Five Ways of Talking About Church

Five Ways of Talking About Church

On Saturday, February 1st, Ted Dodd was asked to facilitate a conversation with the members of Winnipeg Presbytery, United Church of Canada. He decided to ground this discussion theologically by focusing on several models of ecclesiology/church, hoping to enable an interchange about our core beliefs about faith community.  Here are some notes from Ted’s conversation…

ted_doddMany ways of describing the church exist; I chose five. Each of these models was briefly outlined and questions accompanied the description. Small groups were assigned one of the five to concentrate upon. After small group discussion the groups were asked to name their insights and write a prayer for the Presbytery which emerged from the dialogue.

The process below might be adapted to suit local context and character. As folks are getting ready for annual meetings in their congregations and parishes, it might perhaps provide a way to deepen the experience beyond a rubber-stamping of reports or offer a more prayerful exchange in place of an antagonistic bun fight. It might also be altered to fit a future directions visioning process or be useful in a Lenten study series.


In an essay from the 1980s, Rosemary Radford Ruether contrasted the tension and conflict between the two models of church:

  • church as spirit-filled community
    • with a sense of vision and a tendency to break down social convention
    • yet instability and eventual cooption and loss of vision
  • and church as historical institution
    • with ability to transmit itself through structure and order
    • yet tendency to sacralize the established social order

Ruether, Rosemary Radford . “Spirit-filled Community and Historical Institution: Tension and Relation”. Women-Church: Theology and Practice of Feminist Liturgical Communities, 11-23, 283-285. Harper & Row, San Francisco CA: 1985.


In what ways are we balancing these two models of church?

In what ways are these two models in tension and conflict?


  • Kerygma – proclamation of the Gospel. Kerygma is translated in the New Testament as “proclaiming”, “announcing”, “preaching”. This mark of the church indicates that the church is being the church when the message of good news – gospel — is being shared.
  • Didache – training in the Way of Christ. Didache is variously translated as “teaching” (in Latin “doctrine” meaning teachings and “doctor” meaning teacher), “formation” and “training”. Rather than simply acquiring a body of knowledge, didache is more like an apprenticeship. Ideally, didache begins when we enter the life of the church and is life-long.
  • Koinonia – community in Christ. Koinonia translates into words like “community”, “fellowship” and “participation”.
  • Diakonia – serving Christ. Diakonia is the root word for our terms “diaconal ministry” and “deacon.” In the world of the New Testament it referred to the role of a servant. It is after the diaconal symbol of foot washing that Jesus proclaims the new commandment “that you love one another as I have loved you.” Diakonia is also informed by the parable of the sheep and the goats in which Jesus teaches that he is present in the most unexpected of strangers.
  • Liturgia – worship of God. Liturgia literally means “a work of the people.”



In your experience, what are our strengths amongst these five marks of the church?

In what areas do we need to address more energy?


(with amendments)

  • One (and Many)
    The unity of the church is understood to be God’s intention and would include a call for ecumenical dialogue in the present age. It has been suggested that celebration and welcoming of diversity, as a gift, be upheld alongside the call to unity.
  • Holy (and Just)
    The church is called to be blessed and blessing. Sometimes this mark has been interpreted as a dualistic separation of church and society, spirit and body or mind. So there are those who would insist this mark also be seen as extending a sacred love to one another and the world through peace and justice work.
  • Catholic
    To confess that the church is catholic is to say it is universal and not restricted to any one race, culture, nation, gender or class.
  • Apostolic (and Mission)
    Unfortunately, this sign has connotations of hierarchy and clericalism within the church. Yet, at its core, the concern of the apostolic sign of the church involves continuity with the teaching and ministry of Jesus.


Hans Kung, in The Church, states that these traditional marks of the church are not only to be seen as gifts of God’s grace, but they are also tasks that the church is called to address and fulfill. In your experience, how are we doing with regard these creedal marks of the Church?


In The United Church of Canada creed originally adopted in 1968 (and revised) a substantial section refers to the vocation of the church:

We are called to be the Church:
to celebrate God’s presence
to live with respect in Creation,
to love and serve others,
to seek justice and resist evil,
to proclaim Jesus, crucified and risen,
our judge and our hope.


In your experience, how well are we doing with each of these elements of this call to be the church?

5. World Council of Churches

The 1998 Faith and Order Paper of the World Council of Churches stresses three (Trinitarian and scriptural) images of the church for consideration:

  • People of God
    An understanding of the church as a holy, chosen, covenanted community and as a pilgrim people journeying with promise
  • Body of Christ
    A symbol of the church as a community which honours a diversity of gifts and where the sacramental quality of the church emphases Christ as head
  • Temple of the Holy Spirit
    A naming of the church as a household living in the power of the sacred

World Council of Churches . “The Church of the Triune God”. The Nature and Purpose of the Church: A Stage on the Way to a Common Statement, WCC Publications, Geneva: 1998.

(Please note that the World Council at its recent Assembly in Korea has produced a new document.)


In your experience of Church, (noting the WCC images and others) from what images of the church are we operating?

How would you assess the faithfulness of these images?


Life Together

“There is probably no Christian to whom God has not given the uplifting and blissful experience of genuine Christian community at least once in her or his life. But in this world such experiences remain nothing but a gracious extra beyond the daily bread of Christian community life. We have no claim to such experiences, and we do not live with other Christians for the sake of gaining such experiences. It is not the experience of Christian community, but firm and certain faith within Christian community that holds us together. We hold fast in faith to God’s greatest gift, that God has acted for us all and wants to act for us all. This makes us joyful and happy, but it also makes us ready to forgo all such experiencs if at times God does not grant them. We are bound together by faith, not by experience.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, page 34

A Prayer for the Church

In authenticity and worship and prayer,
we will keep celebrating the sacred until we embody it.
In life-centered diversity of community
we will keep practicing love until we get it right:
As a critical, yet hopeful, prophetic minority
we will keep calling for justice until it prevails.
In the midst of the groaning of creation,
we will keep longing for kin(g)dom until kin(g)dom comes.


Comments: 1

  1. Ken Delisle says:

    Wow. You are a gifted writer and thinker.
    These are down to earth core idenities and the questions focused and challenging.
    Thanks again.

Comments are closed.