Good ecclesiology matters for global missions.
Ecclesiology is the term referring to the doctrine of the church, involving matters such as the nature and functions of the church, polity and leadership of the church, church membership, and related issues.
It may seem to some that such matters deserve little concern and have little impact on a local church’s heart for global missions. But I want to offer some reasons for reconsideration of such thinking.
The Great Commission associates making disciples with “baptizing them” (Matt. 28:19), and baptism is a thoroughly ecclesiological matter. Baptists have defined the church as a body of baptized believers, but what is the meaning of baptism? Are infants proper subjects of baptism or not? Moreover, does baptism regenerate the one baptized, or in some way complete the process of salvation, as some groups believe? Or is it the appointed means by which believers identify with Christ and a local church?
If a church here in the US does not think through these issues well and practice them faithfully, it will not be a healthy church itself. For example, how careful are we to baptize only those who are truly believers? Many churches have practiced baptism carelessly by baptizing those whose conduct casts severe doubt on the genuineness of their profession. The presence of such members in our churches can’t do anything other than hurt our churches, including in the area of zeal for missions.
Also, such a church will not be in a good position to send out missionaries who will be fulfilling the Great Commission because those missionaries will not have learned from their church what Jesus means by commanding us to make disciples, “baptizing them.” Our practice of baptism relates to how churches are gathered, who their members are to be, how they understand faith to be made visible in obedience, and historically, it has been related to the question of who is encouraged to participate in the Lord’s Supper.
Obedience to Everything Jesus Commanded
Jesus says in the Great Commission that we are to teach these new disciples “to obey everything” that he has commanded us. Nineteenth-century Baptist theologian John Dagg wrote these words on the importance of ecclesiology: “Church order and the ceremonials of religion [i.e., ecclesiology], are less important than a new heart; and in the view of some, any laborious investigation of them may appear to be needless and unprofitable. But we know, from the Holy Scriptures, that Christ gave commands on these subjects, and we cannot refuse to obey.”
We can’t obey the Great Commission and we can’t teach new disciples to obey everything Jesus commanded unless we include his commands regarding matters like church governance, church membership, structure, and ministry. As with baptism, lack of obedience to such commands will render our own churches weaker and thus less able to motivate and mobilize its people for global missions. And lack of obedience to such commands will not give our missionaries patterns from which to learn while they are here, patterns which they can follow in planting new churches overseas.
“We can’t obey the Great Commission and we can’t teach new disciples to obey everything Jesus commanded unless we include his commands regarding matters like church governance, church membership, structure, and ministry.”
Moreover, lack of attention to such commands may disqualify us from working with Jesus in his great concern. Jesus said, “I will build my church” (Matt. 16:18 ESV); he died to present the church to himself “in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (Eph. 5:27 ESV). If we’re not concerned to be such a church, obeying everything that Jesus commanded, will we be a church in and through which Jesus will build his church?
Such a church would be obedient in the lesser matters of church governance, polity, membership, as well as the greater matter of a new heart.
Great Commission Ecclesiology
If we’re careless in our churches about these matters of ecclesiology, why would Christ use us in the fulfillment of the Great Commission? We may be so disobedient in these lesser matters that we will be unhealthy and more a mission field than a mission sending agency. Moreover, we send out missionaries to make disciples, “baptizing them” and “teaching them to obey” all that Christ commanded us. In short, we send them out to plant churches according to Jesus’s instructions. Have our churches given them a model to follow? They need to know what a Jesus-honoring church looks like if they’re to plant them.
The situation is even more complex once the missionary arrives on the field. How far can they adapt the healthy and obedient practices of their US churches in their new context? What will baptism look like, especially if the churches they plant are house churches? How can congregations composed of new believers who live in non-democratic societies come to a healthy practice of congregational governance? Will they be obeying all that Jesus commanded concerning church membership and leadership, in a culture in which relationships and leaders are viewed in vastly different ways than in North America?
The goal of adaptation to the culture—or what we call contextualization—is to produce churches that are both culturally relevant and biblically faithful. Churches that foster global missions should model for their prospective missionaries how to be culturally relevant and biblically faithful here. It will be the missionary’s task to do that elsewhere, but at least they will have healthy models to draw on.
John Hammett has been a professor of theology at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary since 1995. Prior to that, he was a pastor for nine years and a missionary with the International Mission Board. He is the author of Biblical Foundations for Baptist Churches (2nd ed.) and 40 Questions About Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, as well as numerous articles on church leadership and the Christian faith. He and his wife, Linda, have two adult children.