Wilbert Shenk on Ecclesiology and Mission

In discussing how particular, newly planted and non-Western, churches could potentially develop “in loco an ecclesiology at once biblically and theologically responsive,” mission historian and theologian, Wilbert Shenk argues that ecclesiology has in the past often been ignored or fallen secondary to the primacy of evangelism and conversion of individuals. This is largely due to the overwhelming influence of revivalist theology stemming from the “Great Century.” However, this need not be the case. Instead, soteriology ought not to be developed apart from ecclesiology and thus what is needed is a full-fledged understanding of the local church as well as the church universal. His key point is well worth meditating on:

The church is more than a collection of saved individuals. The body of Christ is a corporate expression of the living Christ. It comes to concretion in particular cultures and among particular peoples. It is a worshiping, serving fellowship which witnesses to the world of God’s righteousness now become manifest in its midst. But no local fellowship, no association of churches, no national church is complete in itself. The church  universal embraces each local fellowship, bringing it to the completeness of which it is incapable so long as it remains alone. The church universal is both empirical reality and eschatological hope. It ever stands in a tension with the sociopolitical order. One strand of the missionary dynamic is that the body of Christ is not yet complete. Christ as head of the church impels his body to continue working to complete the body. This clearly calls for the witness to be carried to the four corners of the world.

Such an ecclesiology has immediate implications for the church as a disciplined community living under the lordship of Christ, a community of ethical discernment. The church as a missionary community is always aware of its pilgrim character, and its first loyalty is to Christ and his body in both its universal and local manifestation, rather than to the kingdoms of this world. Anything which might compromise its missionary task must be rejected. It witnesses to a kingdom which is of a different order from that of this world.

(Wilbert Shenk, Anabaptism and Mission, p.176-177)