Why should evangelicals care about something as arcane as the ontology of the church?

Evangelicals traditionally have been noted for their concern for the ontology of the person. They preach the gospel with the view to getting the individual transformed or "born again." Persons are spiritual entities who, because of sin, need to experience the miracle of conversion. Unfortunately, they have not extended this understanding to the church. They fail to see that conversion is not about transforming the individual, per se, but is incorporation into a spiritual reality—the Body of Christ. Another way of putting it is to say that the church is more than the sum of the individual members—precisely because of her relation to Christ and the presence of the Spirit. Evangelicals' failure to understand this fact has led to their seeing the church as essentially a collectivity of our own making. Church is only a practical way of organizing individual Christians for effective ministry.

Certain consequences follow from such a view of the church. For example, evangelistic outreach to and formation of individuals becomes the paramount concern of the church. But if the church herself is more than an entity of our own making, then different consequences follow. The church will still be concerned about outreach and formation of people, but the overarching reason for being will be defined by her relationship to God. Her response to the revelation of God in worship becomes paramount.

Concern for the redemption of the world has been an evangelical hallmark ("God so loved the world … " [John 3:16-16] our favorite verse begins). Yet you argue that God's purpose is less about the redemption of the world and more about the election of the church. Where does mission fit into your theology?

I don't think we should speak of one as "less" and the other "more"; rather we should see the redemption of the world within the larger context of God's eternal purpose, which is to transform the world into the church, i.e. to be a people living in communion with the triune God. The mission of the church, therefore, is the extension of the mission of the triune God ,which is larger than saving souls. Salvation is in view of that higher end.

The failure to see salvation in light of the eternal purpose of God expressed in the election of the church before the creation of the world (Eph 1:4) tends to result in a view of mission that is narrowly defined in terms of escape from hell and enjoyment of heaven. One can see how this popular evangelical understanding of mission is only one small step from the gospel of self-fulfillment: I am saved because God can't bear to see me suffer and wants me to be "fulfilled."

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Many evangelicals argue that the essence of the church is simple: Where two or three are gathered in Jesus' name (Mt. 18:20). After that, we're free to create any structure that "works." Why is this "ecclesiology" not enough in your view?

I suspect that when evangelicals quote this passage of Scripture the accent probably falls on the word "gathered": the church is a gathering of believers with Jesus somehow present in their midst. The precise nature of that presence is often hazily understood. I would argue that the emphasis should be on the phrase "in Jesus' name" and that the presence of Jesus needs to be understood precisely in light of the Trinitarian economy. It is the place of Jesus in the church that makes all the difference between a social gathering and the ecclesia. The church is where Jesus is, according to Ignatius of Antioch. But what does the presence of Jesus mean? I also suspect that most evangelicals would tend to conceive of the presence of Jesus in the church very much like the presence of an individual: Jesus is the VIP among us! But that is theologically problematic. Our doctrine of the ascension tells us that Jesus is not present as an individual since he ascended bodily. It is the Holy Spirit, the "other Paraclete," who indwells the church and joins the church to Jesus as his body. Thus we speak of the Eucharistic presence or the "spiritual presence" of Jesus (Calvin) in the church as a defining characteristic of the church after Pentecost and before the Parousia. We are not free to conceptualize his presence in other ways, since it is determined by the very nature of the Trinitarian economy. Jesus in his farewell discourse makes this quite clear: Unless I go away, the Paraclete will not come. Evangelical's weak ecclesiology has meant that the church is often viewed in isolation from her ontological link to Jesus Christ and ultimately to the Trinitarian economy. And so a passage like Mt. 18:20 becomes a proof-text isolated from the larger theological context.

You argue that the liturgy, as traditionally conceived, is not as much a human invention as a divine gift to the church, the distinctive way God wants his "peculiar people" to worship together. Therefore, this is something we cannot simply discard or modify willy-nilly. Won't this get in the way of a proper adapting of the gospel and liturgy to local contexts?

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I pointed out that there is a basic normative "shape" of the liturgy which could take many contextual forms. This normative shape is not derived from proof texts; that is, there is no chapter-and-verse that provides an authoritative structure of worship, although there may be descriptive patterns (cf. 1 Tim 2:1ff.). Rather, the shape of the liturgy is derived in much the same way as the doctrine of the Trinity is derived—from the basic pattern of divine revelation. God's revelation of himself is the unfolding of the Trinitarian story, and the normative response (that is, our worship) can only be in a manner consistent with that story.

My real concern is that many evangelical churches have not even begun to think about the theological criteria of worship, because they do not have a theology of the church that locates her within the Trinitarian narrative.

Many younger evangelicals now argue that traditional marks of the church (word and sacrament) and the classic liturgy are products of Christendom—the era from Constantine to the late 20th century, when Christianity was the culturally dominant religion of the West. But in a post-Christian era, they say, we need to rethink the church completely, from the ground up. What is your response?

Historically, it is not true to say that the liturgy of word and sacrament is a post-Constantinian invention. We see the pattern in Acts 4:42 and in Justin Martyr (2nd century). But the more compelling evidence is the number of incidental details that suggest that by the time of the writing of the New Testament, the Lord's Supper was not only a well-established practice, but quite entrenched in the early disciples' collective memory. When Paul wrote to the Corinthians the Lord's Supper was already "tradition." Why was Jesus recognized by the two disciples precisely when he broke bread (Luke 24:30, 31; cf. John 21:12)? Most evangelical churches do observe word and sacrament in their worship, but they do so haphazardly especially with regard to the sacrament of the Lord's Supper, because they lack theological reasons for observing word and sacrament consistently.

Evangelicalism is distinguished by its free church, entrepreneurial, activist, pragmatic, and mission-focused personality. Is it possible for this movement to seriously adopt your proposals, which suggest that it is these very personality traits that have gotten the movement into trouble?

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Many evangelicals are already moving in that direction: the convergence movement, the Evangelical Episcopal Church, the Charismatic Episcopal Church, and a significant number of evangelical leaders who have joined Episcopalian, Orthodox, and Catholic churches in recent years. There are many indigenous churches in Africa that do not seem to have any difficulty being evangelical and liturgical at the same time. In fact, I do not only see this as possible but a necessity if the evangelical movement is to grow "unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ" (Eph 4:13).

Related Elsewhere:

Also posted today is "Stopping Cultural Drift," an article about Chan's work

InterVarsity Press has book information on and excerpts from Liturgical Theology and Spiritual Theology.

Simon Chan's books, Liturgical Theology, Spiritual Theology, and Pentecostal Theology and the Christian Spiritual Tradition, are available through Christianbook.com and other retailers.

The Journal of Pentecostal Theology has an abstract of Chan's article, "The Church and the Development of Doctrine."