Big Words: Ecclesiology

Pastor Terry Tatum

This post is a continuation of our “Big Words” series, in which we are digging deep into the meaning of some of the big words that comprise the language of our faith. 

Usually, I have a funny story about how Pastor Craig assigned me the least fun topic in the series, but not his time. He left me with an essential teaching in the church, a “Big Word” that I’ll bet many of you have never heard and if you have heard it, you probably have never heard it explained before.

Today’s “Big Word” is Ecclesiology, which means… 

  1. Theology as applied to the nature and structure of the Christian Church
  2. The Doctrine of the Church
  3. Greek – ekklesia “assembly or call together”

If we are going to talk about the doctrine of the church, we probably should be sure we are all on the same page, so let me get started by reminding you of a catchphrase we say a lot around here: The church is more than a building. While the general public may refer to our building as our church, in reality we are the church (you and I). 

So, what is the church?

According to our founder, John Wesley, “The visible Church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men, in which the pure word of God is preached, and the sacraments are duly administered.” (JW’s Message for Today 125) 

Wesley went on to say that there are 3 marks of the visible Church: Gathering of the Faithful

Preaching of the pure Word of God

Administration of the Sacraments

Every Sunday our church gathers to praise and thank God for our risen savior Jesus Christ. Even immediately following Hurricane Michael and during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, we figured out a way to meet (parking lot, gymnasium, online). The faithful gather here. 

There’s not a Sunday that goes by in which Craig or myself fail to share the Word of God, straight from Scripture. We believe, as my good friend Rudy Olivo (a former campus pastor) would say, that the Bible is “the word of God and it can be trusted.” 

We also administer the sacraments (baptism and Communion) here on a regular basis. We have also baptized more than 30 people so far this year

I think that John Wesley would describe the Lynn Haven UMC as a “visible Church, a congregation of faithful people, in which the pure word of God is preached, and the sacraments be duly administered.” 

We still have areas where we need to improve, but I believe those three visible signs are done well here. Now, let’s look at what the Apostle Paul has to say about what the characteristics of the church should be:

As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit— just as you were called to one hope when you were called— one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. (Ephesians 4:1-6 NIV) 

This passage from Ephesians is going to be our outline today and help us explain the Ecclesiology of the Church. More specifically our question today is: What are the characteristics of the Church? 

1) “One Body” = Unity

“There is one body….”(Ephesians 4:4 NIV) 

John Wesley (JW) called the church “a body of people united together in the service of God.” He viewed unity in terms of spirit vs. structure. In other words, it’s not that we attend the same church, but that we have the same Spirit. His emphasis was on the personal dimension. People-oriented vs. denomination/structure. 

The church is not an organization, but an organism, a living being. That’s why it’s called a “Body.”

JW had a very famous quote that was very influential to me while I was developing my faith: “If thy heart is right as my heart is right, give me your hand.”

That means that we don’t have to agree on everything. It means distinguishing the essentials (truth) from non-essentials (opinions). 

My opinion may matter a lot to me but it doesn’t mean I’m right. 

The only thing I know of that will never let me down is God’s word. Early Methodists considered themselves “Bible Christians” and embraced any other persons who were like-minded. That’s what it means to be one body. We come from all different places and backgrounds, but if we embrace the promises in scripture, and if “your heart is right with my heart, give me your hand.”

That is what it means to be “One Body.”

2) “One Spirit”

“There is one body and one Spirit…..” (Ephesians 4:4 NIV) 

This seems like the right time to mention something that has been on my heart for a long time — Church membership is not to be confused with spiritual vitality. Just because you are a “church member” doesn’t mean you are where you need to be spiritually. 

A few weeks ago we preached and wrote about salvation by faith. It’s not salvation by standing up in front of the church and answering a few questions. It’s “salvation by faith.” In other words, it is a supernatural experience where we go from death to life, and we are “born again.” Only the Holy Spirit can do that. 

Ultimately, only God knows if we are truly filled with the Spirit. We aren’t here to judge. Wesley “would call us to promote a Spirit-filled life, but without passing judgement on how such life should be lived.” Practicing that is what it means to be of “One Spirit.”

3) “One Lord”

There is one body and one Spirit — just as you were called to one hope when you were called — one Lord…..” (Ephesians 4:4-5 NIV) 

So now that we understand that the church is one body, made up of one Spirit let’s look at how there is one Lord for the Church.  Wesley believed that Christ’s Lordship should be the focus of all believers. 

There is not one thing in this world that is beyond God’s control. But at times we treat him like a guy who has a lot of great ideas or suggestions, rather than the ultimate authority in our lives. 

Lordship calls for radical, disciplined obedience – both personally and corporately. Accepting Jesus as Lord changes everything. It changes how we think, how we act and how we live. It changes the way we see the world and the way we see eternity. 

Do you know what the chief criteria was to enter a Methodist Society in Wesley’s day? It was to have a “desire to flee the wrath to come.” 

There will be a day of judgement, there will be a day when Jesus comes back but accepting him as Lord changes the way we look at that. Only “One Lord” can do that.

4) “One Faith”

“There is one body and one Spirit — just as you were called to one hope when you were called — one Lord, one faith……” (Ephesians 4:4-5 NIV) 

There are certain fundamental doctrines that we share a belief in. As Methodists, we share beliefs with regards to Scripture. For example, we believe what the Bible said about there being One Body, One Spirit, and One Lord. Scripture guides our faith and helps us know what we believe in. There have also been historic creeds, and statements of faith over time (i.e., the Apostles Creed). 

Did you know that the United Methodist Church has a statement of faith? It’s adapted from the 39 Articles of Religion of the Anglican Church (Church of England). When America broke away from British rule and it was apparent that Methodism was going to go from a movement to a denomination, Wesley felt he needed to write down a doctrinal statement for all Methodists. It’s known as the Articles of Religion of the Methodist Church, and it has 24 items rather than the 39 of the Church of England. 

These creeds and statements of faith are not preconditions of faith, but they are common beliefs shared by Christians all over the world. The points outlined in the Articles of Religion of the Methodist Church are really an expression of our faith (this is what we believe).

By sharing these beliefs Wesley believed this would spare Methodism from becoming a dead orthodoxy. What is dead orthodoxy, you ask? Well, I believe it’s an attitude of smugness and contentment. People, or churches, may have the right beliefs but not the right attitude or heart if they are content right where they are. Methodism is rooted in an orthodoxy of repentance, assurance and growth in grace. We believe we are “moving on to perfection.” 

Simply put, we share One Faith

5) “One Baptism” 

“There is one body and one Spirit— just as you were called to one hope when you were called—one Lord, one faith, one baptism……” (Ephesians 4:4-5 NIV) 

Christian baptism is a means of grace which cleanses the guilt of original sin and opens the path to new life in Christ. As Methodists, we hold that baptism is more than a mere symbol, it is a sacrament (sacred moment). It is how God marks His people. It’s an “outward sign of an inward faith.” 

In the UMC we believe there are Four aspects of Baptism:

  1. Recognition of God’s initiative (hence infants are suitable candidates)
  2. Reception into Christ’s Church (baptized into membership in the church)
  3. Regeneration: “God ordinarily uses baptism as the means by which He enters the life of the believer…baptism is normally the beginning of the Christian life.” (John Wesley)
  4. Remembrance: Of what God has done for/in us by raising us from death to life. 

We also practice three modes of Baptism: Sprinkling, pouring and immersion. 

Apart from God’s grace, water has no inherent power. It’s just water!!! We share a belief in One Baptism.

As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit— just as you were called to one hope when you were called— one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. (Ephesians 4:1-6 NIV) 

What do you see as the characteristics of our church? I’d love to hear from you. Email me at Terry@mylhumc.net