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The Emerging Church View of Church

by Patrick Oden  
12/13/2006 / Worship

I got into a brief conversation recently about Emerging Church ecclesiology, which is a big word that merely describes the formal study of church issues. As that was a major topic of interest for me for a number of years it seems a little surprising I haven't really written out my thoughts more specifically. Of course, this may have to do with the fact that once out of seminary there is a surprising lack of people coming up to me wanting to discuss the intricacies of postmodern ecclesiology. But, there's still a need for talking about it, because hopefully people are still willing to listen.

Basically, for the past 1500 years ecclesiology has primarily been top down. The Bishops constitute the Church, and from their authority derives the status of the congregation. This is clearly and explicitly true for Catholic and Orthodox churches. However, in Protestant churches which may more formally dismiss the idea of apostolic succession there is still this attitude.

A church is constituted by the faithful preaching of the Word and the administration of the sacraments. Every church high and low would basically affirm this in essence. Even the most virulently anti-Catholic fundamentalist church has the idea it is primarily formed for the preaching of the Word, and is under the authority of the Pastor called for that authority.

With apostolic succession the authority derives from the transmission of Christ to Peter to his successors to those bishops the successors appoint. In Protestant churches, the authority derives from Scripture, the Word, and thus from this representation of the Gospel is the authority.

Although entirely more complicated than discussed here, I would suggest this could be called a Christological Ecclesiology. The ecclesiology, the foundation of the church, derives from Christ, and by necessity of this process contains within itself the authority of Christ to be passed downwards into the congregation. Thus the massive emphasis on leaders, with whatever titles each movement wants to give them. This can be supported in a lot of ways, not least through the Body metaphor of Paul. So thoroughly is Christological Ecclesiology assumed that there's no room whatsoever for conversation on this topic.

The Church is what it is, and while other theologies can be played around with, it stays static in its basic representation.

The Emerging Church, however, when it is functioning healthy and consistently is a bottom up ecclesiology.

A bottom up ecclesiology, rather than deriving from Christ authority to pass into the congregation and spread to the community, instead as a gathered community (and only as a community gathered in equality) is constituted to reflect Christ upwards and outwards. Christ is seen as the gathered community worships, works, celebrates, and otherwise use their gifts in a holistic manner.

Rather than authority constituting the church, the authority of the Church, and with it its functional leadership, is constituted only by those who are participants. Those who join together form the field of Christ's Body, and those who join add in both practical and mystical ways to this authority, which resonates then outwards into the world in certain patterns depending on the specifics of the participants. The leadership is by nature then functional not constitutive, thus can never have the degree of power or authority which derives from a Christ representing position.

This is how I see the functioning of the Emerging Church, and I would call it a Pneumatological ecclesiology. Here the very essence of the Church is not moved from Christ downwards into finding aspects of the Spirit in each person, but instead begins with the indwelling of each particular Christian and moves upwards and outwards through the Spirit into creating a bond of unity and diversity that recreates the image of Christ in the gathered Body.

The Quakers, though not specifically noted, share a similar dynamic. George Fox, in his journals, can be characterized by his rather extreme emphasis on the power of the Spirit in and for each person. This is why, I think, there is much affinity to be found between these movements.

While this does reflect also some of the thought of current theologians, the emerging church leaders, taking more of an instinctive rather than intentional move, have tapped into this same drive. They have felt more willing to see how it works out in practice, feeling free to let their essential theology be the guide rather than forcing a model of church no matter other considerations.

I think this better matches both Scripture and theology in a number of ways. Though it is so entirely undermining of all present power structures and models (as one would expect from the Holy Spirit) it would be fought against so hard as to have some even rank it a heresy, even by those who would normally seem avant-garde.

However, we're not necessarily called to do what supports traditional power structures and long held traditions. We are called to be people of the Spirit.

Patrick Oden lives and works in the mountains of Southern California. Education web design pays the bills. Writing and enjoying the beauty of God's Creation fills his soul.

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