When I offered a new seminar course on Ecclesiology last semester, one of the books we discussed is Gregg R. Allison’s Sojourners and Strangers: the Doctrine of the Church (Crossway, 2012). This is the latest volume in the Foundations of Evangelical Theology series edited by John Feinberg. The book has several features to commend it for evangelical readers interested in ecclesiology. One characteristic throughout the book is the clear and well-organized writing style that is a model for students to see how ideas are presented, supported with evidence, and critiqued or nuanced. It is difficult to misunderstand Allison’s meaning and how all of his claims fit together.
Allison follows a reliable and detailed method of systematic theology. He unfolds each aspect of the topic by drawing from historical theology, exegetical study, and contemporary theology. At 496 pages, the book does not hold back from giving full and clear explanations of historical issues, the variety of evangelical and (sometimes) Roman Catholic interpretations. The book is also current, interacting frequently with leading contemporary contributions, such as John Webster. Allison also discusses the recent development of multi-site churches with cautious approval.
Talbot-influenced readers will appreciate Allison’s moderate discontinuity approach to the identity of the church in comparison to Israel. Recognizing the church’s origin at Pentecost has important ramifications for several ecclesiological issues. These are explored in the large first section of the book covers “Foundational Issues” in which Allison details all the relevant prolegomena for discussing ecclesiology. His treatment of the positions that diverge from his own are fair and appreciative. The book presents evangelical ecclesiology with a range of options alongside Allison’s own Baptist, complementarian, discontinuity, elder-led, and non-cessationist positions.
Many of Allison’s conclusions are traditional and broadly evangelical positions, but some claims are surprising and fresh to challenge the evangelical status quo because Allison is persuaded that a better interpretation is at hand. One of these is Allison’s discussion of multi-site churches, noting the dangers and appreciating the goods.
Another non-traditional claim is that deacons should be defined as the leaders of all the ministries of the church that are not covered by the elders. The typical distinction that the elders mange spiritual needs while deacons address physical needs is not supported by Scripture. Allison refutes the traditional idea that the Seven of Acts 6 are the establishment of the diaconate as a ministry to physical needs. He also argues that 1 Timothy 3 is best understood to identify women as deacons in the early church. The resulting picture of a great many women deacons (and men deacons) in churches leading various ministries fits well with Allison’s complementarian view of women and men in ministry so that diverse contributions of both genders find expression in church ministries. For example, he lists a detailed array of ministries related to fine arts, mercy (including physical needs and tutoring), education, gender-specific and age-specific groups, “and the like.”
One theme running throughout the book’s long length is Allison’s proposal of seven essential marks of the church. He observes that earlier marks of the church have been identified as historically- and culturally-conditioned articulations. He does not fault earlier formulations, but suggests that the identity of the church must be articulated freshly in response to current factors of cultural context. To that end, he explains at length what he thinks the seven essential features are, why they are important today, and how these are important for understanding and practicing church life today. The seven characteristics are inclusive of earlier formulations with needed emphases for today, such as noting that the church is pneumadynamic (a term borrowed from John Coe to refer to the power of the Spirit necessary for church life). Allison repeatedly makes reference to these seven characteristics throughout his discussion of the various topics of ecclesiology. This thematic emphasis unifies the presentation in a coherent vision of the evangelical church.
I recommend Sojourners and Strangers for evangelicals wishing to understand and receive Allison’s challenges to be the church in the twenty-first century American context.