Skip to content

On distinguishing between ‘Church’ and ‘Ecclesial Existence’

October 7, 2009

1341_03_1---Stafnes-Church--Iceland_webI have been working away on ecclesiology and thought I would check out some thoughts on the world – or perhaps on the few passers by who might read this. Any comments on the distinction I am trying to make here



… the New Testament places the church not just alongside the cosmic mission of God to restore creation and reconcile the world to God, but rather as an integral element of this mission. It depends on the context whether the church is described as serving mission or mission serving church (the bride for whom Christ died).


This is understandable in the context of a thoroughly historical understanding of salvation. As Irenaeus stressed, in addressing the Gnostics, God’s salvation is the salvation of the world. It is not salvation from the world. However we talk about church we are not talking about a gateway to escape from the world nor the bearer of a message of escape from the world. We are talking about a human social reality inasmuch as that reality is both a consequence of and a participant in the mission of God for the salvation of the world.


At this point, right at the beginning of our reflection, we need to take cognizance of the dual aspect of the reality of the church. We have to do here with a correlation between divine and human agency. Although it is the agency within history of the Son and Spirit which creates what theologians call church, this church is also a social reality constituted by a human action and interaction. Moreover it is common linguistic practice to refer to this social reality as ‘the church’ quite independently of the ‘eyes of faith’ which might discern the reconstituting work of the Son and Spirit.


This duality means that we are caught in a dilemma. If we are to accept this linguistic practice then go on to attribute to that entity cosmic and soteriological qualities, we will tend to be caught between a Scylla which offers idealized models of an actual and less than ideal church (thus talking about what the church ‘is’ which takes no account of its failings) and a Charybdis which accepts the reality of the historically identified church but effectively fails to treat that actual existence as being intrinsically related to divine action (thus talking about what the church is ‘called to be’ rather than what it is by divine action).


So before going further I propose that we resolve to refer in the first instance to ‘ecclesial existence’ when seeking a theological account of the social outcome of salvation. We will thus reserve the term ‘church’ for its common usage to refer to that socio-historical entity which identifies itself as ‘church’. Since, as we suggested above, ‘ecclesial existence’ refers to an event of correlation between divine and human agency, this ecclesial existence will take social and historical form and our task will be to explore and consider the nature of that form. However, it does not follow that the church (socio-historically identified) will necessarily correspond to events of ecclesial existence.


In distinguishing thus between ‘ecclesial existence’ and ‘church’ we are not making the same distinction as is commonly made between the visible and invisible church. Both ‘ecclesial existence’ and ‘the church’ are visible. The former term identifies a reality according to criteria which are theological and the latter does not, but simply accepts the self-designation of participants. The value of this distinction is seen for instance when we note that the paradoxical truth that it is important to discern when the church is not the church, can be interpreted as indicating precisely this distinction. The church does not necessarily embody ecclesial existence. However, what matters here is not the terminology per se but the nature of ecclesial existence and its functioning both within and beyond what we are now referring to as ‘the church’.


Clearly this distinction is relevant not just at the level of sociality but also at the level of individual personal existence in community. Just as ‘the church’, inasmuch as it is bound up with ecclesial existence, is a corpus permixtem, so the individual conceived as an agent within a network of relations is also both a sinner and a new creation in Christ. In this sense ecclesial existence holds together individual actions and the sociality constituted by them

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: