Allison is professor of Christian theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is also an elder at Sojourn Community Church in Louisville, Kentucky. He writes as a confessional Southern Baptist churchman and theologian who represents the diversity of Christian convictions on the doctrine of the church fairly and respectfully.
Allison approaches ecclesiology with the conviction that ontology must be prior to function. What the church does results from who and what she is: “From the ontology or nature of the church flow the church’s functions” (p. 32). Thus, early in his work he provides a definition of the church. He writes, “The church is the people of God who have been saved through repentance and faith in Jesus Christ and have been incorporated into his body through baptism with the Holy Spirit. It consists of two interrelated elements: the universal church is the fellowship of all Christians that extends from the day of Pentecost until the second coming, incorporating both the deceased believers who are presently in heaven and the living believers from all over the world. This universal church becomes manifested in local churches characterized by being doxological, logocentric, pneumadynamic, covenantal, confessional, missional, and spatio-temporal/eschatological” (p. 29). Later he gives a much shorter definition: “The church is the new covenant people of God” (p. 30).
According to Allison, the church’s relationship to God through the New Covenant means that “the church began at Pentecost and did not exist prior to that event” (p. 82). In addition to discussing biblical support for this claim, the author argues that the inauguration of the New Covenant can only follow the passing of the Old Covenant, which transition is rooted in the death and resurrection of Jesus. In addition, the New Covenant blessings depend on the ascension of Christ and the pouring out of the Spirit. Although Allison explains a dispensational distinction between Israel and the church, he does not defend the view or affirm it. Rather, he merely presents the evidence for both the view that the church has replaced Israel and the dispensational view that there is a future for ethnic Israel in God’s plan.
The book is divided into seven parts. In the first, “Foundational Issues,” Allison introduces the doctrine of ecclesiology and describes his method and approach. His statement of methodology appears inconsistent with that of John S. Feinberg, the editor of the series. Allison writes: “I firmly maintain that the source—the sole source—and the starting point of our theology is Scripture, the Word of God” (p. 27). Yet he consistently uses experience, history, and insights from other disciplines in the construction of his ecclesiology. In practice, his methodology is consistent with Feinberg’s statement in the “Series Introduction”: “Holy Writ is the touchstone of our theology, but we do not limit the source material for systematics to Scripture alone. Hence, whatever information from history, science, philosophy, and the like is relevant to our understanding of God and his relation to our world is fair game for systematics” (p. 16).
Part 2, “The Biblical Vision—Characteristics of the Church,” considers the origin, orientation, and nature of the church. Then in the third section, “The Vision Actualized—The Growth of the Church,” Allison discusses the unity and purity of the church and the practice of church discipline. According to the author, discipline is demanded by the nature of the church “as a proleptic and declarative sign of the divine eschatological judgment. No church would desire for any of its members to stand in the future judgment ensnared in even one persistent and evident sin that had brought reproach on the church, provoked other members to engage in sin, and dishonored Jesus Christ” (p. 200).
In part 4, “The Government of the Church,” Allison surveys the standard positions found in Christian history but devotes a whole chapter to an extended defense of “plural-elder-led congregationalism” (p. 295). In an excursus, he presents biblical and theological support for multisite churches, as well as using the example of his experience at Sojourn Community Church. Critics of the multisite model are unlikely to be convinced by his claim that house churches in the first century provide biblical support for the multisite model today.
Allison treats “The Ordinances of the Church” in the fifth section. As in the previous part, Allison is fair and kind toward the variety of views found in the Christian tradition, but he does defend believer’s baptism and a “spiritual presence” view of the Lord’s Supper. He concludes that although “not necessary for salvation, baptism is necessary as an act of obedience to the Lord who commanded it” (p. 360) and “as a participation in Christ and all the salvific benefits associated with his sacrificial death—the Lord’s Supper is to be a celebration focused on Christ in anticipation of his victorious return in glory” (p. 409).
In part 6, “The Ministries of the Church,” Allison discusses spiritual gifts, worship, preaching, evangelism, discipleship, and care-giving functions. Included is a brief argument in favor of the obligation of Christians to fulfill the cultural mandate. “As such, Christians participate in the political arena, teach school, perform in orchestras and create sculptures, map the human genome, develop computer systems, manage stock portfolios, manufacture hybrid cars, sell shoes, build houses, raise beef and milk cows and grow corn, compete as Olympic athletes, design skyscrapers, and the like. . . . In these and many other ways, the church and its members are for the world and against (the sinful corruption of) the world” (pp. 461–62).
A brief “Conclusion” asserts that “the church is a paradox. . . . The church is in the world, but not of the world. It is for the world yet against the world” (p. 467). She looks forward to the new creation, to the day when she will worship God in the new heaven and new earth. “Until then, the church is a paradox, making its pilgrimage in this world and living faithfully coram Deo—in the presence of God in Jesus Christ and through the Holy Spirit—as ‘sojourners and strangers’ ” (p. 471).
This is another outstanding volume in an excellent series. Allison treats the diversity of Christian views charitably, criticizes non-orthodox views carefully, and defends his baptistic perspective clearly. Dispensationalists will find much in this volume that resonates with their view of the church, including the origin of the church on the day of Pentecost. Yet they will be disappointed not to find a clearer explanation of the reasons for and implications of the distinction between Israel and the church. This book is highly recommended as a resource for students, pastors, and other ministry leaders. It would make an excellent textbook for courses in ecclesiology, especially in colleges and seminaries in the Free Church tradition.
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