I’m currently reading Michael Goheen’s new book, A Light to the Nations: The Missional Church and the Biblical Story, for review. In the book Goheen attempts to lay out a biblical-theological foundation for the church’s mission. In chapter one, he notes how the church as deviated from that mission both in the story within which she places herself and in the images she chooses to use to convey her identity. It’s a great analysis, but one other important point Goheen made toward the beginning of the chapter struck me as well. He notes that historically when theologians talk about or study the doctrine of ecclesiology, they have
often occupied themselves with matters such as church order, sacraments, ministry and discipline. These concerns are important. But ecclesiology is first about identity and self-understanding, and only after these are established should the church consider what it is to do and how it is to organize itself to work out that calling (6).
In other words, according to Goheen our ecclesiology ought to be primarily concerned with the church’s ontology, and only when that is established should we move on to study polity and praxis. I think he’s exactly right on this point. As Oliver O’Donovan has continually stressed, our is-ness ought to define our ought-ness, or who we are defines what we do.
And yet, when I look through my local Christian bookstore or listen to conference messages or sermons about the church or peruse the ecclesiology section at the library, it seems to me that this is exactly what we haven’t done as theologians. Our books and messages and sermons seem to me to mostly be concerned with polity and praxis and not with ontology.
(NOTE: I am of course not arguing that polity and praxis are unimportant; they are vitally important. But they have a foundation that must be laid before any substantial work in the study of them can be done, and that foundation is the ontological makeup of the church.)