Models of the Church, part 1

We’re reading Avery Dulles’ Models of the Church in class over the next few weeks, and I notice that the first four models he considers are contrasting pairs: institutional vs communion, and sacrament vs herald. I’ll be interested to see whether this pairing of polarities holds up through the remaining models.

It’s useful to have a standard set of questions to pose to ecclesiological models that you want to compare. I’ll ask these questions:

  • How does it shape the Christian life?
  • What is its stance towards those outside the church?
  • How does it describe the relationship between the local congregation and the rest of the church?

Institutional vs Communion

These are opposites in terms of emphasis on visible bonds and boundaries. The institutional model emphasizes formal structure and has a binary understanding of membership. The communion model (the two variants he discusses are People of God, and Body of Christ) emphasizes intangible, mystical or spiritual structure and allows for degrees of membership.


  • Shapes the Christian life towards obedience and dutiful participation, which are seen as building up the church; thus in terms of individual spirituality, it emphasizes the will rather than the heart. Little room for spontaneity or innovation; less room for dissent and critique.
  • Its stance towards those outside the church could be defensive, judgmental, or impassive, but it is not engaged or engaging. From the outside, the institutional model can look forbidding; it does not look welcoming.
  • The local congregation is linked with all other local congregations into a larger worldwide church in a formal, well-defined structure. This worldwide institution is seen as the earthly locus of the /una sancta/.


  • Shapes the Christian life towards the spiritual and affective, thus emphasizing heart more than will. Can also foster actions that make manifest and visible the communion that unites us, such as visiting the sick, sister church programs, and ecumenical dialogue.
  • Its stance towards those outside the church is welcoming and often inclusive. Acknowledges degrees of communion, and imperfect communion, which allows for real engagement with those who are outside the church.
  • Bonds between congregations, as between individual believers, are primarily intangible, mystical, and spiritual. This can foster a sense of immanence and participation in the una sancta when the local congregation gathers for worship. Because the bonds are understood as mystical, it can be difficult and dissonant if whatever formal structure exists does not seem to be congruent with the mystical communion in Christ. On the other hand, faith in the mystical communion can sustain an interaction through difficult times.

Sacrament and Herald

These are opposites in terms of which of the two primary notes of the church (“the word rightly preached, and the sacraments rightly administered”) are presented as most fundamentally constitutive of the church.


  • Shapes the Christian life towards living out gospel values in order to make Christ present in the world, and nourishes it by regular participation in the sacraments. Fosters an experiential spirituality; emphasizes the goodness of creation and access to the divine through the good gifts of creation.
  • A generous stance towards those outside the church, with a tendency towards a Franciscan style, “Preach the gospel at all times – when necessary, use words” approach towards making Christ present in the world.
  • Sacramental ecclesiology tends to conceive of ecclesial bonds in terms of a more concrete sacrament, eucharist or baptism or orders. The RC church, and I believe other episcopal churches, understand the episcopacy as the sacrament of unity, the sacramental means by which the invisible unity of local churches is made visible.


  • Shapes the Christian life towards evangelization, nourished by the preached word, which is understood to be an event that enacts the church wherever it is preached. Fosters a spirituality that emphasizes understanding and assent, thus cognitive more than affective or active.
  • Stands towards those outside the church is one of limited engagement, which could be neutral (“We’re just here to proclaim the Word, your response is up to you”) or judgmental (“Acceptance saves you, rejection condemns you”). Tends towards binary membership defined by acceptance or rejection of the preached gospel, presumably in toto.
  • Because the preached word enacts the church, the local congregation is constituted by it, and has no theologically significant bonds, visible or invisible, with other congregations. Dulles asserts that this model, as held by Protestant theologians such as Barth, draws a sharp distinction between the eschatological church (which I tentatively identify with the una sancta) and the local congregation, but I don’t see that this is necessarily intrinsic to the model. The gospel preached in the local congregation could make the una sancta immanent as part of the enactment of the church.
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10 Responses to Models of the Church, part 1

  1. thewaterisfine says:

    Very interesting to compare and contrast not simply individual churches with these criteria, but also denominations. How about a independent institutional church? That would be my childhood growing up in independent fundamentalist baptist churches. 🙂 Do you see differences between Catholic (not meaning universal) churches as far as the institutional or communion based models?

  2. Hm, it never occurred to me that an independent Baptist church would be institutional – thanks for your perspective!

    When you ask about “differences between Catholic (not meaning universal) churches”, do you mean, for example, the difference between St Mark’s RC church at this end of town, and St Ann’s RC church at that end of town? If so, I think there’s not really a mechanism by which different RC parishes (which is how I’d describe St Mark’s and St Ann’s) can express a significantly different ecclesiological self-understanding from each other or from their local bishop, because parishes are intrinsically geographic in nature. Although some RCs do some “church shopping” these days among parishes, I think the majority still just go to the parish they’re assigned to, since that’s usually the closest and most convenient.

    If you mean between, say, the Roman Catholic rite churches and the Ukrainian Catholic rite churches, I confess I don’t know enough about the non-Roman Catholic rites to have an opinion.

    Where I do see differences among Catholics is along the liberal-conservative divide, which may translate into differences among dioceses depending on the bishop. Dulles’ quotation from Butler’s 1963 book The idea of the church, in his description of the institutional model gave me new insight into how some conservative Catholics can, with sincerity and vitriol, accuse liberal Catholics of not really being Catholics, and think they should be excommunicated.

    More liberal Catholics tend to emphasize a communion ecclesiology, and tend to see the institutional structures as distinctly secondary (as they are presented by the structure of Lumen Gentium).

  3. thewaterisfine says:

    My main question was the first part, St. Marks vs St. Ann’s. It is really interesting to me, coming from the fundamentalist background into the episcopal church, which definitely emphasizes a communion ecclesiology (which I am most comfortable with theologically, myself). I have actually always felt that there are strong areas of overlap between the fundamentalist traditions and the Catholic church, obviously not as regards the liturgy, but definitely in the authority structures and the institutional ecclesiology. Very interesting. Thanks!

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