself is seen as a mediator and means of grace between God and humanity. Someone I have been interacting with on Facebook on this issue wrote this (this person was actually at the conference I mentioned, and is representative of the young evangelicals I have in mind):

Yes, but as her Founder, the Church inevitably draws her authority from Christ. Since He has instituted it, it is not a natural body but a supernatural one. Those who submit to Christ, therefore, will do so through His Body, and, in fact, have few means to exercise such submission or any true devotion EXCEPT through His Body, the Church. Point being, you’re [sic] statement is technically accurate, but far from slighting the authority of the Church, it serves only to further solidify it.[1]

He is responding to a post I put up on Facebook where I merely stated that: “Jesus is Lord, not the church.” But maybe his response helps to illustrate what I am describing in regard to the way many of these younger evangelical/reformed think of the church. Keith Johnson summarizes all of this this way:

In The Younger Evangelicals, Robert Webber provides and often surprising account of the changing commitments of the most recent generation of evangelical scholars and church leaders. One shift that he notes among these younger evangelicals is their desire for “a more visible concept of the church.” This desire stems, in part, from their reaction against what they perceive as the overly individualistic tendencies of modern evangelicalism. They believe that these tendencies lead to the same kind of “ahistoricism and spiritual subjectivism” that Philip Schaff called “the great disease which has fastened itself upon the heart of Protestantism.” Younger evangelicals have dedicated themselves to fighting this disease. Right doctrine and a commitment to evangelism are no longer enough; they want, in Webber’s words, “an embodied presence of God’s reign in an earthed community.” To find it, they are turning to high forms of liturgy, ancient spiritual practices, sacramental worship, and a renewed engagement with the historic faith through catechisms and confessions. They are, in other words, looking beyond the evangelical tradition for resources that supply new and more concrete forms for their faith and ministry of their churches.[2]

In and of itself there doesn’t seem to be anything problematic about this; i.e. a desire to find more depth, both doctrinally and ecclesially, among the younger (and even older) evangelicals. But the concern, for me anyway, is that as these folks are looking into the depth dimension that stands behind evangelical and reformed theology is what we have already noticed previously. There is this abiding desire to have substance, but when folks look back what they find is not only a catholic tradition in the church, at a doctrinal level, but they also start to see how this type of catholic tradition comes with an almost inextricable linkage to a certain theory of both the church and authority therein (or at least that’s what they think); viz. there is an association with the development of orthodox doctrine with a church government that comes to be the place wherein such development necessarily and absolutely inheres. With this realization the church—whether Catholic or Protestant—comes to have a prevalence and authority such that it is the means by which God’s grace and proper understanding of him necessarily is mediated to the seeking humanity. In other words, the church becomes conflated with the Lord of the church, such that the church necessarily speaks for the Lord with the result that the Lord and the church are no longer distinguishable in any meaningful sense. Yes, these folks, after gaining understanding, will attempt to make principled or localized distinctions between Christ and his church, nevertheless, de facto, the church comes to be the space wherein God speaks without remainder, and the church practices become the means by which God’s grace is mean[ingfully] mediated; my unnamed Facebook interlocutor illustrates this type of sensibility in some ways.

Johnson summarizes all of this further as he reflects upon Karl Barth’s concerns with this approach to the church:

The ecclesiological cost of this type of solution, however, proves to be too high, and this is especially evident when we consider this solution’s effect on the form of the church’s vocation. To see the nature of this problem, we turn to Barth’s worry that an ecclesiology which focuses upon the mediation of God’s grace through church practices inevitably makes the reception and possession of this grace the primary end of human action in the church. In his view, when the telos of the church is the facilitation of the ongoing reception, preservation, and cultivation of Christ’s benefits in our lives, then the distribution of these benefits through ecclesial practices becomes the church’s primary vocation. This is the action that “counts” in the church. The task of witnessing and proclaiming God’s Word to those outside the church become secondary to the task of cultivating God’s grace in the lives of those inside the church. As a result, Barth argues, the “being and act of the church [becomes] a circle closed in on itself”: the church’s reason for existing resides in the reception of the gift of God’s grace, and the church witnesses to God precisely in its reception of this gift. This description sounds very much like Webber’s account of the vision many younger evangelicals have for the church. For them, “The church does not ‘have’ a mission. It is mission, by its very existence in the world.” The inevitable result of this kind of ecclesiology, Barth contends, is that the “Church becomes an end in itself in its existence as the community and institution of salvation.” I never needs to look outside its own walls to realize its true vocation.[3]

As an evangelical, and as someone who wants depth in my relationship with God in Jesus Christ, as someone who wants a deep understanding of what the church is; what we have been sketching thus far is very dissatisfying for me. Not only that, I think at a purely theological level, at least for an evangelical Protestant this understanding of the church does not jive with the evangelical sensibility of seeing Jesus as Lord of the church in distinction from the church, and yet as its always already constituting voice and reality; and with seeing the evangel as the primary point of the church’s reality. This is where Barth’s critique of the classical Protestant and Catholic turn, and the ecclesiology therein, offers a helpful alternative; indeed, an alternative outwith I would feel a real sense of loss, and lack of intelligibility when attempting to think a genuinely (in the spirit) Protestant understanding of who and what the church is. Johnson provides some very helpful description of Barth’s understanding, and indeed corrective of what I think is a faulty way forward for Protestants (what we have been engaging with thus far, in regard to what many evangelicals and Protestant Reformed are resourcing as the way forward for the evangelical/reformed churches). At length Johnson writes (if these images aren’t clear enough click on them to enlarge):


I hope some of this resonates with you, and allows you to see the vision I have when it comes to who and what the church is. It is a church that flows from the Missio Dei of God’s life for the world; for all of humanity. The church’s reality is founded not in an ongoing quest to instantiate and mediate God’s life for the elect, but instead it is found in the life and history of God’s life for us in Christ; it is found in his finished work of redemption, and in that completed reality the church has the freedom to be who she was intended to be for the other.

As we can see, at least according to Johnson’s treatment of Barth, the church was never intended to be a terminus in and for itself; instead it is intended to be the people of God who by this relationship are those who freed up to bear witness to the Lord of the church. The church in the Barthian account is opened upward and outward, it is freed up to look away from herself, and to listen to and hear the voice of her Lord; and then bear witness to that voice by proclaiming the goodness of his life to each other (in fellowship and discipleship), and the other who is found in the world. I am afraid that this reality of the church will be lost if the trend that we are seeing take place in the church continues; there is an inherent inward turn to the resourcement movement we are seeing in the church. And in this turn there is an elevation of the church as an absolute voice and means of God’s grace that the church was never intended to bear; her capacity instead is a witness bearing one.


[1] Unnamed Facebook Source, accessed 01-15-2018.

[2] Keith L. Johnson, “The Being and Act of the Church: Barth and the Future of Evangelical Ecclesiology,” in Bruce L. McCormack and Clifford B. Anderson eds., Karl Barth and American Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids, MI: WM.B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2011), 201-02.

[3] Ibid., 224.

[4] Ibid., 224-26.