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Types of Ecclesiology

This is intended solely as a descriptive, handout-style breakdown of different sorts of ecclesiology within the broad spectrum of the Christian tradition.  As such it clearly is not accurate on the micro level.  Any and all typologies are, in my opinion extremely dangerous.  However, if they help in facilitating the theological task at points, then perhaps they ought not be done away with.

From my perspective there are two basic polarities which define the shape of a given ecclesiology.  The first is what I term the High-Low polarity, the second I refer to as the Strong-Weak polarity.  Within this framework any given ecclesial body could potentially fall in one of four categories, High-Strong, High-Weak, Low-Strong, and Low-Weak.  Here are my descriptors of these categories and my attending attempt to put various Christian ecclesial bodies in their proper place.  I am sure there will be inaccuracies here based upon my own ecclesial experiences, familiarities and limitations.  So, please correct me if you are so inclined.  It will help greatly my final development of this typology.


High Church Ecclesiology:  High view of church history and tradition.  Emphasizes the liturgy and above all the Eucharist.  Churches are generally structured episcopally (i.e. through a hierarchy of bishops who stand in communion with each other).  Emphasizes salvation as membership in the church through participation in the sacraments.  Generally holds to infant baptism.  Close connection between baptism and initiation into the broad community of faith.

Low Church Ecclesiology:  Generally suspicious of history and tradition.  Emphasizes the Bible as the church’s ultimate authority and preaching is more central then the Eucharist or the liturgy.  Churches tend to be structured congregationally (i.e. governed by the local congregation itself or through one or more elders appointed by congregations).  Emphasizes salvation as the subjective appropriation and confession of faith in Christ.  Generally holds to believers’ baptism.  Close connection between salvation, baptism, and committed discipleship in community.

Strong Ecclesiology:  Holds a high view of the role of the church in the economy of salvation.  Understands that the church is the means by which God is at work in the world.  A strong view of the church as the ongoing embodied presence of Christ in the world.  The church participates in the mission of God to redeem the world.  Membership in the visible church community is indispensable to Christian life and the shape of Christian salvation.

Weak Ecclesiology:  Holds a humble and limited view of God’s role for the church in his plan of salvation.  The church exists to strengthen and instruct the believer and to witness to God’s work of salvation that takes place solely through God’s action.  The church does not participate in God’s action, but points away from itself to God’s action outside of human effort.  The emphasis is on the invisible church, the universal body of all people who believe in Christ throughout the world.  All Christians are members of this church and that is what is primary.  Membership in a local congregation is for edification and growth, but is not central to salvation.


High-Strong: Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Anglican Communion, Some Lutherans.

High-Weak: Episcopal Church (USA), Methodists, Independent Catholics, Some Presbyterians, Some Lutherans.

Low-Strong: Anabaptists/Mennonites, Some Baptists (esp. British), New Monasticism, Some Evangelicals, House Churches, African American Churches.

Low-Weak: Most Evangelicals, Most Baptists (esp. USA), Pentecostals, Charismatics, Holiness Movement, Nazarenes.


  1. markvans wrote:

    I’ll chew on this, but at first blush, I think it is a very useful typology. Kudos.

    Tuesday, May 6, 2008 at 4:19 pm | Permalink
  2. Freder1ck wrote:

    Have you read Avery Dulles’s Models of the Church? Dulles describes a series of models which overlap: institution, communion, sacrament, herald, and servant, and proposing another one, the church as community of disciples. A handy summary is here. I remember there being an online quiz too.

    Tuesday, May 6, 2008 at 4:32 pm | Permalink
  3. Kevin Sam wrote:

    I like the typology. I fluctuate between High-Weak and Low-Weak.

    Tuesday, May 6, 2008 at 10:40 pm | Permalink
  4. With regard to Baptists there are so high-strong baptists emerging, who have a much higher view of tradition, see the likes of Steve Harmon, Steve Holmes, John Colwell and others.

    Wednesday, May 7, 2008 at 12:18 am | Permalink
  5. Ben George wrote:

    Don’t forget!

    High-Strong: Oriental Orthodox, Assyrian Church of the East.

    And Andy Goodliff: could you go into more detail? “High-Strong Baptist” sounds like an oxymoron, I can’t imagine how that would be possible.

    Wednesday, May 7, 2008 at 8:44 am | Permalink
  6. garret wrote:

    this was extremely helpful… thank you.

    Wednesday, May 7, 2008 at 9:02 am | Permalink
  7. Eric Lee wrote:

    Uh, the Nazarene church I attend and am a member of sounds exactly like High-strong-ish. We’re a strange bunch, though.

    Wednesday, May 7, 2008 at 9:52 am | Permalink
  8. Eric Lee wrote:

    …Hence your comment about the micro-level inaccuracy.

    Wednesday, May 7, 2008 at 9:52 am | Permalink
  9. Halden wrote:

    Yeah, I knew that many things wouldn’t fit totally. Some of the very things I thought of were the more high-church baptists and the various seperated eastern churches (Coptic, Assyrian, Oriental, etc.)

    Wednesday, May 7, 2008 at 10:15 am | Permalink
  10. TC wrote:

    Interesting stuff!

    I’ll have to say that I’m Low-Weak.

    Wednesday, May 7, 2008 at 10:23 am | Permalink
  11. Halden wrote:

    Oh, and just fyi, I would identify my congregation as firmly Low-Strong, though in recent years we have been getting more and more High, something I am quite happy about. I pretty much fall into line with Low-Strong, but having a serious High leaning.

    Mess of contradictions, that.

    Wednesday, May 7, 2008 at 10:34 am | Permalink
  12. By high-strong baptists, i mean those baptists who have a high view of church history and tradition. So Steve Holmes has written Listening to the Past: The Place of Tradition in Theology; Steve Harmon has written Towards Baptist Catholicity: Essays on Tradition and the Baptist Vision; and John Colwell has written Promise and Presence which is a defence of the seven sacraments. There is a growing group of Baptists who would argue for a sacramental understanding of ministry, baptism, Lord’s supper and the Church Meeting. I would argue this is all more high-church than low-church.

    Wednesday, May 7, 2008 at 10:38 am | Permalink
  13. Halden wrote:

    I see it as a mix, though Andy. Most of these baptists I think retain key elements of the Low Church vision, such as congregationalism and believers’ baptism, while situating them within the thorough context of the Christian tradition (and preserving openness to other forms of those practices within the universal church). To my mind this is precisely the way to go, at least for those of us coming from the Free Church tradition as a whole.

    Wednesday, May 7, 2008 at 10:45 am | Permalink
  14. Hill wrote:

    I have a hard time imagining “high church baptistry” as a stable ecclesial phenomenon (stable being relative here). There may a growing group of nominal Baptists for whom the tradition and history of the church has become a more compelling witness, but I think this is just to say there is a growing group of Baptists who are becoming something other than Baptists while still retaining the name.

    Wednesday, May 7, 2008 at 12:45 pm | Permalink
  15. Halden wrote:

    I suppose it is a fair question to ask how high church we can be without adopting episcopacy full stop. That said, I don’t think a form of high church practice is impossible or inherently incoherent for those who embrace a free church self-understanding.

    Wednesday, May 7, 2008 at 1:16 pm | Permalink
  16. Halden, I think you are right the baptists i’ve mentioned are charting a way through that is both low and high. They are certainly still remaining baptist, but wanting to recognise that you can’t ignore 1600 hundred years of church history and start again, which the early english baptists would have agreed with. They wanted to show their was continuity in their ecclesiology and theology as well as discontinuity, i.e. around church government and dissent. What Holmes, Colwell, and Paul Fiddes and Nigel Wright are wanting to emphasising is a higher view of ministry, while not wanting to equate that ministry with leadership or governance, which still resides in the church meeting.

    Interestingly, main of those who we might say have high-strong ecclesiologies, I think are moving towards in different ways towards a low-strong ecclesiology; see the emphasis on an anglican ‘covenant’

    Wednesday, May 7, 2008 at 2:26 pm | Permalink
  17. Hill wrote:

    I think I just side with Newman in that, especially for Baptists, coming to an appreciation of the history and tradition of the Church basically reveals that the boat has been missed altogether. There is nothing more historical and more traditional than the episcopacy in some form. If one wants to espouse a democratic model of church polity, one ought to probably avoid any comparisons to the history of Christianity.

    Wednesday, May 7, 2008 at 2:49 pm | Permalink
  18. miki wrote:

    good call

    Thursday, May 8, 2008 at 2:27 am | Permalink
  19. Halden wrote:

    I think that’s where Newman is at his weakest. His notion of continuity with tradition is little more than a static repitition of the mainstream of what has happened. It simply ammounts to a sanctifying of how certain historical events have turned out. Church history is far more complex and multifaceted than Newman’s model of development allows for. Moreover, what it really does is inhibit any sort of actual encounter with the past as past by insisting that what we have now (i.e. in Catholicism) is the same as how everything always was. It rules out that the witness of the past might call into question our current practices.

    And perhaps this is just a fundamental difference between Catholic sensibility and, well, every other way of thinking about the past. On this point, I’d recommend Rowan Williams’ book on Arius, and his smaller, but still excellent Why Study the Past?.

    Thursday, May 8, 2008 at 10:01 am | Permalink
  20. Hill wrote:

    I get the feeling you haven’t read a lot of Newman.

    Thursday, May 8, 2008 at 10:34 am | Permalink
  21. Hill wrote:

    But beyond that, that doesn’t change the force of my point about the episcopacy, Newman reference or no. A rather high view of the bishop is probably one of the earliest demonstrable facts of the age of the apostolic fathers. A view of the episcopacy that is if not “contradictory” to what modern Baptists believe, is at least totally foreign to it. Your account of the “Catholic” view of tradition is a complete caricature.

    Thursday, May 8, 2008 at 10:37 am | Permalink
  22. Halden wrote:

    Well, fair enough. I’m certainly no expert, but certain of his remarks and overall trajectory of thought in his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine and his Apologia Pro Vita Sua are what lead me to my tenative conclusions.

    What light might you shed on this for me, since you know him more thoroughly?

    Thursday, May 8, 2008 at 10:38 am | Permalink
  23. Halden wrote:

    And I didn’t mean to imply that there was just “one” Catholic way of thinking about tradition. My comment was particular to Newman, not an attempt to color the whole of the Catholic tradition.

    Thursday, May 8, 2008 at 10:48 am | Permalink
  24. Hill wrote:

    I don’t mean to suggest that Newman represents the canonical authority on the Catholic view of tradition (if there even is such an authority), nor that he is totally lucid and balanced on the issue. I just think there is a lot more practical insight in his claims than you grant. Especially considering the era in which he was writing, it wasn’t an issue of “the Catholic view of tradition” versus everyone elses. It was that there was only one (western) Christian sect that had any concept of historical continuity with the Church of the apostles and only one that thought that was even an important thing to have. That is by and large true. The phenomenon of evangelical catholics, small C, a category in which I would put you and most of the readers of this blog and myself prior to my conversion, is a relatively recent development. I know there is the odd counter example here and there, but they are the exceptions that prove the rule. What I take from Newman isn’t that he provides a concrete outline of exactly how and where and why Church doctrine developed, but the fact that it does indeed develop, necessarily, and that there is only one western Christian body for whom this is even a subject of discussion. When you look at the rapid cession of moral authority by virtually all mainline Protestant denominations over the past 200 years as moral issues emerged that could not be resolved by simple reference to a proof text, I think the force of this general critique becomes pretty clear. Newman’s specific tone and the character of his writing have to be examined in context. I don’t think they are always the most “ecumenical” texts on the subject, but at the time he wrote it, much of what he had to say was an important rebuke to certain kinds of Protestantism.

    Thursday, May 8, 2008 at 11:04 am | Permalink
  25. Guy wrote:

    Don’t forget the Mercersburg movement, which significantly affected the ecclesiology of the German Reformed tradition (and descendants, of which I am one) in the United States.

    Thursday, May 22, 2008 at 4:54 pm | Permalink

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