Models of the Church

Since one of my reading hobbies is ecclesiology I recently picked up and read the newest edition of Avery Dulles’ Models of the Church (New York: Doubleday, 2002).  In this book, Dulles summarizes and explains what he thinks are the five major models of ecclesiology in contemporary Christianity: Church as institution, church as mystical communion, church as sacrament, church as herald, and church as servant.  The updated book has a chapter on the church as community of disciples as well.

The book is very informative and well written.  Being a Reformation Christian, I knew from the get-go that I wouldn’t agree with everything in the book, as Dulles is a Roman Catholic theologian.  For example, he thinks that though all of the models have some benefits, his choice is the church as sacrament, which goes hard against my Protestant ecclesiology. 

Furthermore, I was disappointed that Dulles never interacted with any Reformation ecclesiology, aside from mentioning Lutheranism a few times.  He did mention Calvin in the beginning, but never came around to Reformed ecclesiology.  He used Barth and company to describe the church as herald, but I would have liked to see Dulles interact with Reformed/Presbyterian ecclesiology.  It seems to me that he made the mistake of lumping all Protestant ecclesiologies together, which is a pretty glaring error.  Certainly most mainline American Protestant ecclesiologies are far from confessional Reformed, Lutheran, or Anglican ecclesiology (just for a few examples)!

As I said, however, the book is worth reading.  Here is one quote I appreciated.

“…the Church of Jesus Christ is not perfectly realized anywhere on earth, and…any existing ecclesiastical body will be only deficiency the Church of Jesus Christ.  At the end of time, the Church will be ‘without spot or wrinkle;’ it will be the Bride fully adorned to meet her Husband.  But as yet the bodies that go by the name of ‘church’ all have their shortcomings and are to some extent vitiated by foreign elements” (p. 129).

If you’re an “ecclesiologist” you’ll want to get this book.  Even though I really didn’t find myself convinced by all of Dulles’ arguments and explanations, it was a helpful and enjoyable book to read.  Dulles does make some excellent points, and this should be on the shelves of those of you who are interested in the doctrine of the church. 

shane lems

One Reply to “Models of the Church”

  1. I guess the major problem I have with the 5 ecclesiology models is that they miss out on the concept of “the body of Christ”. The church is the bride of Christ and the body of Christ, the branches growing from the root of Christ. The institution aspect is a small part of the true church, and the other 4 models are functions of the church, not models independant from each other. To say that the church is a sacrament would be instead better to say that the church is a witness, or a herald. The church is indeed sacred, but it is not an event, or a remembrance, or a specific activity. It is a living organism that worships God and remembers and accepts Gods promises. It covers all of life. We do not attend church; we are church. We may attend a specific worship service.


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