Ecclesiology is the branch of Christian theology that deals with the Church and doctrines pertaining to the Church itself.  We see in the word echoes of the Greek word έκκλησία (ekklêsia), which today is generally translated church but in pre-Christian times the word was used for an assembly of citizens.  The word refers more to the assembly than the building or the organization.  It is interesting to note that when the English word ecclesiology was first coined it referred to the science of constructing and decorating a church building.  As we proceed we must try not to confuse one with the other.

A simple statement of the Protestant doctrine of the Church is that "the Church is the body of believers regardless of denominational affiliation."  The Church in this context is organized around the relationship that believers have with God through Christ Jesus rather than membership in some institution.  This sounds strange to many who regard the institutional church in some form as The Church.  It is also more difficult for those outside of the Church to understand.  (For a notion of my perspective of the imperfect church you can see Let us Keep the Feast.)

This doctrine of the church is explicitly stated in most of the confessions of the protestant churches but perhaps most succinctly in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, The articles of religion:

XIX. Of the Church. The visible Church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men, in which the pure Word of God is preached, and the Sacraments be duly ministered according to Christ’s ordinance, in all those things that of necessity are requisite to the same.

As the Church of Jerusalem, Alexandria, and Antioch, have erred; so also the Church of Rome hath erred, not only in their living and manner of Ceremonies, but also in matters of Faith. (Book of  Common Prayer)

We see where the Anglicans are affirming that the Church is wider then just the Anglicans while deliberately separating from other historic churches (over Christological issues in the cases of Alexandra and Antioch).   As far as Rome is concerned, this article was written in the mid 1500s and the reformation was shaking all of western Christendom.  The Articles go on to denounce certain Romish doctrines and practices but that is another discussion. The Anglicans do cling to the notion of an Historic Episcopacy or Apostolic Succession which is an additional discussion. They also use ordinance and sacrament almost interchangeably which is yet another other discussion.  The point being that theology and custom do divide Christianity, but we all pray "that we all may all be one so that the world might believe (Again from the Book of Common Prayer but based John 17.21)."

At any rate all of our churches in the west maintain a certain Romish accent whether we would like to admit it or not.  The confessions and doctrinal statements of the Protestant churches today serve to codify the divisions but they also proclaim a unifying core.  This core is stated in the Creeds that were hammered out in the councils whether we like to admit that or not.  The rank and file membership of most churches have little or no idea about many of these issues and indeed move from tradition to tradition easily.

Many consider the early days of Christianity as days of conflict.  Indeed some go as far as saying that alternative forms of Christianity only became heresies much later.  There seems to me to be a number of problems with that reasoning but again that is another discussion.  (Those interested may want to see “You got to know when to hold ’em”: Trumping the Bauer Thesis by Michael Svigel.)  Some see the conflict continuing to this day with our many Christian denominations.  True, there is little or no institutional unity but there is, in the main, unity of message.  A quote that is often attributed to Augustine tells us*: "In Essentials, Unity; in Non-essentials, Liberty; in All Things, Charity."  The fact that Augustine (354-430) would have said that at all indicates that Christianity may well have been as diverse in his day as it seems today, but, perhaps having more institutional unity. 

Contrary to what many think, the reformers who birthed the protestant churches did not split an institution that was unfamiliar with controversy.  There were other groups who had made up the Apostolic Church who had split with Rome long before the reformation many of these continue to this day as can be seen in the following figure.

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This figure in not mine, it is from the wikicommons, and it represents a common view of Christianity.  The implicit assumption here is that the institutional church is the church and that there is no unity today.  I claim that we could (and someone did) draw such a diagram for the institutions the make up the church, but I would also claim that doing so misses the primary point.  When we focus on the external trappings of manners and custom we can easily miss the message of redemption in Christ Jesus. 

I am something of a denominational mutt, but I am mainly the product of a Restoration Movement Church and I find the green dashed line misleading.  The restoration movement does not claim a line of apostolic succession or institutional continuity as do the catholic churches that make up the bulk of the figure.  It does claim a continuity of the faith and asserts that there have always been members of the true church within whatever external form the church has taken; something that is a bit more difficult to trace.  Again the reformed notion of church has more to do with relationship with Christ than it has to do with communion with a particular Bishop.  This sort of faith claim is true for the protestant churches generally, whether they claim apostolic succession or not.  We note that the reformers (Luther et. al.) came from inside the church and, initially at least, did not intend to split the institution but rather reform it.

Ceremony and practice are not necessarily a clear dividing line either as we see in the figure that there are Eastern rite Churches in communion with Rome.  It should also be noted that there are Western Rite churches within the Eastern Church as well, although that is not shown on the figure.  Many in the protestant tradition strive to be ritual free, but they do have a collection of habits that can tend in that direction whether they want them to or not.  You have to do something around the sacraments or ordinances even if you do not use those terms.  There also has to be some organization to you meetings or at least an agreed upon time and place at which to meet. 

The Eastern church is not really a solid line either in the sense that they are all ruled by a Primate or Pope.  The structure of the Eastern Orthodox Church is autocephalous.  That is, the bishops of the various churches within Eastern Christianity are in communion with one another but do not recognize a particular bishop as supreme.  This is the same sort of concept that the Protestant churches point to as unity in the body of Christ—apart from the visible Church.  It comes as a surprise to westerners to find there are popes other than the one who lives in Rome.  There is a Pope of the Coptic Orthodox Church for example, indeed the title Pope was used in the East before it was used in the West. 

It is traditionally held that in the first few centuries there were five main Christian centers.  (We see some mentioned in Article XIX above.) The five are: Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem, Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul) and Rome.  This is called the pentarchy, primarily in the East.  These centers were represented at the ecumenical councils.  So the black line at the root of the tree was more a interweaving than a solid line.  It is often said that the Jerusalem church vanished early on due to persecution and the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD, the Alexandrian church became the Coptic Church and today calls itself the see of St. Mark, the Antiochan Orthodox Church (in several stripes) exists to this day and has both Eastern and Western rite congregations.  Constantinople (present day Istanbul) is the center of what is today the Greek Orthodox Church.  (Constantinople is also the seat of the Ecumenical Patriarch, he would be the Pope of the East if there were such an office.)

The fact that the first seven ecumenical councils were often convened by politicians for political purposes as much as for theological discussion cannot be denied but neither is it a major issue.  Religious and secular authorities have always interacted with varying degrees of independence.  (There is a school of thought that the Diocletian persecution started in some measure because the Church was seen to be too powerful.)  The later councils were convened by the Bishop of Rome (the term used for the Pope by those who do not recognize him as the earthly head of the church), were not necessarily as inclusive.  In any case the idea was consistency in the Christian message.  By the time of the Great Schism of the 11th century, The Bishop of Rome was asserting more and more ecclesiastical power and the western church was losing its facility in Greek.  A vastly oversimplified view of this Great Schism would see these as its causes.

The next controversy to shake the western Church was the reformation.  The reformers were not trying to start any sort of new religion as is often asserted.  They were responding to what they saw as excesses in the Roman Church. The early reformers kept the creeds, liturgy and sacraments**.  The protestant church stands on the shoulders of the same great body of Christian witness as do the Roman, Orthodox and other ancient churches.  Indeed, John Wesley tells us:

Can any who spend several years in those seats of learning, be excused if they do not add to that reading of the Fathers? the most authentic commentators on Scripture, as being both nearest the fountain, eminently endued with that Spirit by whom all Scripture was given. It will be easily perceived, I speak chiefly of those who wrote before the council of Nicea. But who could not likewise desire to have some acquaintance with those that followed them? with St. Chrysostom, Basil, Augustine, and above all, the man of a broken heart, Ephraim Syrus?

-- John Wesley

The Fathers to which Wesley refers are also called by others the Church Fathers or Apostolic Fathers.  The link provides some brief information on some of them.  Note that Wesley includes Augustine in his list even though his own theology owes more to Arminius (see Tulip Vs. Wesley).  In doing so he is recognizing this unity in diversity.

Many of the 'new' movements within the Protestant Church have been attempts to rediscover the primitive Christianity of the New Testament.  So where is the true church?  Since Vatican II, The Pope of Rome now calls the protestants separated brothers.  The Orthodox would say that primitive Christianity was never lost, it is embodied in their tradition.  They say further that Rome has added to the tradition and the Protestants have taken away.  There is no doubt truth in all these statements. 

Christianity survives despite the best efforts of man—even the men in the Church.  On one level the Church is a human institution with a Divine purpose.  On another it is a Divine Union with a human purpose—the communion of true believers in unity with Christ.  There are some of us who can find this unity across denominational lines and some who get mired in the details.  And, as this site shows, there are lots of details in which to get mired.

More on this can be found in the Church History category. 

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 * This statement is often attributed to Augustine but I now find that many think more likely to have come from RUPERTUS MELDENIUS a German divine of the Lutheran  reformation.  I note this here aware that it undermines the argument that I use here and elsewhere.

 ** I realize that there is actually a larger discussion here, but that will have to wait.  This page is already far too long.