On January 21, I wrote a post questioning the notion of ecclesiology as missiology. The discussion sparked by this post raised another question: Is there more to ecclesiology than the discussions of temporal and institutional structure that seem to dominate it? Of course, you may say, but in a survey of some definitions of ‘ecclesiology’ I came across one that may reveal a misplaced focus:

Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary
1 : the study of church architecture and adornment
2 : theological doctrine relating to the church

How could it be that the #1 definition of ‘ecclesiology’ is “the study of church architecture and adornment”? Could it be that our ecclesiological focus has become all together too temporal?

What if ecclesiology is more about God’s intention and our assured end than it is about baptism or elders or denominational distinctives? What if ecclesiology is about who we are and will be? What if that eternal, communal identity is the framework and goal of our mission here?

I contend that an ecclesiology of heaven necessarily precedes missiology.

Ecclesiology precedes missiology because humanity was not created for a utilitarian purpose (as if merely to fulfill mission). Humanity was created for God’s glory and for relationship with him. The ecclesia (he entire gathering of the people of God, NT and OT) is the new humanity. Ecclesiology is (or rather, I propose that it should be) the study and presentation of what the OT and NT reveal about the nature and purpose of the people of God, the ecclesia (modified from Sailhamer’s definition of OT Theology). Much ecclesiology (nearly all, it seems) focuses on temporal and institutional structures; it is an ecclesiology of earth, if you will. This earthly ecclesiology should (must!) be informed by missiology. Form (temporal and institutional structures) follows function (mission). But missiology should (must!) be informed by an ecclesiology of heaven. Ultimate function (bringing God glory) determines intermediate functions (mission, for example).

An ecclesiology of heaven flows from the nature of God (Father, Son, and Spirit) and his sovereign intention for the doing and being of the ecclesia. God intends the ecclesia to be his people, in a willing love relationship with him. God intends the ecclesia to do what brings him glory. This ultimate function—bringing God glory—determines the intermediate functions like mission.

There is, of course, a ton more to this discussion and there are MANY voices who need to be engaged. The comments at Ecclesiology as Missiology? pointed to some:

Brad recommends Newbigin as a pondering partner.
Ann highlights the idea that the people must be gathered (ecclesiology) before they are sent (missiology).
Andrew B pointed out the need for a more complete Wikipedia entry.
Zane Anderson and Hamo place a much needed emphasis on Christ and Christology.
Finally, Hamo suggests that “focusing on ecclesia actually tends to retard mission whereas focusing on mission tends to ignite ecclesia.” I agree with modification:

Focusing on the earthly, temporal structures of the ecclesia tends to retard mission, whereas focusing on God’s gathering a people for himself (the ecclesia) tends to ignite mission.

That, then, is today's stopping point. There is surely more to follow.

See more on ecclesiology on Who in the world are we?


“Unless otherwise noted Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.”


  1. Recently, a piece by Ron and Karen Schwartz has caught my attention. The message I got out of this is that 'structure' is always a temporary crutch to be used so long as we are not hearing and being guided by the Holy Spirit. ("Structure is anything we impose to replace a function of the Holy Spirit.") And the expectation is that we as individuals and collectively as Church should be operating without human imposed structures.

    Could it be that earthly ecclesiology is the human invented and imposed structure and the ecclesiology of heaven is the intention of God communicated by His Spirit? And, if Ron and Karen Schwartz are correct, we should be dumping every aspect of earthly ecclesiology as quickly as possible as we grow into the ecclesiology of heaven.

  2. I agree that most ecclesial structure is a human invention. I think the NT supports a VERY minimal structure (elders, servers, congregational decision, ??). We have added tons to that (one of my un-favorite is Robert's Rules of Order...don't get me started).

    Personally, I don't think there is anything wrong with human structures if those structures allow the freedom to follow the Spirit. I've often used the notion of monkey bars. The stability of the structure is what helps you fly about with gleeful abandon. Further, since humans are God's partners (a la Genesis 1:26-27) we do have a contribution.

    But, honestly, it's probably well past time for a massive dumping, though I'm not sure how to do that in the 90+ year old church to which I am called. It is surely something to ponder and practice.

    By the way, the link to the piece by Ron and Karen Schwartz did not seem to work...