How the Covenantal Nature of the Church Disallows the Prevalent Individualistic, “Contractual” Ecclesiology (Gregg Allison)

The Church is the Church of the New Covenant. It is the New Covenant community. And Gregg Allison [1] rightly perceives that apprehension of this reality destroys the popular individualism in much contemporary church culture.

The dilemma: individualism and “contractual ecclesiology.”

AllisonHe cites Michael Horton who calls this unfortunate phenomena “contractual ecclesiology,” by which Horton means the following:

In evangelical contexts, the church is often regarded chiefly as a resource for fellowship. For the uniquely individualized personal relationship with Jesus, the church is not only dispensable but perhaps also a hindrance to personal growth. … [A] voluntaristic emphasis emerges, with human decision as the contractual basis for … ecclesial [church] existence. [2]

Many view the church as a ‘contractual reality,’ i.e., something that comes into existence  when fellow Christians just so happen to commit to one another (what is seen as an otherwise optional activity). In other words, the church is the product of Christians deciding to form a community. Thus the church’s existence is thought to be based on fellow ‘contractual’ agreement.

Allison mentions P. T. Forsyth who over half a century ago stated perceptively,

It is a great concern to many and a grief to some to think that what were once Churches among us are ceasing to be such, and are becoming but religious groups loosely organized for family comfort, spiritual culture, or humane action. … [The danger is that churches] would readily subside into a group of mere Christian clubs…. The voluntary nature of the membership tends to reduce such Churches to contractual associations. [3]

A Church may be joined and used [abused?] for a like reason–for the religious good to be had from religious association rather than out of the love for a common Lord or the sacrificial service of His kingdom. It may be composed of a number of people who have been persuaded that it would be for the good of their souls. But that is not a community, but only a combination. It is not a Church. [4]

In short, many Christians today view the church as little more (nothing more?) than a means to foster personal spiritual enrichment. … And probably the greater problem is that most Christians fail to see the problem with that sentiment.

The solution: apprehension of the Church’s covenantal nature.

Allison states,

This new covenant relationship between God and Christ-followers is initial, prior to, foundational for, and generative of the covenantal relationship that exists between church members. In a secondary and derivative sense, Christ-followers make a willful choice by faith and in obedience to their Lord to covenant together as a voluntary organization. (Emphasis added) [5]

What Allison is arguing here is that member-to-member covenant relationship that occurs within the local church is preceded by and based upon God’s establishment of the New Covenant with the Church. The “horizontal” covenant relationship between fellow church members exists first and foremost because of the Church’s (including all of its members) “vertical” New Covenant relationship with God.

He explains,

Accordingly, becoming a member, joining with others in the voluntary society called the church, does not ultimately constitute the church [better: “…is not what ultimately constitutes the church”]. Rather, it joins that member to an already existing reality, or it defines the constituents of that particular entity that has already been constituted a church…. [6]

Rather than existing ‘contractually,’ the church is an assumed and necessary reality in the Christian’s life. If one has any participation in Christ, he necessarily has participation with Christ’s body, the Church. And the Church (although universal) does not exist in the abstract, but in spatial-temporal-local congregations.

D.A. Carson puts this in very practical terms.

The Church itself is not made up of natural “friends.” It is made up of natural enemies. … Christians come together, not because they form a natural collocation, but because they have all been saved by Jesus Christ…. They are a band of natural enemies who love one another for Jesus’ sake. [7]

Because the Christian community’s fundamental reason for existence is a shared relationship to God through Christ, all notions of community which rest on any other commonality must be immediately discarded if we are to speech of a community that can truly be called a church.

Sum.

In the simplest terms, (1) the Church is not an optional part of the Christian experience. Christian existence is not individual but communal–‘horizontal-covenantal’ by nature of it being ‘vertical-covenantal.’ (2) That community is not a contractual community, but a necessary one. The Christian’s contracting with this community flows out of its necessary existence. And (3), as a corollary of points 1 and 2, participation in the Christian community is not to be driven primarily by a desire for self-benefit (e.g., “spiritual enrichment”), but service, mutual edification, and love for Christ.

Notes

[1] Gregg Allison, Sojourners and Strangers: The Doctrine of the Church (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012). See 128-132.
[2] Michael Horton, People and Place: A Covenant Ecclesiology (Louisville: Westminster John Know, 2008), 170-171.
[3] P. T. Forsyth, Church, the Gospel, and Society (London: Independent Press, 1962), 29-30.
[4] Ibid., 30.
[5] Allison, Sojourners and Strangers, 128.
[6] Ibid., 128.
[7] D.A. Carson, Love in Hard Places (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2002), 61.

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One thought on “How the Covenantal Nature of the Church Disallows the Prevalent Individualistic, “Contractual” Ecclesiology (Gregg Allison)

  1. These are all good points.

    Over the past few years, I’ve drifted away from “church attendance” myself. I wrote this a bit recently. When I try to explain the reason behind my drifting/departing or whatever this is, I can’t seem to find good words.

    I know that church attendance isn’t an optional part of the Christian life. I know that this place is made up with people I may not always “like.” I also know that the whole point of church shouldn’t e for “selfish reasons.”

    I have a point to argue about spiritual edification – isn’t a selfish reason.

    Maybe the real reason why I broke up with church is that I’m not happy there. It hasn’t changed my life like I was told it would. I don’t leave church on Sunday mornings having been filled. I leave church feeling empty and starving, often more than if I don’t even go at all.

    Church. There’s a universal aspect of it that these guys don’t talk about much at all. The service, mutual edification, and love for Christ – should take place outside of local gatherings in a universal context. It’s a result of joining up with the Kingdom.

    Why have I left? What am I searching for out here? As much as it pains me to say – I’m searching for something that can quench my own spiritual thirst. I have tried going to church. I have tried gathering with a bunch of people who don’t like talking with me to sing songs to a man up front waving his arms, and listen to words spoken by a preacher in a fancy suit. I’ve tried sitting in the same spot for an hour, eating little crackers and drinking little cups of grape juice. I’d love to say this works for me. I’d be so happy if it did. But the truth is it hasn’t.

    It’s one thing to act happy, and shake people’s hands. It’s one thing to put on a big floppy smile and walk around with a Bible in my hand for a few hours every week in a place called church. It’s one thing to fool other people.

    But it’s another thing to try and fool myself. If I can’t be honest with my own convictions, and truthful about my own spiritual longings, then there’s really no point.

    I think this is why I stopped going to church at the local level. Simply – so that I’m not fooling myself.

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