Basic Ecclesiology: Unity and Plurality

As I have argued that ecclesiology matters, we might then ask what we ought to believe about the Church.  So I thought I might lay out a few basic ecclesiological ideas in a series of short(er) posts.  Of course, our ideas about the Church tend first to be informed by our experience of actual churches, and what we like or dislike about them, and only secondarily (or tertiarily) consult the Bible or any reputable theological source.  But God’s revelation is always there to challenge us, just as Apollos was challenged by Priscilla and Aquila in Acts 18:26, to think better about the subject.

The first point is that there are multiple churches, and yet there is one Church.  The Church is simultaneously singular and plural.

The plurality of the Church is seen in various passages in scripture.  One could interpret all of Paul’s letters, and even his instruction to the Colossians to get the church in Laodicea to read his letter too (Col 4:16), as “the local part of the single unitary Church,” and in a sense that reading is correct.  Yet the term “churches” does occur specifically in the plural in Acts 15:41 and 16:5; Romans 16:4 and 16; 1 Corinthians 7:17 and 11:16 (in the pungent passage “the churches of God”); Revelation 2-3 passim; you get the idea.  And in a sense, this is obvious: the Greek term ekklesia, translated “church,” really means a gathering, usually a public gathering.  Indeed, in Acts 19:32-41 the term occurs three times for the tempestuous sudden mob of the Ephesians; in the first century, this term was still not Christianese jargon.  In other words, the plurality of the churches means that there are multiple congregations, multiple gatherings.

(And I might pause here to address the popular, but erroneous, theory which says that ekklesia means “the called-out people,” i.e. those whom God has called out of the world.  It’s clever, because unless I am mistaken ekklesia is related to the verb ekkaleo, “I call out.”  But it’s also wrong, because the term was not Christianese jargon but a word used equally by non-Christians for non-Christian gatherings, and such a theory contradicts what our Lord Jesus Christ in John 17:11 and 18.  I suspect, though am not expert enough to prove, that the etymological relationship between ekklesia and ekkaleo comes from the common practice of gathering a public meeting by having a crier shouting out that people should come to the gathering.  In the New Testament, it is synonymous with sunagoge, which also means “gathering,” and from which we get the English term “synagogue.”  To impute theological meaning to the verb ekkaleo in order to explain the noun ekklesia is to commit the etymological fallacy in interpretation; it leads to very bad theology.)

Given the plurality of congregations which we can take for granted, the unity of the Church is much more interesting, and that’s why it made it into the Creed.  It is only now necessary to belabor the obvious plurality of the Church for the benefit of those who speak and think as if the Church was only unity with plurality in no sense.  But the unity is emphasized in several passages of Scripture.  Our Lord speaks of planning to found his Church, in the singular (Matt 16:18), and several congregations are jointly referred to as “the Church throughout Judea, Galilee, and Samaria” (Acts 9:31).  Paul also sometimes speaks of “the Church” more broadly than just a single congregation (1 Cor 10:32; 12:28; 15:9; Eph 1:22; 3:10, 21; 5:23-32).  The Church is described as Christ’s body (1 Cor. 12:12-27; Eph. 5:23; Col. 1:18) and bride (Eph. 5:23; Rev 19:7; 21:9; and implicit in Matt. 9:14-17), and presumably he can have only one.

What the unity of the Church consists of is too large a topic for a single paragraph (and perhaps for a single post!), but Paul attaches it to the “unity of the Spirit” (Eph. 4:3), which he commands the Christians in Ephesus to maintain.  This leads to the point that the unity of the Church (whatever it means) is not simply a guaranteed fact, but is something which requires Christians to maintain vigilance, and indeed, our Lord prayed to the Father for “those who will believe in [him] through [the apostles’] message, that all of them may be one” (John 17:20-21; cf. 17:11 and 17:22).  And yet Christ also promised the future unity of his people in parallel with his own unity as the Shepherd of all: “I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd” (John 10:16).  There is certainly a lot more to unpack here.

That is enough for a start: the Church is simultaneously plural, because there are many congregations, and singular, because there is one Holy Spirit uniting us and one Lord Jesus Christ shepherding us.  To him be the glory for his grace toward us.

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3 comments

  1. Another good Scripture verse to contemplate in the discussion of unity is the parable of the ten virgins Matt. 25:1-13, most take it as a warning to be prepared, yet something of note is that there were ten brides not one, ten different individual entities becoming wed to the bridegroom, not one entity that views things singularly.

    1. Actually, I seem to read that parable somewhat differently than you do; I see the ten virgins more as bridesmaids, with the job of welcoming the groom whenever he shows up to collect the bride, and then accompanying them both to the groom’s house. Two things have struck me, however, as strange about that parable: 1. the kingdom of heaven is like all ten (25:1), rather than only line the five wise ones as many people would like to believe. 2. they all fell asleep (25:5), although we’d like to believe that some faithful group kept alert the whole time. So I see the parable as a very interesting text on the holiness of the Church, and, in rejecting the notion of a Donatist-style “Church of the pure,” also about unity. 🙂

      Thanks for your comment!

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