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Ecclesiology: Past, Present and Future Term Paper

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Updated: Jul 12th, 2020


Since the early beginnings, the church has sought to remain faithful to the gospel teachings and the traditions set by the early fathers. In response to changing times, the church has always sought to make self-relevant to the needs of the people as per the signs of the times. There have been challenges and crisis in the church.

Some crisis have been doctrinal and others social-cultural. However, over time, through relying on tradition, the gospel revelations and tested logic, the church has often promulgated teachings, doctrines and even dogmas aimed at the spiritual good of all among its members. This paper looks into developments in the church of the past, today and the likely developments in the future. The aim of the paper is to understand the self-reflecting church and how it responds to the world. This paper will establish that despite the dichotomy between conformance and reformation, the church has been, is and will remain a vibrant institution through which many are able to find rest in life.

This paper first looks into the definition of church and the early development of the church. The aim of looking into the past is to understand how the church dealt with issues that affected it. The second aspect of this paper looks into the traditional church and the challenges it faces in the present. There are myriad challenges and crises in the church today. Consequently, considering the present i.e. the sociopolitical context in which the church of today operates, it is clear that the church needs some renewing.

The renewal notwithstanding, conformance to the world and its desires should not be the route of the church. There is something romantic and authentic about the traditional church. As this paper establishes, the future church is likely to rely on compromises between postulates of the traditional and emergent church.

General Concerns of the Church

Ecclesiology seeks to define the church in all its dimensions. Basically, the church is a body of believers or followers of Christ1. However, the church can also be looked at as a corporation i.e. the earthly society, well organized under the different denominational leaders. Over time, people have found a reason to join and find nourishment in the church as a corporation or union of believers. This is because, in the church, the faith mysteries are broken down and shared through liturgical practices. Membership in the church is defined by a number of measures. The basic measure is that one has to prophesy the creed i.e. believe in the teachings of the church2.

Secondly, once one has accepted the faith, in line with Jesus’ teachings, it is expected that one is baptized as a sign of full acceptance into membership. Another thing that categorizes believers is the extent of participation in church activities. Therefore, there are three defining things when it comes to church membership; believing in creed, baptism and church participation or participation in public worship.

One issue that has always created concern in the universal church i.e. body of Christ is who has what powers3. This is an issue that has affected the church for some centuries and in some instances, bitter rivalries have affected the Christian fraternity in a devastating way. Therefore, an issue of concern whenever the church comes into consideration is an authority in the church. When it comes to teachings of the church, issues of concern have always been with regard to the authority of the promulgating body or institution. Secondly, there is a huge concern with regard to who interprets doctrines and what authority can be quoted in support of a given practise or way of doing or to clarify given teachings.

Despite the concerns in what is the church, what the right teachings of the church are and how to rightfully interpret the teachings, the church as an institution serves a number of crucial purposes. First, it defines Christian public worship and its constituents. Whether evangelical or orthodox, the church defines sacraments, liturgies and other divine ordinances. The church, in this case, refers to the leadership or runners of the church as an institution.

The governance in the church is understood to be in line with the apostolic tradition. There has been contention over what denominations truly follow the apostolic tradition and how individuals are to be chosen into the administrative offices or consecrated ranks. To this respect, the church addresses itself to issues of ordination and qualifications for ordination. Further, it seeks to define clearly what the functions of given consecrated offices are. The final thing that the church in all its dimensions addresses itself to is the end (teleo)4. The church in all its aspirations seeks to define its end i.e. eschatology.

The History of the Church

The beginnings of the church were one. It all begins with Jesus of Nazareth who called to himself twelve disciples and many other followers. Inspired by Jesus’ life and teachings, his followers went out preaching and making others into followers of Jesus. The beginning of Christianity was characterized by small communities of believers that called themselves followers of the way. Persecution of the early followers led to their dispersion and thus spread of the message of Christ.

At Antioch, it is reported, the church began to take shape. Different communities developed following traditions of the founding apostles. Later the apostolic tradition became a big reference point. Whenever there was a crisis or a misunderstanding about something in the church, the bible and the apostolic tradition i.e. teachings of the apostles became the guiding principles or reference points.

The Roman Catholic Church slowly developed as the one, true, universal and apostolic church. It was named roman because it when the roman kingdom was christened through acceptance to be baptized by Constantine, the whole powerful empire became Christian. Christian teaching became the guiding principles in the kingdom but also roman customs were christened i.e. adopted and given Christian significance. Over the years, the Roman Catholic Church has been defining itself as the only that is divine due to its apostolic origin5. The bishop of Rome is said to be a direct successor of the apostle Peter who was put in charge of the church by Jesus himself. Consequently, the pope is viewed in the Catholic Church as having jurisdiction over the Christendom.

Due to difference in founding and in interpretations of doctrine or over given teachings, divisions developed in the church that was originally one community of followers. Some of the controversies in the church revolved around the person of Christ. The key heresies such as monism are basically disagreements about who Christ was6. Some people insisted that Christ was purely God, others that Jesus was purely human while others argued for a two in one conception with variance in how the two are united in one. The doctrine of God subsisting as a human in the person of Jesus was put forward by some Christian scholars and accepted widely. However, the shades of the same doctrine and other teachings that were deemed unsatisfactory were condemned and the proponents of such excommunicated.

Other controversies surrounded the ordination of women; different positions on infant baptism, papal powers, the marriage of priests and even jurisdiction over the land. The mainstream churches argued and still argue against the ordination of women. Some feminist point out that the only reason why women are denied consecrated offices is male chauvinism. As for infant baptism, many have argued that there is no scriptural basis for infant baptism.

They argue that baptism is meant to be a sign of consent and belief in the teachings of the church. Infants do not have the capacity to consent. Papal supremacy or powers has also raised a lot of controversy in the wider church. Some posited that the pope is infallible while others challenge such a notion. Most recently, the issue of married priests and ordination of the gay priest has been a major concern. Some crises were resolved amicably leading to one position in the church. On some issues, no resolution could come forth leading to schisms in the church. The schisms in the church led to the current day overly divided church.

Despite the divisions, many believe the different denominations are only but manifestations of the church as informed by different socio-cultural practices. Many believers of today tend to think that what is important is the communion with Jesus in Universal belief in his teachings7.

This is unlike traditional Christians who are very concerned about what shade of the church is truer to the gospels and apostolic tradition than others. With the onset of the reformation movement, there resulted a change in focus in terms of what is critical. For current day evangelicals, grace and redemption that come through acceptance of Jesus as a personal savior is the most critical thing. All other aspects of tradition and related requirements or order are considered not very important; in some way they are considered as being pure impediments to the working of the Holy Spirit among the faithful.

The Traditional Church

The traditional church settings are much formalized. In the traditional church, there was a specific order aimed at enlisting everybody into participation. One key characteristic of the traditional liturgies are they hymns. With hymn books, music was more melancholic and aimed at tuning individuals to focus on transcendental truths. The hymns were aimed at helping individuals lift their hearts to the lord. The hymns were often simple in nature but rich or poetic in composition. The liturgy is well divided into different parts that have specific signification. The rituals were well planned and executed. People went through a rhythm, a rhythm that was supposed to speak directly to their lives. Each church had a choir that sought to sing in a classic way blending all voices into a musical masterpiece of sorts.

It was not just the liturgies; even church buildings were built with specific designs. It is for this reason that most Roman Catholic cathedrals tend to look alike. The inside of churches was organized in a particular way. Anybody entering a church would immediately recognize places like the altar or the pulpit. The altars were treated with reverence and people honored such like grounds. The sitting arrangement in traditional churches was typical. In most cases, men had their places, the women and the children also had reserved places.

Comparisons between Early Church and Traditional Church

There are many contrasts between the early church and the traditional church. The first issue is with much spending put into building huge magnificent buildings. From bible source e.g. Rom. 16:3-5, the early church is portrayed as having carried out its activities in individuals homes8. In the early church, only cities formed basis of divisions in the church. For example, there was the community in Corinth and another one in Ephesus. This is unlike in the traditional churches that are marred by many denominational divisions; with each division claiming to be more in line with truth than another.

Another characteristic of the traditional church is that church leaders are trained in seminaries. These ministers are then often sent out of their home towns to a new home. In the early church, church leaders came from among the locals of a given area or town. The phenomenon of picking ministers from outside communities alienates the people from their ministers to some extent.

The traditional church in comparison to the early church is also characterized by passivity of the laity. The ministers and their helpers do their thing and the laity just follows unquestioningly. In liturgies, the laity only responds with given recitations whose meanings they might not have fully grasped. In the community of believers as narrated say in Acts 8, the meeting is supposed to be interactive and all involving.

The other issue that slowly wore or is wearing down the traditional church is rigidity. The church services are basically inflexible. In bid to create a rhythm, a rigid system developed that does not allow for spontaneity in worshippers. This is in contrast with what the bible says of the Early Church. Meetings as exemplified in 1Corinthians 14 was a flexible coming together of the faithful.

In the traditional church, leadership is vested in an individual who seems to wield too much power or influence over all other faithful. For example, Roman Catholic Bishops were during the medieval ages powerful lords and up to now, their word in their area of jurisdiction is unchallengeable by their subordinates. The early church, as for instance depicted in Philip 1, was very different in the sense that leadership was vested in a group of elders.

Apart from power being vested in individuals, most traditional church leaders can afford to live very lavishly because of hefty contribution by the faithful that was singularly managed by the priests, bishops or the pastors. Due to greedy for material affluence, the traditional church has over time been accused of exploiting the faithful. When Luther revolted against the Catholic Church, one of the issues he raised was the practice of buying penance. There was a latent perception that when individuals paid awesomely to the church, the pope or other church leaders could pray and a dead man’s soul could be redeemed. Absurdly, the traditional church became somehow too obsessed with issues of tithing that church service was rendered on the basis of how one was faithful at tithing.

Another characteristic that contrasts the traditional church from the early church is the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. Over time, in the traditional church, the celebration of the Lord’s Supper became more like a funeral service i.e. very somber, solemn and hushed. This largely contrasts with the early church where the coming together was a celebration of Jesus’ victory over death. In the spirit of remembrance, the traditional church seeks to relive Jesus’ suffering and death, awkward solemnity has become the order in services. This is unlike what is reported about Lord’s Supper celebrations in the New Testament e.g. in 1 Cor. 11. The Lord’s Supper was celebrated with gladness as a uniting act between the church and Christ9.

The Church of today: The Emerging/ Emergent Church

The issues mentioned in the comparison between the traditional church and the early church frame some of the concerns that have bedeviled the church of today. Although there is much that people like about the traditional church, there is widespread feeling that the church is not fully responding to the needs of its people especially the young generation. Therefore, the church today is torn between those who are faithful to traditional ways and those opposed to the traditional ways.

In the world of today, there are distinction between the traditional and the emerging church. The emerging church is the evangelicals and charismatic who seek to do away with the ills of the traditional church in a number of ways. These new shade of the church is more liberal in its outlook. It seeks to decentralize church structure and empower individuals into free expression of their religious/Christian belief or instincts. This new wave resulted from a general disillusionment with the traditional church. Therefore, the key players in these movements seek to deconstruct what is known of the traditional church and replace some of its operational pillars with what is compatible with modernity.

The emerging or emergent church has different shades; some are informal while others are institutional and very well organized10. Whichever the case, these people emphasize issues to do with individual salvation than order and rhythm as given by traditional liturgical dictates. The informality in the many emerging denominations makes it very difficult to classify or generalize about them. However, they all characteristically position or posit themselves as the new fresh and most life affirming approach to worship.

What differentiates the shades in the emergent or emerging church is their level of departure from traditional church’s doctrine and liturgical stipulations. The different denominations also distinguish themselves by trying to adapt to cultural contexts as possible. For example, as discussed by Lincoln and Mamiyar, the black church developed and took on the socio-political characteristics of the black people11. Further, it has been noted that the evangelical denominations in Africa distinguish themselves and make themselves appear different by adapting to the African way of life.

As already indicated, the concerns of the emerging churches are in tandem with the contrasts between the traditional churches outlined in a section above. The proponents of these emergent church rubbish traditional church structures on the basis that they do not reflect the intent of Christ or the practices in the early church.

The first concern of the emerging church is how to make the church as reflective of Christ as possible. Rather than focusing on church structures and hierarchy, the emergent church seeks to redirect focus on Christ the one and only leader of the church. Rather than focus on the earthly signs of the invincible grace of God, the evangelicals seek to direct the faithful towards identifying and appreciating the grace of God working among the people; a more personal rather than mediated experience or relation with God’s presence.

Another aspect of the emergent church is desire to reflect the radical Jesus12. Jesus was not a conformist but rather a reformist. He did not advocate for rigid status quo but discerning and responding to the spirit of life blowing. Therefore, the emergent church seeks to direct the faithful towards imitating Jesus in every way. This is in contrast to the traditional church that tends to focus on people fulfilling church duties e.g. tithing.

The emergent church also aims at responding to increasing secularism. In their arguments, secularism is resulting from failures of the traditional church. The traditional church through being too removed from the daily lives of the people and imposing heavy demands on the people has alienated people from God. The emergent church argues that church has to become interesting and responsive to the tastes of the people. It is to this end that the emerging and emergent church has adopted much of the popular culture and its characteristics. They type of music played in these churches is not very different from what pop musicians and rock musicians play in their concerts. The services are charged and wild dancing and celebrations are the order of the day; it is called celebrating in the Lord.

The emergent church also seeks to fight secularism and transform society by encouraging creativity and spontaneity. Most crucially, unlike in traditional churches where services reading are ordered and pre-determined by high offices, in the emergent church the pastor has the freedom to use scripture as creatively as possible. There are no seasons or special times, save for Easter and Christmas celebrations. In these churches, there is no tradition to uphold and much depends on the creativity of single pastors and their teams.

Some emergent churches tend to emphasize the idea of communal living. They advocated for brotherhood in Christ. In some cases, individuals are encouraged to sell their belonging or contribute all they have to the communal kitty and subject themselves to a communal life.

The emergent church also tends to address itself to issues such as gender equality. While in the traditional churches women are not ordained or are restricted to given spheres of influence, emergent churches give women the freedom to work as God’s servant to the degree God inspires or enables them. It is for this reason that many women bishops, pastors, and evangelists have sprung up. There are tele-evangelists like Joyce Meyer that have gained a global following through their evangelistic programs.

A trend towards making all converted Christians evangelizers in themselves can be discerned of the emergent church. In the traditional churches, evangelizing seems to be the preserve of the ministers. The emerging church seems keen on making evangelizers out of every believer. There’s a push towards the decentralization of church hierarchy. The traditional church seems to have a top down approach to issues of faith, mission and church participation. The emerging church seems to be a reaction against hierarchical imperialism and a movement towards more equality as sons and daughters in Christ.

The future of the church

The trends in the emerging church have made individuals have brought a lot of excitement in Christendom. However, these trends have also left section of society and church analysts dissatisfied or worried. The emergent church seeks to be relevant to the changing times. To this end, technology is adopted and modern forms of self expression infused into praise and worship. They have made church going more appealing to the young generations. They have brought some live in worship through making worship more involving for the laity.

However, critics point out that superficiality in the emerging churches beats their purposes and or initially noble intentions13. The first issue that the emergent churches have to address is training for the ministers. It appears that anybody who can read has a chance of becoming a minister in these emergent churches. However, to what extent do these people appreciate the mysteries of Christianity? Lack a proper theological grounding makes some of the pastors merely social commentators on the bible.

Some it is argued have turned the bible into a psychological tool of sorts. Riding on the gullibility of the masses, the ignorant pastors and ministers selectively interpret the bible to suit their own purposes. Lack of objectivity in the interpretation of the bible is bound to lead to more disappointment with the church. Individuals go to church for spiritual nourishment. Therefore, when everybody starts pretending to understand the bible in its entirety, there is bound to be confusion in the understanding of the message.

The traditional church provided systems through which church ministers would be properly prepared before being commissioned to minister. It is not enough to have charisma, teaching the word of God goes with years of serious preparation and discernment as to be convinced of eternal truths14. With the current generation in search of this deep understanding of religion and its mysteries, the past or the traditional church still holds a key to the future of the church. As the emergent church with its superficiality continues to disappoint the young generation, youths will continue turning back to the traditional ways and appreciating their value15.

The second concern that the church of today has to address is public worship. The traditional church tends to be too rigid and boring. On the other hand, public worship in the emergent tends to be lively but very wild and not very different from secular discos.

While the youth are attracted the entertainment in the emerging church, the services that are largely emotional leave many dissatisfied. While in a service, one may be move by the awesome music and dance and if hampered by psychological issues break up in surrender to the awesome experience. However, once one leaves the emotional service an individual returns to his or her emptiness. It is for this reason that some young people are gradually turning to traditional devotions and more long term related spiritual journeys as opposed to expediency in evangelical meetings.

The traditional services are very ordered. After sometime cranking up in the evangelical movements, some people are finding themselves back into the traditional churches to experiences the beauty of singing the hymns. The hymns are so well composed and they have a mystical or spiritual touch. Music in most evangelical churches is good but it tends to be very noisy like the secular music. Traditional church music tended to be comforting and quieting i.e. it leads an individual in a silence. In the silence, one is able to speak to oneself and his or her God. Therefore, despite craze to make services entertaining, the future of the church is in improving on laity participation and a return to more mystical singing as is the case in traditional churches.


The dialogue between the traditional and emergent church should result into a future church that is well organized institutionally but very decentralized as opposed to hierarchical. At the moment most churches are more concerned about stressing what differentiates them. However, as time goes by and the faithful begin to take more responsibility in matters of faith, the clergy will be forced into reconsidering all that they hold as true and worthwhile.

Consequently, the traditional church will be forced into acknowledging what is worthwhile in the emergent church while the emergent church will also realize the beauty lost from discarding traditional church practices as a whole16. Meaningful dialogue is only possible when both sides realize there is something good about the other. Such dialogue or realization should necessarily lead to a more harmonized church that responds wholesomely to the needs of the faithful.


Belcher, Jim. Deep Church: A Third Way Beyond Emerging and Traditional. Downers Grove: IVP Books, 2009.

Fackre, Gabriel. The Church: Signs of the Spirit and Signs of the Times. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007.

González, Justo L. Church History: An Essential Guide. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996.

Jinkins, Michael. The Church Faces Death: Ecclesiology in a Post-Modern Context. New York: Oxford University Press US, 1999.

Lincoln, Charles E. and Lawrence H. Mamiya. The Black Church in the African American Experience. Durham: Duke University Press, 1990.

Martin, Ralph, P. Worship in the Early Church. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 1975.


  1. Gabriel Fackre, The Church: Signs of the Spirit and Signs of the Times (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007); 21.
  2. Justo L. González. Church History: An Essential Guide. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996); 12.
  3. Michael, Jinkins. The Church Faces Death: Ecclesiology in a Post-Modern Context. (New York: Oxford University Press US, 1999); 5.
  4. Fackre, p. 8.
  5. González, p. 14.
  6. González, p. 28.
  7. Fackre, p. 13.
  8. Ralph P. Martin. Worship in the Early Church. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 1975); 25.
  9. Ralph P. Martin. Worship in the Early Church. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 1975);15.
  10. Jim Belcher, Deep Church: A Third Way Beyond Emerging and Traditional (Downers Grove: IVP Books, 2009); 47.
  11. Eric Charles Lincoln and Lawrence H. Mamiya, The Black Church in the African American Experience (Durham: Duke University Press, 1990); 21.
  12. Belcher, p. 41.
  13. Belcher, p. 9.
  14. Belcher, p. 17.
  15. Jinkins, p. 9.
  16. Belcher, p. 52.
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