Biblical Ecclesiology

John M. Crowe, M.Div., D.Min. 

A. The Great Need for the doctrine of the Church (Ecclesiology) Today.

Today, many people in a wide range of denominations and others are talking about, writing about and holding workshops about healthy churches and effective clergy. For the most part many of them come across like some church leadership books with just a sprinkling of Christian doctrine. Therefore, what does the Church catholic (universal) say to this hot topic?

1.  There are five reasons for using ecclesiology to develop healthy churches.

First is the lack of church health literature from any other perspective than “systems theory.” As Anthony B. Robison wrote, “By and large, congregational health seemed, to judge by the literature, not to match much with either the core convictions of the Christian faith, theology or the Bible” (3).

To overlook, forget or ignore the rich deposits of wisdom from Christian theology and the Word of God is like building a house upon a foundation of sand instead of a foundation made from rock.

Second is the apparent lack of ecclesiology among both active clergy and seminarians. Princeton Theological Seminary professor, Ellen Charry, boldly states: “I am increasingly realizing that a number of our ministerial students have no ecclesiology to speak of. For them the church is a voluntary no-for-profit organization run like a local franchise” (201).

Without an ecclesiology, one’s pastoral theology will end up shaped more by American consumerism and the business model of Church, Inc.

While churches need higher attendance in worship services and in Sunday school; stronger finances; more involvement; increased membership; and effective clergy; something deeper is required to tie everything together.

The biblical focus of being church by God’s free grace in Jesus Christ provides that missing something.

It involves the biblical/ecclesiological formation of a church body as a living system in Christ by the empowering of the Holy Spirit through biblical formation. Without such biblical/ecclesiological formation, the outer functions of doing church evaporate when divorced from the inner substance of being church. This assertion forms the very core of this ecclesiological theological model.

If a pastor fails to preach and teach sound ecclesiology or if an individual church member refuses it to some degree, the body of Christ will lack soundness to that degree. This lack of soundness will show itself either in unloving relationships, lack of harmonious teamwork, underdeveloped ministries, or deficient individual wholeness. Such hindrances to the wholeness of the body of Christ and the healthy fulfillment of its mission require a healing process that seeks to treat the system as a whole.

In a nutshell, a healthy church body is a congregation of holy loving relationships by God's amazing grace in Christ, the empowering of the Holy Spirit, and shaped by New Testament teaching about being the body of Christ for fulfilling both the great commission (Matt. 28:16-20) and practicing the great commandment (Matt. 22:36-40). 

The absence of the above mentioned health dynamic is harmful to the life and ministry of a church as my colleague Dr. Guy Brewer wrote. 

"Over the course of three years I worked day and night to build the congregation and physical facility that became Edgewater United Methodist Church. Although I devoted virtually no time to prayer, I averaged eighty hours per week in committee meetings, visitation, sermon preparation, and the work of the ministry. By the end of those three years, Edgewater United Methodist Church was a success according to the standards of the annual conference. We had gathered a congregation of 200 plus persons and completed construction of a church building and a parsonage. Under the veneer of performance standards, this fledgling congregation was exhausted, under-nourished, and fearful with a worn out, depressed pastor. Edgewater United Methodist Church appeared to be a success but lacked the marks of congregational health such as joy, unity, patience, and enthusiasm. We relied on ourselves and achieved exactly what we set out to do. We built a church under our own power" (5).

When volume of activity becomes the measure of ministry, matters of interior transformation often go unnoticed and neglected. As Peterson puts it, “Busyness is an illness of the spirit, a rush from one thing to another because there is no ballast of vocational integrity and no confidence in the primacy of grace" (132-133).

Such a church has a weak prayer life. Brewer writes a very bleak description of such unhealthy congregations. 

"When God's healing is not a living reality through prayer, the church can become a back ward of chronically ill people waiting to die. This form of spiritual illness is subtle but deadly. People bring crippling fear and enormous control needs into the life of the church. In such a situation, the church may become more of a leper colony than a hospital. Without the power of God through prayer, ministry to the sick and dying may become little more than compassionate commiseration with their suffering. Instead of making the sick well, churches that do not pray condemn themselves to catching the illnesses they are commissioned to heal" (13).

Third is hyper Christian individualism. This comes from simplistic preaching. These types of sermons concentrate only on the individual’s relationship with Christ, and forget that the church, as the body of Christ is a system of relationships.

This leads to not knowing or to not applying that one's faith in Christ connects one with the body of Christ, the church which in the New Testament met together and was encouraged not to neglect gathering together as well as was given guidance about relating with each other, i.e. as a congregation, as different groups like older men, younger men, older women, younger women, families, married, children, etc. Even the individual's life as a Christian was viewed as having an impact on the health of a local church body.

Hyper individualism reduces New Testament ecclesiology into a truncated body with only a Head which can also open the door for a "Burger King" Christianity which is another name for "Have it your way Christianity.

Fourth is “Have it your way Christianity” which is a consumer mentality applied to the church.

It is seen when parishioners view themselves as stockholders/customers who feel entitled to a fair return on their investments from the pastor. If they don't get such a fair return, they either cause trouble in order to remove the pastor or go elsewhere seeking a church with a pastor who will do things their way. They may have an individual faith in Christ, but they don't view the church as the body of Christ belonging to God with Christ as its head.

It is also seen in wanting more "freedom in the Spirit" apart from biblical teaching by either a reductionist or a. syncretistic treatment of basic Christian beliefs about God, Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, Salvation, or Christian living.

Fifth is the secularization of pastoral leadership into a business model because of the void created by the lack of ecclesiology.

Rediger, author of Clergy Killers, points out a major contributor to the problem of poor church health. Whenever churches operate from a business model that does not view pastors as spiritual leaders of a mission, they become sick (19-20, 26-27, 53). Often, pastors learn such a business, competency, performance model in seminary. As Brewer points out,

"In the broad sweep of learning that comprises seminary education, the spiritual formation of the minister remains largely neglected. Pastors lead the church in the way they are trained with a primary focus upon competency and performance" (17).

With pastors who have learned to place a premium on human technique and control in pastoral ministry, churches learn this unhealthy business model from their pastoral leadership.

When the business model replaces the biblical model of mission in a church, the consequent blood filled waters breed clergy killers. As Rediger accurately points out,

"Because the church…has succumbed to the business model of operation…the pastor has become an employee, and parishioners the stockholders/customers. The pastor is hired to manage the small business we used to call a congregation. This means his primary task is to keep the stockholders happy; the secondary task is to produce and market an attractive product. When this mindset infects the church, the church is no longer a mission but has become a business. Parishioners and pastors agree that participants are “entitled” to a fair return on their investments; that any member can disrupt normal polity; that employment contracts and evaluations only of the pastor are the norm; and that evangelism is essentially a marketing effort…the budget is necessarily the bottom line…This is the reverse of how a healthy congregation functions. When the church operates as a mission, the pastor is “called” rather than hired. He “serves” God first, and the denomination and congregation second.

Whether parishioners “like” or “dislike” the pastor is irrelevant, for the pastor comes with authority to nurture and lead them spiritually. Liking and disliking are the parishioners’ problem, not the pastor’s" (53).

A general sense of entitlement is growing in the church, as well as in society. Church members feel entitled to comfort and privilege. It a pastor does not please them, they feel free to criticize and punish. The business mentality that pervades the church says if the CEO (pastor) does not produce, the pastor should be fired. (20).

The market-driven business model is unhealthy for more than only the pastor, the pastor’s family, and the congregation. It is also unhealthy for the evangelistic outreach of the church. While various marketing campaigns attract crowds of people, many are leaving in their search for a community of truth, reality, and authenticity (Dawn, Hendricks).

B. Ecclesiology in the NT and Church Health.

Sometimes our study of the New Testament leads to only see the church described as the body of Christ. Thus, we often miss how the writers of the New Testament used this biblical image in two ways. They used it prescriptively to improve a congregation's health as well as descriptively to define Christ's church.

Very often, a NT epistle will address the whole congregation about certain matters, different subsections about other issues, and individuals about important intrapersonal or interpersonal concerns. Each of these practical exhortations spring from some part of Christian doctrine focused on in the epistle. This is particularly true of the epistle to the Ephesians.

My goal in writing this church health model is to mainly cover the book as a whole and the subsections of Ephesians to present an ecclesiology for church health. The internet abounds with sermons or articles focused on this or that section of Ephesians and relating it to church health. As one online writer, T. J. Addington wrote, “For all the talk about church health, possibly the most underutilized resource is that of the book of Ephesians which is, if nothing else, a primer on church health.”

C. Church Fathers use of NT Ecclsiology for Healthy Churches.

We read examples the doctrinal approach to healthy churches and clergy in the writings of those who came after the apostles. Repeatedly, several noteworthy and influential Church fathers quote Scripture—specifically the Pauline epistles. They illustrate and expand upon biblical principles of church health.

For example, forty years after Paul's epistles, division raised its ugly head in again at the church in Corinth as some younger church leaders replaced the older ones. Upon hearing infamous reports about the Corinthians around A.D. 95, one church father, Clement, describes this wonderful church as being torn asunder by various matters of dispute. . . which a few headstrong and self-willed persons have kindled to such a pitch of madness that your name, once revered and renowned and lovely in the sight of all men, hath been greatly reviled. (Lightfoot 13)

Their division brought much sorrow to the church at Rome and turned off the unchurched there from the Gospel of Jesus Christ (Lightfoot 33). To heal their sickness, Clement quotes Paul's epistle to help them regain their health.

Some years after John sent Revelation to Ephesus, Ignatius wrote to the Ephesians between 105-116 AD. Ignatius complimented them for closing their ears to false doctrine. Also, he commended them for being a loving church again. Ignatius wrote of them saying, "Being the followers of the love of God towards man, and stirring up yourselves by the blood of Christ, you have perfectly accomplished the work which was beseeming to you"; (Ignatius 99).

Furthermore, almost three or four hundred years after Paul's Epistles to Corinth, Chrysotom admonishes the Corinthians for developing into an unhealthy church again. In one of his homilies to them, he wrote that each clause of I Cor. 13:4-7 described exactly what they were not and this was the root of their problem (Chrysostom 206-207).

The letters of Clement, Ignatius and Chrysotrom demonstrate various truths. First, churches can become unhealthy after regaining their health if they stray from living by sound doctrinal principles. Second, church health involves an ongoing battle to mature inwardly. Third, the unity of the Spirit is broken when truth and love are separated. Fourth, previously healthy churches, which have become unhealthy, can become healthy again by means of God's Spirit working through the Word of God. Most importantly, they remind us that improving church and clergy health is not a destination. It is in fact, quite a journey.

D. Creedal Ecclesiology and Church Health.

The Apostles Creed and the Nicene Creed are the oldest and most widely used confessions of the church catholic. The term catholic not only means the universal church instead of one denomination. Together, these summary statements of catholic (universal) Christian teaching clearly say that what we believe about God the Father, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit are foundational to the doctrine of Christ's church throughout the world for all times.

The Apostles Creed dates from very early times in the Church, a half century or so from the last writings of the New Testament. When new believers in Jesus Christ joined the church, this creed was part of the ritual for membership. This affirmation of faith begins with what the church catholic believes about God the Father, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit which includes the phrase "holy catholic church."

The Nicene Creed follows the same outline as the Apostles Creed but goes into greater detail. For example, the statement, "And I believe one holy catholic and apostolic Church." This defines the church as one in the basic Christian doctrines of the New Testament Apostles. These statements imply that the church around the world and for all ages stands accountable to the doctrines of the NT apostles. Having said that, we can infer an additional meaning also. The church catholic (universal) lives under the authority of the Bible.

E. Denominational Ecclesiology and Church Health.

Building upon the Bible and the two historic Creeds, various denominations state their affirmations of Christian doctrine. In The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church, you will find its doctrinal statements concerning the church.

The church is a community of all true believers under the Lordship of Christ. It is the redeemed and the redeeming fellowship in which the Word of God is preached by persons divinely called, and the sacraments are duly administered according to Christ's own appointment. Under the discipline of the Holy Spirit the church seeks to provide for the maintenance of worship, the edification of believers and the redemption of the world.

This theological teaching and doctrinal standard is repeated in both the preamble of the United Methodist Constitution and in the Discipline's definition of a local church. What follows after the doctrine of the church is focused on function, organization, and implementation for the sake of putting our belief into action.

The doctrine of the church coming first in the UMC's Constitution and in the Thus, to the degree that a group of churches or a single congregation lacks the sound doctrine summarized in those two creeds, they will not have sound health. The same is true for clergy also. Their degree of health impact the effectiveness of their ministries from the perspective of NT teaching which often clashes with society as well as the unhealthiness within churches.

F. The role of Ecclesiology for Church Health Today.

Both the doctrinal teaching of the NT, and the Creeds of the Church catholic calls for a redefinition of church health and clergy effectiveness in terms of the role of sound Christian doctrine brining soundness to the various subsystems of the church body. People hunger for churches to no longer define healthiness in terms of externals like buildings, budgets and attendance figures. Many de-churched and unchurched people hunger for churches to connect being and doing church out of an authentic relationship with Jesus Christ shaped by sound Christian teaching.

As John Albert Bengel, wrote, 

"Scripture is the foundation of the Church: the Church is the guardian of Scripture. When the Church is in strong health, the light of the Scripture shines bright; when the Church is sick, Scripture is corroded by neglect; and thus it happens, that the outward form of Scripture and that of the Church, usually seem to exhibit simultaneously either health or else sickness; and as a rule the way in which Scripture is being treated is in exact correspondence with the condition of the Church" (1:7).

The place of doctrine for church health and effective clergy defines, shapes and empowers the church or organization of churches in their organization, functions and their implementation for the sake of putting faith into action. As the late Frank Bateman Stanger proclaims in his book, God's Healing Community,

"Theology is needed to impel one to continuing dedicated spiritual being and doing. Even though we may not always be quick to identify such a causal relationship, it takes a theology of prayer for us to pray, a theology of love for us to love and serve, a theology of spiritual experience for us to worship and witness, a theology of stewardship for us to give in the New Testament sense, a theology of the church for us to be good church members, a theology of truth and holiness for us to be ethical" (40).

Accordingly, healthy churches and effective clergy live and do church flowing forth from a "living faith without which (Mr. Wesley said), there can be no church at all." As a community under the Lordship of Christ, we are nourished and shaped by the Word of God proclaimed lest our faith die and increased in our faith through the sacraments. Unhealthy churches and clergy appear to have a bad case of doctrinal amnesia while trying to be and do church effectively.

John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, often made reference to matters of church health in his sermons. For example, his sermon "Of Evil Angels," based on Ephesians 6:12, outlines the devil's attacks upon our healthy love of God and each other as Christians ("Works Vol. 5" 418). In his sermon on "The Mystery of Iniquity", he notes several plagues which infected the Christian Church; namely, the love of money, the sin or partiality and other diseases ("Works Vol. 5" 288, 289).

G. Description of a Church Sound in Ecclesiology and in Health.

A healthy church is a congregation of holy loving relationships by God's amazing grace in Christ, through the empowering of the Holy Spirit, and shaped by sound basic Christian doctrine. One of the NT descriptions of the church is the body of Christ. While none of the apostles knew systems theory, this tool helps us unpack this doctrine of the Church as the body of Christ.

In particular, a healthy congregation is a living spiritual body in Christ with unique, but interdependent sub-systems like our body.

The one anatomical part of the human body that we absolutely cannot live without is our head. The New Testament’s description of Jesus being the head of the church portrays the truth that apart from the head, we do not have the spiritual life that we need to be Christ’s body. I’m concerned that many sick churches are going around like a chicken with its head chopped off because they have not looked into, grasped the importance, seen the implications of Jesus being the life of the church body by the Holy Spirit.

Our relationship with Jesus as our head is both justification based and sanctification directed by God's free grace. Such a spiritual dynamic leads a healthy church's spiritual life to shape relationships of truth and love whose holiness reaches beyond skin deep. 

Also, when our body's musculoskeletal and internal organs systems are healthy, there is harmony among our skeleton, muscles and internal organs. Likewise, sound truth and love develops a holy harmony within the congregation in a healthy church. 

In addition, our nervous system is in sound health everything works better both within the system and within our whole body. Similarly, sound teaching and love shapes the relationships between pastor(s), leaders and the rest of the congregation in a healthy holiness. 

Likewise, a church is only as healthy as each person's maturity in biblical truth and love within themselves and in their most intimate interpersonal relationships. This is the body’s circulation system. 

When our body's subsystems are healthy, we can be much more focused upon and active in the world around us. In the same way, healthy churches develop wholesome and holy ministries for a hurting world. When our body is healthy, our skin tends to be healthy. The importance of healthy skin for the body of Christ reminds us that through the church, Jesus Christ continues his ministry in the world today.

This is probably the easiest part of the spiritual anatomy of a congregation to write about, the quickest to rush into, and the most disappointing when we do not have the health of the body to support it, guide it, and empower it.

Church and clergy health issues are treated similarly as the epistles of the New Testament address one or more of the sub-systems where a church needs biblical formation to be a healthier church.

Consequently, this doctrinal approach leads us to an organic instead of a mechanistic approach to church health. For that reason, church and clergy health are treated and developed within an interactive spiritual anatomy of the congregational body. This is very similar to the development and best treatment of our own physical anatomy.

Works Cited



Bengel, John A. Gnomon of the New Testament. Ed. Andrew R. Fausset. Edinburgh: Clark, 1857-1858. 5 vols.

Beville, Casse. Developing Healthy Churches: A Case-Study in Revelation. Cambridge, Ohio: Christian Publishing House, 2014.

Brewer, Guy. “The Effect of Metanoia, A Forty-Day Season of Prayer, on Heart Attitudes of Murray Hill United Methodist Church.” Diss. Asbury Theological Seminary, 2000.

Charry, Ellen T.  “Sacramental Ecclesiology,” The Community of the Word: Toward an Evangelical Ecclesiology, ed. Mark Husbandsv and Daniel J. Treier. Downers Grove, Ill.: Intervarsity Press, 2005.

Chrysostom, John. “Post-Nicene Church Fathers.” Vol.13. The Master Christian Library  Version 5. CD-ROM. Ages          Software, 1997.

Dawn, Marva J. Reaching Out without Dumbing Down. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans. 1995.

Getz, Gene A. The Measure of a Healthy Church: How God Defines Greatness in a Church. Chicago: Moody Press, 2007.

Hendricks, William D. Exit Interviews: Revealing Stories of Why People are Leaving the Church. Chicago: Moody Press, 1993.

Ignatius. “Ante-Nicene Fathers.” Vol.1. The Master Christian Library Version 5. CD- ROM. Ages Software, 1997.

The Holy Bible: The New International Version. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1978.

Lawless, Chuck. Discipled Warriors: Growing Healthy Churches That Are  Equipped For Spiritual Warfare. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2002. 

Lightfoot, J.B. The Apostolic Fathers. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1980.

Peterson, Eugene H. Working the Angels: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987.

Rediger, G. Lloyd. Clergy Killers. Louisville: Westminster, 1997.

Robinson, Athony B. What’s Theology Got to Do with it?: Convictions, Vitality, and the Church. Herdon, VA: Alban Institute, 2006.

Stanger, Frank. God’s Healing Community. 1978. Nappanee, IN: Evangel Publishing House, 2000.

The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church 2000. Ed. Harriett Jane Olson. Nashville:  The UM Publishing House, 2000.

Wesley, John. “Works, Vol. 5.” The Master Christian Library Version 5. CD-ROM, Ages Software, 1997.


The content of this article comes from my dissertation: “PREACHING FOR A WHOLE PERSON RESPONSE IN DEVELOPING A HEALTHY CHURCH.” Diss. Asbury Theological Seminary, 2001. The contents are protected.