Models of the Church

Many years ago Avery Dulles wrote a classic book on ecclesiology titled – Models of the Church – in this book he outlines several key models that Protestants and Roman Catholics have used to explain the nature of the church. Dulles explains that the church has been understood as  an Institution, a Mystical Communion, a Sacrament, a Herald, a Servant, as well as a Community of Disciples. However the problem with some of these “models” is that they aren’t models or images that Scripture uses to describe the church. Yes there is some truth to these images, however they ignore the fact that God through Scripture intended us to use scriptural images as the primary images for our understanding of the Church. Among these images are “family,” “body,” and “Temple.”

In Scripture God reveals to us the nature of the church through images and models – these should also be our primary images and models for understanding the church…

Scripture clearly lays out some images and metaphors that shape our self-understanding of what it means to be church. We even have some helpful historical models (which by no means are on par with Scriptural models); for instance the church as a sacrament or as a suffering servant. However, a problem arises when we uncritically begin to appropriate modern day images and apply those to the church. Once we begin to indiscriminately apply from culture around us we begin to walk on thin ice – the problem is that these images carry a lot of baggage and they can (unconcsiously) twist and deform our scriptural understanding of what it means to be the church.

So what are these (unhelpful) models? Here are five models suggested by Michael Goheen

  1. The Church as a Corporation: Corporations have a bottom line (money) and they are ready to make use of any means which can help them efficiently achieve that bottom line. The danger with this model is when the church begins to value efficency and pragmatism over faithfulness.
  2. The Church as a Theater: Theaters are where people go to sit back and passively enjoy some sort of entertainment. The danger with this model is that people begin to come to “church” in order to be entertained once they stop being entertained they bail. This is so wrong on many levels – its consumeristic and it imagines church as simply a place one goes to.
  3. The Church as a Classroom: The Church exists to teach. What is wrong with this model? Well lets begin with the fact that western education tends to be reductionistic – western education doesn’t form the whole person, rather it simply focuses on helping people to have “correct beliefs” regardless of whether or not they actually live “correctly.” However, we shouldn’t bag on the teaching function of the church – the church certainly is a place for teaching, but it can’t be reduced to western models of teaching.
  4. The Church as a Motivational Seminar: Two Words – self help. Enough said…
  5. The Church as a Social Service Office: The government has social service offices – they provide welfare, take care of the weak, needy, and poor. These are all things that the church ought to be doing as well – Its part of loving the world! However the church is not simply an institution for providing social services, the church cannot simply preach a “social gospel” it must preach a holistic gospel. This means that the church will address these issues and help these people but within the context of Gospel announcement.

All of these models have certain elements of truth (some definitely more than others). However we must be careful about leaning too heavily on any of these models. God has given us models in Scripture to use – so those must be the primary models that shape our understanding of the nature of the church.



Published by cwoznicki

Chris Woznicki is an Assistant Adjunct Professor of Theology at Fuller Theological Seminary. He works as the regional training associate for the Los Angeles region of Young Life.

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