Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Functional vs. Ontological Ecclesiology: Is that really the Question?

At a recent gathering of Wesleyan and Free Methodist theological educators, ecclesiological questions provided the common theme of the papers and discussion. During the course of the conversation, a conceptual distinction was introduced between functional and ontological ecclesiologies. The basic contrast is between understandings of the church which focus on her doing (function) and understandings of the church which focus on her being (ontology). Now, of course, no one would advocate reducing the church to either her doing or her being. But one can certainly detect tendencies in either direction among the many ecclesiological options available.

As you might have guessed, given the reductive connotation of the word "functional," this distinction often carries with it an agenda: namely, that we should moved from a "mere" functional ecclesiology to a "more robust" ontological ecclesiology. In Wesleyan circles, this prescription often trades on a descriptive narrative of Methodism, which supposedly lost its ontological grounding upon its break from the Anglican Communion. "Beware of treating the church as a mere means to some other end," is the watchword of a ontological ecclesiology.

But, this distinction could in fact be just as easily used to argue in the opposite direction. One could argue that the nature church should be defined by its purpose rather than the other way around. In Wesleyan circles, this prescription trades on the same narrative of Methodism told in a different light: the church was most alive when it was free to focus wholly on its mission without concern for ecclesial preservation. "Beware of an inward focus on the church," is the watchword of a functional ecclesiology.

Now this conversation could go on forever. There is no obvious resolution. The best arguments are usually based on reactions to the abuses of the other extreme. These kinds of arguments are ultimately unpersuasive, and perhaps even pernicious because they just keep the pendulum swinging without moving us forward.

The problem is exacerbated by the fact that the distinction in the end does not illumine very much. For instance, advocates of both functional and ontological ecclesiologies speak regularly of the mission of the church. In fact, the most extreme forms of each see themselves as representing a missional ecclesiology: the one in terms of mission as a divinely willed activity to which the church contributes in some way, the other in terms of mission as participation in the being of God and God's people. And yet despite these differences, both approaches can be and are used to validate the same old divisive ecclesial options (sacerdotal, evangelical, secularist). If such a basic concept as mission can be so easily shared by the two in such a way that the same old patterns are perpetuated, it is questionable whether the distinction really achieves all that much. You get a lot of idle talk about the church and its mission that in the end serves to justify one's agenda, whether it be liturgical renewal, evangelism programs, community service, etc.

In the face of these problems, I would like to suggest that the functional-ontological distinction itself is fundamentally flawed. The flaw is the presumed disjunction between being and act. Rather, the church's being is in her act. The church has no being prior to its active life as sent into the world as witnesses to the risen Lord Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit. Thus it has no "being" which can be cultivated without reference to her "function." And yet she is not "merely functional" in the sense of a dispensable instrument used toward the accomplishment of an end. The active life of missionary witness is a life lived in fellowship with God, which is the end God has in mind for his people and the world. So in her act the church lives and moves and has her being. I think the disjunction between being and act should be dropped, and with it the notion that one must choose between functional and ontological ecclesiology.

So the next time someone asks me whether I have a functional or ontological ecclesiology, I am going to say that I reject the premise of the question (if I'm feeling feisty) or just answer yes to both and explain why (if I'm sensing the need to be more gracious).

Any thoughts?
  • Have you encountered this distinction before?
  • Do you find it helpful? How so?
  • Have you tended to lean one way or the other? Why?
  • Can we speak generically of an "ontological" view of anything without specifying what kind of "ontology" we are presupposing?
  • Is the disjunction of being and act a problem?
  • How does the uniting of being and act bear on the question of mission?


Michael R. Cline said...

I'm wondering if the charge into "missional theology" is also tied into this type of thinking. Since theology is defined as something we "do" rather than something we "think about," we relegate everything to context and try to rid ourselves of this nasty dogmatic strain of systematics. There is a very large dose of this at Bethel right now, and for someone with a concentration in theology, it makes me queasy. Do you see a link? Are a lot of this proponents of "functional ecclesiology" also promoting the demise of "systematic theology?"

millinerd said...

I'm curious as to whether the same difficulties you point out here can be found in more historic categorizations. I'm thinking specifically of the classic Protestant/Catholic fault lines of Christ/Church, Scripture/Tradition, Grace/Cooperation, and Faith/Works.

The only way some polemical positions make sense - as with certain (not all) strands of missional theology, not to mention so much "beyond the religious right" claptrap - is if the convenient caricatures sit quietly in their obvious wrongness and behave, which of course they're willing to do only in their opponent's mind.

Are there really any ontologically minded Christians who refuse to evangelize lest they disturb their tidy, implacable Aristotelian deity? Are there really a substantial number of Christians out there who believe Jesus is an American and who, when they put the flag in the sanctuary, secretly covet its placement on the altar?

"Oh yes," comes the answer, "I know one in my cousin's fundamentalist church that I visited two years ago." To which the reply is, "Why are you letting that goofball dictate the terms of the debate?"

JohnLDrury said...


A good point that must be acknowledged. Extremes should not set the terms of the debate. However, I would like to point out in defense of my way bringing up the issue is that (1) I made it pretty clear in the first paragraph that "no one would advocate reducing the church to either her doing or her being ... [but] one can certainly detect tendencies in either direction among the many ecclesiological options available," and (2) the fact remains that much high-level, influential discussion (not just goofballs) continue to employ explicitly these categories. If they didn't use them, I would not feel the need to convince them to stop.

As for your opening question, I have often heard the Protestant/Catholic ecclesiological faultline described as riding precisely along the functional/ontological distinction. I question its historical accuracy at the origins of the divide, but it may have something to it as the traditions developed/devolved later. Overcoming the act/being disjunction could perhaps be ecumencially useful, though I won't count on it, nor would I rest the truth of the dogmatic move on its cooperative usefulness.

millinerd said...

Perhaps I was unclear: I am agreeing with your main points, not contesting them.

I'm not saying the goofballs employ the categorizations, but that they are the straw men that some high level, influential discussions must assume to sustain momentum. Consider the way the boogeyman of "propositional truth" as an idolatrous rival to Christ is evoked to stoke the dying embers of postmodernity.

Yes, I'm off topic, but attempting to apply the weaknesses you pointed out elsewhere.

In other news, Happy Thanksgiving!

vanilla said...

The Church has her being in doing: proclaiming the Good News of salvation in Christ Jesus!

In all things give Thanks. Happy Thanksgiving.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

I just read where Arthur Peacocke's understanding of "hiearchal systems" thinking in science (biological), dissolves ontological underpinnings in theology....if hierarchal systems is applied to theology....thereby, reducing theology to functionality...

kerry said...

We too easily are lured into dichotomistic thinking (our Greek, western cultural heritage). Some things really are either-or. But this becomes a mode of thinking that is imposed on everything. I like to think that Wesleyan theology is more often characterized by synthesis. Before I had read much theology, I had been taught that the church exists for two reasons: to worship God and to carry out God's purposes in a lost and fallen world. That still seems about right, except I now see them as inextricably part of each other.