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).
- 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?