What does the doctrine of “the church” really do? Does it have a say in matters related to church life and practice? While you might want immediately to answer in the affirmative, let me offer one more question: When is the last time the doctrine of the church had a say in a ministry decision of your local church? Let me tell you where I am going with this. I have a hunch that the doctrine of the church is quite frequently a non-voting member of our ministry decisions – even within the church, and its influence is suppressed not by anti-church sort of Christians, but by the very same evangelicals who would herald themselves as committed to a robust ecclesiology. Allow me to give just one example
What role should ecclesiology play in defining the ordinance of baptism? If you are like some of my dear church brothers and sisters, the only theological doctrine that really comes into play in regard to baptism is soteriology, the doctrine of salvation. Taking into account the essentialness of soteriology for Protestants, as well as the recent debates over issues surrounding the doctrine, this is neither a surprise nor a bad thing. But is it enough? Does the fact and nature of salvation give enough explication of the function of baptism in the church? Of course not! And how could it? While salvation is essential to baptism, it is not capable of serving as its sole guide in the practice of the Body of Christ. Rather, picking up where soteriology left off, ecclesiology serves to embrace, that is, embody (of Christ) the saved person. For this reason the act of baptism must be given definition and guidance by the doctrine of the church. The fact that this is not taking place is exhibited by the number of God-loving Christians who have been “saved” for years and are long-standing participants in their local churches and yet have never been baptized – and likely see no reason to do so! Soteriology alone is unable to explain the purpose and role of baptism in the church.
We might want to explain it this way: soteriology has a macro-level set of categories that moderate a person’s relation with God. Ecclesiology, in symbiosis with soteriology, has a micro-level set of categories that moderate a person’s relation with the Body of Christ, the church. Let me give one analogy. The difference might be seen in part by means of the distinction between Federal and State legislation. The U.S. government has an established set of rules that govern each and every resident, but each state has been allotted its own space and freedom to establish a set of rules particular to its interests and setting. For while I cannot use a hand-held cell phone in California, when I am driving in Illinois to visit family I can (legally). Being a U.S. resident gives me no guidance regarding state laws, and being born in IL does not excuse me from following the laws and regulations of California. A person’s ontological identity as a U.S. resident gives only minimal guidance in regard to their functional identity as a resident of a particular state. Thus, I must simultaneously allow my status as both a US resident and a resident of California to have authority over my life and manner of living. I do not choose one over the other, for not only are they intended to work together, but I am a part of them both.
In the same way, as necessary (and wonderful!) as the condition of salvation is for the Christian, it alone cannot explain the manner of life for the Christian – nor should it. A robust ecclesiology actually takes seriously the new life of the Christian, and bears as its primary responsibility the manifestation of that life as the Body of Christ in the world. While an emphasis on soteriology alone can magnify the symbolism of baptism, it can only speak of it from a distance; only in the church is baptism made real, not only as the fulfillment of the command of Jesus, but also as a true participation with Jesus and a public initiation into the church. For this reason the eclipse of ecclesiology by the Church is a sad irony, for it is ultimately a denial of itself, preferring to live platonically rather than in the real world. Embrace ecclesiology, brothers and sisters, for the church is “God’s household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone … a holy temple in the Lord” (Eph. 2:19-20).