Dr. Gregg Allison leaves no stone unturned in his newest work, Sojourners and Strangers: The Doctrine of the Church. Allison’s fine piece of work is the latest installment in the Foundations of Evangelical Theology Series, edited by John Feinberg.
Six majors themes form the skeletal structure of Sojourners and Strangers.
Part One: Foundational Issues
Allison introduces the subject of ecclesiology and underscores his presuppositions at the outset: “I firmly maintain that the source – the sole source – and the starting point of our theology is Scripture, the Word of God. He presents the basic idea of the church, which is “the people of God … the communion of the saints … and is composed of particular people: ‘sojourners and strangers.'”
The author presents his methodology for ecclesiology. Realizing that one’s approach in this area has broad implications, Allison contrasts theological methods that embrace continuity and discontinuity between the testaments. He stands somewhere in the middle of this debate by describing himself as one who embraces a moderate discontinuity, what some have described as progressive dispensationalism. His conviction has a bearing on his view that concerns the origin of the church and the relationship between the church, Israel, and the ordinance of baptism. This hermeneutical criteria is a helpful backdrop that serves the rest of the book well.
Part Two: The Biblical Vision – Characteristics of the Church
Here the author studies the inception of the church and her relationship to Israel and the kingdom of God. Allison makes his position clear: “Because of the identity of the new covenant partners – God and Christ-followers – I draw the conclusion that the church began at Pentecost and did not exist prior to that monumental event.” While writing from a Reformed framework, the “line in the sand is drawn” by distinguishing himself from main stream Covenant theology. The argument is straightforward: “But these faithful and obedient followers of Jehovah, these people of God, did not constitute the church. Yes, God’s work of redemption began with Adam. Yes, God’s promise to bless all human beings through a particular nation was made to Abraham. Yes, God’s covenant with the particular people of Israel was given specific expression on Mount Sinai with Moses. But the people of God post-Adamic covenant, post-Abrahamic covenant, and post-old/Mosaic covenant – up to the new covenant – did not constitute the church.”
Allison’s hermeutical presuppositions are refreshing to be sure because while on one had he distinguishes himself from the covenantal framework, he also distinguishes himself from classical dispensationalism, i.e. “the church stands in both continuity and discontinuity with the people of God in the past.” Near as I can tell, he is an agreement with the essence of the proposal but forth by Peter Gentry and Stephen Wellum in their excellent work, Kingdom Through Covenant.
Additionally, the orientation of the church is established in part two by examining seven characteristics of the church.
1. The Church is Doxological – oriented to the glory of God.
2. The Church is Logocentric – focused on the Word of God.
3. The Church is Pneumadynamic – empowered by the Holy Spirit.
4. The Church is Covenantal – with God and in covenant community with one another.
5. The Church is Confessional – united by a common Christian confession or creed.
6. The Church is Missional – called to proclaim the gospel and advance the kingdom of God.
7. The Church is Spatio-Temporal/Eschatological – a historical reality with a grand future.
Allison explains each characteristic in great detail and suggests practical suggestions for abiding by the biblical model.
Part Three: The Vision Actualized – The Growth of the Church
Part three demonstrates how the vision set forth in the previous section will be fostered and protected. This vision will be actualized by maintaining the purity and unity of the church. Additionally, the commitment to church discipline plays a key role. Church discipline is defined as “an anticipatory and declarative sign of the divine eschatological judgment, meted out by Jesus Christ through the church against its sinful members and sinful situations.” Churches who neglect or reject church discipline do great harm to its members and the testimony of God’s people.
Part Four: The Government of the Church
In this critical section, Dr. Allison unpacks the offices of the church. First, he examines the office of apostle which is “no longer operative” in the author’s view. He continues to explore the office of elder and deacon, noting the biblical qualifications and responsibilities of each.
The subject of church government is set forth in a clear and understandable way. Episcopalianism, Presbyterianism, and Congregationalism are explained in their historical context. The author presents his proposal for the governance of congregational churches – a model that is elder-led and congregationally affirmed – which appears to be the biblical model.
Part Five: The Ordinances of the Church
The various views of baptism and the Lord’s supper are presented in light of church history. Disagreements that the author has with other views are set forth with charity and graciousness.
Part Six: The Ministries of the Church
Finally, Allison overviews the various spiritual gifts, a biblical theology of worship, and various ministries that emerge in the local church context. The church should be “for the world and against (the sinful corruption) of the world.
I cannot recommend Gregg Allison’s work highly enough. His treatment of ecclesiology should be applauded for its depth and breath. And it should be celebrated for its gracious approach to disputable matters. Readers will be remiss to find a shred of compromise or capitulation; yet his gentle approach weaves throughout the fabric of the book. Sojourners and Strangers should be required reading for every Ecclesiology class for Bible College students and Seminarians alike. This book will not only instruct and educate; it will help stem the tide of errors and mis-steps that have so characterized the last several years of church history, especially the blunders that have come out of the emergent and seeker-sensitive church. I would also refer readers to his excellent work, Historical Theology for a superb look at the development of Christian theology in church history.