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3 Ecclesiology Questions Protestant Evangelicals Must Answer

July 11th, 2016 | 7 min read

By Jake Meador

After publishing nearly 13,000 words on ecclesiology this month (plus some spirited debate in the comments on Dr. Leeman’s response), I wanted to draw together what seem to me to be the three main strands of the debate between Minich and Dr. Leeman.

Other posts in the series:

Whose church? Which reformation?

One of the striking things about their respective pieces is that both men see the other as compromising the reformation. Minich argued that there are Roman tendencies in Leeman’s thought, or at least that he sees the church as possessing some sort of power beyond the power of the Word, and Leeman says that Minich’s view amounts to a kind of low-church Anglicanism that potentially does away with the local church entirely as a morally necessary institution.

Therefore, one of the first needs is for us to become clear on what the reformation actually said about the church. The reformed divines, of course, do not have any kind of monopoly on the truth and our exploration of this issue must begin with and ultimately be judged by scripture.

That said, the reformation is a useful place to continue in our thinking about this question because the reformers had to confront ecclesiological questions at a time of church breakdown (much as we are) and it is unlikely that we’re going to come up with completely new ways of getting this issue right or wrong. So rather than reinventing the wheel, we’d be well-served by revisiting the ecclesial debates of the reformation.

Toward that end, revisiting Luther and Calvin would be helpful. It may be even better to look again at the debate about discipline between Hooker and Cartwright in the late 16th century in England. That particular debate is one where the question of discipline and church power was discussed at some length and I suspect we could all profit from seeing how our ancestors in the faith debated the issue. Revisiting the debates around ecclesiology leading up to the Westminster Assembly would also be of value, particularly since the Westminster Confession not only is a significant confessional document for Reformed Christians in the USA but also because the Westminster serves as the foundation of the 1689 confession, which Reformed Baptists often cite.

Must authorization be explicit?

The second question concerns the issue of authorization raised by Leeman. Leeman’s argument is that man’s moral right to do anything depends upon an explicit authorization from God (understanding that much of what we do has been authorized through the dominion mandate). His back-and-forth with Andrew Wilson at Think Theology is helpful on this point. Note that this does not mean each individual person has to be authorized by God, but simply that we need God to tell us what human beings as a group can do or what an institutional church can do, or what the magistrate can do, and so on. Minich’s argument is that nature can actually tell us a great deal about who is authorized to do what.

While this may seem like a fairly specific dispute, the implications are quite far-reaching. Indeed, in an odd twist we have the Baptist, Leeman, arguing for what sounds like a very Van Tillian presuppositional approach to this question while the Presbyterian, Minich, takes a more Thomistic approach. (This, of course, gets us back to the first question since one productive line of questioning may be to ask if a Thomistic approach can be reconciled with the reformed tradition.)

This point will also touch questions of what natural revelation can do, the basis for civil law, the church’s relationship to the commonwealth in general and the magistrate in particular, and many other questions too.

What is the institutional church’s relationship to other earthly institutions?

In his book, Leeman seems to see a separation between the institutional church and other earthly institutions. Indeed, I’m actually not sure how he’d feel about even calling the institutional church an “earthly” institution because of the institutional church’s role as an embassy—or perhaps a colony, to use Hauerwasian language?

In any event, Leeman’s argument, if I’m understanding it rightly, is that the church, as an embassy of God’s kingdom, represents God in the world and is something of a bridge between the current age and the eschaton. As such, it has a distinct and independent existence from other institutions in the world. Other institutions we encounter in the world may be authorized by God to do certain things, but their authorization is entirely different, not only in its scope but in its nature, from the authorizations God gives the institutional church. Every other institution bears the authority of the age of creation, while a church and its ordained officers bear the authority of the age of new creation.

Meanwhile, Minich argues that the invisible church exists in the spiritual realm in which Christ rules exclusively. Leeman agrees here, actually. Further, Minich believes that the visible church is any visible group of Christian believers and that the institutional church is simply a sensible, prudent way of organizing the visible church into recognizable groups. For Minich, the mechanics of the institutional church parallel other earthly institutions more than the invisible kingdom of God. Leeman disagrees on this point.

Further, the visible, institutional church, according to Minich, only speaks with the authority of Christ inasmuch as it accurately speaks and applies the Word. In contrast, Leeman believes that though a local church’s authority is always subordinate to and constrained by the word, it has a unique authority to render publicly-binding judgments in the forms of statements of faith and church membership roles.

We will be publishing a joint statement of affirmations and further questions from Minich and Leeman later today. I will link that statement here as soon as it is published.

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Jake Meador

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).