Gregg Allison’s new book is sure to be a standard work of ecclesiology for years to come. The title, Sojourners and Strangers: The Doctrine of the Church, is taken from 1 Peter 2:11. With this title, Allison highlights the fact that the church lives within the tension of the already and not yet—the time between Christ’s first and second comings when our heavenly citizenship collides with our earthly experience.
Rather than provide a complete summary of this hefty volume, in this review I will first, give a brief sense of what the book does, and, second, offer two critiques of issues I find particularly important.
What the Book Does
Allison, professor of Christian theology at Southern Seminary in Louisville, does everything you would expect with a comprehensive doctrine of the church. His is not a specialty study on one aspect of ecclesiology, nor an attempt to be novel. Rather, Sojourners and Strangers covers all the traditional subject matter, and does so thoroughly and fairly. Here you’ll find in-depth discussions of church unity and purity, church discipline, the offices of the church, types of church government, the ordinances, and church ministries. Allison makes one of his biggest contributions in his prolegomena. He spends around 100 pages laying out foundational issues that must be discussed before even beginning to construct a doctrine of the church. These foundational issues include things like your ecclesial background, the way the Old Testament and New Testament fit together, the nature of covenants, the relationship of the church to Israel, and the theme of the kingdom of God.
That’s what the book does. Before turning to my two critiques, I must preface them by saying I agree with almost everything Allison writes here, and would recommend this book to anyone (buy it!). If I were teaching a seminary course on ecclesiology, this would be my primary textbook. So don’t be misled by the fact that I’m spending the majority of my time laying out these critiques. This is simply due to space restrictions as well as the fact that these kinds of critiques can hopefully help move the discussion forward.
My two friendly critiques have to do with Allison’s view of the inception of the church (when the church starts) and his arguments in favor of multi-site churches.
When Does the Church Start?
Allison argues the church didn’t start until Pentecost, which means the people of God in the OT cannot in any way be considered the church. The three arguments he gives to support his position are (1) that the church is the new covenant people of God (this is his main argument); (2) that Jesus’ promise to build his church (Matt. 16:18) suggests that the church was still a future reality during his ministry; and (3) that believers are made part of the body of Christ (the church) through the gift of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 12:13), which is a post-Pentecost reality.
I’ll respond to each of these three arguments. First, Allison argues the church is strictly the new covenant people of God. I don’t think many would deny that the church is made up of God’s new covenant people, but the question that needs to be asked is whether God’s old covenant people can in any sense be considered a “church.” Because Allison defines “church” as believers who relate to God through the new covenant, then it only makes sense to say the church began in the NT, since it obviously wouldn’t be possible for an OT saint to relate to God through a new covenant that hadn’t yet arrived. This is where I would challenge Allison on his basic understanding of “church.” What would the word “church” (Greek ekklesia, “assembly”) have meant in a first-century Jewish context? I submit that when the people of God are referred to as ekklesia (“assembly”), there is a whole OT theology of the people of God as the “assembly of the LORD” (e.g., Num. 16:3; Deut. 23:1-3, 8; 1 Chron. 28:8; Mic. 2:5; ekklesia in the Septuagint) that stands behind the NT usage and gives canonical depth to its meaning. Further, I’d argue that the whole point of Jesus and the apostles labeling God’s new covenant people the “ekklesia” is to link them to that old covenant “assembly of the LORD,” not to mark them out as a separate and completely new entity.
What is a church? This can be a difficult question to answer and Christians have offered a variety of perspectives. Gregg Allison explores and synthesizes all that Scripture affirms about the new covenant people of God, capturing a full picture of the biblical church. He covers the topics of the church’s identity and characteristics; its growth through purity, unity, and discipline; its offices and leadership structures; its ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper; and its ministries. Here is a rich approach to ecclesiology consisting of sustained doctrinal reflection and wise, practical application.
Second, Allison argues that Jesus’ promise to build his church suggests that the church was still a future reality during his ministry. My response builds on my understanding of the church (ekklesia) as the “assembly of the LORD.” In Matthew 16:18, I think Jesus is speaking of how he will regather the assembly of the LORD that was scattered during the exile in the OT (for OT background, see Deut. 30:1-5). In this way, Jesus isn’t talking about how he will establish a new entity called “ekklesia,” but how he will build this ekklesia once again by assembling to himself people from every tribe, tongue, and nation. The ekklesia he will build will experience a new and better covenant, of course, but it won’t be an entirely new entity in the sense of being disconnected from any OT reality.
Third, Allison argues that the church starts in the NT by pointing out that believers are made part of the body of Christ (the church) through the baptism and gifts of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 12:13), which is a post-Pentecost reality. I agree that the baptism and gifts of the Holy Spirit are a post-Pentecost reality, and that baptism of the Spirit makes one part of the body of Christ. Jesus is the “head” (Eph. 1:22-23) of his body, the church, and this is a uniquely new covenant reality. But I would argue that “the church” as “the assembly of the LORD” existed in the OT and now experiences all the new benefits of the new covenant (Spirit baptism, spiritual gifts, having Christ as their covenant head, and so on). So the fact there are new experiences for the people of God in the new covenant (like being Christ’s body and being baptized with the Spirit) doesn’t necessarily mean that “the church” is exclusively a new covenant concept.
Allison defends multi-site churches in an excursus to his chapter titled, “A Model of Church Government.” This is a hotly debated issue, and Allison provides what are (in my opinion) the most biblically astute arguments in favor of multi-site published to date. Therefore, I think it would be helpful to respond to this portion of his work. The two strongest arguments Allison offers in support of multi-site are (1) that the phrase commonly translated “the church in the house” (Rom. 16:5; 1 Cor. 16:19; Col. 4:15; Philemon 2) refers to a citywide church as distributed in the house of a particular person, and (2) that “any approach that appeals to the meaning of the word ekklesia as an argument against multi-site churches is misguided” (314 n. 47).
First, then, Allison makes a technical argument on the nature of house churches in the New Testament. He claims that in the phrase he kat’oikon ekklesia (commonly translated “the church in the house”), the preposition kata is being used distributively, and that this means the citywide ekklesia (in Corinth, for example) is distributed into various homes where they gather for worship. You can see how this could be used as biblical support for a multi-site structure—one church distributed into multiple campuses. There are problems with this argument, however. The first is that Allison assumes, in the phrase he kat’oikon ekklesia, the word ekklesia is referring to a citywide church. He offers no support for this view. The second problem is that, according to Bauer’s lexicon, kata is in fact not being used distributively in the phrase he kat’oikon ekklesia (contrary to what Allison claims). Instead, BDAG classifies the use of kata here as a “marker of spatial aspect” connoting “isolation or separateness” (BDAG, 511). In other words, according to Bauer, he kat’oikon ekklesia should not be translated “the church distributed into the house,” but “the church in the house” (BDAG, 511-12). Thus, contrary to what Allison claims, when Paul employs this phrase he isn’t signaling that Aquila and Prisca’s house group (for example) was part of a citywide church distributed into multiple house churches. He was simply relating a greeting to (Rom. 16:5) and from (1 Cor. 16:19) the church (ekklesia) that met in their home.
The second biblical argument Allison makes in support of multi-site is that “any approach that appeals to the meaning of the word ekklesia as an argument against multi-site churches is misguided” (314 n. 47). He says those who appeal to the meaning of ekklesia against multi-site are committing methodological, lexical, and logical errors. In response, first, Allison says that appeals to ekklesia make a methodological error. According to him, we cannot simply say ekklesia means “assembly” and think this settles the multi-site issue, because “we do not define a concept by defining a word” (313 n. 47). I agree with him, but I don’t know anyone who claims multi-site is wrong simply because ekklesia means “assembly.” There’s a whole biblical theology of the people of God as the “assembly of the LORD” (from OT to NT) that stands behind ekklesia and that plays a major role in the way I, at least, approach the question.
Second, Allison says appeals to the meaning of ekklesia make a lexical error. He states that ekklesia doesn’t always refer to a literal assembly, and then cites texts to demonstrate this, arguing this diversity gives warrant for using the word to refer to groups that don’t assemble. I agree there are cases in which ekklesia does not refer to an actual assembly—Acts 9:31 for instance. Where I don’t agree with Allison is in concluding that this serves as warrant for a multi-site structure. Obviously ekklesia can refer to the church in its scattered state. I see this being true on at least two levels. At one level, local churches are still an ekklesia even when they aren’t in their gathered state. So Calvary Baptist Church is still an ekklesia on Monday morning when the people are scattered, but they are capable of being called an ekklesia at all because they’re characterized by actually gathering together on a regular basis. The other level at which I see ekklesia being used abstractly is when it refers to a group of Christians who don’t necessarily make up one church. Again, Acts 9:31: “The church throughout the region.” This is like saying, “the church in China,” or “the church in West Tennessee.” It does not mean, however, that there was literally one church in the region made up of multiple campuses.
And third, Allison says that those who argue against multi-site by appealing to the meaning of ekklesia are making a logical error. The logical error happens, according to Allison, when we assume the assembly (ekklesia) denotes all the members of the church. But I, for one, draw on the evidence of “whole church” gatherings found in early NT churches (e.g., Acts 2:44, 46; 5:12; Rom. 16:23; 1 Cor. 11:18). Thus, not all who argue against multi-site are guilty of committing these three errors identified by Allison.
Though I’d quibble with Allison on at least the two issues mentioned, his book is nonetheless a go-to resource on the doctrine of the church that will be a blessing to all who read it.