Study Commission on Ecclesiology
Free Methodist Church in Canada
May 15â€“16, 2006
Principles of a Wesleyan Ecclesiology
For John Wesley, a â€œWesleyan ecclesiologyâ€ would have to be a biblical ecclesiology because for Wesley, the whole point of Methodism was to help people experience and live out the grace of God the way the first Christians did. â€œShow me where the Christians liveâ€ was a phrase both John and Charles Wesley were fond of. Richard Heitzenrater is right: early Methodism â€œitself became a means of grace, a religious community in which people could experience the power and presence of Godâ€™s love, the part of the Church that was experiencing what the Church was intended to be.â€1 Heitzenrater notes that â€œthe most basic element in [Wesleyâ€™s] ecclesiologyâ€ was â€œa focus on Godâ€™s graceâ€â€”which is why, I think, Wesley â€œalways managed to stretch, emphasize, heighten those elementsâ€ of received Anglican ecclesiology â€œthat he felt needed special implementation to meet specific needs of the time,â€ as Heitzenrater also notes.2
Wesleyâ€™s ecclesiology, though on the one hand traditional, was also flexible, functional, and pragmatic, as has been often noted. The point was that the church itself was to be a means of grace. If this wasnâ€™t actually happening (as it often is not in many churches today) then the form (the â€œmeansâ€) needed to be adapted so that it does happen. One senses this clearly in Wesleyâ€™s classic â€œPlan Account of the People Called Methodists.â€3 The starting point, then, for a Wesleyan ecclesiology is that the purpose of the church is to be an instrument of Godâ€™s graceâ€”that it must in actual fact serve Godâ€™s mission in the world by being a Spirit-filled community of Godâ€™s grace, visibly embodying Jesus Christ.
I begin, then, with several biblical and theological affirmations. I will not argue these at length but they may be useful to explore in our discussions.
I. BIBLICAL AND THEOLOGICAL AFFIRMATIONS
The church is the Body of Christ, the community of the Spirit, with Jesus Christ alone as source and head. This is basic biblical (particularly Pauline) ecclesiology, as seen especially in Romans 8, 1 Corinthians 12, Ephesians 1â€“4, Philippians 2, and Colossians 1â€“2, but also in Acts 1Ââ€“2, 11, 13, and many other passages.
The church exists on earth in a variety of social-structural forms which are largely the product of tradition, history, culture, and human invention. This is already evident to some degree in the New Testament4 and is clearly demonstrated throughout two millennia of Christian history and now in diverse cultures around the world.
The church is to live functionally as the Body of Christ within whatever forms it finds itself, and as much as possible adapt those forms so that they are functional for the churchâ€™s fidelity and mission in the world. This seems to me to be self-evident and is an extension of New Testament teaching about living as â€œlights in the worldâ€ (Phil. 2:15 KJV) within whatever cultural context the church finds itself in. Certainly we see this in early Methodismâ€”the creation of vital communities of faith within the structures of the Church of England and of British (including Welsh and Irish) and early North American society.
The Spirit and the Word provide all the essential resources for the churchâ€™s fidelity to Jesus Christ and its effective, transformative mission in the world. This is proved in the experience of the early church and throughout history when the church has been most dynamic as a movement of evangelism, church planting, and social transformation. Certainly God can use other resourcesâ€”skills, education, cultural forms and patterns, money and other material assetsâ€”but those are all secondary. As â€œthe weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the worldâ€ but of the kingdom of God and â€œhave divine power to demolish strongholdsâ€ (2 Cor. 10:4 NIV), so the essential resources for church planting are spiritual (including the charisms of the Spirit). Thus they are available to all including (and maybe especially) the poor.
The primary mission of the church is to love Jesus Christ and to be his Body in the world, continuing the work of the kingdom of God which he began. New Testament scholar Mark Powell says, â€œThe mission of the church is to love Jesus Christ. Everything else is just strategy.â€5 That may be a bit overstated, but it is not far from the truth. Consider Jesusâ€™ words about the vine and the branches in John 15, and similar passages. Jesus said, â€œAll who have faith in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Fatherâ€ (John 14:12 TNIV).6
The point, of course, is to be the Body of Jesus Christ, the agency through which Jesus the Head acts in the world by the Spirit. This is a central focus of most of the New Testament letters.
As a community reflecting the life of the Holy Trinity, the church is called to be a community of love, mutual self-giving, and outreaching mission, worshipping God and constantly seeking to draw others to Jesus and his Body. Central here are John 13â€“17, Romans 8 and 14, 1 Corinthians 12â€“14, Philippians 2, Ephesians 4Ââ€“5, 1 John, and 1 Peter. Also important here is the rich stratum of New Testament teachings embodied in the â€œone anotherâ€ passages.
Since the primary visible expression of Jesus Christ in each place is the local Body of Christ, the church is called to continually reproduce itself through giving birth to new local churches (church planting). These communities then should be networked together for effective mission and to sustain the sense of the Body of Christ worldwide. This is the pattern we see in Paulâ€™s missionary work, as many have noted (e.g., Roland Allen, Melvin Hodges, Donald McGavran). This functional linking among local churches is what in the revised edition of Community of the King I have termed â€œtranslocal networking.â€
The primary advancement of the kingdom of God in the world is through the reproduction, multiplication, and organic networking of Christian communities that genuinely live and witness to the life of the kingdom; that are empowered by the Holy Spirit and look like Jesus Christâ€”transforming the world as a genuine Christian counterculture, rebuilding societyâ€™s microstructures and witnessing prophetically and redemptively to and within its macrostructures.7
II. A WESLEYAN AND FREE METHODIST PERSPECTIVE
Wesleyans generally, and Free Methodists specifically, can affirm this perspective. The Free Methodist Church has never given any sustained attention to ecclesiology, but it inherited early Methodist ecclesiology which, due to Methodismâ€™s unique role within the Church of England, was a rather dynamic blend of medieval Roman Catholic, Protestant Reformation (Lutheran and Reformed), and Anabaptist (believersâ€™ church) perspectives. American Methodist and Free Methodist ecclesiology was strongly influenced, further, by the revivalism of Finney and others in the 1820s and 1830s, with elements of American democracy and entrepreneurship mixed in.8 Free Methodist ecclesiology historically has thus been a dynamic but unstable (some would say contradictory) blend. We have several symptoms of this, but perhaps the most obvious are our sacramental views: our doublemindedness about infant baptism and our practices of the Eucharist.
Wesley, of course, put considerable emphasis on the Eucharist, more than did later Methodism, B. T. Roberts, or Free Methodism. We can learn from Wesley here, but we should note also that Wesleyâ€™s strong emphasis on other means of graceâ€”especially through the class and band structure and the love feastâ€”made the Eucharist less central to Christian worship practice than it was (and is) in Anglicanism. A Eucharistic emphasis is Wesleyan and certainly appropriate within Free Methodism, but is to be understood in the organic, relational, community-building sense that it has in Scripture and in basic Wesleyan ecclesiology.9
I donâ€™t view this ecclesiastical history negatively, but it is useful to understand it. Free Methodist ecclesiology has always been a blend of High Church and free church elements operating within a (largely) democratic and entrepreneurial cultural context. B. T. Robertsâ€™ ecclesiology was much like that of John Wesley (from which he inherited it), but also was different in three ways: (1) it was strongly influenced by Finneyite revivalism; (2) it did not fully appreciate the theological and functional importance of the early Methodist class and band structure, since by 1850 those structures had largely lost their original functionality; and (3) it assumed a more democratic and populist context with no state church umbrella. Perhaps the major points of continuity of Robertsâ€™ ecclesiology with that of Wesley were (1) an emphasis on relational Christian experience (conversion and sanctification, particularly), (2) an emphasis on Christian behavior that was countercultural to the prevailing sins (social and ecclesiastical) of the day, and (3) a radical commitment to the authority and normativity of Scripture.10
So far as effective Christian witness today is concerned, I view all this as prologue. The Free Methodist Church need not be wedded to this ecclesiological tradition merely for traditionâ€™s sake. The tradition contains elements both to affirm and to critique. However the way forward, in my view, is to note the contemporary relevance of the two main accents here: Biblical authority and an embodied community in mission within the cultural context. This is really what B. T. Roberts meant in his central affirmation: the Free Methodist â€œmission is twofoldâ€”to maintain the Bible standard of Christianity, and to preach the Gospel to the poor.â€11 The implied ecclesiology: The churchâ€™s fundamental self-understanding and practice must be based in Scripture, and the church is called to the mission Jesus Christ announced in Luke 4. (For Free Methodists, Luke 4:18â€“21 and 7:22â€“23 constitute the Great Commission.) Our task today is â€œsimplyâ€ to figure out what this means in our contexts: How to build, nurture, and multiply Christian communities according to the â€œBible standardâ€ and be effectively engaged in reaching people, especially the poor, as Jesus did.
My conclusion, then, is that it is entirely Wesleyan (and Free Methodist) to seek to implement the affirmations stated above in the first section of this paper. The historical theological debates are of little relevance except as they assist us in kingdom mission today.
III. THE SIX DIMENSIONS OF CHRISTIAN COMMUNITY
Clearly Christian community is key to any biblically faithful understanding of the church. All the New Testament images of the church, the example of Jesus with his disciples, the key terms soma, sussoma (Eph. 3:6), koinonia and ekklesia, and the rich â€œone anotherâ€ passages all underscore this. Community is central to ecclesiology.
But what kind of community? What does community really mean, particularly today and particularly in terms of a missional ecclesiology? What is, really, the nature of the community, the â€œshared life,â€ that Christians talk so much about? I believe we can discern six actual dimensions of Christian community which clarify both the churchâ€™s essential nature and its mission. I am in the process of elaborating these more fully elsewhere, but here is a summary.
Community with God through Jesus Christ by the Holy Spirit.
This is the communion we have with God, the Trinity, resulting from repentance and faith in Christ; the new birth. When by faith we give ourselves to God and receive justification and regeneration we experience a new and living communion with God. This is Godâ€™s gift to us, and through it we enter into this first dimension of Christian communityâ€” community with God through Jesus Christ. We receive new life; the beginning of life in abundance (John 10:10).
The New Testament makes it clear that at the same time that we enter into community with God by the Spirit, we enter into community with the church, the people and family of God. In this sense, this first dimension is not to be seen as separate from the second dimension (below).
This and the other five dimensions of community can be illustrated metaphorically by two biblical images: the rising sun with its rays and colors, and the rainbow (as pictured especially in Genesis 9:13â€“16). As the rising sun is the source of energy and light, and as the rainbow is born of the light of the sun interacting with moisture in the atmosphere, so this first dimension is the central source of all the other dimensions. (See illustration below.)
2. Community with one another in the local Body of Christ.
This is the community we have together in the church primarily as we experience it in a local congregationâ€”and also in the Christian family. It is Christian fellowship or koinonia in local space and time in a community that visibly transcends and reconciles differences of gender, socioeconomic status, education, and ethnicity. Here is a community, as we see in the New Testament, that unites rich and poor, master and slave (employers and employees), the educated and the uneducated. Even though particular churches may embody this only imperfectly, this dimension of community is essential to the gospel. Through the power of the Spirit this dimension does exist and can exist more perfectly, more visibly.
Scripture is clear that this kind of community is inseparable from and in fact implicated in the first. This is a major focus of the New Testament. The New Testament, and particularly the epistles, arguably devote more space to this dimension of community than to any other. Key Scriptures would be 1 Corinthians 12â€“14, Romans 12, and Ephesians 2â€“5, but there are few New Testament passages which do not either teach or assume this kind of community.12 â€œIf we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sinâ€ (1 John 1:7 NRSV).
When we are converted or make a genuine profession of faith in Jesus Christ we begin to participate in and to enjoy a new community, a new social realityâ€”the church, Body of Christ. We enter into a new kind of human community. We experience Christian koinonia, â€œshared lifeâ€ or â€œlife in commonâ€ (Acts 2:42 and related passages). This is the essential horizontal dimension of the vertical reconciliation we experience with God through Jesus Christ by the Spirit.
Such community exists and expresses itself in local space and time, within particular history and culture. When believers are part of a Christian biological family, church and family overlap, or practically coincide, as Christian communityâ€”for the church is the family of God and the family is the church of God.
This dimension is inseparable from the first. Community with God through Jesus Christ already implies community with other brothers and sisters in local Christian assemblies. Biblically and theologically speaking, it is impossible to separate or divorce the vertical and the horizontal dimensions.
Community with the broader church within oneâ€™s region or nation.
This obviously is a wider, more extensive dimension of Christian community, but it also is clearly present in the New Testament. The first-century church throughout the Roman Empire was built up and networked by Paul and the other apostles and by a host of informal connections and relationships.
In the first century this existed and was developed primarily throughout the Roman Empire as it was networked by Paul and the other apostles and by a host of informal connections. The way Peter, Paul, John, and others of the apostles and prophets maintained contact with the growing network of local Christian communities is impressive and is significant both theologically and sociologically. (Note, e.g., Acts 15:30â€“33.)
The book of Acts (and the New Testament generally) assumes that the many local congregations composed in a larger sense one church which in practical ways was connected through a lively variety of contacts. This appears to be a normal and normative aspect of a biblical ecclesiology (the â€œtranslocal networkingâ€ mentioned above).
Christians need both these second and third forms of Christian community. The third dimension is different mainly because of the limitations of time and space. We naturally enjoy more intimate and constant community with our sisters and brothers in the local church that with the church regionally or nationally. But both are necessary and normative. Denominational and associational networks of various kinds can be helpful in maintaining this sense of the more-than-local Body of Christ.
4. Community with the global churchâ€”all Christian sisters and brothers throughout the earth.
Obviously we can never sit down together with all our Christian brothers and sisters worldwide and have face-to-face community. Such koinonia normally can exist only in the local church. Still, it does make sense to speak of koinonia also in the global sense. Our Christian brothers and sisters throughout the earth really are our family in Christ. We are all related and responsible for one another. â€œSo then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of Godâ€ (Eph. 2:19)â€” both locally and globally.
Even though global Christian community cannot be face-to-face, it can be genuine community understood in terms of mutual affection and concern, of â€œdisinterested loveâ€ and â€œbeneficenceâ€ (Wesley) toward all Christians worldwide. Its practical expressions include personal contacts, prayer, economic sharing (mutual dependence), various forms of communication (today including email) and information sharing in other ways.
Global Christian community (the church worldwide) should be defined as genuine community; a form of koinonia. But appeal should not be made to this dimension in such a way as to provide any basis for depreciating, devaluing, or failing to embody the second (local) dimension, because the churchâ€™s life flows from dimensions one and two. Sometimes Christians emphasize these larger, global dimensions of the church but neglect the local church. This is a serious error. Every believer needs to experience the church in the first two dimensionsâ€”that is, community with God and in and through the local church. Here is the source of the life than animates the entire church.
Note that both dimensions two and four (local and global Christian community) are not only spiritual but also physical (material), economic, and social-relational. The main difference between these two dimensions is the absence of face-to-face contact in dimension four (as generally also in dimension three). Deep, personal transformation requires the ongoing face-to-face relationships which we experience in the local church (dimension two, in combination with dimension one). But global Christian community can also be transforming as it expands our vision of what the church is worldwide. This can give us a broader vision of the kingdom of God and can help undercut nationalism and false patriotism, materialism, and ethnocentricity.
5. Community with all the people of God in all times and places, in heaven and on earth, by the Spirit and in the Trinity.
Christians who affirm the Apostlesâ€™ Creed say they believe in â€œthe communion of saints.â€ What kind of community is this? Do Christians today really experience community with the whole people of God, beyond the limitations of space and time, including the â€œnoble company of saints and martyrsâ€ who have gone before us? Is there really â€œcommunion of saintsâ€ in this sense?
There does seem to be a reality here that many Christians experience and witness to. Since this dimension transcends space-time limitations it is much less â€œtangibleâ€ in daily experience. Yet it does seem to be real, and it has significant implications for church life and mission.
Several biblical passages speak of, or at least hint at, this dimension. Hebrews 11:1â€“12:2 may be particularly relevant. We read, â€œTherefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith . . .â€ (Heb. 12:1â€“2).
In church history and experience this dimension of Christian community seems to come to consciousness especially in worship and in the experience of some of the great saints of church history.13 For some Christians this dimension becomes real especially during times of prayer and meditation.
Christian hymns are full of affirmations of this form of community. For example:
There is a scene where spirits blend,
Where friend holds fellowship with friend;
Though sundered far, by faith they meet,
Around one common mercy seat.14
We are dealing here, of course, with spiritual mysteries that have not fully been revealed. Are Christian believers of past epochs really with us today, round about us? Do we in fact have a kind of community with those Christians who have now gone to heaven? Though we canâ€™t be dogmatic here, nevertheless throughout history the church has affirmed this â€œcommunion of saints,â€ though with varying meanings. Biblically speaking, we can affirm at leas this much: Those Christians who have preceded us in death, who have already crossed the line between this earthly life and eternal life in heaven, still live. The Bible affirms this in many places, including in the Book of Revelation. We can reflect here also on the experience of Jesus and his disciples on the mount of transfiguration.
6. Solidarity with the entire human family on earth and with the whole creation.
How far does Christian community reach, understood biblically? If it includes â€œthe communion of saints,â€ does it reach also â€œto the ends of the earth,â€ literally and physically?
Certainly the Bible teaches the interdependence and connectedness of the whole human family and the entire created order. Christians trust in and worship God â€œthe Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its nameâ€ (Eph. 3:14â€“15). Whether acknowledged or not, humans exist in a relationship of mutual interdependence based in creation, prevenient grace, Christâ€™s incarnation and atonement, and the work of the Holy Spiritâ€”a relationship based most fundamentally in the truth and love of the Holy Trinity.
Since we are speaking here of relationship with the whole human family, including non-Christians and many who are antagonistic to the Christian faith, â€œChristian communityâ€ does not seem to fit here. But we can legitimately speak of solidarity with all peoples and with the whole created order. Recognized or not, all humans share a common interest in the well-being of the planet, the physical environment. Together with our Jewish friends we remember the covenant recorded in Genesis 9 that God made with â€œthe earth,â€ â€œthe covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generationsâ€ (Gen. 9:12). As part of those â€œfuture generationsâ€ we today seek to be faithful to the covenant.
But is this really community, and is it truly Christian?
In an important sense, this solidarity with all peoples and the whole creation cannot be called Christian community. But it is not unrelated to Christian community and should be understood in connection with it.
Solidarity with all creation is not Christian community because it does not directly participate in dimensions one through five. Most of humanity is not reconciled to God through Jesus Christ and does not experience the koinonia in the Holy Spirit that comes through faith in Jesus.
However, Christians know that through communion with Jesus Christ in the Spirit and with the Body of Christ we enter into a relationship of mutual interdependence and responsibility with the creation that God has made. The source and power of this is the love of God.
This means that we can legitimately extend the concept of Christian community to this dimension in two senses: first, in terms of mission and responsible interdependence, and second in terms of eschatology. Although solidarity with all humanity and the physical creation is not Christian community, it is a concern of Christian community and of gospel mission. Christians are responsible for, in a missional sense, the whole earth, and the Christian community is also dependent upon the whole earth for its life and sustenance. Christians are concerned to reach the whole earth for Christ and they share a concern for the well-being of the physical environment upon which all peoples, as we ourselves, depend for physical life.
Beyond (but related to) this reality is the perspective of eschatology. Christians firmly believe that, viewed eschatologically, â€œthe kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he will reign forever and ever â€ (Rev. 11:15). Both the Old and New Testaments prophesy a renewed earth community, â€œnew heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at homeâ€ (2 Pt. 3:13; cf. Isa. 65:17, 66:22; Rev. 21:1)â€”universal shalom with all peoples and the whole earth: â€œthey shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraidâ€ (Mic. 4:4; cf. 2 Kings 18:31, Isa. 36:16). Eschatologically speaking, Christian community is restored earth community, refined and purified by Godâ€™s judgment and renewal.
Christians in mission seek to live in this future now. That is, faithful followers of Jesus Christ say a decisive â€œNo!â€ to the alienations, divisions, and exploitations of the present order of things and a decisive â€œYes!â€ to all the promises of God. As much as possible they even now live within the Yes and deny the No. Thus living in two worlds they realize that solidarity with the whole earth is not yet Christian community, but that it will be. And if Godâ€™s future is in some sense more certain and real than our present, Christians can even now, in audacious hope and faith, claim earth-human solidarity as Christian community. â€œThe whole wide world for Jesus!â€
Clearly this dimension provides a practical and theological basis for a Christian environmental ethicâ€”creation care as faithful human stewardship and as Christian mission. As Christians we can and should cooperate with other people and organizations that struggle for the welfare of the physical environment. Christians enter this area of cooperation from their own special viewpoint and insight: They recognize the sovereignty of God, the salvation that has come into the world through Jesus Christ, and the final goal of Godâ€™s plan: New creation; the reconciliation of all things through Jesus Christ (Eph. 1:10)â€”in other words, the kingdom of God in its fullness.
This dimension also provides the basis for human (not explicitly Christian) community with all people of good will and sincere hearts everywhere, regardless of religion, culture, worldview, ethnicity, or social status. Here is a solid biblical basis for international cooperation to meet human and environmental need. Though this is not yet Christian community, Christian community (life together in the church) provides the common ground upon which Christians can play a redemptive role in the larger human community.
There is, then, a sense in which solidarity with all creation may be understood within the rubric of Christian community. For it is Christians who understand through the gospel the true nature of the relationship that exists between God, the whole human family, and the physical-social-spiritual environment. Through Jesus Christ we know the secret, the â€œmysteryâ€ of the plan of God (Rom. 16:25; Eph. 1:9, 3:3â€“9, 6:19; Col. 2:2â€“3, 4:3) for his whole creation. This sixth dimension is thus a legitimate missiological focus for the Christian church.
These dimensions of Christian community have practical value for the life and mission of the church in at least six ways:
The experience of Christian community is deeper and richer the more of these dimensions it embodies.
- While community with God and with others in the Body of Christ are essential and foundational, different people (and perhaps people in different cultures) may tend to be drawn towards, or more easily experience, different dimensionsâ€”either initially, or on an ongoing basis.
Ongoing growth is possible at all dimensions as we walk with God in Christian community, open to the Spirit.
Relatedly, these dimensions provide guidance for the discerning of gifts, callings, and ministries within a congregation. While every Christian should experience all these dimensions, some persons will probably sense Godâ€™s call to focus mainly on just one or two. Considering these varying dimensions of Christian community can be an important factor in helping a church discern the ministry and calling of each believer. Each of these expressions of Christian community may be thought of in terms of covenant, a relationship involving commitment and faith in God and his promises. Because God is the Lord who initiates covenant, all these dimensions are real and important to the economy of salvation. All can lead to genuine experiences of Christian community because they are all essentially relational in character since they are based in God himself. An exclusive or exaggerated emphasis on any one of these dimensions leads to a distorted gospel and to unbalanced mission. A biblically comprehensive gospel and truly holistic mission require a vision for and genuine experience of all these dimensions in combination.
Relatedly, these dimensions provide guidance for the discerning of gifts, callings, and ministries within a congregation. While every Christian should experience all these dimensions, some persons will probably sense Godâ€™s call to focus mainly on just one or two. Considering these varying dimensions of Christian community can be an important factor in helping a church discern the ministry and calling of each believer. Each of these expressions of Christian community may be thought of in terms of covenant, a relationship involving commitment and faith in God and his promises. Because God is the Lord who initiates covenant, all these dimensions are real and important to the economy of salvation. All can lead to genuine experiences of Christian community because they are all essentially relational in character since they are based in God himself.
An exclusive or exaggerated emphasis on any one of these dimensions leads to a distorted gospel and to unbalanced mission. A biblically comprehensive gospel and truly holistic mission require a vision for and genuine experience of all these dimensions in combination.
Six Dimensions of Christian Community
IV. SOME PRACTICAL CONSIDERATIONS
Finally, several practical considerations for church planting may be offered. In the light of the ecclesiology set forth above, these conclusions seem especially important:
The multiplication of relatively small but spiritually and missionally viable local churches should be a top priority of denominational strategy.
Therefore a theological and missional vision for church multiplication should be nurtured throughout the denomination.
New local churches (as all churches) should function according to the basic biblical principles regarding the church. Their life should be organic and charismatic, with a strong emphasis on community, worship, and mission.15
For theological as well as pragmatic reasons, new churches should be planted by communities or teams, not by sole individuals.
Persons (and small communities of persons) with the necessary gifts, callings, and vision for church planting should be identified, encouraged, equipped, and deployed in church-planting ministries. Church planters should continue to be raised up (multiplied) over time as an ongoing process.
New churches should be free (and encouraged) to develop their own life and ministry consistent with biblical principles and with adaptability to the cultural context, but within well understood denominational guidelines.
Newly planted churches (as all churches) should be assisted in developing, from the beginning, a vision for the kingdom of God, not just for church planting. They should understand that the mission of the church is broader than church planting or church growth.16
The expanding network of new churches should function within a functional, relational, organic networks (a community of communities), denominational or otherwise, not merely or primarily through denominational administrative structures.
Godâ€™s way of redeeming the world is through the incarnation, life, death, resurrection, and ongoing reign of Jesus Christ in the power of the Spirit. Jesusâ€™ primary strategy to bring the kingdom of God is the church: â€œAs the father has sent me, so I am sending youâ€ (John 20:21). The church is to be faithful to this calling until the time comes when â€œevery knee shall bow, . . . and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Fatherâ€ (Phil. 2:10â€“11).
Ecclesiology is our reflection on how to be the authentic Body of Christ for the sake of Godâ€™s mission in todayâ€™s world. These reflections are offered to that end. # # #
1 Richard P. Heitzenrater, â€œWesleyan Ecclesiology: Methodism as a Means of Grace.â€ Lecture manuscript, May 24, 2005, p. 10.
2 Heitzenrater, â€œWesleyan Ecclesiology,â€ pp. 6, 3.
3 John Wesley, â€œA Plain Account of the People Called Methodistsâ€ (1749). The Works of John Wesley (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1975â€“ ), 9:252â€“80.
4 See Robert Banks, Paulâ€™s Idea of Community, rev. ed. (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1994); Ralph Winter, â€œThe Two Structures of Godâ€™s Redemptive Mission,â€ Missiology, 2:1 (January 1974), pp. 121â€“39 (also found in the Perspectives volume).
5 Mark Powell, â€œBiblical Images for the Relationship of Christ to Christians,â€ Lecture, Asbury Theological Seminary, March 9, 2006.
6 The church could benefit from a close study of the ecclesiological and missional implications of the theme of Jesusâ€™ â€œworkâ€ and â€œworksâ€ in the Gospel of John.
7 Significant O.T. analogues to this â€œmacrostructural witnessâ€ are the lives of Daniel, Esther, and of Joseph in Egypt.
8 For perspective see Howard A. Snyder, â€œThe Marks of Evangelical Ecclesiologyâ€ (especially the section on â€œSources of Evangelical Ecclesiologyâ€), chapter 3 in John G. Stackhouse, Jr., ed., Evangelical Ecclesiology: Reality or Illusion? (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003), 77â€“103, and the other essays in that volume.
9 See Howard A. Snyder, â€œThe Lordâ€™s Supper in the Free Methodist Tradition,â€ in Dale R. Stoffer, ed., The Lordâ€™s Supper: Believers Church Perspectives (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1997), 212â€“18.
10 These themes are elaborated, though not in this way, in the forthcoming Populist Saints: B. T. and Ellen Roberts and the First Free Methodists (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006). The issues are also illuminated in the autobiography of John Wesley Redfield, now available in a critical editionâ€”â€œLive While You Preachâ€: The Autobiography of Methodist Revivalist and Abolitionist John Wesley Redfield (1810â€“1863), edited by Howard A. Snyder (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow, 2006).
11 The Doctrines and Discipline of the Free Methodist Church (Rochester, NY: Published by the General Conference, 1870), p. ix.
12 This has been a major theme of all of my own writing, particularly The Problem of Wineskins, The Community of the King, Liberating the Church, and Decoding the Church.
13 See the discussion in Snyder, Models of the Kingdom, 56â€“66. In terms of the kingdom of God, I associate this sense of Christian community with the model of the kingdom as â€œmystical communion.â€
14 Hugh Stowell, From Every Stormy Wind That Blows (1828), stanza 2.
15 See especially chapter 10 in Radical Renewal: The Problem of Wineskins Today (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2005 (rev. ed. Of The Problem of Wineskins).
16 See Howard A. Snyder, â€œChurch Growth: A Renewal View,â€ in Gary L. McIntosh, ed., Evaluating the Church Growth Movement: Five Views (Zondervan, 2004), 209â€“31.