Some Thoughts on Today’s Differing Perspectives of the Church

Some of the problems in Christianity today stem from confusion about the church itself. Different groups, that are often at odds with one another, tend to view the church differently and this difference of perspective has a profound effect on how we relate to the church and how we see the church as relating to the world.

Millard Erickson, in his Christian Theology (1036-1041), lays out two main perspectives on the church: The Empirical-Dynamic and The Biblical-Philological.

The Empirical-Dynamic Definition of the Church

The Empirical-Dynamic people tend to see the church primarily in terms of what the church does, its functions. We see this mostly among emergent or emerging types but on the more conservative end of the theological spectrum among seeker-sensitives. These are the ones who tend to say things like, “Don’t go to church, be the church.” Accordingly, they view the church as most the way God intended when she is performing activities in society, rather than finding essential identity in doctrine or in worship. These are often described with terms like “soft” or “undiscriminating” when it comes to doctrine and sometimes moral issues.

The Biblical-Philological Definition of the Church

The Biblical-Philological people tend to see the church more terms of what the church is, its nature. We see this mostly among more conservative types. Many of my readers are Reformed (to some degree) in their theology and so would most likely fall into this category as well. They tend to use expressions like “the true church” and “a pure church. Accordingly, they see the church as most like God intended when the church is pure doctrinally and public sin is death with through proper church discipline.

Some Reasons Why This Dichotomy Exists

This divergence of opinion, Erickson says, stems from a historical fact: There has been no period of sustained reflection on the doctrine of the church in Christian history as there was for other doctrines (e.g., the Christological and Trinitarian questions raised in the first few centuries).

Something Else to Consider

I would add one other thing that may itself reveal something about the influence of the culture on the church. Erickson cites John Macquarrie in saying that much of the writing about the church “has a practical orientation” and that “much of the discussion about the church is in terms of its relationship to other entities” (Erickson 1038).

Our culture (I refer to North American culture at the end of the 20th century and beginning of the 21st century) is focused primarily on pragmatics. This culture is also very self-centered. (For example, college degrees are sought in terms of how much money the graduate can earn, consequently colleges are no longer concerned about producing a well-rounded student who can contribute meaningfully to society and enjoy cultured pursuits in the course of earning a living.)

This pragmatism has affected (infected?) the church as well. Whereas in earlier centuries, Christians were primarily concerned about discerning truth, modern and post-modern Christians are primarily concerned about asking questions like “What do these things mean for me?”

This means that our theological reflection is less about the nature of things (e.g., the church) and more concerned about what the church does, how it does it, and what its doing means for the individual.

My conclusion:

While I don’t want in any way to minimize the importance of these questions, it seems that we have to understand what something is before we can even begin to talk about what it does and how that benefits anyone.

So to the Empirical-Dynamic crowd I say this:

“Whoa, not so fast! Just as Paul encourages us to recognize and understand who we are in Jesus Christ in order to serve Christ, let’s figure out who we are before we jump in with both feet so we know that what we’re doing is a reflection of who we are in Christ.”

I think this will allow us to engage the world without looking like the world.

And to the Biblical-Philological crowd I say:

“By all means, let’s explore what the Scripture says. (Isn’t that what I just said above?) But just as James called us not only to be hearers of the words but doers of it and just as Paul encouraged us to work out our own salvation because God works in us, at some point we have to stop talking about being the church and actually do something as the church.”

I think will allow us to guard against navel-gazing so we can engage the world and avoid being ingrown rather than outreaching.


About Michael R. Jones

Pastor and PhD candidate writing on Paul's theology of suffering.
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