Church as the Proper Context for an Evangelical Ordo Salutis1
Copyright 1999, Telford Work
The Estrangement of Evangelical Theology
Geoffrey Wainwright is one of the many Christian theologians who practice Christian theology where it demands to be practiced: firmly from within the context of the gathered and worshipping Church of Jesus Christ. He has constantly worked to develop the same practices among his students and friends, whether they live in the academy, the mission field, the pulpit, or the bishop's chair, and has long resisted the secularization and privatization of mainline Protestant theology. My mentor makes the practice of churchly and academic theology look natural and easy -- like the graceful blend of physical and mental exercise that is a professional cricket match.
Things are somewhat different in the American evangelical tradition.2 Scholasticism, not secularization or privatization, is our most common problem. When evangelicals practice theology, the result often looks less like a cricket match than a baseball strike, where the real contest is among distrustful owners, players, and fans.
Or, to use a different image, the evangelical academy and the rest of the evangelical world suffer from a dysfunctional relationship. I have tasted the bitterness from both sides, first as a writer and analyst for church-marketing guru George Barna, then as a systematic theologian at a Foursquare Pentecostal church.3 So in evangelical divorce court, I could enthusiastically represent either side: American evangelical theology is lost in the clouds, impractical, irrelevant to the nature of ministry in today's context, and preoccupied with intellectual trivia while our society grows more and more ignorant of the fundamentals of the Bible and the Christian faith. Or, American evangelical Christianity is dangerously acculturated to its society's individualism, consumerism, and power and plausibility structures, and it needs a strong theological prescription if it is to regain its distinctiveness as a Christian community in any substantial sense.
It is not my intention to rehearse either of these grievances here. As richly as evangelical theologians may deserve other evangelicals' critiques -- and vice versa -- evangelical theologians also deserve a critique from within their own ranks. Evangelical ecclesiology is partly culpable for the weaknesses of American evangelical practice and for the estrangement among my tradition's theologians, pastors, and laypeople.
In particular, one major, structural flaw in American evangelical ecclesiology needs correction: The cherished place of the ordo salutis before ecclesiology in the evangelical theological system. This essay finds the ordo salutis' placement defective and harmful to evangelical practice in at least two ways: first in the parachurch's exercise of ministry and mission, then in the practice of the Word and sacraments themselves.4 Next it proposes a solution, anticipates several objections, and explores how a relocated order of salvation reconceives and rescues first evangelical sacramental practice, then the institution of the parachurch.
I. Person or Church First? The Reformation's False Dilemma
A few tables of contents are more than enough to establish Protestant systematic theology's emphasis on moving from Christology, to soteriology, and only then to ecclesiology and eschatology. One begins with the Savior, then salvation won, then salvation personally appropriated, and then one turns attention to the invisible and visible communities of the saved. Now the chronological priority of one doctrine to another need not imply that the former determines the latter. This is especially so for systematic theologies consciously developed from a postfoundationalist perspective.5 But in evangelical systematic theology, putting salvation before Church is by no means mere convention or pedagogical technique. It is a Protestant shibboleth, on which the Reformed Church stakes out its position over against classical Catholic ecclesiology.
Louis Berkhof's Systematic Theology describes the point of departure for Reformed ecclesiology:
In Roman Catholic theology, ... the discussion of the Church takes precedence over everything else, preceding even the discussion of the doctrine of God and of divine revelation. The Church, it is said, has been instrumental in producing the Bible and therefore takes precedence over it; it is moreover the dispenser of all supernatural graces. It is not Christ that leads us to the Church, but the Church that leads us to Christ. All the emphasis falls, not on the invisible Church as the communio fidelium, but on the visible Church as the mater fidelium. The Reformation broke with this Roman Catholic view of the Church and centered attention much more on the Church as a spiritual organism. It emphasized the fact that there is no Church apart from the redemptive work of Christ and from the renewing operations of the Holy Spirit; and that, therefore, the discussion of these logically precedes the consideration of the doctrine of the Church.6
Berkhof's argument is typical in broader evangelicalism. Unfortunately, it falls for a false dilemma that has plagued both Protestant and Catholic Christianity since before the Reformation: Over against an ecclesiology that has made the community logically prior to the person, Protestantism must make the person logically prior to the community.
There are good reasons for this false dilemma to have arisen with such persuasive power, given its original context in medieval European Christianity. And it has had some wonderful effects. The precedence of soteriology was a devastating critique of medieval Catholic practice. It profoundly respected the priority of God's saving action to the earthly media of that action. It produced great achievements in Protestant doctrines of justification and sanctification, election and predestination, which remain unmatched in the Christian tradition. It recovered the awesome power of God's ultimate missionary, the Word written and preached, and helped produce some of the greatest missionaries in the history of the Church.
However, whether American evangelicals are well served by the order of salvation's priority today is another matter entirely. Whatever its original warrant and merit, in America's individualistic and pluralistic context, it reduces Church to an afterthought. Since the work of Christ is conceived of primarily in terms of the course of the salvation of individuals, the real Church is the invisible one, and the sacramental practices of the visible Church are reduced to "means of grace" -- in Charles Hodge's words, "the ordinary channels of grace, i.e., of the supernatural influences of the Holy Spirit, to the souls of men."7 Ecclesiology takes a back seat to soteriology, and the Church becomes merely an external instrument -- perhaps even a dispensable instrument -- of salvation. The earthly Church is to salvation as a wineskin is to wine. Its job is to dispense grace to needy souls and stay out of grace's way.
The problem is intensified in evangelicalism, which is a renewal movement mainly within Protestantism. Evangelicalism's proper insistence on the necessity of personal conversion further crowds out the communal dimension of salvation, reinforcing ecclesiology's inferiority to soteriology. It warps the Church's communal practices and helps displace the Church from its central role on earth by validating the existence of another, quintessentially American Christian institution: The parachurch.
The Priority of the Evangelical Parachurch
The place to be in American evangelicalism is a parachurch, not a boring old church. Parachurches are sexy, because parachurches are soteriological. Churches are mainly holding bins for people who are already saved. But parachurches are salvation machines, the ultimate wineskins of salvation. They save the world by evangelizing, training disciples and ministers, renewing families, furthering social action, and lobbying governments. This work of mission, sanctification, and cultural transformation makes perfect sense in terms of salvation. In fact, under the definition of the visible Church as just an external means of saving grace for souls, parachurches make better churches than most churches. And they mediate all this saving grace without baptizing, disciplining, gathering to worship, or celebrating communion!
This does not mean that pastors of actual churches are confined to lives of hopelessness. At the very least they can serve as talent agencies and marketing channels for parachurch ministries. Or they can distinguish themselves by turning their churches into ersatz parachurches: By expanding children's programs, funding missionaries, and starting schools, soup kitchens, accountability groups, television ministries, and outreaches. With the rise of the Willow Creek Association, some pastors have even managed to turn their churches into true parachurches. There Sunday gatherings are devoted entirely to the business of mission, and worship, sacraments, and Bible study are packed off to midweek services -- rather like the chapel hours of parachurches.
Evangelical theologians often place the blame for this radical preference of ministry to Church on evangelical pastors and laypeople, whom they accuse of selling out to the wider culture. But in preferring the parachurch model to the traditional church model, these clergy and laity are simply putting soteriology before ecclesiology. In a theologically unsophisticated way, they have taken to heart one of the distinguishing principles of American Protestant theology. It should not shock us theologians to see American evangelicals treating the Church as an external instrument of grace, whose practices are measured primarily, if not entirely, in terms of their utility in speeding along the order of salvation. We are the ones who defined it that way.
This is obviously a caricature of evangelical attitudes towards the Church of Christ. My own local church acts out an impressive commitment to the central role of gathered communities of God's disciples in doing Christ's work in the world. It practices what it calls "worship evangelism," utterly refusing to separate the two, even strategically, or to subordinate one to the other. But caricatures gain their power from distorting and accentuating real features. How real are the features behind the caricature? Even in my own fellowship, I often hear churches and denominations evaluated entirely on their effectiveness in assisting people through their personal salvation-histories. Any qualities that cannot be understood in these terms, or that seem to get in the way of personal salvation (say, Catholic unwillingness to admit Protestants to the Eucharist), are simply dismissed as human traditions that frustrate God's saving purposes and make the Church more than it really is.
Evangelical Sacraments: Supporting Cast for the Sinner's Prayer
This attitude is tellingly reflected in common evangelical sacramental practice. Many evangelical traditions have managed to strip away even the ecclesial nature of these ecclesial signs in pursuing salvation evangelical style. They are now by and large seen in terms of evangelicalism's central speech-act: the "Sinner's Prayer." Reciting the Sinner's Prayer has generally taken the place of baptism as both the decisive moment of salvation and the normative rite of initiation (conveniently, as one can do it by oneself, anytime and anywhere: at a worship service, at an evangelistic rally, or even privately before a television or Gideon Bible).8 It is to evangelical Christianity what the Shahadah is to Islam.9 In response, public baptism has become the ultimate witnessing opportunity, an "act-speech" directed more toward unbelievers and waverers in the audience than toward God, the baptizand, or the Church itself. Similarly, the Wesleyan "Open Table" tradition has often turned into still another witnessing opportunity, this time acted out in bread and juice and followed by a call for those newly converted to take the real step and pray the Sinner's Prayer, and for those newly repentant to renew their original metanoia in private contemplation. Even the sermon itself, once construed widely enough to accommodate teaching, proclamation, and ethical exhortation,10 has in many churches been reduced to a tedious evangelistic message repeated weekly as a lead-in to the climax of worship -- the Altar Call. These too are not so much acculturated betrayals of evangelical soteriology or ecclesiology, but thorough appropriations of Word, sacraments, and Church as external aids to salvation as evangelicalism understands it. My account is a caricature, but a disturbing one for those who have seen it come alive.
But just how widespread is the problem? Consider the story of Billy Graham, the very paragon of twentieth century American evangelicalism. What was Graham to do when differences over the proper practice of baptism threatened to divide his audiences? Baptism, he reasoned, is "only, to use the standard terminology, an outward sign of an inward grace." And so Graham became a Baptist to win Baptists, and was baptized for the third time in 1938 -- even though he had no qualms about his last adult baptism by immersion!
Having died and risen with Christ yet again, Graham was approached by a friend and told, "I think you ought to be ordained. That would give you a standing in the Baptist Association and be of great benefit to you in many ways." He thought and prayed about it and decided to go ahead. His friend set up an ordination council. When one of its members pressed him on the depth of his newfound enthusiasm for Baptist theology and practice, this is how Graham says he responded: "`Brother, you've heard me preach around these parts, and you've seen how the Lord has seen fit to bless. I'm not an expert on theology, but you know what I believe and how I preach, and that should be enough to satisfy you.' He chuckled, along with the others, and reckoned it was so. They approved me for ordination...."11
Practices like these are intelligible in terms of salvation by evangelical renewal. But they are unintelligible ecclesiologically. And so we evangelical theologians are constantly criticizing them. But at the same time, we assign systematic theologies that perpetuate and reinforce them, however unwittingly. Once Church has become a mere wineskin of salvation, it is only natural for Graham to use the technical description of a sacrament in order to justify an ordination of convenience, or a third "baptism." Once Bill Hybels is taught that the Church is only an "external means" of the salvation of individuals, it is no surprise that he might go on to found a movement that turns Sunday gatherings into "seeker services" focused on reaching the unchurched apart from worship or fellowship. Both of these fathers of evangelicalism are acting in ways profoundly consistent with an evangelical tradition that has provided them rich soteriological resources, but poor ecclesiological resources, to guide their ministries.
Many questionable evangelical practices look suddenly understandable when seen in terms of evangelical soteriology. Besides the sacramental habits described above, there are the widespread practice of "church shopping" and my former occupation of "church marketing." There is nothing controversial in taking advantage of one particular parachurch ministry over another, or choosing a particular demographic group as the target for parachurch ministry. One becomes like a Greek to win Greeks. Thus, when churches are reduced to wineskins of personal salvation, and assessed according to the performance standards of parachurches, shopping and marketing make perfect sense. We evangelical theologians cannot point fingers at church marketers and church shoppers unless we are willing to accept our share of the blame, for defining the visible Church in such a way that what they do makes so much sense.
II. Relocating the Evangelical Ordo Salutis
This diagnosis warrants a hard look at evangelical Protestant soteriology's relationship to ecclesiology, and to the Reformation's dilemma between personal and communal priority that was so formative for it.
How much blame does the ordo salutis deserve? Given the theological criticism it has taken, is it even theologically defensible? Despite its limitations and abuses, most evangelicals have continued to find it a helpful feature of Christian soteriology.12 People, not just peoples, have salvation histories; and evangelicals have long cherished trading stories of our "Christian walks." The order of salvation comprehends those narratives according to Jesus' narrative. It may be prone to individualist distortion, but it also has the power to keep Christian individualism from degenerating into sheer subjectivity. Its different confessional varieties helpfully delineate the different soteriologies of the different Western Christian traditions and indicate their strengths and weaknesses. At the same time, their commonalities hold ecumenical promise for those seeking to end and not merely to continue the old theological battles. Even if many versions of the order of salvation are defective, the form itself is not the reason for ecclesiology's second-rate status in evangelicalism.
What is far more problematic than the ordo itself is its place in the Protestant theological system, a place determined by the Reformation's false dilemma and hardened by the centuries-long Catholic/Protestant stalemate. The doctrine of atonement is of course inseparable from the doctrine of Jesus Christ. But the salvation of discrete persons does not belong in categories of justification and sanctification abstracted from social relationships. It belongs in the Church. Ecclesiology should be the category within which the ordo salutis is treated. As Miroslav Volf reads Matt. 18:20, "Christ's presence is promised not to the believing individual directly, but rather to the entire congregation, and only through the latter to the individual. This is why no one can come to faith alone and no one can live in faith alone."13 Salvation, from election through glorification, has an intrinsically ecclesial character.14
Is this just a capitulation to the Catholic position? It is not. Because the dilemma between personal and ecclesial priority is a false one, locating salvation in the context of Church need not lead to a blanket endorsement of either modern Catholic or modern Eastern Orthodox ecclesiology. It may well do the opposite. Next, we will see how this can be so.
Ecclesially Mediated, but Hierarchically Mediated?
Given the origins of Protestantism, it is understandable that most evangelical Protestants still associate ecclesially located salvation with clerical hierarchy. But the Reformation also begat living disproof that ecclesially mediated salvation must be hierarchically mediated salvation. The Radical Reformation and Free Church traditions embody powerful arguments against both the Protestant and Catholic accounts of salvation and Church. Volf's ecclesiology, so insistent about the ecclesiality of salvation, is not an endorsement of hierarchical Catholic ecclesiology, but an argument against it. He represents a powerful current of ecclesiology that associates salvation with the priesthood of all believers and with ecclesial egalitarianism.15 Schleiermacher's dichotomy between individualistic communion (one comes through Christ to the Church) and holistic communion (one comes through the Church to Christ) may represent two stable opposites in historical Christianity, and the two most popular answers over the course of Church history. But the same history shows that they are by no means the only Christian visions of the relationship among Jesus, Church, and persons of faith.16 Volf traces their fundamental weaknesses back to their common failure to appreciate the role of common Christians in mediating saving grace to each other.17 The episcopal caricature fails truly to appreciate the priesthood of all believers, while the congregational caricature fails truly to appreciate the priesthood of all believers. Both miss crucial aspects of the inherent ecclesiality of salvation. And so they talk past one another endlessly as each defends itself against the other's impoverished ecclesiology and soteriology.
Another objection to both the Protestant and Catholic accounts arises in Lesslie Newbigin's landmark ecumenical ecclesiology The Household of God. Newbigin seeks a way out of the Protestant/Catholic stalemate by appealing to the then newly emerging, revolutionary communities of Pentecostal Christianity, so antagonistic to the ecumenical movement but in some ways holding such promise as its missing key. These Christians emphasize that where the Holy Spirit is recognizably present with power, there is the Church.18 They personally embody the falseness of the Protestant-Catholic dilemma.19
Are these two objections, or one? Interestingly, McClendon locates his own (Free Church) "baptist vision" of the Church in Newbigin's third group. What Newbigin calls "Pentecostal" McClendon renames "baptist": "It is local, Spirit-filled, mission-oriented, its discipleship always shaped by a practice of discernment."20
My own Pentecostal tradition has important affinities with McClendon's baptist tradition: It refuses to baptize infants; it is suspicious of "Catholic" things like sacraments and discounts Rome's view of Holy Tradition; it constantly (and often naïvely) strives to recapture the Spirit of the New Testament Church; it has only recently enjoyed significant social status in America; and its attitude toward Scripture is a surprisingly healthy variety of biblicism. (It is not for nothing that America's Baptists and Pentecostals have recognized each other across the charismatic divide as fellow defenders of authentic evangelical Christianity against modernists and Catholics.)
But Newbigin's Pentecostal type finally does not fit into McClendon's baptist type. The revolutionary newness of charismatic Christianity, which emphasizes the sheer visibility of the Holy Spirit's activity in an unprecedented (and often reckless) way, which softens cultural, class, gender, racial, clerical, and denominational boundaries, which somehow resists both fundamentalism and liberalism -- this revolutionary newness is simply not present in the same way in the baptist tradition.21 Pentecostalism manages to synthesize an egalitarian ethos and the episcopal structure it inherited from the Wesleyan Holiness tradition. It retains far less of its ethnic-theological heritage than do the English Baptist and Continental European Radical traditions. It is more enthusiastic about inculturation and less resistant to acculturation. Most importantly, it has less of an air of political self-sufficiency than baptist Christianity. The last word on a believer's ecclesial legitimacy lies not in the precise mode of one's baptism but in the Spirit's unpredictable presence. In its ecumenical form as "charismatic" Christianity, it manages to accommodate the polities of almost every Christian tradition, Constantinian or not. It is less committed to Troeltsch's "sect" type and less uncomfortable in the role of his "church" type. Pentecostals may not endorse Newbigin's view that the Protestant, Catholic, and Pentecostal types are radically in need of each other, but neither do they repudiate that view as vigorously as do baptists.22 They mainly seek spiritual revival, not political reform, in other traditions. McClendon keenly senses the broad affinities between Newbigin's third type and the baptist tradition. Both intuitively sense the falseness of the Protestant/Catholic dilemma. But the Pentecostal tradition itself more closely embodies the community Newbigin intended to describe (and chastize).
These clusters, baptist and Pentecostal/charismatic, are in the end two evangelical subtraditions rather than one. They propose two distinct objections to the Reformation's false dilemma, two ecclesial visions of salvation, and two roads toward ecumenical unity. They constitute proof that there will be no one self-evident way for evangelicals to relocate the order of salvation under the doctrine of the Church.
The evidence only multiplies as one considers the variety of forms a thoroughly ecclesial soteriology can take. It can be sacramental and hierarchical (Roman Catholics), sacramental and anti-hierarchical (high-church charismatics and nondenominationals, and Catholic Workers), anti-sacramental and anti-hierarchical (Friends), or anti-sacramental and hierarchical (the Salvation Army).
What About Christocentricity?
Very well, a Protestant might concede: Ecclesially located soteriology might be a road to Muenster rather than Rome. But even then, does locating salvation in the Church not surrender the hard-won Protestant insight into the priority of Christ's work?
On the contrary, it recovers and safeguards it. Alasdair Heron admits that putting Book IV after Book III of Calvin's Institutes "gives a certain systematic priority to the activity of the Spirit within the individual, whereas medieval and Roman Catholic teaching placed first its work in and through the Church; and this shift has remained broadly characteristic of Protestantism."23 But, Heron says,
Calvin himself was ... far from the extremes of individualism to which some strands of Protestantism have veered.... He would have rejected as false any absolute antithesis between the two approaches, or any notion that the church occupied a merely secondary or incidental place in the divine scheme. Much more indicative of his position than the setting of the individual believer over against the community of the church is his insistence running through both of these books that church and individual alike depend wholly upon Christ.... The Spirit does not raise up the individual over against the church but directs both to Christ, unites them with him, and refashions them in his likeness.24
Calvin refuses to place ultimate priority in either the order of salvation or the institution of the Church, because such priority belongs in the atoning work of Christ. Jesus himself is the ultimate solution to the Reformation's dilemma. Both soteriology and ecclesiology follow logically from our incorporation into Christ, as two sides of the same coin. Over against both ecclesiocentrism and soteriocentrism belongs Christocentrism, the most biblical position of the three. Christocentrism saves evangelicals from having to choose either false opposite. It saves us from something else, too: The anthropocentrism that threatens theologies centered either in the Church, or in the salvation of individual believers. In America, this is no empty threat.
But if Calvin was so insightful, then what was wrong with putting soteriology before ecclesiology, so long as both follow from Christology and pneumatology? How does the ultimate priority of Jesus Christ argue for setting salvation within the context of the Church?
There are several possible answers. First, reversing the usual order may simply be a contextual corrective for American evangelicals. According to this reasoning, there is nothing inherently wrongtreating soteriology before ecclesiology. Under different circumstances -- say, in sixteenth century Europe -- the classical Protestant order might be the proper corrective.
There is a lot going for this view. Indeed, it may actually have been the conclusion of the Catholic Reformation. In responding to the Protestant challenge, Trent devoted its own sixth session to justification -- before the seventh session's treatment of sacraments. So the classical Protestant order does not necessarily lead to individualistic abuse. We can hardly accuse the Council of Trent of producing individualistic ecclesiology!
Or can we? Colin Gunton does. He finds Catholicism guilty of the very same abuses evangelicals are guilty of. The main difference is that Catholic individualism works institutionally and sacramentally, turning sacramental practices into individualistic events. These too have become divorced from the Church in its fullest sense. Sin has become understood in terms of the individual, and the sacraments of baptism and penance have become matters of personal cleansing, "with minimal relational content, so that the primary function of baptism, relation with God through the mediation of Christ and in the context of a living community, [has become] secondary." Says Gunton,
The familiar definition of a sacrament as an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace betrays all the worst aspects of the syndrome. It is not much of a parody to say that the sacrament was rather like a dose of religious medicine, administered by a priest, with little sense of its being institution into a living community of worship and life. ... The vital link between the atonement and a living community in which it becomes concrete is lost.25
So soteriology's place within ecclesiology is apparently more than just a fix for American individualists; it is a fix for Catholics too. It is of the very nature of salvation, which after all is unity with Christ, to belong to the doctrine of the Church, which after all is the body of Christ. The Protestant priority of salvation to Church does not guard the doctrine and practice of Christian salvation against the abuses of the medieval Catholic West. It only reproduces the same abuses, in Protestant forms.
According to this reasoning, it is not just ecclesiology that suffers from being in soteriology's backseat. Soteriology suffers as well, by being cut off from the dimension of salvation that is Church. So a properly ecclesial, truly Christocentric account of salvation has the potential to rescue not only evangelicalism's truncated understanding of the Church, but also its truncated understanding of salvation. We are now ready to examine the promise of an evangelical, ecclesial soteriology.
III. The Dominical Order of Salvation: Faith, Baptism, Communion
Whereas evangelical sacramental practices testify negatively to evangelicalism's truncated understanding of salvation, biblical sacramental practices testify positively to the promise of a truly ecclesial account of salvation. For if the visible Church is really only external to personal salvation, then Jesus chose his ordinances very poorly! All of the signs of salvation radically require the actions of the visible Church. One cannot baptize oneself; communion is communal; even evangelism requires evangelists. (Rom. 10:14-15) If Jesus chose these signs in order to reveal something of the nature of salvation, then his community must be the proper context for his salvation. And if evangelical soteriology and ecclesiology instead emphasize the dispensability of these signs, then they ignore part of what it means to be saved.
Jesus' Church is not the fifth Spiritual Law, content to be relegated to small print on the last page of an evangelistic booklet.26 It is the very ark of our salvation, the connecting point between salvation as won by Christ and salvation as appropriated in the lives of the lost. In the New Testament, hearing the Word in faith, being baptized, and participating in the body and blood of Christ are not just external means or aids of the order of salvation. They are the order of salvation -- the necessary embodiments of conversion, justification, and sanctification. And all of them depend deeply on "the community to which they are ordered."27 Volf calls them "the esse of the Church" -- not as magical rites that manipulate God's power, but as divinely initiated means of salvific grace that are indispensible as forms of the confession and expression of personal and collective faith.28 They bestow an entirely new set of relationships on the believer. And these communal relationships of course include a direct, personal relationship with Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. Both sets of relationships are necessary fruits of God's saving action. Thus, an ecclesially located soteriology is in no way antithetical to the spirit of evangelicalism as a renewal movement. The opposite is true: it significantly enriches that renewal.
Relocating Soteriology Evangelically
The plurality of evangelical ecclesiologies suggests variety in how the various traditions will describe how salvation operates in the context of Jesus' Church. Nevertheless, as they explore the ecclesial nature of salvation, they will generally be brought back to baptism and Eucharist as high points in the narrative of a believer's saving relationship to God through Jesus Christ. Since there is no one standard evangelical appreciation of baptism or the Lord's Supper, each evangelical tradition will tend to interpret these in its own distinctive way. How might the sacraments function in these different visions of ecclesial salvation?
The likely trajectories are clearest in the "third-way" traditions already explored above. Baptists could renew their earlier stress on the work of both ordinances in distinguishing Church from world, and calling both Church and world to discipleship, discipline, and discernment -- in other words, to salvation. McClendon himself outlines a kind of baptist ordo salutis in four churchly practices: Preparation (preaching and teaching), conversion (baptism), following (eucharist), and soaring (communal discernment). These are still loosely tied to the categories of metanoia, justification, and sanctification, but they are no longer expressed in terms that can be treated individualistically or apart from the institution of Christ's visible Church.29
Likewise, by seeing in Jesus' baptism the Father's response of sending the Holy Spirit, and at Pentecost the baptismal gift of the same Holy Spirit, Pentecostals could lay the groundwork for an ecclesiology of pneumatic presence grounded in Spirit-Christology, free of the modalistic dangers of separating Son from Spirit or "water baptism" from "Spirit-baptism," but equally free of the subordination of the Spirit that has plagued so many other traditions. In deepening their eucharistic practice they could follow through Paul's chain of reasoning from eucharistic to incorporative to eschatological to charismatic ecclesiology in 1 Cor. 11-14, yielding a celebration of the Lord's Supper both poignant and exuberant, and a doctrine of the Church of great soteriological richness, political flexibility, and ecumenical promise.
From starting points like these evangelicals would see God's Triune salvation in more and more of its communal, eschatological fulness. The "invisible Church" would begin to look less invisible. Far from diluting the evangelical focus on mission, ecclesial soteriologies should concentrate and energize it. It should further strengthen evangelicals' growing openness to other Christian traditions.30 It would certainly help heal the rifts that have soured relations between theologians and the rest of the movement. Finally, a thoroughly ecclesial soteriology would give evangelicals and other Protestants needed resources for a better account of the parachurch.
A Place for the Parachurch
An ecclesial account of soteriology naturally calls for a discussion of the role of office. One evangelical "office" that particularly cries out for adequate understanding is that of the parachurch. Christian theologians, especially evangelical ones, need desperately to make ecclesiological sense of parachurches -- because as long as the parachurch model remains unintelligible to ecclesiologians, ecclesiologians will remain unintelligible and uninteresting to most American evangelicals.
The very popularity of the term "parachurch" suggests the depth of the problem. Just what is a parachurch? Something operating alongside the Church of Christ, but which is not the Church of Christ? Only a tradition without a coherent ecclesiology could even use such a word! Such a distinction between ministry and Church puts a theological imprimatur on the radical division between soteriology and ecclesiology not just at the abstract doctrinal level but at the concrete institutional level. The use of "parachurch" gives ministries an excuse to dispense grace apart from its proper sacramental and communal context, and it gives churches an excuse to "worship" while letting others do the work of mission.31
There is a term for parachurch ministries that is both ecclesiologically coherent and more biblical: The diaconate. In Acts 6 as it has been traditionally read,32 the diaconate arises when the baby Church, stung by its own ethnic insensitivity and overcome by the burdens of its various commitments, discovers the diversity of spiritual gifts. The Twelve tell the gathered disciples, "It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve (diakonein) tables. Therefore, brethren, pick out from among you seven men ... whom we may appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the service (diakonia) of the word" (Acts 6:2:4).
Today's parachurches, like Acts' diaconates, are absolutely vital to the health of the Church. They are God's marketing and affirmative action programs, reaching within and without the Church, respecting demographic and cultural difference. The Hellenistic deacons take the Christian community to its next stages in Acts' narrative: Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the earth (Acts 8:1-40, 11:19-30). But in Acts there is no hint that God's diakonoi are distinguished from the Church, or that they are any more or less important, or that the daily distribution is diakonia and the pulpit is not. All offices are charismatic; all are ordered towards salvation; and all are ordered in and by God's catholic community. None are "parachurches." All are Church.
By accepting and perpetuating an impoverished, incoherent ecclesiology, evangelical theology has helped take some of God's most faithful and fruitful servants out of the Church business. If evangelical theologians can accept some of the blame, then rather than turning on those who practice what we have preached, we can exercise what Richard Mouw calls a "hermeneutic of charity" towards the sensus fidelium of the evangelical Church.33 When we do this, a number of evangelical practices begin to look not just understandable, but like rather valiant attempts to compensate for evangelicalism's underpowered ecclesiology, and to find the harmony of Church and diaconate that is essential to both. For ironically, at the same time that many evangelical churches are trying to be more like parachuches, many parachurches are responding to the incoherence by trying to be more like churches.
For instance, evangelicals operate according to a famous network of influential personalities and institutions. These work together to monitor groups within and without the Church, to expose "heresies," to settle theological and practical disputes, and to confer authority through means like the belief statements and accountability structures of the National Association of Evangelicals. This huge network operates as a kind of evangelical "teaching office" that is all the more remarkable for its informality. It is a kind of grassroots magisterium that does what it can to provide the kind of framework the early Church provided its diaconates. This impressive evangelical superstructure works surprisingly well -- better, in fact, than many denominations' formal accountability structures.
The local counterpart to the evangelical magisterium are countless evangelical ministeria that function surprisingly like traditional churches. On my campus the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship provides a way for Christians to meet each other, a regular means of social fellowship, a temporary home while one finds a true church, and an occasion for Bible study, prayer, and worship. Everything except baptism and communion. Why? Because InterVarsity is a parachurch. Yet it comes so close to being a true local church that many students never bother to find one. Or if they do, it is for "feeding" rather than fellowship -- i.e., for receiving saving grace unto their salvation rather than participating in koinonia. With groups like these, evangelicalism is creating quasi churches "outside" the Church, which seek to provide the kind of harmony of fellowship, salvation, and mission that Protestant systematic theology has tended to separate. An even more hopeful sign is Willow Creek Community Church's recent reorganization, which has radically recentered its focus to a small-group, "home church" model, at which McClendon's practices of communal teaching, conversion, discipleship, and disciplined discernment are lived out communally. Willow Creek, once the enemy of evangelical ecclesiologians, is now pioneering an extraordinary baptist experiment in reuniting ministry and Church.
Locating the order of salvation in the context of the community of salvation would encourage these positive developments. Furthermore, it would train evangelical theologians not to throw stones at evangelicalism's emerging institutions, but to see them as soteriological and ecclesial achievements which are all the more impressive considering the flawed theological categories that shaped them. We theologians should take our share of the blame for the incoherence, and do our part to show the real coherence of what God is doing in our midst. Our diakonia to evangelical Christianity can help bring the Church back to salvation, and bring salvation back to the Church.
1 This essay includes material from " Sharing the Blame for Ecclesiology's Second-Rate Status in Evangelicalism" (paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion Evangelical Theology Group, San Francisco, CA, November 1997). Thanks to Richard Mouw and Letty Russell for their many helpful suggestions.
2 The boundaries of American evangelicalism are elusive. Robert K. Johnston identifies evangelicals according to (1) dedication to the gospel that is expressed in a personal faith in Christ as Lord; (2) an understanding of the gospel as defined authoritatively in Scripture; and (3) a desire to communicate the gospel both in evangelism and in social reform. See Robert K. Johnston, "American Evangelicalism: An Extended Family," in Donald W. Dayton and Robert K. Johnson, eds., The Variety of American Evangelicalism (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1991), 252-269.
5 See, for instance, James Wm. McClendon Jr., Systematic Theology: Doctrine (Nashville: Abingdon, 1994), at the beginning of his doctrine of the Church: "For some this part comes too late, far too late, in this study of doctrine. Its location here seems to them to suggest that one can properly talk of the new that comes in Christ ... apart from the fellowship of the Spirit -- apart from and prior to church. ... They need to be reminded, though, that all parts (and all volumes) of the system presuppose one another. ... So this third part is primary, not derivative." (327)
8 Evangelistic associations commonly keep statistics on "decisions for Christ," and the Gideon New Testament handed out on campuses everywhere leaves space on its last page for the reader's name and the date of his or her "decision to receive Christ as my Saviour." There is no mention of baptism or Church fellowship. The family Bible, with pages for births, baptisms, marriages, and deaths, has given way to the personal New Testament, with Psalms and Proverbs included for private "quiet time" inspiration and a page commemorating the individual's decision. See New Testament Psalms Proverbs (Nashville: Gideons International, n.d.).
22 McClendon follows Yoder in complaining that H. Richard Niebuhr's fivefold typology in Christ and Culture disingenuously leads the reader to endorsing the "Christ transforming culture" vision. (See John Howard Yoder, "How H. Richard Niebuhr Reasoned: A Critique of Christ and Culture," in Glen Stassen, D.M. Yeager, and John Howard Yoder, Authentic Transformation: A New Vision of Christ and Culture [Nashville: Abingdon, 1996], 52-54.) His complaint about Newbigin is the very opposite: The threefold Protestant/Catholic/Pentecostal typology "made it appear that none could flourish except by merging with the other types" (McClendon, 336). In other words, it fails to respect the self-sufficiency of the baptist vision.
26 See Bill Bright, Have You Heard of the Four Spiritual Laws? (San Bernardino, CA: Campus Crusade for Christ, 1965). This is a tremendously influential tract within evangelicalism in America and worldwide, in which the Church is an afterthought.
30 Volf finds such ecumenical openness (which is not equivalent to commitment to organic, institutional union) actually to be constitutive of the Church, as a sign of its eschatological hope for the final gathering of God's people everywhere. (154)
31 By contrast, for Paul all the various functions of the body of Christ are its logikê latreia, its rational worship. (Rom. 12:1, 4-8) On the post-Christendom Church's recovery of appreciation of its own inherently missionary nature, see Newbigin, 1-17.
32 Critical readings of Acts have distinguished much more sharply between the servants of Acts 6 and the deacons of the Pastorals. See Raymond E. Brown, Introduction to the New Testament (New York: Doubleday, 1997), 294 nn. 39 and 658.