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Sojourners and Strangers: An Interview with Gregg Allison

Interview by Matthew Claridge–

Gregg Allison, Professor of Christian Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, has written the newest contribution to Crossway’s Foundations of Evangelical Theology series. Allison’s volume on ecclesiology is titled, Sojourners and Strangers: The Doctrine of the Church. We are very pleased to interview Allison’s on this significant contribution which not only is meant to help scholars and students obtain a better understanding of the church’s nature, function, and purpose, but is also pastorally driven, written in such a way that every Christian can benefit and grow in his or her theology of the church. Gregg Allison has contributed to Credo Magazine before (and keep your eye out in the future as well!) and we are honored to have him with us once again.

Tell us a little bit about how you came to be involved in this writing project. Why did you want to contribute the volume on ecclesiology in this series?

The initiative came from my good friend and former professor at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Dr. John Feinberg. He contacted me and inquired about my interest in writing the ecclesiology volume for the Foundations of Evangelical Theology series, of which he is the general editor. Because of my high regard for that series published by Crossway, and because of my great respect for Dr. Feinberg, I was very honored to be asked to make the contribution. As a result, ecclesiology has become one of my specializations.

What does the title of our book capture about your ecclesiological perspective?

Sojourners and Strangers is my rendition of 1 Peter 2:11, which in the ESV reads, “Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul.” I respectfully disagreed with Crossway’s desire to use Sojourners and Exiles as the title (in keeping with the ESV translation) because of a fear that the word “exiles” would evoke thoughts of some of N. T. Wright’s positions. Crossway, being a wonderful publishing company with which to work, ultimately left the decision to me. The first word—Sojourners—has special significance to me, as I am an elder of Sojourn Community Church in Louisville, Kentucky. The idea that the title communicates is that the church, living in the boundary epoch between the two advents of Jesus Christ, is composed of people who live their short (earthly) lives away from their home for the purpose of being on mission for and with God.

What are some of the challenges you personally faced in writing this systematic treatment of the church?

One of the key challenges was writing an ecclesiology for an audience that is broadly evangelical and thus holds to divergent positions on ecclesiological matters such as continuity and discontinuity between the Old Testament and New Testament and the old covenant people of God and the new covenant people of God, the normative or descriptive nature of the book of Acts, when the church began and who are its members, the relationship of the church to Israel and the kingdom of God, the nature and recipients of baptism, the nature and recipients of the Lord’s Supper, how the church should be governed (e.g., episcopalian, presbyterian, congregational with one pastor and a board of deacons, congregational with a plurality of elders), and the like. In my opinion, a generic evangelical ecclesiology cannot be written. Thus, I chose to write a broadly baptistic ecclesiology (reflecting my theological persuasion and my membership in several baptistic churches over the course of my life) that (I hope) fairly presents other ecclesiologies and interacts with them in a respectful and irenic fashion. At the same time, my ecclesiology develops in some directions that are not typically baptistic (though not without historical precedents and contemporary examples) like opening with a discussion of biblical covenants and identifying the church as the new covenant people of God, a significant emphasis on church discipline, a view of the Lord’s Supper that is both memorial and a type of spiritual presence (with strong warrant from 1 Cor. 10:14-2), a plurality of elders, the diaconate consisting of both deacons and deaconesses (this latter point is affirmed within a complementarian framework), and advocacy of a particular multisite church structure.

The second challenge was making my way through a large body of contemporary literature on the church, the vast majority of which is pragmatic in nature and thus focuses on the ministries of the church without ever considering what the church is. But I had made a decision early on in my writing that I would start my ecclesiology with a consideration of the nature of the church—its attributes (see point 4 below)—then move to the ministries of the church, because I was convinced that those ministries must flow from the church’s identity, and not visa versa. Thus, while learning a good deal from this contemporary literature on how to do church, I was not particularly helped in constructing my ecclesiology.

A third challenge was the tenor of most contemporary ecclesiologies: almost universally, they underscore the problematic nature of constructing a doctrine of the church. Whether they focus on the dreadful state of the contemporary church (e.g., its consumerist mindset), or accentuate the multiplicity of ecclesiologies (to emphasize the difficult task ahead), or underscore the divisions separating churches due to their different stances on homosexuality and/or gender, most contemporary formulations of the doctrine approach ecclesiology as a problem with which to wrestle. Such a negative orientation weighed quite heavily on me as I sought to write my book.

Your core definitions of the church include the following: doxological, logocentric, pneumadynamic, covenantal, confessional, missional, and spatio-temporal/eschatological. Could you briefly summarize what these aspects mean?

The church is characterized by seven attributes. The first three are characteristics regarding the origin and orientation of the church: it is (1) doxological, or oriented to the glory of God; (2) logocentric, or centered on the incarnate Word of God, Jesus Christ, and the inspired Word of God, Scripture; and (3) pneumadynamic, or created, gathered, gifted, and empowered by the Holy Spirit. The final four are characteristics regarding the gathering and sending of the church: it is (4) covenantal, or gathered as members in new covenant relationship with God and in covenantal relationship with each other; (5) confessional, or united by both personal confession of faith in Christ and common confession of the Christian faith; (6) missional, or identified as the body of divinely-called and divinely-sent ministers to proclaim the gospel and advance the kingdom of God; and (7) spatio-temporal/eschatological, or assembled as a historical reality (located in space and time) and possessing a certain hope and clear destiny while its lives the strangeness of ecclesial existence in the here-and-now.

What do you think would be your most important or unique contribution to the study of ecclesiology in this book?

Against the trend of most ecclesiologies that have appeared in the last half century or so, my book insists that the starting point for ecclesiology is an understanding of the nature of the church (see point 4 above), because from its identity markers should flow the ministries of the church. I also believe that with my book, I have achieved a good blend of a scholarly approach and practical wisdom that will be appreciated by and helpful to both academics and Christians engaged in church ministry.

There has been a lot of discussion recently castigating American voluntarism and individualism and replacing these with a vision of the church that emphasizes “community.” What are the fault lines in this debate? Is the American church too individualistic? Are there unintended consequences of over-emphasizing a communitarian model of the church?

First, those who criticize the notion of the church as a voluntary association or society need to keep in mind that the idea arose as a reaction to a desperately corrupt church-state structure in which it was assumed that the vast majority of citizens were Christians simply by virtue of their being born in that locality and being baptized as infants and thus associated with the church in that location. In this context those who believed that the church is a voluntary society insisted instead on hearing the gospel, repentance, faith in Christ, and believers baptism in order to be Christians, then those giving such a credible profession of faith should form themselves together into a voluntary society of genuine disciples of Christ and members of the true church. Accordingly volunteerism stands opposed to enrollment in a church through birth and (infant) baptism.

Secondly, the vision of the church as a voluntary society presupposes that those who so join themselves together have first entered into a new covenant relationship with God through salvation in Jesus Christ and secondly and consequently enter into a covenant with one another. That is, the new covenant is the ground and source of the church as covenantal community voluntarily joined together.

Third, the notion of voluntary association was not intended to create or foster the kind of rampant individualism and isolationism that characterize many contemporary churches based on this principle. Indeed, written into many of the historic, founding documents of churches/denominations built on this principle are calls for close connections between themselves/their churches. The so called “lone ranger” mentality that isolates many churches today is not inherent in the notion of volunteerism as it was originally conceived. Such individualism in reality seeks to avoid confrontation and correction with regard to deeply entrenched sinful situations in the church, and it is a tragic problem in American churches today.

Fourth, the community model of the church also has dangers, including a neglect of God’s work in individuals (e.g., creation of each person in the divine image, election of individuals, application of salvation to particular people), a shifting of responsibility to the group with a subsequent loss of action taken by the actual people in the community, and a reluctance to open the group to outsiders for fear that a large community will lose intimacy.

A particular hot-spot in chapter 9 is your defense of the “multi-site” church model. Two typical objections to this model include: 1) a multi-site model may be necessary in the short-term, but it ought not to be a permanent one lest it slide toward an episcopal polity; 2) it encourages our celebrity culture while downplaying the need for personal accountability between church leaders and members. What is your response?

The charge of multisite churches drifting toward episcopalianism is an interesting one! Multisite churches within the Episcopal Church and the United Methodist Church, for example, would welcome this development! But in relationship to autonomous churches that embrace the multisite structure, some are moving toward an episcopalian polity, which is problematic if those churches are supposed to be congregational in polity. They should be clear to their members and others that they are no longer congregational churches. As for my own church, Sojourn Community Church, which has four sites in the Louisville, KY, area, we have a council of elders (currently twenty-eight across the four campuses, with more elders in training) who lead Sojourn, and there is one congregation that is responsive to this elder leadership in terms of its voting (for example, on the budge) at an annual business meeting. The council is led by four executive elders and consists of those four men, the four campus pastors, the staff pastors, and lay pastors (I’m part of the latter group, as I teach full time at Southern Seminary and am not paid by the church). This structure hardly resembles episcopalian polity at all; there is no one person who has authority to appoint the other executive elders or ordain the other elders. And our decision to embrace the multisite model is not a short-term plan; rather, we intend to launch other sites in the Louisville area in keeping with our vision of “a multisite church for city reaching.” Our goal is that every resident in the Louisville area will be able to be a member of a Sojourn campus by traveling less than ten minutes by car. This vision is missionally driven: we don’t want to take people out of their neighborhoods by having them drive a long distance to Sojourn, but we want to establish a site near where they live so they can invite friends and neighbors and be on mission in their local area.

On the second objection, a celebrity culture may develop in both large churches, small churches, and multisite churches, so the problem is not the multisite structure. A significant number of people attending Sojourn have not heard Daniel Montgomery, our lead pastor, preach, and that is because the preaching load is shared by the four campus pastors, and a good number of the other elders preach at least occasionally. So to think that Sojourn as a multisite church is fostering a celebrity culture built around Daniel Montgomery is off base.

As for the lack of accountability, this may be the case in some multisite churches, but it is not inherent in the structure itself. At Sojourn we foster deep accountability between leaders and members primarily through our community groups. So I, as an elder, lead a community group and am responsible for its two dozen or so members. Additionally, I am responsible for four community groups and their leaders by providing pastoral care, leadership training, ministry opportunities, accountability, shepherding, and the like for those leaders, who in turn teach, lead, and care for their members. Sojourn is also very strong in terms of church discipline, so at our elders’ meetings, church discipline discussions are a major focus. And there are scores of members in the process of church discipline at Sojourn. Lack of accountability is not true of our multisite structure.

What are some of the challenges you see facing ecclesiology today both in the academy and the pew?

The key challenge: so-called Christians claim to love Jesus but they can’t stand the church and are not involving themselves in a local church. Thus, the challenge is how to root the church in the gospel of Jesus and connect these people, who claim to know the gospel of Jesus, to the church.

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