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.