Ecclesiology comes from the Greek words ecclesia (church/assembly) and ology (study of) and refers to the study of the church. In Christian systematic theology, ecclesiology is one of the major areas of study and investigates what the Bible teaches about the church both universal (all believers in Christ) and local (local gatherings of believers in Christ).
Common areas of study within ecclesiology include:
The Definitions of the Church: The New Testament used the Greek word ekklesia approximately 114 times. While some uses of the word refer to an assembly of people apart from a religious emphasis, most occurrences identify either the universal church (often spelled with an uppercase C) or local churches (local groups of Christian believers). Of special importance is the fact that a church in the Bible always referred to people, not to buildings, as many people understand the term today. In the New Testament, Christians did not go to church; Christians were the church.
The Purpose(s) of the Church: The New Testament mentions many roles of the church, some of which are exemplified in the picture of the first church found in Acts 2:42-47. These included worship, teaching, fellowship, service, outreach, and prayer.
The Rituals of the Church: Ecclesiology also considers what rites are appropriate for the Christian Church. Protestants include only the biblical rituals explicitly listed in the New Testament, including baptism and Communion (also called the Lord's Supper). Baptism in particular is hotly debated among different Christian traditions, typically regarding the mode of baptism and whether it should be limited to believers or should include infants. The Lord's Supper is observed by all Christian traditions, though its meaning is understood differently among the various branches of Christian churches today.
The Role of Church Leadership/Church Government: Much emphasis in ecclesiology is placed on the consideration of church leadership. Some traditions insist elders should be the church's primary leaders, while others emphasize the role of deacons more (1 Timothy 3; Titus 1:5-9). In addition, the role of women in church leadership receives much attention. Further, how church leaders are chosen and how church decisions are made are addressed at length within ecclesiology. For example, some argue for congregation-led churches while others prefer most decisions be made by appointed elders and/or pastors.
The Role of Church Members: Since the Bible teaches the importance of every person in Christ and the priesthood of every believer, ecclesiology seeks to understand what the Bible teaches about the role of church members and membership. Some churches very carefully define church membership rules and responsibilities. Others follow the model of the early churches, with less formal requirements and a high level of expectation regarding involvement and commitment.
In summary, ecclesiology is essential for all Christians as it guides us toward a biblical understanding of how Christians relate to one another, to God, and to unbelievers. A firm understanding of ecclesiology benefits us personally as we learn how to help provide healthy church growth and honor God.
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