by Gary Corwin
What is “ecclesiolasticity”? On the mundane level it is what came out of my mouth when I recently got my tongue twisted around two more standard items in the dictionary, ecclesiology and ecclesiastical.
What is “ecclesiolasticity”? On the mundane level it is what came out of my mouth when I recently got my tongue twisted around two more standard items in the dictionary, ecclesiology and ecclesiastical. On another level, however, it may be a very useful term for picturing the ultimate task of global mission—to extend the boundaries of the church’s inclusiveness to encompass every language, nation, tribe, and people within its ever-expanding borders.
While that does not qualify as any great insight, it does point up a truth over which many of us stumble in one way or another—that no segment of the church, whether defined geographically, ethnically, culturally, educationally, or on any other basis is more important, or more entitled to strategic leadership of the whole. If the church really is the church, there are no second-class citizens within it. And what’s true for the church must be true for its missions enterprise, as well.
One of the more disconcerting experiences I’ve had of late was to hear an extremely talented Majority World brother say in answer to a question (he wasn’t whining) that he has often felt left out, even when physically present, in forums where strategic missions issues have been discussed. “Why is that?” I thought. The best answer I could come up with is that we may not believe in the universality of missions leadership as strongly as we believe in the universality of the missions task.
Might it be that while we pay lip service to genuine partnership, and may even believe in it sincerely, the concept of it that we hold in our hearts does not extend to a genuine sharing of the leadership function. In our most basic understanding of the church and mission, we may harbor a view of ourselves as the real movers and shakers. Others are invited in, but should know their place.
A striving for ecclesiolasticity, by contrast, would place a very high priority on the unity believers share in Christ, and apply it equally to the issues of leadership, as well as to the entry gate of evangelistic outreach. Let’s be frank about it: “Servant leadership” does not exist where control of the ministry agenda is assumed. That is rather a not-so-subtle form of “servant imperialism.”
Ecclesiolasticity can be better understood by taking a closer look at its opposite, which might be described as ecclesiocentrism. That is the view that “my church,” and by extension, “my mission,” is the standard, the measure by which all others must be judged. This position as the standard, then, becomes the grounds for a monopoly on top-level agenda-setting leadership. This is akin, of course, to ethnocentrism in the realm of intercultural relations, and in many cases the two are intimately intertwined.
What is the antidote to ecclesio-centrism, and the pathway to a fuller experience of ecclesiolasticity? Let me suggest three of its key elements.
First, there must be clarity regarding whose church it is in the first place. Because Jesus is the head of the church, he is also the head of every church which is a physical manifestation of it. His headship is the great equalizer as the ultimate authority to which every church and mission agency must bow. We all, like James and John, must learn that there are no self-appointed or lobbied-for first seats in the hierarchy of God’s kingdom.
Second, the equality of all churches under the headship of Christ means that no cultural manifestation of the church, whether aligned to greater power, wealth, or prestige has a right to “rule it over” its brethren. And this applies every bit as much to missiological agendas as it does to the internal governance of each church. If we are going to talk about global strategies we need to make sure that they truly are global, in their formation as well as in their implementation, in their input as well as in their impact.
Finally, we must recognize the manifold grace of God at work in all members of his Body, a concept which is every bit as true of its corporate cultural manifestations as it is of its individual members. To theextent that we monopolize the formation of agendas for world evangelization, we impoverish the process of valuable vision and insight, and we diminish both the effectiveness and the joy that ought to accompany the task.
“But what can we really do in a practical way to bring about change?” I’m not sure, but probably a myriad of things if we put our minds to it. For starters, we can at least insist that there is no quorum for a global strategy meeting if ours is the only cultural manifestation of the church represented. We can also network regularly with the missiological minds of other cultures. (E-mail has removed all excuses here.) And, most important, we can listen. And listen some more. And reflect on what we’ve heard. And listen again.
If we stretch our thinking and our practice just a little, we may just discover how ecclesiolastic the church really is.
Gary Corwin is associate editor of EMQ and missologist-at-large for Arab World Ministries, on loan from SIM.
EMQ, Vol. 35, No. 2, pp. 148-149. Copyright © 1999 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.