Brad Harper and Paul Louis Metzger, Exploring Ecclesiology: An Evangelical and Ecumenical Introduction. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2009. 336 pp. Paperback, $22.05. ISBN 9781587431739.
Authors Brad Harper and Paul Louis Metzger have written an excellent volume exploring ecclesiology from an evangelical and ecumenical perspective. Brad Harper, Ph.D., is professor of theology at Multnomah University and colleague Paul Louis Metzger, Ph.D., is professor of theology and culture at Multnomah Biblical Seminary. Their work will be helpful to those seeking a systematic study of the church and guidance for building bridges between evangelical traditions.
Harper and Metzger remind us that “the church is our mother” and that without the church, we would not have the preserved Word of God as our authority. As Protestants, they affirm the Bible as the supreme arbiter in all matters doctrinal or otherwise; however, they write to encourage Protestants not to neglect the discipline of ecclesiology and the institution of the church—the protector of the Word. They argue that four basic traits (biblical, historical, ecumenical, and cultural) are necessary to form a sufficient evangelical ecclesiology (p. 13).
This volume emphasizes a distinctly trinitarian ecclesiology. The authors devote the first chapter to explaining the rich complexity and beauty of the church as a trinitarian community. They claim that the Trinity is at the very core of the church’s being: “The Father calls the church into being by the Son and indwells it by the Spirit, who unites it to Christ” (p. 19). It is, therefore, the church’s responsibility to “become a divinely appointed means of communicating the person, love, and righteousness of Christ” as it carries out the work of the kingdom (p. 33).
The chapter titled “The Trinitarian Church Confronts American Individualism” is a tantalizing chapter, especially to those pastors who have worked tirelessly to build strong community within their churches. The authors decry the fundamentalist-evangelical propensity to overemphasize individualism while “failing to situate adequately the individual person in a community of persons” (p. 40). The authors explain how individualism has infiltrated the ethos of the individual, the individual family, and the individual church, resulting in relationships structured as mere “contracts.” Unfortunately, contractual relationships have produced ever-changing and fluid congregations seeking maximal personal benefits.
The “primary task and chief end” of the church, the authors argue, is to worship. They offer a narrow definition of worship: “Worship is that activity of the church where it, as a community, proclaims and celebrates God’s person and redemptive work through participation in his trinitarian community” (p. 85). Breaking worship down into its many parts, the authors describe how worship is trinitarian, eschatological, a divine encounter, formed by location, community, love, glory, dedication, and sacrifice. They describe worship as an act that includes drama, symbol, word, table, music, and prayer. Young pastors who are new to managing a worship service will find this section of the book profitable for establishing a theology of the “Sunday-morning worship service.”
The ongoing debate over how to engage culture as a worshipping community—whether or not to be culture-saturated or culture-wary—is surveyed in the chapter “The Worshipping Church Engages Culture.” Harper and Metzger offer a lengthy definition and exposition of the nature of culture, focusing especially on ideas within John Witvliet’s book Worship Seeking Understanding (2003). This is a worthwhile chapter for those whose churches are marred by factionalism and who engage culture with too much optimism or reticence. The authors propose a helpful “yes-and-no” approach to cultural engagement that is not simply middle-road, but is thoughtfully critical of this serious issue.
Chapters 7 and 8 will be of service to pastors who have not grappled much with sacramental theology and practice. Some Protestant evangelical denominations rarely even use the word “sacrament” in doctrine or pulpit, making the concept foreign and strange to some clergy. The authors are privy to this reality and include a section in chapter 7 on “The Sacred Story and Symbols’ Significance for Identity, Purpose, and Activity.” This will supply any reader with background information that illuminates the power of sacrament.
Chapter 9, “The Church as a Serving Community,” provides a refreshing look at how local churches serve one other—that is, how individual Christians should serve other individual Christians, as members of the same body. Chapter 10 offers a short but unique contribution on church discipline, something that is rarely addressed in the church. Chapter 11 reviews the strengths and weaknesses of different church polity forms, such as the Episcopal, Presbyterian, and Congregational structures. Chapter 12 addresses the role of women in the faith community. This chapter argues for ministerial egalitarianism, while still maintaining that male hierarchal headship is possible in the home. Skipping to the final chapter, “From Building Programs to Building God’s Missional Kingdom,” Harper and Metzger address some of the most pragmatic and common ecclesial issues faced by church leaders of every stripe. This chapter pairs well with chapter 2 on American individualism, and it will help any pastor or elder who has labored through “strategy meetings” and “focus-group projects” and who has seen the folly of chasing novelty.
Finally, you don’t want to ignore the “Postmodern Postscript” at the end of the book, which dives into hermeneutical humility and theological congeniality—particularly between minds of the East and West. For readers new to Eastern strands of the church, this section will be eye-opening. This is a worthwhile read and one I will revisit and share with fellow church leaders. Used as a reference and consulted as relevant topics arise, this book will not stray too far from my desk.